Book review – Beasts and Gods: How Democracy Changed its Meaning and Lost its Purpose

7-minute read

Not long after posting my review of Can Democracy Work? I received an email from Dr Roslyn Fuller: since I had mentioned her book In Defence of Democracy, would I be interested in reviewing it? And so, a parcel arrived at Inquisitive Biologist HQ my living room with two books, with Beasts and Gods providing valuable background reading to In Defence of Democracy.

Many people feel disenchanted with politics, but can you really articulate why? Bar a select few politically engaged individuals I know (I am not one of them), most of us remain stuck in conspiratorial grumblings at the pub about corrupt politicians. Published in 2015, Beasts and Gods lays bare how modern democracies are invariably broken, examines democracy in ancient Athens, and asks what we can learn from them.

Beasts and Gods

Beasts and Gods: How Democracy Changed its Meaning and Lost its Purpose, written by Roslyn Fuller, published by Zed Books in November 2015 (paperback, 414 pages)

Fuller is the director of the Solonian Democracy Institute which researches alternative democratic practices. She is particularly fascinated by Athenian democracy. After all, they invented this whole democracy thing – the ancient Greek word demokratia means people power. Though you might be surprised just how much their ideas and practices differed from ours.

When we say “democracy”, we tend to think of elections. The Athenians ended up ditching these in favour of taking all decisions by themselves. Astonishingly, assembly meetings, which formed the heart of Athenian democracy, were typically attended by a constantly rotating cast of 5000-6000 people, some 10-20% of the eligible population. And these meetings were not an occasional but a weekly occurrence where anyone could speak to the assembled to put forth their ideas. There were officials to keep this and other processes running, but they were appointed annually at random by a glorified Lotto machine, a cleroterion, complete with coloured balls. The best part? Because frequent mass participation was obviously a time consuming though highly valued activity, people were paid for their participation. Seems crazy? Perhaps, says Fuller, but it worked.

Now look at us, she writes. What we call “representative democracy”, where we elect politicians to make decisions for us, is, at best, a symbolic democracy, but more often closer to an oligarchy, a rule of the few.

“When we say “democracy”, we tend to think of elections. The Athenians ended up ditching these in favour of taking all decisions by themselves.”

First, take that “representative” part. Every vote counts, right? Sure, but as Fuller shows, not every vote matters. And this is especially true of the electoral system known as first-past-the-post voting, used in the US, the UK, Canada, and India. She shows how votes can be wasted. How the way they are totted up per district often results in a disconnect between the actual number of votes a political party receives overall (the popular vote) and how seats in a parliament are allotted, meaning parties that lose the popular vote can still win elections. And how politicians are actively gaming the system by manipulating the boundaries of voting districts through the practice of gerrymandering (for those interested, CGP Grey did a great series of explanatory videos on this). Other democratic voting systems (single transferable vote and several proportional voting systems) examined here are less inaccurate but still imperfect: the number of elected politicians is simply too small to accurately reflect the population. And that is just the beginning.

A large part of the book goes on to show that this small number of politicians has another drawback: it offers a multi-faceted pressure point for those with money. Political campaigns are largely financed by corporate backers in return for favours: favourable tax regimes, lax environmental or public health regulations – you do not have to look hard for scandals. And what of participatory tools for the average voter such as petitions, protests, or visits and letters to representatives? Next to a readily-ignored facade, they are drowned out by corporate interests. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs)? Bar your Oxfam or Greenpeace who do genuine good, most are, in Fuller’s words, umbrella organisations for corporate interests or privately funded think tanks, offering another channel for the wealthy to lobby and influence governments.

“The disproportionate influence of wealth extends further up still into international spheres, to the point that “private financiers [can] reduce whole nations to a condition not much different to indentured servitude“”

This disproportionate influence of wealth extends further up still into international spheres. The United Nations, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank were formed to stabilise the global economy after two world wars and an economic depression. But their imperfect implementation has generated another lever for vested interests to influence who gets international loans and what strings are attached to them, to the point that “private financiers [can] reduce whole nations to a condition not much different to indentured servitude“.

And so we have ended up with a system where money begets power, and power begets money, resulting in increasing economic inequality and a disenfranchised electorate that is given the “privilege” of token votes in elections. You will probably have heard people grumble along these lines or grumble along those lines yourself. Even so, my usual response used to be one of: “Really? That sounds very cynical and borderline conspiracy theory”.

The power of Beasts and Gods is twofold here. First, in plain English devoid of hyperbole, it clarifies that the situation is indeed as bad as it seems. But more importantly, it proposes solutions, specifically by re-examining Athenian democracy. Though there are aspects we would not want to emulate in our times (only men with Athenian citizenship were allowed to participate, for example), their system had a key benefit. Mass participation meant that power was too diffuse to be bought by the wealthy. But how would mass-participation work when countries now have tens to hundreds of millions of voters?

“We have ended up with a system where money begets power, and power begets money, resulting in increasing economic inequality and a disenfranchised electorate that is given the “privilege” of token votes in elections.”

Fuller envisions a digital democracy where the internet would enable everyone to participate, and she provides examples of existing initiatives of participatory budgeting and online citizens’ assemblies to show how this is already happening. Part of me reflexively responds by linking to Mark Manson’s essay The World Is Fucked and I’m Pretty Sure It’s the Internet’s Fault whose sharp observation that “when you give the average person an infinite reservoir of human wisdom, they will not Google for the higher truth that contradicts their own convictions” puts a damper on this kind of online optimism. But maybe it is me who is too cynical now – let’s not beat it until we have tried it, it cannot be worse than what we have now.

Fuller sees two major obstacles: mass media and economic inequality. The former are currently in the deep pockets of those same vested interests, in case you were wondering where some of the money goes. And Fuller refers to the perhaps unsurprising research that shows just how easily people’s opinions can be influenced by simply repeating a message often enough. The latter can be overcome by enforcing existing tax laws and by capping people’s income. I mean, how much money do you need? One further obstacle that occurred to me, but that is not addressed here: existing laws. None of this will be easy or quick. But, Fuller reminds us, the Athenians did not invent their democracy overnight either. The alternative, as became apparent when I reviewed The Great Leveler, is that it ends in tears when bloody wars or insurrections level the playing field.

Beasts and Gods is a pleasantly accessible book, even when, like myself, you are not well versed in politics and economics. Fuller injects her writing with a welcome dose of wit and strident attitude to prevent this from being a boring or dry read. More importantly, she provides solutions. Having just shown how broken democracy currently is, you might be surprised she nevertheless defends it. For that, see my review of In Defence of Democracy.


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

You can support this blog using below affiliate links, as an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases:

Beasts and Gods paperback, hardback or ebook

Other recommended books mentioned in this review:

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