LONG READ: ‘Democracy is in peril’ – INTERVIEW: JOHN KEANE

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John Keane is a Professor of Politics at the University of Sydney and at the Wissenschaftzentrum, Berlin. He is the co-founder and Director of the Sydney Democracy Network. He is renowned globally for his creative thinking on democracy.  He first studied Politics, Government and History at the University of Adelaide winning the Tinline Prize for a first-class honours with the highest distinction. He later held a post-doctoral fellowship at Kings College, at the University of Cambridge, where he worked closely with Anthony Giddens and other leading scholars. During his many years in Britain, the Times of London described John Keane as ‘ one of the world’s leading political thinkers and writers. El Paris ( Madrid) has ranked him as ‘among the world’s leading analysts of political systems in 2018. His works were translated into 35 languages. In this interview with Asian Lite’s Abhish K Bose, he discusses the issues facing democracy in the contemporary world

ABHISH K BOSE: Democracies across the globe are at the receiving end of the evident symptoms of its nemesis. What are your thoughts on the future of democracy?

JOHN KEANE: The writing is on the wall: the ‘great democratic revolution’ of modern times, as Tocqueville once called it, seems again to be stalling. While there are plenty of positive countertrends left unmentioned by observers, there are clear signs that more than a few territorially bound, state-organised democracies are in a mess. The fugitive spirit of democracy is on the run. With the disastrous experiences of the 1920s and 1930s in mind, many observers are inclined to say that something like an anti-democratic counterrevolution is happening on a global scale. Their generalisations and clichéd simplifications (talk of an epic ‘democracy versus autocracy’ global conflict, for instance) are questionable, but most of the symptoms on which they base their assessments are real enough. They come to us as daily breaking news.

Widening gaps between rich and poor. Fretful middle classes. Angry underclasses who see democracy as a façade for rule by the rich and powerful. Neoliberalism. Greedy banks. Surveillance capitalism. Pestilence. Populism. Demagogues. Growing intolerance of others’ opinions. Resurgent racism, nationalism and xenophobia. Precarity. Inflation. Lying, scheming politicians. Untrustworthy political parties. Political corruption. Sex scandals. Misogyny. Domestic violence. Guns. Street shootings. Media untruths. Destructive metaverse wars. Weird weather. The extinction of species. Floods, fires, droughts, crop failures, famine. Talk of the decline of the West. China. Russian despotism.

PROF. JOHN KEANE

Things are serious. Not since the mid-20th century has democracy faced so much political trouble, but whether or to what extent these breaking news, headline-driven symptoms are feeding a looming worldwide crisis of democracy is currently the subject of heated political debate among scholars, journalists and citizens alike. Writings and talks on ‘the crisis of democracy’ and studies of democide, how democracies of the past wilted and died, are thriving craft industries. Whatever one thinks of these commentaries, they have conspired to undermine settled certainties. They are being replaced by a mix of reactions among scholars of democracy, ranging from creeping anxiety and angry indignation about democracy’s fate to perplexity and glum silence. So far, the outright rejection of democratic principles by intellectuals – of the kind that last took place on a large scale during the 1920s and 1930s – hasn’t happened. But there is plenty of ambivalence, even flippant nonchalance, as in David Runciman’s  The Confidence Trap (2019) and How Democracy Ends (2018).

These two studies of democracy’s ‘winding down in the places where it has had its greatest successes’ sketch the fortunes of mainly Anglo-American democracies during the past century, from Woodrow Wilson’s failure to promote democracy after World War I to the near collapse of the banking system in 2008. Runciman’s thesis is that state-framed democracies have been littered with confusion, foolish brinkmanship and delayed bounce-back. They’re poor at anticipating crises. Democracies take forever to read writings on the wall. They’re easily distracted by frivolous media events and fake crises and sedated by their track record of success (that’s the confidence trap). Burdened by ‘elections and fickle public opinion and constitutional proprieties’, democracies typically lack a sense of urgency, or proportion.

They muddle their way into crises triggered by such anti-democratic forces as war and market failure. Then they twiddle their thumbs, usually for so long that finally they’re forced to spring into action. The picture of democracies during crisis periods ‘is not pretty, and it creates a pervasive feeling of disappointment’. The resilience of democracies in handling crises leads him to question the ‘perennial democratic appetite to hear the worst of itself’. In sticky situations, democracies typically outperform ”autocracies” (their handling of emergencies is left largely undiscussed, which is a fat flaw in the whole argument). Yet democracies, he says, are crippled by their bad habit of procrastination, and for that they earn his rebuke. ‘Democracies survive their mistakes,’ he writes. ‘So the mistakes keep coming.’

It’s telling that in these two books flesh-and-blood citizens, social movements, power-monitoring bodies and other civil society forces go missing. Their democratic ‘appetite for exposure and confrontation’ is dismissed as ‘adolescent churlishness’. These harsh words help explain why Runciman thinks crises are best handled by prudent political elites gripped by no-nonsense gravitas and willingness to act swiftly, and decisively. Runciman is in reality a reluctant democrat whose Law of Dithering Democracy (let’s call it) has roots deeper than the handful of carefully chosen historical cases he uses to support his case. He holds to a version of Max Weber’s old-fashioned elitist view of politics, and it’s why in these works he admires leaders who command respect by their actions: political animals strong on ‘restraint, discipline, and co-ordinated action’, canny characters with razor-sharp wits, commanders who are cucumber-cool under pressure, who know how to spot a crisis and aren’t shy of banging heads and stepping on people, to survive the moment of reckoning. Equally at work in Runciman’s approach is an odd metaphysics: the belief, traceable to the ancient Greek historian Polybius, that decline and decay are intrinsic to political life.

