Book review – Can Democracy Work? A Short History of a Radical Idea, from Ancient Athens to Our World

If the will of the people can put a loose cannon like Donald Trump in charge of the USA, or lead to the ongoing car crash that is the Brexit, asking whether democracy can work seems like a timely question. But to think that our times signify an unprecedented crisis is to ignore its long history. Professor of Politics and Liberal Studies James Miller here provides an excellent introduction to the long and spotty track record of democratic governance, showing that it continues to be an ongoing experiment.

Can Democracy Work

Can Democracy Work? A Short History of a Radical Idea, from Ancient Athens to Our World“, written by James Miller, published in Europe by Oneworld Publications in October 2018 (hardback, 320 pages)

Although it might appear that the Inquisitive Biologist lives in a bubble of biology books, I do like to read wider, so readers can expect the occasional book review on unrelated topics. Lately, there have been a number of books on politics that have piqued my interest, Can Democracy Work? being one of them.

Miller starts off highlighting a number of interesting contradictions and questions. How can communist regimes, contemporary experiments such as Occupy Wall Street, or representative democracies have anything in common? How can countries that are as different as North Korea and the United States call themselves democratic? Is democracy a Western product, intertwined with Christianity and the historical spoils of our imperialism – a product that by definition cannot be exported to the wider world other than by force? What, really, is democracy? Here is one thing that it is not, says Miller: the result of a gradual process, slowly perfected since the ancient Greeks.

“What, really, is democracy? Here is one thing that it is not, says Miller: the result of a gradual evolution”

To show the manifold guises that democracy has taken, Miller has selected five different episodes in history and divided his book into five long essays. He examines ancient Athens, revolutionary Paris in 1792, the freshly minted United States in the decades following their Declaration of Independence in 1776, various struggles for political and social equality in nineteenth-century Europe (the British Chartist movement that started in 1839, the Paris Commune of 1871, and the Russian general strike of 1905), and global developments since 1917 in the wake of both America’s involvement in World War I and the Russian Revolution that year.

Now, not having a background in political or social sciences, it is hard for me to judge whether Miller’s historical selection is balanced, or whether he has left out important episodes. I imagine this is where more knowledgeable reviewers could point out flaws in the book. One complaint he addresses at the outset is that his history is Eurocentric. He acknowledges there may have been proto-democracies before ancient Greece, as well as independent appearances of self-government in other parts of the world. But he defends his choice by quoting classical historian M.I. Finley, who in Democracy Ancient and Modern wrote of such examples that: “their impact on history, on later societies was null.” Of course, expecting a complete and utter history of democracy in less than 250 pages would be foolish, and each of these individual episodes has been the subject of many dedicated books. I have, for example, Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalisation of Democracy and Miéville’s October: The Story of the Russian Revolution jostling for space on my shelves here for future further reading.

“there existed a near-hypocritical tension in the US between the lofty wording of the Declaration of Independence and the practice of slavery”

Having said that, does Miller’s short history succeed in showing the diverse guises of democracy? Yes, absolutely! Though the verbosity and grammatical complexity of the frequent historical quotations will need some deciphering, Miller’s narrative is compulsively readable.

For example, I was fascinated to learn of the intense involvement of Athenian citizens in their democratic procedures, or that of the Parisians as they were experimenting with direct democracy in the first years of the French Revolution. Similarly, I never really considered that the story of female suffrage (i.e. the right to vote in elections) was only the latest in a line of such battles, with that for male suffrage preceding it. Additional requirements such as land-ownership or citizenship barring all male citizens from voting go back to ancient Athens. Not to mention the near-hypocritical tension that existed in the US between the lofty wording of the Declaration of Independence and the practice of slavery (its principal author, Thomas Jefferson, was himself a plantation slaveholder). Seasoned readers might roll their eyes (“you didn’t know??”), but if you come fresh to this topic then Miller provides.

“The book’s title is a red herring […] If you were hoping for a clear argument as to why Miller thinks democracy does or does not work […] you will be disappointed.”

The book’s title is a red herring though. It might be a catchy question, but Miller does not even take it up in his introduction, nor does he return to it in his coda. The book’s prelude is titled “What is democracy?”, which would have been an apter title. If you were hoping for a clear argument as to why Miller thinks democracy does or does not work, and what the alternatives might be, you will be disappointed – instead see my reviews of Against Democracy and In Defence of Democracy.

Instead, Miller’s off-hand ruminations reveal his feelings which can, I think, be best summarised as “I want to believe”. Other than the obvious quips of democracy descending into mob rule and the understandable disenchantment with recent elections, Miller touches on interesting inherent limitations. He mentions the problem of scale in modern nations with hundreds of millions of citizens, as well as the scale of the global problems we now seek to address, which asks for transnational politics, not local assemblies. And how do you unite the radically different and often opposing views, convictions and religions in modern societies? And what of people’s right not to want to participate in politics?

“Miller concludes that the challenges to democracy “are manifold, and perhaps intractable””

It is hard to disagree with Miller’s conclusion that the challenges to democracy “are manifold, and perhaps intractable”, but I would have loved him to flesh out this quandary further. Instead, I am left with the picture of an author who is still seeking for answers, or has perhaps even resigned himself to accepting a process that was so beautifully described by German-born Italian sociologist Robert Michels (1876-1936) and is quoted here from the posthumous English translation, Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy:

The democratic currents of history resemble successive waves […] When democracies have gained a certain stage of development, they undergo a gradual transformation, adopting the aristocratic spirit […] against which at the outset they struggled so fiercely. Now new accusers arise to denounce the traitors […] It is probable this cruel game will continue without end.

This quibble notwithstanding, in order to frame current concerns and discussions about democracy’s shortcomings, having an awareness of its history is both vital and enlightening. And Miller admirably succeeds in providing the short history that the book’s subtitle promises. Can Democracy Work? comes recommended for readers interested in politics, and even novices to the subject such as myself should come away with a better understanding of the tumultuous history of democratic governance.

Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

Can Democracy Work? paperback, hardback or ebook

Other recommended books mentioned in this review:




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