The Shortest History of Democracy by John Keane

Reviewed by Richard Tutin

It is salutary writing a review on a book about democracy while Russia is invading the Ukraine. After all, John Keane’s subject matter is the antithesis of the Russian President whose aims and objects have little to do with the goals of a form of governance that is ostensibly by the people for the people.

Keane’s history is not the first about democracy nor is it going to be the last. His title though claims that it is not a short history but the shortest history which is a big claim to fulfill. The size of the book does lead to the thought that his aims might be achieved. That though leads to another thought that in trying to keep it short a lot of important information may be left out in the interests of keeping it brief.

Many histories on democracy like to begin with telling the story of Ancient Greece especially Athens as if it was the gold standard of democratic thinking and action. Keane though takes a longer view by describing how the first public assemblies really began in the cities of what was then Mesopotamia. The assemblies of Athens and other like-minded Greek cities built on already existing foundations.

While keeping the pace moving The Shortest History of Democracy takes the reader through the different forms that have marked the growth of democratic governments through to the present day. Though I was aware of Assembly and Electoral, or as I was taught Representative, Democracy, Keane surprised me with the current democratic form he calls Monitory Democracy. His thesis about this new form makes a lot of sense given the various Estimate and Senate Committees that abound in Australian politics and other overseas jurisdictions such as the United States.

Keane is well aware of democracy’s shortcomings. It is not the most perfect form of governance and is open to abuse in just the same way as Oligarchic and Authoritarian forms of government that are at the centre of our thoughts and discussions at the moment. Yet, as he says, it is a form of governance that is constantly evolving. As time goes by, those nations, leaders and individuals who have invested heavily in democracy find ways to value add to the system that, in the long run, continues to consistently allow people to participate in one way or another in the governance of their part of the world.

This does not mean that decisions are quickly made in a democratic society. Authoritarian regimes have proven time and again that they can make and act on decisions faster than any form of democracy. However, they do so without much, if any, consultation with their constituents or, if they say they do, it is a rubber stamp form of decision making.

For those who are interested in government in all its forms, this book is a good starting point when it comes to discussing democracy. It introduces the reader to one of the most and obviously enduring forms of government that has often fought hard to continue its existence and be relevant to the age in which it finds itself. It may be the shortest history, but it is not the last word on this topic. It does though push the reader to consider delving into other books to expand and develop their knowledge in this area.

John Keane is professor of politics at the University of Sydney and the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin and founded London’s Centre for the Study of Democracy and the Sydney Democracy Network. Among his many books, The Life and Death of Democracy was shortlisted for the 2010 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction and translated into many languages. He was recently nominated for the Balzan and Holberg Prizes, for outstanding global contributions to the human sciences.

The Shortest History of Democracy

by John Keane


Black Inc.

ISBN 9781760642563

$24.99; 230pp

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