Let me start with a disclaimer: I am not a democrat. I think that «the people» cannot really rule a polity, save temporarily and under very special circumstances. I am for the Rule of Law against the rule of majority, even if it is an encompassing majority. And not of any Law, but only the traditional Christian Natural Law.
On the other hand, that people cannot rule does not mean they should not have a role in political affairs. Possibly, that role could be more influential than the one they currently have in the «oldest democracies» of our world. In particular, I agree with the «no taxation without representation» rule (a representation of auditors, not «lawmakers»). People have the right to scrutinise how the taxes collected from them are spent; as a matter of fact this was the most important role of the medieval parliaments, the real predecessors of our «democratic» ones.
The first of those parliaments was not -as it is usually stated- the English parliament, but the Cortes of Leon, a kingdom taken over by Castilla later on during the Reconquista. The wikipedia has the following details on the Cortes de Leon:
Although there are documented councils held in 873, 1020, 1050 and 1063, there was no representation of commoners. What is considered to be the first Spanish Parliament (with the presence of commoners), Cortes – was held in the Kingdom of Leon in 1118. Prelates, nobles and commoners met separately in the three estates of the Cortes. In this meeting new laws were approved to protect commoners against the arbitrarities of nobles, prelates and the king. This important set of laws is known as the «Carta Magna Leonesa»
I had never read any suggestion regarding an Islamic influence on that institution up until this summer, in a local newspaper from Leon, the old capital of the kingdom and a quiet provincial city nowadays. This is my inverse translation, from Spanish, of a quotation from the book:
«con cierta exageración, podría decirse que los musulmanes fueron los responsables de que surgieran los parlamentos, ya que éstos nacieron de las luchas por el poder entre cristianos empeñados en la conquista militar de las tierras del Islam desde España hasta Constantinopla».
‘With some exaggeration, one could say that Muslims were responsible for the emergence of parliaments, since they were born from the power struggles among Christians aiming at the military conquest Islamic territory from Spain to Constantinople. «
I was thinking about buying the book (The Life and Death of Democracy, by John Keane), but my to-read-list for the next months is already fully booked (pun intended). I decided therefore to have a look to the online information on this book and its author. His home page has a summary of the book; Democracy. A short history and this Introduction, whose extension is double that the former. These summaries are enough to conclude that we have, once more, another case of «deconstruction» of our institutions and of demeaning of the Greek, Rome and Christian roles in the framing of our culture. I list the main ideas and copy the most relevant points from the latter, adding some comments:
1. – Democracy is not originally Greek:
The subject of democracy is full of enigmas, confusions, things that are supposed to be true. It harbours not a few surprises, including the certainty – this book shows for the first time – that it was not a Greek invention. The belief that democracy is or could be a universal Western value, a gift of Europe to the world, dies hard. That is why one of the first matters to be straightened out in any present-minded history of democracy is what might be described as the Greek plagiarism of democracy. The claim put forward within most Greek plays, poems and philosophical tracts, that fifth century Athens wins the prize for creating both the idea and the practice of democracy, seemed plausible to contemporaries. It continues until this day to be repeated by most observers. But it is false.
(…) the democratic practice of self-governing assemblies is also not a Greek innovation. The lamp of assembly-based democracy was first lit in the ‘East’, in lands that geographically correspond to contemporary Syria, Iraq and Iran. The custom of popular self-government was later transported eastwards (…) The custom also travelled westwards, first to Phoenician cities like Byblos and Sidon, then to Athens, where during the fifth century BCE it was claimed as something unique to the West, as a sign of its superiority over the ‘barbarism’ of the East.
2. – Only democratic forms of government are really human:
The little dream that carried the big thought that mere mortals could organise themselves as equals into forums or assemblies, where they could pause to consider things, then decide on a course of action – democracy in this sense was a spine-tingling invention because it was in effect the first ever human form of government.
This is just an example of the ridiculous pretentiousness brought along by dogmatic progressiveness, democratic fundamentalism in this case. Are not human then kingdoms, empires and aristocracies?
3. – Democracy knows no limits:
Democracy was to be government of the humble, by the humble, for the humble. It meant self-government among equals, the lawful rule of an assembly of people whose sovereign power to decide things was no longer to be given over to imaginary gods, the stentorian voices of tradition, to despots, to those in the know, or simply handed over to the everyday habit of laziness, unthinkingly allowing others to decide matters of importance.
Keane does not understand that if the law is not anchored on something external to it (tradition, Natural law, etc.) it leads to tyranny, including the tyranny of majorities, or, as he says, the tyranny «of the humble, by the humble, for the humble». This democracy, based on the rouseaunian «general will» is the necessary ancestor of all totalitarian regimes. Democracy should have the limits of Natural Law and natural human rights.