Shocking visuals float on social media as Lankans mark their protest against Gotabaya Rajapaksa (Photo Credit: Twitter)

It’s no accident that Runciman never defines what exactly he means by the word ‘progress’, even though it’s used constantly to measure the performance of democracies under pressure. ‘The ongoing success of democracy creates the conditions for repeated failures, just as repeated failures are a precondition for its ongoing success.’ It’s Samuel Beckett (”Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”) minus the gallows humour. Drawing on organicist metaphors of life cycles, these books conclude that democracy, whose ‘bedrock’ is ‘regular elections’, is now in ‘miserable middle age’ and trapped in ‘a drawn-out demise’ that will surely end unhappily. ‘Western democracy will survive its mid-life crisis’, he writes. ‘With luck, it will be a little chastened by it. It is unlikely to be revived by it. This is not, after all, the end of democracy. But this is how democracy ends.’

ABHISH K BOSE: Is there unanimity among the thinkers and exponents over the catastrophe on the anvil? Do you think there are little hope for the resurgence of democracy? What are history’s lessons on this greatest experiment?

JOHN KEANE: Other intellectuals are less wistful and more forthright than Runciman. They think democracy is headed for hell. Setting aside the many exceptions and countertrends of our age – democratically well-governed cities, the continuing struggles for the empowerment of women and success stories such as Indonesia, where democracy took root because it proved to be the only just and effective remedy for resolving a deep-seated economic and political crisis – these scholars insist that the spirit and substance of democracy are now on the critically endangered list. Quoting democracy barometers and survey reports, they are sure democracy is backsliding – or already at the cliff’s edge, or hurtling down into the abyss. Ignorance of positive countervailing trends and blind jumping to the worst possible conclusions – catastrophism – is their thing. Molehills are made into mountains. Thanks to them, Schopenhauer is suddenly fashionable in the world of scholarship on democracy.

Striking is the way this end-of-democracy-as-we-have-known-it mentality feeds catastrophist interpretations of how democracy perishes quickly, in the blink of an eye. The catastrophist approach, let us call it, portrays the death of a democracy as a great drama. Time speeds up. Things familiar suddenly fall apart. Under pressure, givens cease to be given. Great uncertainty grips how things are.  Established ways of handling power crumble. History suddenly happens. According to this first view, power-sharing democracies typically suffer sudden death, in puffs of smoke and rat-a-tat gunfire, or (as in the earliest assembly democracies) with the rumble of chariots and the cut and thrust of spears and swords. The sudden death interpretation has a long and venerable ancestry, stretching back to ancient Greece, where under conditions of war many assembly democracies quickly perished at the hands of conspiracies led by rich and powerful oligarchs.

The Thirty Tyrants period in Athens (404 – 403 BCE) is exemplary. Forced militarily to surrender and to accept Sparta’s peace terms, the Athenian democracy – accounts by Aristotle, Diodorus, Lysias, Plutarch and Xenophon tell us – was for eight bloody months forcibly subjected to the cruel rule of a committee of thirty oligarchs led by Lysander, a reign of terror, the disarming and exiling of hundreds of citizens, the murder of ‘resident aliens’ (metoikoi) and the rounding up and execution of Cleophon, Androcles and many other prominent democrats.

MQM UK stages protest at 10 Downing Street against extrajudicial killings in PakistanPic credits ANI

Catastrophist thinking about how living democracies suddenly miss their step, stumble, and collapse to the ground – democide – remains in fashion. Many observers are interpreting the January 6th events in the United States in this way: as an organised violent attack on the Capitol that was part of a broader scheme to overturn an election result, directed from the top by a defeated president and his buddies. Quite recent examples of the quick death of democracy include Israel’s crushing of the electoral victory of Hamas in the Palestinian legislative elections (2006) and the military coup d’états against the governments of President Mohammed Morsi in Egypt (2013) and Yingluck Shinawatra in Thailand (2014).

Older well-known examples of this catastrophist interpretation include the overthrow of a caretaker Greek government on the eve of elections (in 1967) by a regime led by colonels; and the 1973 military coup d’état against the Allende government in Chile, a grave moment of high political drama when the president of a democratically elected socialist government bid farewell to his country in a live radio broadcast, then took his own life as troops, helicopter gunships, and air force jets bombarded the presidential palace. Past cases of the sudden death of democracy are also said to include the Warsaw Pact’s crushing of the Prague Spring in August 1968; Hitler’s military invasion and refashioning of the provinces of Bohemia and Moravia  as a German protectorate, under the leadership of a Reichsprotektor; the follow up Nazi invasions of Luxembourg, Belgium, and the Netherlands, where parliamentary democracy was killed in a trice by aerial bombardment, tanks, and invading troops; and the March on Rome in late October 1922, when streets filled with blackshirted paramilitaries and supporters of the National Fascist Party (PNF) celebrated with bread and wine and song King Victor Emmanuel III’s thunderbolt decision to appoint Mussolini as prime minister of Italy.

ABHISH K BOSE:  What are the antidotes that you can propose so as to give a life breath to democracy and to resuscitate it from a condition of paralysis? Is there a solution or is it heading towards an inevitable slow and gradual demise?

JOHN KEANE: The Life and Death of Democracy (2009) record numerous instances of the sudden death of democracy. During the past generation, around three-quarters of faltering power-sharing governments met their end in this quick-death way. Doubtless the impression that democracies ‘naturally’ die suddenly has been amplified by media platforms spreading breaking news stories crafted by journalists hungry for big audiences. They reinforce the credibility of the catastrophist interpretation, whose other merit is to serve as a timely reminder of the great fragility of democracy, above all the way building a democracy, which can take at least a lifetime or longer, is a much tougher task than its destruction, which can be destroyed in einAugenblick.

