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The Life And Death Of Democracy

From Larry Susskind’s blog on the Consensus Building Approach

I’m trying to make my way through John Keane’s massive book, The Life and Death of Democracy (Norton, 2009). He reviews three “epochs” in the evolution of democracy: Assembly Democracy, Representative Democracy and what he calls Monitory Democracy. He then tries to make sense of where we are headed next by jumping forward and looking back at our current situation (Memories from the Future). He’s not optimistic (although the book was written before President Obama was elected and America’s foreign policies and international engagements shifted radically). The failure of political parties, the use of mass media to control political communications, the “cross-border squeeze on democratic institutions,” resurgent nationalism triggered by “the powerlessness of joined-up global government and market forces;” terrorism, uncivil wars and nuclear anarchy; the failure of the “law of democratic peace” (that assumed democracies would not go to war with each other), America’s failed efforts to “promote” a global transformation to democracy,” the rise of new enemies of democracy, including hypocrisy, fatalism and ignorance; and the return of bipolarity (US-China tensions) are all to blame.

He then cites Richard Rorty to make the point that while there is no “ultimate justification” for democracy, it is certainly something to be valued. (Persuasion rather than force, compromise and reform rather than bloody revolution, free and open encounters rather than bullying and bossing, a hopeful, experimental frame of mind…) Keane argues for humility (rather than talk of pragmatic superiority), continued re-invention (or novelty), the “rule of nobody,” and the importance of equality — or the equalization of all citizen’s life chances as reasons for hope. He offers seven new democratic rules –although they are aimed more at theorists than practitioners: (1) treat the remembrance of things past as vital for democracy’s present and future; (2) always regard the languages, characters, events, institutions and effects of democracy as thoroughly historical; (3) pay close attention to the ways in which the narration of the past by historians, leaders and others is unavoidably an historical act, (4) the methods that are most suited to writing about the past, present and future of democracy are those that straightforwardly draw attention to the peculiarity of their own rules of interpretation; (5) acknowledge that, until quite recently, most details of the history of democracy have been recorded by its critics, or by its outright opponents; (6) the negative tone of most previous histories of democracy confirms the rule that tales of its past told by historians, politicians and others often harbor the prejudices of the powerful; and (7) admit that the task of coming to terms with the past, present and future of democracy is by definition an unending journey.
After almost 900 far more erudite pages than I could ever muster, I conclude: democracy is what you make of it. How should we “do” democracy? When Assembly Democracy morphed into Representative Democracy no one seemed to notice. When Representative Democracy gave way to Monitory Democracy (publicly monitoring and controlling the exercise of power — “through sideways and downwards” involvement of the whole political order), it seemed perfectly normal (at that time, to the people involved). What comes next is what we say should come next. In my view, that’s collaborative decision-making at multiple scales assisted by a new class of professional neutrals. Is this a shift of “epochal importance?” Yes, I think it is. It is an evolutionary step beyond Monitory Democracy that will restore the legitimacy of democratic institutions by assuming that that everyone needs to be involved, not just in discussions and criticism of what is going on, but in the co-production of everything that follows. It’s not Assembly (or direct) Democracy, because there is no voting. The burden is on each citizen (and each community and each state) to come up with a way of meeting their/its own interests while also meeting the interests of others. The logistics of collaborative problem- solving are new, but the commitment to broadening and deepening basic democratic ideals keeps us on track.


Larry Susskind

Lawrence Susskind was born in New York City in 1947. He graduated from Columbia University in 1968 with a B.A. in English Literature and Sociology. He received his Masters of City Planning from MIT in 1970 and his Ph.D. in Urban Planning from MIT in 1973.  Professor Susskind joined the… MORE >

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