4. – Islam contributed largely to democracy development:
Many of these innovations [regarding democratic institutions] happened in the Islamic world. They included a culture of printing and efforts to cultivate self-governing associations, such as endowment societies (called the waqf) and the mosque and, in the field of economic life, partnerships that were legally independent of rulers. Islam poured scorn on kingship, and triggered unending public disputes about the authority of rulers. Towards the end of this period, around 950 CE, its scholars even revived the old language of democracy. The world of early Islam emphasised as well the importance of shared virtues such as toleration and mutual respect among sceptics and believers in the sacred, and the duty of rulers to respect others’ interpretations of life. During this phase Muslims’ belief that human beings were bound to treat nature with compassionate regard, as if it was their equal, because both were divine creations, also surfaced. That imperative would later come to trouble all democracies.
I find some funny misunderstandings (the endemic political instability is sold as «unending public disputes about the authority of rulers»!), some exaggerations (endowment societies have not a political nature) and a laughable blunder: Muslims rejected printing, specially of the Koran, as it would mean squeezing and pressing the word of Allah. Keane has swallowed also the rotten fish of «Islamic toleration» and proposes Islam as a precedent of conservationist ideology (in contrast to the Christian ideology of transforming the world, which is now «not sustainable»)
It is not indicated in the summary, but in this review of the book, I read that Keane goes further and considers that Islam is «a gift of Islam to the modern world»:
Surprisingly, he then argues that the ancient democratic tradition of the Near East was ‘saved’ and preserved by Islam. The evidence he offers (for example, the fact that Islamic society had business partnerships, or charitable foundations) does not even come close to proving his argument; nor, surely, is it proof of a democratic tradition that the Ottoman Sultan sometimes ‘consulted’ his senior ministers.
Next comes the rise of ‘representative democracy’: the early experiments with quasi-parliaments in 12th-century Spain. At one point Keane calls this ‘a gift of Islam to the modern world’; but all he means, apparently, is that Christian Spanish rulers summoned these gatherings to raise funds for wars against their Muslim neighbours. This is rather like calling Pitt the Younger’s introduction of income tax ‘a gift from Napoleon’.
Furthermore, it is very well known that the political philosophy of the Greeks was not translated into Arabic. Definitelly, ee need more details on how this gift was handed out.
5.- EU experiment as a democratical endeavour
The article finishes with reference to the present and near future of democracy. You may be surprised to read that:
The European experiment with extending democracy across borders is a fitting symbol of another trend within the world of actually existing democracy. It is a most striking trend, in which the basic institutions and legitimating spirit of representative democracy have been undergoing major permutations for nearly a generation. In a striking departure from the normal way of seeing things, this book proposes that the era of representative democracy is passing away, that a new historical form of ‘post-representative’ democracy has been born, and is spreading throughout the world of democracy. One telling symptom of this historic change is the way democracy is nowadays defined and valued. Once seen as given by the grace of a deity, or by a God, or as founded on some other first principle, such as Man or History or Socialism or Truth – all detailed in the pages that follow – democracy is coming to be viewed much more pragmatically, as a handy and indispensable weapon for use against concentrations of unaccountable power, and their obnoxious effects. In the new era of democracy that is dawning, the word itself comes to have a new meaning: the public scrutiny and public control of decision makers, whether they operate in the field of state or interstate institutions, or within so-called non-governmental or civil society organisations, such as businesses, trade unions, sports associations and charities.
Putting the «European experiment» an example of the current substance of democracy «a handy and indispensable weapon for use against concentrations of unaccountable power, and their obnoxious effects» is itself the most meaningful example of the intellectual confusion of the author.
6.- The current enemies of democracy: markets, populism, material insecurity, US militarism…
As regards, the future of democracy , Keane mentions as its main challenges «market failures and social inequality». «decline of political party membership», «campaign mega-advertising», ‘videocracy’ and ‘telepopulism’ (in Italy and France), «growing numbers of citizens living to ripe old ages in conditions of growing material and emotional insecurity», «the rise of the United States, the world’s first ever military empire that operates on a global scale and does what it does in the name of democracy», «the spread of destructive uncivil wars», «the step-by-step wrecking of this planet’s biosphere»…
Evidently, this is a comprehensive list of a progressive’s nightmare. Did you read the aggression of Islamic supremacism? No, you did not, it is not there.
Welcome to the 21st Century academia. Do not miss his resumé.