The catastrophist approach is nevertheless of limited value in making sense of democide. As we are going to see, democide can happen more or less quickly, more or less slowly. These different and multiple rhythms need to be identified and understood, not only because they underscore the descriptive-analytic point that there is no single way in which democracies are destroyed, or come by accident or design to sabotage themselves. There are also strategic and normative implications. Since the passing away of the spirit and substance can and does happen in different tempos, and since there is therefore no single Iron Law of Democide, the friends of democracy must learn to cope with its degradation and work for its renewal in nuanced and plural ways. The tasks of militant democracy, a phrase coined during the 1930s by Karl Loewenstein to describe the range of pre-emptive strategies used to defend and enliven democracies when threatened by the forces of anti-democracy[1], require clear-headed accounts of how democracies die. The commitment to militant democracy isn’t perverse fascination with morbidity. On the contrary: knowledge of the variable modes and rates of decline of democracy serves as an early warning detector device, a way of spotting the first symptoms of democide so that ways can be found to protect and strengthen democracies in trouble.

But let us not get ahead of ourselves. Consider, to begin with, the key fact, long ago emphasised by Juan Linz and other scholars, that the death of democratic institutions by gradual cuts is more common than catastrophists suppose. High-level dramas that unfold allegrissimo and furiosoare only one of the ‘rhythms’ of democide. It turns out that the death of democracy can happen lentissimo, slowly through protracted, steady accumulations of high-level political grievances and knife-edged manoeuvrings. Consider what happened earlier this year in Burkina Faso. Following years of government paralysis, sectarian tensions and jihadist violence, several thousand deaths, 1.5 million citizens forced from their homes, growing discontent within the army, mutinies in several military camps, multiple cabinet reshuffles and months of anti-government protests demanding President RochKaboré’s resignation, the so-named Patriotic Movement for Safeguarding and Restoration announced live on state television its seizure of control of the country. During the past decade, similarly gradual anti-democratic rhythms were displayed in the military coup d’états against the elected governments of Egypt (2013) and the governments of Myanmar, Chad, Mali, Guinea and Sudan (2021). Slower motion democide is of course nothing new. Its roots extend back at least a century, for instance to the gradual destruction of parliamentary democracy during 1920s Poland, a period that was punctuated by the strains of building an independent state, border wars, economic hardships, bitter leadership and political rivalries, unstable coalition governments, the assassination of the first Polish president Gabriel Narutowicz, a coup d’état engineered by Piłsudski (May 1926) who then, with the backing of the police and army, big business and landowner groups, ruled by decree and rigged elections until his death a decade later.

ABHISH K BOSE: What are the immediate signs of democide?

JOHN KEANE: In each of these cases, past and present, punctuated by occasional cataclysms, democide proved to be a protracted process, painfully drawn out, tortoise paced, subject to flip-flops, breakthroughs, reversals and changes of fortune. According to what can be called the gradualist explanation, democratic breakdowns are typically overdetermined, the outcome of multiple, intersecting political developments. The gradualist explanation shifts attention from the moments of high drama towards the messy background dynamics that eventually result in the downfall of democratic government. Proponents of the gradualist interpretation are agreed that democracy is best defined narrowly, as popular self-government based on the periodic election of representatives; and they also agree with the catastrophist school that the demise of democracy happens when there are serious breakdowns of consensus within the high-level institutions of government. But the autopsies provided by the gradualist approach stress that democide is typically a long-drawn-out process driven by political factors, such as foolish miscalculations of political leaders, bitterly disputed election results, and the manoeuvrings of the armed forces.

The gradualist explanation emphasises the cunning and creativity of political actors and the indeterminacy of the political dynamics. The death of democracy is never a foregone conclusion; things can go in more than one direction.  Democide happens because it is chosen by political actors in political circumstances not of their choosing. Critically important, runs the argument, are the bitter contests between political forces favouring the maintenance and/or reform of a democratic political system and saboteurs who don’t care about its fate, or who actively yearn for its overthrow. The explanation notes that in any given crisis of democracy – 1920s Weimar Germany, Bolivia in late 2019 – the political dynamics are normally stormy, often terrifying and radically confusing, and always riddled with uncertainty.

Paralysed by unsolved problems, a democratically elected government grows unpopular. There are loud calls for its resignation. In the shadows, anti-government forces hatch plans for its deposition. Disloyal opposition flourishes. There are wild rumours, talk of conspiracies, street protests that turn violent. With mounting civil unrest, the police and army grow agitated. The elected government responds by granting itself emergency powers, proroguing the legislature, reshuffling the military high command, and imposing media blackouts. Things eventually come to the boil. The moment of denouement arrives, often in the shape of a constitutional putsch: court challenges and legal victories against the government by forces paying homage to the constitution yet pushing hard to destroy both the government and constitutional democracy itself. The forces of disorder and the enemies of democracy take heart. Fierce tussles, violent protests and bomb blasts bring matters to the boil. As the government totters, the army moves from its barracks onto the streets to quell unrest and take control. The slow-motion drama ends. Democracy is finally buried in the grave it slowly dug for itself.

ABHISH K BOSE: Destruction of democracy by elected governments themselves destroying the institutions of democracy are a new variant in the process of democide. How elected leaders can dismantle the institutions pointing to the change in the process of its evolution and even to the chances of the elections themselves getting manipulated?        

