Pollyanna glosses over world's savage reality

Violence and Democracy

May 21, 2004

Any discussion of democracy profits from bearing in mind Churchill's ironic dictum "Democracy is the worst form of government in the world - except for all the rest". This acknowledges that democracy is not a cure-all, that we need government only because we cannot live together without it, and that democracy brings to the world of human self-management huge problems of its own.

The subject of violence and democracy is a big remit and the central issue of our times. We seek to spread democracy across the earth in the hope that it may save humanity from its (that is, our) massively increased powers of destruction and self-destruction. John Keane argues that a distaste for violence takes its most effective and institutionalised expression in what he calls "mature democracies". But his argument rests more on wishful thinking than on reality.

Keane confesses that he is baffled by the enjoyment of violence in popular culture - hardly a qualification for the author of a book on violence and democracy - and he proceeds to ignore most of the ways democracies engage in violence. Gone is the violence of a democratic leader "getting tough" to win votes - as when Russia's Vladimir Putin crushed Chechnya. Gone is the violent democratic destruction of minorities such as the Native Americans, Chinese minorities in Southeast Asia and the Tutsi in Rwanda. Gone is democracy as an opening for violent fascism, as in Germany in the 1920s.

Gone is the huge covert industry of arms sales and the system of international debt that finances secret police, torture chambers and helicopter gunships - debt supplied by "mature democracies" and incurred by poverty-stricken populations so their rulers can oppress them. Gone are chronic wars fought over commodities in high demand in the West such as diamonds, coltan, cocaine, heroin and oil. Even such old outrages as democracy's involvement in fire-bombing, the nuclear bomb and the napalming of civilians are reserved as an afterthought for the very last paragraph of the book.

This non-recognition of our world continues from Keane's earlier books on civil society, which have proved useful propaganda in the cause of globalisation. His "wouldn't-it-be-lovely" vision of civil society as decent people all getting along with each other ignores the rampant and often criminal greed that motivates international activity. The proper limits of government, the nature of the rule of law and the grievous lack of international law receive little or no consideration. Nor does he question whether voting once every few years between rival collections of shallow-minded rogues deserves the name "democracy".

So the book never really gets a grip on the problems it affects to address.

The democratic phenomenon of cack-handed and infantile power-mongers such as George "Dubya" Bush and Tony Blair stomping around and causing global chaos is not addressed; nor is the incipient fascism of Italy's Silvio Berlusconi.

Democracy is preserved as if behind a veil, pure and unblemished, a uniquely civilised and civilising force. To this end, Keane wrenches language somewhat out of its normal usage. "Democratisation of violence" doesn't mean handing out machetes to a Hutu majority, it means public scrutiny of a kind that neutralises violence. "Civil society" shifts from its original meaning - of society as a plethora of voluntary associations in which government has only a protective role - to a vaguely conceived utopia where everyone is nice to one another.

His assumption that democracies are peaceable by nature has one piece of evidence going for it: "mature" democracies do not make war on each other.

But is that because they are democracies or because they all own each other via multinational corporations? In everyday terms, these corporations have most power in most people's lives, and they have no interest in war in the West. But whether they contribute to the overall peace of the world is another subject not mentioned in this book.

This is a book written by a believer for other believers. I object to it because, to keep democracy alive and well, we need more self-critical honesty than is present here. For what is there left to believe in, in today's world, if not democracy?

Ivo Mosley is the author of Democracy, Fascism and the New World Order .

Violence and Democracy

Author - John Keane
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Pages - 218
Price - £40.00 and £14.99
ISBN - 0 521 83699 9 and 54544 7

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