This article was published in The Nation on January 29 2012
Since writing a series of articles for The Nation on how democracy was working out in practice in the contemporary world, I have been reading John Keane’s monumental work, The Life and Death of Democracy. In almost 1,000 pages, Keane, Professor of Politics at Westminster University, goes back beyond ancient Athens and also looks into the future. He challenges the myth that democracy began in Athens 2,500 years ago and argues that the ancient civilisations of Syria-Mesopotamia were experimenting with popular assemblies 2,000 years before the Athenians. Keane objects to the distorting foundation myth that leads us to assume that, as an inherently Western idea, democracy must have gone into hibernation until rediscovered in England/France/the US about 2,000 years later.
As I have shown in previous articles, the kind of “assembly democracy” or “direct democracy” seen in Athens was replaced in the modern era by “representative democracy”, where those elected made decisions on behalf of voters. Keane expresses his distaste for what he calls “the pseudo-democratic doctrine of self-determination” that emerged after the First World War and was used to justify “the brazen murdering and herding of people”.
Keane uses the term “monitory” democracy to describe a phenomenon he identifies as having developed after the Second World War. Democracy is now viewed pragmatically as a vital weapon for guaranteeing political equality against concentrations of unaccountability. “From roughly the mid‐twentieth century, representative democracy began to morph into a new historical form of ‘post‐representative’ democracy.” This works between elections and across national borders. As well as exploring the idea in his book, Keane has also given it much currency in lectures and articles. An example can be found at:
“Monitory mechanisms are geared as well to the definition, scrutiny and enforcement of public standards and ethical rules for preventing corruption, or the improper behaviour of those responsible for making decisions, not only in the field of elected government, but also in a wide variety of settings. The new institutions of monitory democracy are further defined by their overall commitment to strengthening the diversity and influence of citizens’ voices and choices in decisions that affect their lives – regardless of the outcome of elections.”
This is not the same as top-down surveillance. Keane provides a long list of means by which civil society influences policy between elections, including think tanks, teach‐ins, local community consultation schemes, information and advisory and advocacy services, professional networking, citizens’ assemblies, democratic audits, brainstorming conferences, global associations of parliamentarians against corruption, banyan democracy, public interest litigation and satyagraha methods of civil resistance. Included as well are consumer organisations, online petitions and chat rooms, public vigils, peaceful sieges and global watchdog organisations.
– See more at:
This activity has introduced a new vocabulary: “public accountability”, “empowerment”, “transparency”,”stakeholders”, “participatory governance”. Keane says: “Democracy is no longer simply a way of handling the power of elected governments by electoral and parliamentary and constitutional means, and no longer a matter confined to territorial states.” Ideas come from all nations. “Participatory budgeting” is a Brazilian invention; truth and reconciliation commissions began in Central America, while integrity commissions first sprang up in Australia. These activities discomfit politicians, parties and elected governments, questioning their authority and forcing them to change their agendas.
There are many ways of influencing elected governments. One of my teachers at Manchester University back in the middle of the last century was Professor SE Finer. He made his name as a political scientist; his magnum opus, The History of Government from the Earliest Times, was many years in the making. It is approximately 1,700 pages long. A three-volume comparative analysis of all significant civilised government systems, past and present. There were two missing chapters when he died in 1993. These were to have covered the exportation of the modern state model outside the “West”, and variations on the theme of modern totalitarianism.
He has been described as charismatic. I recall that he was a small man and very funny, although teaching topics that could have been dull. His main topic was the role of interest groups in government. He had covered this subject in his 1958 book The Anonymous Empire.
Finer did not denounce lobbying and accepted that specialised advice was needed if laws were not to be bungled. Finer’s examples of lobbyists included chambers of commerce, trade unions, professional bodies and propaganda organisations. There was some transparency about these organisations, their aims and methods. However, Samuel Finer was worried about the lack of clarity about when MPs acted on behalf of lobbyists. He had traced every amendment to the Transport Bill of 1946-47 to one interest group or another, but it was a hard slog. ‘Light! More light!’ he cried, demanding a register of members’ interests.
Voice of minority
The new power‐scrutinising inventions break the grip of the majority rule principle – the worship of numbers – associated with representative democracy and give a voice to minorities. Other monitors publicise long‐term issues that are neglected in the short‐term mentality encouraged by election cycles.
Part of the monitory machinery consists of bodies set up by governments themselves. In the early 80s, I worked for Sir Arthur Armitage at SSAC (Social Security Advisory Committee). This body was made up of people from industry, the unions, local authorities, social work professionals and academics, people from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland and ethnic minorities. When the Welsh member dropped out, I suggested Shirley Bassey as a replacement – Welsh, a woman, black. The actual replacement was an Indian GP from Neil Kinnock’s constituency. A jolly fellow but he snored loudly during meetings. The government was required to submit to SSAC legislation which it was considering relating to the social security system. SSAC would then initiate a consultation exercise inviting interest groups, charities, NGOs and members of the public to offer their views. Taking account of all this feedback SSAC would prepare a report in which it might recommend changes to the legislation. In the British way, these diverse individuals always reached consensus.
Keane notes that the establishment of such monitory bodies by government itself contains a paradox. “Not only are government scrutiny mechanisms often established by governments who subsequently fail to control their workings – for instance, in cases of corruption and the enforcement of legal standards; the new mechanisms also have democratic, power‐checking effects, even though they are normally staffed by un‐elected officials who operate at several arms’ length from the rhythm of periodic elections.”
Finer would have enjoyed analysing the multimedia‐saturated societies of the 21st century. Today, more than ever before, the arrogance of power is being challenged and the word is being spread. Keane writes: “The quiet discriminations and injustices that happen behind closed doors and in the world of everyday life – become the potential target of ‘publicity’ and ‘public exposure’.”
Keane concludes that in the age of public monitoring of power, democracy can no longer be seen as an end in itself. Monitory democracy is an unfinished experiment that both thrives on imperfection and requires fresh ways of thinking about democracy’s virtues and its imperfections and failures.