JOHN KEANE: An election-centred variant of the gradualist explanation of democide emphasises that the dismantling of democracy can happen when a democratically elected populist government strategically manipulates and cunningly wrecks the institutions of democracy. Drawing on recent cases such as Hungary, Kazakhstan and Turkey, The New Despotism (2020) shows that ballots can be used to ruin democracy just as effectively as bullets.  The top-down electoral wounding of democratic government, the transformation of a power-sharing monitory democracy into a strangely despotic form of phantom democracy, can be completed in not much more than a decade. The transformation typically happens in fits and starts, at first gradually, in slow motion, then it gathers pace. Lentissimo gives way to prestissimo.

The turbulence is led by demagogues, populist saboteurs of democracy skilled in the arts of gradually dismantling governing arrangements, including free and fair elections, in the name of democracy. Scholars of the ancient Greek world have long noted the democracy-threatening role played by demagogues as ‘mis-leaders of the people (Moses Finley). Contemporaries worried that Athenian demagogues like Hyperbolus and Cleon (who used to shout his way through speeches) were unprincipled lovers of power, self-interested flatterers who promoted factions and stirred up mob rule, often aided by sycophants, professional orators who extorted money from rich citizens – ‘shook fig trees to harvest their fruit’ – by accusing them of wrongdoing. Unsurprisingly, Athens and other early assembly democracies sought to guard against the anti-democratic effects of demagoguery by invoking such safety measures as ostracism, public scrutiny of officials’ fitness for office (dokimasia) and legal action (grapheparanomon) against citizens who hastily proposed motions which contravened existing laws.

From the time of the French Revolution, demagoguery plagued the age of electoral democracy (think of Juan Manuel de Rosas in Argentina in the late 1820s, or Huey Long in the United States of the 1930s) while today, in the era of monitory democracy, it continues to be an auto-immune disease of democracy. Latter-day demagogues obviously operate under different conditions. Acting in the name of ‘the people’, taking full advantage of public rights of assembly and association and media freedoms to spread their message, these specialists in the arts of political seduction are false friends of democracy. Heading up a tightly disciplined political party that claims to have a hotline to ‘the people’, demagogues set out to win elections.

Prof. John Keane

 Millions of disgruntled people find their promises attractive. With luck and determination, with opposition parties in disrepute, electoral victory comes their way. There is joy in the streets. For millions, victory in the name of ‘the People’ is sweet. The demagogue is delighted. Winning office tempts the government to move more quickly, to outflank and politically crush its opponents by wrapping its octopoid tentacles around the throat of the state. The civil service, the legislature, courts, and other key state institutions are kidnapped. The powers of local government are curtailed. The big boss leader carries on stirring up talk of ‘democracy’ and ‘the people’, along the way building a spoils system to reward ‘friends’ and punish ‘enemies’. There are stern warnings about the imminent collapse of law and order. Backed by the police, army and intelligence agencies, helped along by rubber bullets, water cannon and a few whiffs of tear gas, the government of ‘the people’ begins to crack down on protesters. The pace of change quickens. Bans on public assembly and Internet censorship are enforced. Arrests, detentions without trial, and unsolved murders happen. The ruling party, helped by cunning media tactics and much talk of a ‘corrupt’ opposition, tampers with the constitution. It neuters the courts, muzzles parliaments and other power-monitoring institutions and turns them into empty shells, phantoms of their former selves. State power grows steel tough. Demagogic talk of ‘democracy’ and the need to honour and respect ‘the people’ grows louder, and more militant.

With power-sharing democracy on its knees, blindfolded, elections prove useful to its killers. Elective despotism (Thomas Jefferson) prevails. Elections become rowdy plebiscites. Politics is no longer give-and-take bargaining and good-natured compromise. It degenerates into spectacles, dirty tricks and vote harvesting by a government led by a demagogue messiah. Ruling by cheating (AndrásSajó), the Grand Redeemer promises ‘the people’ wellness and rewards. It raises expectations that the ‘sovereign people’ are entitled to expect improvements in their daily lives. They are promised solutions to the local headaches and heartbreaks of joblessness, inflation, dysfunctional transport systems and poor healthcare. Pork barrel politics thrives. Winning the hearts of loyal followers is a priority. There are offerings of material gifts (as in the month prior to the 2022 Hungarian elections, when Viktor Orbán’s government reportedly spent around 3% of GDP on payments to targeted voters, including big bonuses to 70,000 members of the army and police, tax refunds to nearly two million employees, and an extra month’s benefits to 2.5 million pensioners). Every other populist trick in the book is played: threats and bribes in backroom meetings, dinner deals with business oligarchs, court victories, state-of-the-art media dog whistling and message bombing, calculated silence and brute force. The point is to suck life from power-sharing democracy committed to the principle of equality. The government led by a big-mouthed demagogue does everything it can to concentrate political power in its own hands. Cuddling up to media magnates like the Philippine billionaire Manuel Villar, they publicly attack journalists (‘presstitutes’) and independent media, public service bureaucracies, and other power-monitoring institutions. If they succeed, their inner urge to destroy monitory democracy – checks, balances, and mechanisms for publicly scrutinising and restraining power – is rewarded with a metamorphosis. The government gradually becomes strong-armed rule led by a despot who claims to be guide and guardian of ‘the people’.

