Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Review of "The Secret History of Democracy" by Christopher Hobson

A fair evaluation, I think:
The Secret History of Democracy is an ambitious attempt to offer an alternative narrative to the dominant account of the history of democracy. Reacting to a common tendency to draw a line from Ancient Athens, through Republican Rome to revolutionary America and France and so on, this book seeks out other historical instances of democracy. In highlighting these ‘hidden’ examples, the hope is to re-energise the way we now think about democracy. Even if not fully announced as such, what the editors are essentially trying to offer is a history of the present – a critical rereading of the past to better comprehend the contemporary situation and enable political action towards further democratisation. Lamenting the way democracy is regularly understood by the (Anglo-American) West, Isakhan and Stockwell propose that by ‘opening awareness of the breadth of democratic forms [it] gives people the means to deepen, strengthen and develop democratic practice and the opportunity to promulgate democracy more widely’ (p. 223). And the various chapters in the volume do indeed offer a broad selection of democratic pasts. The book considers pre-Athenian experiences elsewhere in Greece, the Middle East, India and China; it explores democracy in the ‘Dark Ages’ in Iceland, Venice and Islamic history; it revives forgotten democratic practices in colonial and settler contexts in Africa, Australia and Canada; and it looks at more contemporary examples in the Arab Middle East. In light of the ongoing Arab Spring, the notable inclusion of multiple chapters on the Arab Middle East – too often excluded from books on democracy – is particularly prescient and worthwhile.
For the most part, the individual chapters are strong, and they offer useful illustrations of how versions of democracy can be found in many places where we have forgotten to look. For instance, Philippe Paine provides a fascinating account of ‘Buffalo Hunt democracy’ that was practised by the Métis people of Western Canada. The extent to which the chapters contribute to the overarching aims of the book is more mixed, however. Contributions such as Steven Muhlberger's on Ancient India, Pauline Keating's on China, and Mohamad Abdalla and Halim Rane's on Islam's past clearly identify the relevance of previous democratic experiences for contemporary struggles, but some of the other chapters do not connect their historical examples to present-day concerns in a sufficiently deep manner. This does not undermine the value of the chapters as stand-alone pieces, but it does have consequences for the volume as a whole. In itself, identifying examples of democratic practices that fall outside the standard historical narrative is not necessarily that difficult. Few would maintain the extreme position that democracy has only existed in the West. The question then is how these past experiences with democracy can be mobilised so that ‘people all over the world may come to have a greater sense of ownership over democracy and take pride in practising and re-creating it for their time, for their situation and for their purposes’ (pp. 15–16). On this point there is less direction both from the editors and most of the contributors.
A further issue that arises is: why these specific cases? There are many ‘secrets’ in democracy's past, and there are many different examples that could have been considered. What is it about these experiences that make them particularly valuable in re-envisioning contemporary democracy? Here the editors give little guidance. For instance, given that there are many examples of democratic practices in countries that are now struggling to institute democracy, what is it that makes street protests in Iraq worthy of inclusion above so many other alternatives? In this regard, the volume would have benefited from a much better explicated set of cases, and a stronger attempt to link them to contemporary concerns over democracy. While noting these shortcomings, on the whole this is an interesting and worthwhile addition to the slowly growing literature on the global history of democracy. In redirecting our gaze away from the standard historical reference points, it offers an important corrective to the common tendency of identifying democracy as a Western product. This volume pushes us to question accepted thinking on the topic, and suggests that the past may be one route towards a more democratic future.
Christopher Hobson (2012): The secret history of democracy, Global Change,
Peace & Security: formerly Pacifica Review: Peace, Security & Global Change, 24:1, 193-194

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