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The great history of democracy

Christopher Sheil

The Evatt Foundation has been closely following the progress of this great work that we have before us tonight since we first heard that it was coming our way early in 2006. I want to say a few words about the book before I introduce our speaker, but first I must thank the Honourable Peter Primrose, the Member of the Legislative Council whose guests we all are here in Parliament House. I also note that Hans Bandler, the husband of one of the great friends of the Evatt Foundation, Faith Bandler, passed away yesterday. Our condolences go out to Faith and her loved ones.

This brings me to the mighty 958-page book that we have before us here tonight. Before we look between the covers, I have been discovering for myself a little about how difficult it is to maintain the personal commitment, intellectual discipline and physical stamina to complete a major work over the last few years. As John Keane notes at the end of his book, we have before us a decade of researching and writing that has been brought to completion. That in itself is a magnificent accomplishment for which John is to be sincerely congratulated. Having said that, as I have been looking at this book, I have also been wondering, what on earth was Professor Keane thinking? I mean, who imagines that people read 958-page history books these days? How did Keane get all this past his publisher? What are we supposed to do with it? How does he expect us to read it?

Is it a book written, somewhat undemocratically, for professionals? When I first received it, I did what I guess most professionals working in fields of history do, which was to immediately check out what John has written on what I was reading on at the time, which happened to be John Milton's fight against the exactions of the church in 17th century England. I duly noted the references to Milton's famous work, which 'brimmed', as John writes, with fierce contempt for established churches, formal ceremonies, religious tithes and priests - 'glutton Friars', as Milton called them. John has noted the general reputation of Milton's work as 'the first and greatest tract on [press freedom] of modern times, in any language', and he has placed it in its general and illuminating context.

This is one way that we can read The Life and Death of Democracy: episodically, as a point of reference to dip into on the many occasions when we come up against this or that and wonder what it has to do with the history of democracy. Is this the way the author imagined the book's use, I wondered? John has also noted that the first edition of Milton's great work failed to sell out, and it was only 116 pages.

The other way to read the book presents as a march of Olympian proportions. The breezy introduction tells us many surprising facts. No-one knows who first coined the word democracy, or what the roots are of the family of terms that make up the language of democracy, or even where or when the term was first used. It turns out that the Western view that democracy was an invention of ancient Greece is false, for it was actually invented in the places where the West now imagines that it is introducing it.

Then we begin the great march. We move through Assembly Democracy in Athens to the first period of post-democracy, which culminates in the restoration of the mythology of Greek democracy in the 19th century and its rebirth, according to Francis Fukyama, in the institution of modern liberal democracy by the American founding fathers. In what stands as perhaps the single most important contribution of The Life and Death of Democracy, John systematically takes the Western myth of the origins of democracy apart, locating the birth in the world of Syria and Mesopotamia as early as two millennia BCE, after which it spread eastwards and westwards, helped along by Phoenicians, yes Greeks, but also Jews and Muslims.

In part two, we march to representative democracy, its origins in the late Feudal period in Europe, the impetus of the English Revolution in the 17th century and the American revolution at the end of the 18th century. We then detour to Spanish-speaking Central and South America, or what Keane calls 'Caudillo Democracy', before returning to Europe for the French and Industrial revolutions and what we conventionally think of as the beginning of modern states and popular democracy. Part two concludes with the challenge to democracy by totalitarianism that culminated in World War II and Churchill's famous observation that it 'is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried'.

The major part of John's history concludes at this point, for in the third part of the book the reader is ushered into what he calls 'monitory democracy'. This begins with the history of the world's largest democracy in India, which he points out has invented and harnessed new devices for scrutinising and checking the exercise of power and supplies the most compound and turbulent prototype for monitory democracy. This is followed by a sweeping survey of what we might call recent history, where he attempts to flesh out the meaning of monitory democracy.

In this part of the book, we encounter many surprising statements. Under monitory democracy, it seems, 'elections, political parties, and legislatures most definitely loose their pivotal position in politics'. Democracy is no longer simply a way of handling the power of elected governments, and no longer a matter confined to territorial states. Gone are the days when democracy could be described as 'government by the unrestricted will of the majority'. The bullheaded belief that democracy is nothing more than the periodic election of governments by majority rule is crumbling. Everywhere, people and organisations that exercise power are being routinely subjected to 'monitoring democracy' - a system where the old rule of one person, one vote, one representative, has been replaced by 'one person, many interests, many voices, multiple votes, multiple representatives'.

I am sure we all want to hear more about monitory democracy, not least about who monitors the monitors, and how people can get involved, if they aren't unbeknown to themselves already involved. Can I think of the Evatt Foundation as an instrument of 'monitory democracy'?

I am strongly minded to approach Simon and Schuster about my next book. Having allowed the author to write a history from the 2nd millennium BCE to the present, in his final substantive chapter, beginning on page 749, John still found all this unsatisfying. Thus, the concluding chapter in the third part of the book is a history of democracy over the next 50 years, where the author considers trends and possible scenarios, many dark, or indeed black. I am sure this is also something about which everyone will be keen to hear more.

I enjoyed John's conclusion very much. I do think there is a lot of circular complacency associated with democracy amid intellectuals. There is also a parallel relationship between this complacency and what John Hirst has called the 'strange gap' in Australia between what is in many ways a very democratic society and the low general regard in which it holds its democratic government.1 Yet I also like the idea of democratising the ideal of democracy, the inveterate tendency for democracies to 'take the piss', the idea of the rule of nobody, and the objective of self-government by equals.

In a final comment, let me do what all academics do when they come to 958-page books, which is to shake them about and look at them around the wrong way until you can find something to ask the author about that he does not seem to have covered. In the conclusion, John notes the strange elusiveness of the democratic ideal. He says that democracy is not a condition achieved; that democracies always chase democracy around corners; that democracy is never more alive than when it senses its own incompleteness; that it is always on the move and never a steady state. Interestingly enough, Sidney and Beatrice Webb came to a similar conclusion in their history of industrial democracy in 1897, where they wrote - on page 850, for they were being brief -

In the world of civilization and progress, no man can be his own master. But the very fact that in modern society the individual necessarily loses control over his own life makes him desire to regain collectively what has become individually impossible. Hence the irrefutable tendency to popular government, in spite of all its difficulties and dangers. But democracy is still the Great Unknown. Of its full scope and import we can only catch glimpses..2

The sentiment is similar. Moreover, when I try to think of the most anti-democratic aspect of our society today, I doubt that anyone would disagree with me in nominating modern corporate management, whether they have been on the end of it or work within it. Noting that John seems to have neglected the topic of industrial democracy, perhaps he might be able to offer us some reflections in any case.

Ladies and gentleman, to tell us how we should really read his magnificent book, please join with me now in giving a warm welcome to the Professor of Politics at the University of Westminster, a good friend of the Evatt Foundation, and the author of The Life and Death of Democracy, John Keane.


Christopher Sheil is the President of the Evatt Foundation. These are his remarks on introducing John Keane to present his address on his new book, The Life and Death of Democracy, at the NSW Parliament Theatrette on 25 August 2009.



1. John Hirst, 'The distinctiveness of Australian democracy', in Sense and Nonsense in Australian History, Black Inc, Melb., 2005, p. 293.

2. Sidney & Beatrice Webb, Industrial Democracy, Longmans, Green & Co., London, 1902 edition, p. 850.


Suggested citation

Sheil, Christopher, 'The great history of democracy', Evatt Journal, Vol. 9, No. 4, November 2009.<>


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