Elections soon become more than elections. They are turned into elections without democracy, public rituals, carnivals of political seduction, celebrations of the mighty power of the state, endorsed by the votes of millions of people. But as the transition away from democracy gathers pace, something more startling happens. In the hands of the ruling party and its despot leader, the razzamatazz about ‘the people’ has a more sinister effect: it aims to redefine who ‘the people’ are. Desperate to tighten their grip on state power, eyes on the next election, the governing party hands out bread and roses to followers and waverers. But it also plays filthy and stops at nothing. It hits hard against its targeted ‘enemies’. The government spreads uncivil language, picks political fights with its opponents, tightens border controls and builds barbed-wire fences against ‘foreigners’ and ‘foreign’ influences. It cheats and lies with impunity. The government gaslights. Rumours, exaggerations, and bullshit are spread by its loyal media organs. The signature tactic is stirring up trouble about who counts as ‘the people’.[3] Peddling fears of enemies within, the government moves to ostracise people deemed not to belong to the ‘real people’ (Donald J. Trump). ‘Poles of a worse sort’ (Kaczyński) and people who are not ‘real Hungarians’ (Orbán) are warned. The Great Redeemer repeats, and repeats again, that the government enjoys the backing of an authentically ‘sovereign’ People. But winning elections means creating a new ‘people’ – a pasteurised people who (it’s said) are the true foundation of a true democracy ruled by a true leader whose strength comes from the true ‘people’. It is as if elections are turned upside down. The government votes in the people. And so the process of democide is complete: the butterfly of democracy becomes the caterpillar of a weird new kind of phantom democracy. The end result isn’t old-fashioned tyranny or military dictatorship, or describable as a single-ruler horror show the ancients called autocracy. It mustn’t be confused with 20th-century fascism or totalitarianism. The outcome is despotic: a new type of strong ‘mafia state’ (Bálint Magyar [4]) led by a demagogue and run by state and corporate oligarchs with the help of pliant journalists and docile judges, a top-down form of government backed by the combined force of the fist and the voluntary servitude of millions of loyal subjects prepared to lend their votes to leaders who offer them material benefits and daringly rule in their hallowed name.

College student Jennifer Estrada takes part in a rally for gun control and anti-racism, in El Paso of Texas, the United States. (Xinhua_Wang Ying_IANS)

ABHISH K BOSE:  Is civil society a basic foundation of democracy? If so, going by the current pace the disappearance of these civil societies can be termed a pertinent feature of contemporary democracies.  Is it the same everywhere?   

JOHN KEANE: High-level political games of thrones and populist demagoguery have ruinous effects on free and fair elections, competitive political parties, parliaments, courts, and other institutions of democracy. But experience should teach us that democracies can die in still other ways, and more slowly, more gradually, than the state-centric explanations so far summarised have surmised. The great weakness of the sudden-death and gradualist explanations is their neglect of the civil society foundations on which any given democracy rests, and which democracies neglect at their own peril.

In recent decades, the democratic importance of civil society has too often been ignored, or treated as an afterthought, as it is for instance in Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s How Democracies Die (2018). It understates the point that democracy is much more than high-level dynamics centred on political parties, elections, legislatures, presidents and prime ministers, government bureaucracies, and the police and armed forces. State institutions always rest upon, and draw their strength from, interactions among millions of people living their daily lives in a variety of mediated social settings that stretch from family households, personal friendships, and local communities through to their workplaces, sporting and leisure venues, and places of worship.

Ranked among the most distinguished scholars of democracy, my teacher C.B. Macpherson spent a lifetime pointing out that democracy is ‘a kind of society’, a whole way of life committed to the principle that people considered as equals can ‘make the best of themselves. It is ‘not merely a mechanism of choosing and authorizing governments’, he noted. The ‘egalitarian principle inherent in democracy’ requires that in their everyday lives, including the jobs they hold, people develop and fully enjoy their personal and collective capacities. The cultivation of social relations is ‘a necessary condition of the development of individual capacities. The ‘maximization of democracy’ requires that citizens enjoy the ‘absence of impediments’ and an ‘adequate means of life’ and ‘protection against invasion by others’.

ABHISH K BOSE: What are the cardinal factors that should strengthen a democratic society?  

JOHN KEANE: When viewed as a whole way of life, democracy at the ‘upper levels’ of government can durably function only when citizens ‘down below’ in everyday life live to the full its norms of equality, freedom, solidarity, and respect for social differences. In our times, democracy is monitory democracy – periodic elections plus a plethora of watchdog bodies that publicly scrutinize, check, and restrain those who exercise power. But democracy is also a whole way of life, a special form of social interaction and self-realization in which people from different walks of life rub shoulders, see eye to eye, cooperate and compromise, and generally think of themselves as the equals of each other. This means that the self-government of people through their chosen representatives can happen only when citizens live together non-violently in various social associations and communities and treat each other as equals worthy of respect and dignity. Democracy is much more than attending local public meetings, keeping up with breaking news, or voting. A well-functioning democracy requires freedom from violence, hunger, and personal humiliation. Democracy is saying no to the brazen arrogance of callous employers who maltreat workers as mere commodities and deny them the right to form independent unions. It’s jobs that bring satisfaction and sufficient reward to live comfortably. It’s the rejection of racism, misogyny, caste and religious bigotry and all other types of human and non-human indignity.

Democracy is tenderness with children and respect for women and people of different sexual preferences. Democracy is humility. It is the willingness to admit that impermanence renders all life vulnerable, that in the end nobody is invincible, and that ordinary lives are never ordinary. Democracy is sharing and caring for others. It’s the raw willingness to reject prejudices about the inevitability of social injustices. It’s freedom from fear of police violence, the right not to be killed, or to die from opioid addiction or a broken heart. It’s equal access to decent public transport and medical care and sympathy for those who have fallen behind. Democracy is free access to information and a learned sense of worldly wonder. It’s the everyday ability to handle unexpected situations and make judgments wisely. It’s the refusal of the dogma that things can’t be changed because they’re ‘naturally’ fixed in stone. Democracy thus implies the need for insurrection: the refusal to put up with everyday forms of idolatry and bullying, snobbery and toad-eating, lies and bullshit and other forms of social degradation.

