The Decline and Rise of Democracy by David Stasavage

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

It seems incongruous that a book on such a timid concept as democracy has become one of the most exciting, serious books I’ve read. When Stasavage asks where democracy originated, he provides answers that are not what readers expect. When he examines the nature of democracy, he delves into a very dynamic process. His study captures insightful ideas that seem obvious when explained. The book stands out from its fellows because of the novelty and importance of the author’s ideas and the hard-headed nature of his arguments.

The introduction contains the idea that democracy may be less durable than we assume. It has acquired an aura of inevitability, as though it will endure while man survives. Stasavage maintains that we’re living in an age of democratic anxiety, one that has not been uncommon in the history of ages past. We enjoy a society where ordinary people govern themselves in a collective fashion, and we have done for aeons.

Long have we believed that democracy began with the Greeks. Long have we cited Cleisthenes and the reforms he instituted in Greek society as the birth pangs of democracy. Stasavage refutes the claim that democracy began among wealthy people in a particular culture or specific place. Central to the arguments in this book are the concepts of early democracy, autocracy and modern democracy (including its absence). Each of these concepts relate to the relationship between those who ruled and those who did not. This is about as succinct as one can make it.

Stasavage maintains that early democracy and early autocracy were two paths of political development. With remarkable insight, he proposes that early democracy most likely prevailed when community leaders were uncertain or anxious about production, when people found exit from their current circumstances easy, and when rulers needed their people as much as, or more than, their people needed them. Under such circumstances rule by a council of community-minded individuals, operating as a collective was the likely outcome. By contrast, autocratic rule flourished where rulers were strong and focused. This is where a bureaucracy became an alternative to ruling jointly with a council, and with the invention of new technologies the operation of bureaucratic rule became increasingly efficient. The concept of bureaucracy as the spawn of technology is an engaging point of view.

A vital, and original, part of Stasavage’s argument is that democracy’s formation was sequential. From such a standpoint, he argues that there are identifiable causes why democracy developed as it did or did not, why it thrived or wilted, or what its future is likely to be. These are bold claims, but are supported in firm fashion by historical evidence. The author takes examples from civilizations as remote in time as the Shang Dynasty, a society that accepted the bureaucratic alternative to early democracy and whose followers continued through the centuries to reject other models.

In Europe by contrast, technological backwardness provided an opportunity to practise communal governance, from which came rule by consent, not invented by Europeans but developed by them into an art form. Another brilliant twist to the whole issue of democracy’s origin and subsequent growth is information advantage (97). As Stasavage argues in Chapter Five, the backwardness of Europe’s state bureaucracies left rulers with no alternative but to govern by negotiation and seek consent from the growing towns. Through negotiation, Europeans reshaped and fundamentally redefined Roman law.

The vastness of human knowledge that Stasavage’s pen sweeps across is staggering. He identifies early democracies such as Mesopotamia (Mari), ancient India, the Huron people, the Mesoamerican Tlaxcala, and republicanism in Central Africa. He writes with authority on early autocracies whose leaders did not have to share power with a council or assembly, places like the Third Dynasty of Ur, the Aztec Triple Alliance, and the Incas of South America. He argues the specific case of England in a chapter called ‘Why England was different’, concluding that the English people were not bound by mandates, enjoyed limited public participation in governance, and agreed that a majority decision was sufficient to resolve even local disputes.

Much of the repast Stasavage brings to the table is original fare. It is fresh, it is presented in arguments that take a stance and declare that ‘A’ is true because the arguments presented in order say that the premise the author proposes must be true. Stasavage is a hardheaded man to debate because he is a first-class communicator. He combines the ability of being sparse with words with a powerful rapport with his readers. Each section of work has a succinct summary of the major proposals he has developed.

This is an exciting, informative, and stimulating book.

The Decline and Rise of Democracy


By David Stasavage

Princeton University Press

ISBN: 978-0-691-17746-5

$US34.00; 424pp

Scroll to Top