The precept that democracy is the ongoing struggle to defend the civil society footings that put springs in the steps of people freed from the curse of indignity has been emphasised with great eloquence in recent scholarly efforts to develop a ‘capabilities approach’ (Amartya Sen).[6] It underscores the democratic importance of maximizing people’s freedoms to achieve well-being in common. But now comes the tricky question: what happens to a power-sharing monitory democracy when governments, businesses and citizens allow its social footings to be damaged, or destroyed?

ABHISH K BOSE: What is your specific analysis of the Indian scenario?

JOHN KEANE: A set of replies to this question is offered in To Kill A Democracy (2021), my recent examination (with Debasish Roy Chowdhury) of some ugly trends in contemporary Indian politics. The book pays special attention to the destructive feedback loops that link the dilapidation of social life with the annihilation of democratic politics and governing institutions. It shows how the extended neglect or slow-motion decay of civil society openly contradicts and degrades the high-minded legal ideals of democratic constitutions which promise liberty, equality, justice and dignified solidarity to all citizens. When civil societies suffer the splintering and shattering of social life, citizens come to be gripped by a sense of legal powerlessness and cynicism towards a judiciary that itself becomes vulnerable to attacks on ‘juristocracy’ (Recep Tayyip Erdoğan), political meddling and government capture. Massive imbalances of wealth, widespread violence, famine, and unevenly distributed life chances also conspire to make a mockery of the ethical principle that in a democracy people can live as civil partners of equal social worth. Social suffering renders that democratic principle utterly utopian, or turns it into a grotesque farce, as many young people and poorer citizens have concluded in today’s Tunisia. Inadequate diet, rotten healthcare, drug addiction and hazardous living conditions disable and kill citizens. Fear of violence, daily shortages of food and housing and widespread feelings of social worthlessness destroy people’s dignity. Indignity is a form of generalized social violence. Nobody – not even well- educated people with good jobs and assets – escapes its clutches. Everybody suffers, rich and poor alike. But indignity has especially ruinous impacts on already vulnerable groups. When millions of women feel unsafe in the company of men, when malnourished children cry themselves to sleep at night, and workers living on low wages are forced to cope with unemployment and inflation, the victims are less likely to think of themselves as citizens worthy of rights, or capable as citizens of fighting for their own entitlements, or for the rights of others. Ground down by social indignity, the powerless are robbed of self-esteem. No doubt, their ability to strike back, to deliver millions of mutinies against the rich and powerful, should never be underestimated. But the brute fact is that social indignity often undermines citizens’ capacity to take an active interest in public affairs. Citizens are reduced to subjects who are forced to accept everyday bossing and bullying, to put up with restrictions on basic public freedoms, and to get used to big money, surveillance, police killings and soldiers on the streets.

The slow road to democide doesn’t end there. For when large numbers of citizens suffer social indignities, when in other words there’s a swelling of the ranks of people who feel ‘disesteemed’ (James Baldwin), governments are in effect granted a licence to rule arbitrarily. Starved of time, resources and self-respect, humiliated people become sitting ducks. They turn their backs on public affairs and curse politicians and politics. But the downtrodden and disaffected often do nothing but wallow in the mud of resignation. Cynical disaffection breeds voluntary servitude. Or the disesteemed yearn for political redeemers and steel-fisted government. The powerless may even join hands with more privileged citizens to wish for a messiah who promises to put things right by empowering the poor, securing the wealth of the rich, and ridding the country of corrupt politicians, fake news, terrorists, illegal immigrants and other people who don’t belong. Demagoguery comes into the season. Citizens energised by resentment encourage leaders to experiment with the dark arts of despotic politics. Exploiting public grievances and disappointments, leaders like President Kais Saied stop caring about the niceties of public accountability and constitutional power sharing. They prefer decrees. They brag that they are turning everything around, that they are restoring the dignity of ‘the people’ and helping the whole country to recover its former glory. But the hubris of the messiahs has serious costs. When democratically elected governments cease to be held accountable to a civil society broken and weakened by wealth inequalities, unevenly distributed health care, joblessness and poor morale, rulers enjoying unbridled power are prone to blindness and ineptitude. They tend to make careless, foolish, and incompetent decisions. Institutional democracy failure happens. And democracy is turned into a facade. Elections are regularly held and talk of ‘the people’ is constant. But democracy begins to resemble a fancy mask worn by wealthy political predators. Civil society is crushed by the state. Cheered on by lapdog media, strong-armed rule by rich and powerful business tycoons and populist messiahs flourishes. Phantom democracy becomes the new reality.

ABHISH K BOSE: The indiscriminate exploitation of natural resources is a thing which should be perceived as tantamount to the political developments which is debilitating democracy. Is it essential to perpetuate a new perspective in which ecology and natural resources take an important place in the pathway to strengthening democracy?  

JOHN KEANE: Previous scholarly accounts of how democracy perishes have mainly ignored the slowest yet most powerful driver of democide: the degradation and destruction of the living environments in which humans dwell and upon which we depend. Democracy dies a slow-motion death not only when citizens endure such indignities as domestic violence, poor health care, religious and racial bigotry, gun crimes, and daily shortages of food and housing, or when they are forced to live in sacrifice zones and suffer foul air, toxic water and other types of environmental injustice. Democracies risk democide when these same citizens and their representatives succumb to a ‘great derangement’ (Amitav Ghosh): when they give themselves over to a double delusion, to the thoughtlessness that prevents them from spotting not only the anti-democratic effects of extreme weather events, species extinctions, pestilences and other environmental emergencies, but also, just as importantly, when they fail to understand that democracy will have no future unless its ideals and practices are rid of the deep-seated prejudice that ‘humans’ live outside a ‘nature’ whose dynamics are administratively controllable and commercially exploitable for the use and enjoyment of ‘the people’.

Making sense of this derangement and its anti-democratic effects initially requires frank encounters with the many worrying symptoms that scientists and public monitoring groups and networks are carefully recording and many citizens themselves are beginning openly to acknowledge. The most dramatic of these warning signs are fast-paced and ruthless. As if they are Earth’s revenge against its human destroyers, these environmental shocks are marked by frightening quantum qualities that display a will of their own. Huge wildfires burn uncontrollably through fields and forests, spitting black ash and illuminating night-time skies with flickers of blood-orange light. Heatwaves are so extreme that roads and railway tracks buckle and melt. Severe droughts. Atmospheric river-driven mega-storms that cause extensive flooding, polluted and diseased water, landslides, and large-scale drowning and displacement of people, animals and other living creatures. Such fast-paced convulsions disrupt socio-economic normality and inflict severe damage upon planetary habitats. They usually get more media coverage than the slower-motion, often invisible but equally damaging ruination of our environments. Melting ice shields and glaciers. Mass fish die-offs in blighted rivers, shallowing and shrinking lakes and warming oceans. A looming ‘silent spring’ insect apocalypse caused by enforced habitat loss, pesticide-heavy farming, invasive species and global warming (according to a survey conducted by Buglife and Kent Wildlife Trust, the population of flying insects alone has declined by 60 percent in the UK during the past two decades). Irreversible damage done to seasonal migration patterns, predator-prey food chains and nesting and breeding habitats of species by temperature stress, storm surges, increased evaporation and acidification of lakes and oceans. Silent, invisible, unpredictable transmissions of zoonotic viruses. The list in the slow lane is already long, and growing fast.

The rising awareness among citizens and representatives that these multi-rhythm trends threaten the health of our planetary biosphere, and that remedies are needed urgently, is an important political development. This ‘greening’ of politics is something new in the history of democracy, a novel political trend driven by the invention of scores of new media-savvy forms of public monitoring and representation of our planetary ecosystems. In the age of monitory democracy, among the most well-known examples of these bio-representation innovations are citizen science projects, coral reef monitoring networks, green think tanks, bio-regional assemblies, Earth-watch summits, climate strikes and climate justice flotillas. There are global bio-agreements, such as the Aarhus Convention and the Convention on Biological Diversity, rewilding schemes and zadiste/ZAD-style (zone à defender; ‘zone to defend’) occupations. For the first time in the history of democracy, there are successful efforts to codify and enforce the ‘legal rights, powers, duties and liabilities’ of ecosystems, as in New Zealand’s (Aotearoa’s) TeUrewera Act (2014).

The common working principles of these watchdog mechanisms is threefold. Most obviously, they call upon publics, corporations and legislators to put a stop to wanton acts of bio-destruction. Significant is the way they also redefine the meaning of democracy, in effect by demanding, for the first time in the history of democracy, that the right of public representation be extended to our ecosystems. They reconnect the political and natural worlds in what the French thinker Bruno Latour aptly calls ‘parliaments of things’. Democracy is thus rid of its anthropocentrism. Think of the influential 19th-century Italian democrat Joseph Mazzini, for whom democracy was love of family and country, God’s gift of an abundance of earthly delights to let ‘The People’ enjoy ‘the faculties and powers necessary to the achievement of an equal amount of progress’. Now consider the way that growing numbers of democrats no longer see ‘the people’ as the pinnacle of creation, the sovereign power and authority on Earth, the rightful masters and possessors of ‘nature’. Citizens are instead urged to reimagine themselves as humble beings whose fate is deeply entangled with the ecosystems in which they dwell. Democracy becomes viridescent. It is redefined to mean a way of life that renders power publicly accountable – through elected and unelected representative institutions in which humans and their biosphere are given equal footing and deemed equally entitled to proper political representation in human affairs. Finally, and of equal significance, is the way the new watchdog mechanisms serve a precautionary function: they warn of the dangers of democracy failure.

Democracy failure may seem a strangely unfamiliar phrase, but think for a moment of how ungoverned markets regularly fail to deliver optimal results that are in the best interests of society as a whole, and how instead ‘free markets’ generate harms such as monopolies and oligopolies, inequalities of income and wealth, burst financial bubbles, public goods shortages and environmental damage. Just as unregulated markets fail, so are democracies prone to failure. My Power and Humility (2018) develops the analogy by showing that in the absence of independent public watchdog and barking dog mechanisms of democratic scrutiny and restraint, things usually go wrong in human affairs, especially in the design and operation of megaprojects and other complex systems of hierarchical power. Democracy failure happens. The nuclear meltdown at Fukushima and the massive oil spill caused by the failure of BP’s Deepwater Horizon project shows that the equation is almost mathematical: without robust accountability mechanisms, powerful state and business organisations become pea-brained. Wrong-headed decisions, budget blowouts, reckless delays and disasters that wound the lives of citizens and spoil their environmental habitats are typical – not exceptionally – the result. Hence the historic importance of preserving and strengthening monitory democracy mechanisms – and the grave dangers posed by eco-catastrophes to their survival.

Will the new public monitoring and bio-representation experiments survive the degradation of our planetary ecosystems? Nobody yet knows. The jury is out on whether the forces of bio-representation are a case of too little, too late; or perhaps whether, if conditions grow worse, these experiments in enfranchising our biosphere will be swept away by environmental convulsions and by species destruction and other slow-motion disruptions. For the moment, what’s certain is that the weakening and destruction of these public monitoring experiments would count as the most obvious instance of democide. If democracy, as Bruno Latour once remarked, ‘is even more fragile than the ecosystems of a coral reef’, then coral reef monitoring networks will surely lose their raison d’être when the bleaching and death of whole reefs happens.

But that is not all. There are other, more immediately observable anti-democratic effects of the despoliation of our planet. Floods, fires, pestilences and extreme droughts are bad for democracy because they breed emergency rule by the police, army and other sovereign government bodies. Citizens suffer injury and death (weather-related disasters have increased fivefold during the past half-century and are now on average robbing 115 people of their lives per day). They fear for their lives. Survivors are quarantined, told to keep their distance from others, dragged and pushed from their dwellings and habitats, supervised by police and army and emergency service units. In these emergency settings, opal-hearted citizens do their best to cope with disasters. Food and clothing are shared. The elderly and children are comforted. During lockdowns, pots and pans are banged and songs of solidarity are sung by citizens on balconies and pavements. Disasters can bring out the best in citizens: digital networked media are used as means of social bridging and bonding, online social gatherings, drinking parties and marriages are convened, governments are petitioned, Twitter and Facebook are used to crowdsource funding and support for the hungry and harassed. But disasters can desecrate democracy, as Thucydides noted in History of the Peloponnesian War (431 BCE) when describing how the typhus plague that killed nearly a third of the citizens of democratic Athens wreaked political havoc. As people ‘died like sheep’, word-of-mouth rumours encouraged survivors to live recklessly, just for themselves. Disrespect for morals, ‘sacred as well as profane,’ flourished. There resulted a ‘greater lawlessness’.

Contemporary catastrophes have similar effects, often on a much larger scale. The most extreme weather event ever recorded (in early September 2022) in Pakistan shows how quickly the tapestry and tissues and threads of trust and cooperation of civil society can be torn asunder by greed and corruption, fear and sickness. During extreme environmental shocks, power manoeuvres flourish as well. Emergency rule is normalised: it’s what must for a time be endured, and what out of ‘necessity’ is in future to be expected. Governmentality consequently settles on the lives of citizens: slowly but surely, in the name of their ‘safety’ and ‘security’, people are encouraged to get used to the permanent administration of their lives. Compulsory solidarity (Leszek Kołakowski[9]), a type of solidarity degraded by its coercive imposition, is standardised, helped along by intellectuals who praise Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan (1651) for its insight that ‘the essence of politics’ is that ‘some people get to tell others what to do’. David Runciman adds: ‘Under a lockdown, democracies reveal what they have in common with other political regimes: here too politics is ultimately about power and order.’

Among the grave dangers of these episodes of emergency rule, unless they are resisted, is the ‘stickiness’ of concentrated, arbitrary power. As temporary measures, lockdowns and the banning of boycotts and public assembly easily become permanent arrangements. The power granted is power conceded, and power relinquished is power reclaimed with difficulty. The emergency rule gets people used to subordination. It is the mother of voluntary servitude. Citizens are morphed into tame, grumbling subjects. Heads down, concerned only with themselves, they accept subservience as their fate, blind to the writing on democracy’s wall. Open democratic vigilance of arbitrary power withers. Democracy becomes its own worst enemy. Despotism potentially becomes the future of democracy.

Among the least obvious but deepest effects of ecological disasters is the way, slowly and invisibly, they destroy the ethos, the lived customs, of democracy. The disfigurement of our biosphere disfigures the ‘spirit’ (Montesquieu) of democracy. Books such as Albert Camus’s The Plague (1948) and José Saramago’s Blindness (1997) long ago reminded us that seasons of pestilence undermine public virtues and bring out the worst of humanity. Their point applies to all eco-disasters, fast and slow. Exactly because they cut deeply into the biomes in which people dwell, these disasters prove more disruptive and tragic than the uncivil strife pictured in Hobbes’s infamous state of nature. Human brutishness is compounded by biometric destruction.

Humans are flung into the deepest possible liminality; not even the biomes in which they dwell can be taken for granted. Ruination is total. Fauna and flora are destroyed. Animals are maimed and bewildered by their loss of habitat. The rate of bottom-up species destruction accelerates; the chances of ecosystem collapse escalate. Not even the native worms, spiders, grasshoppers and other tiny creatures that dwell humbly and honourably at the base of our local biomes are safe. Nor are humans. Fair-minded equality is replaced by what can be called biometric rivalries. Each for themselves, sauve qui peut, rich against poor, strong against weak, indifference, aggression or outright hostility towards others flourishes. Fair burden sharing – so vital for democracy as Wolfgang Merkel has recently pointed out – is thrown out the window. Environmental injustice – unequal access to air, water, sun, shade – becomes the new normal. Violence against women, fear, bossing, bullying and petty greed thrive. It is as if other human beings, their touch and breath and body, their mere existence, are mutually repulsive. A democratically shared sense of wellness-in-the-world is destroyed. So are aesthetic virtues that have an elective affinity with the customs and practices of power-sharing monitory democracy. Environmental degradation gradually destroys the humbling ethic of wonder (Rachel Carson) at the beauties and mysterious rhythms that humans had no hand in creating. The destruction of biomes breeds deep feelings of distress and silent mourning – solastalgia is the neologism coined by Australian thinker Glenn Albrecht to capture the way people are overwhelmed by grief and insecurity, feelings of powerlessness and fear of yet more calamities to come.

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