Book Review: How Democracy Ends

New York Journal of Books

Since the days of Athenian democracy two and a half millennia ago, the idea of “rule of the people” has acquired many versions. Under the extraordinary system of governance in the fifth to fourth century BCE, all male citizens of Athens had equal political rights, took part in direct democracy, lived by the decisions they themselves made, and by random selection were chosen to serve in the institutions that governed them.

Today, direct democracy is rare, replaced in most countries by a version of democracy whereby citizens, male and female, elect their representatives who govern on their behalf.

The collapse of Soviet communism heralded a new democratic spring in countries which had been under Moscow’s domination. But whereas democracy blossomed in Europe as the 20th century came to an end, the Arab Spring in the new century proved short-lived before it was crushed.

These examples inform us about the power as well as fragility of democracy.

Recent events in the United States, a number of European countries and India have raised serious doubts about the health of democracy even in the most advanced nations.

Potentially illegal data collection, targeting specific groups to influence them to vote in a certain way, and widespread suspicions of Russian interference in the American and European elections have poisoned the environment. Trust in public institutions and their ability to ensure free and fair elections has been a major casualty. Warnings are rife that democracy as a system of governance is under threat. Are we approaching the end of democracy? It is a question increasingly being asked.

How Democracy Ends

David Runciman, professor of politics at Cambridge University, raises the same question in his new book How Democracy Ends (Basic Books, 2018). Since his PhD thesis, which came out as Pluralism and the Personality of the State (CUP, 1997), Runciman has published several books about plurality in political systems and the crisis of trust in democracies.

The publication of How Democracy Ends coincides with a particularly turbulent period for Western democracies. Runciman describes it as democracy’s midlife crisis. Various democratic societies are at different points in their lives. But there is compelling evidence that the future is going to be different.

The book, saturated with information, is a study of the decline of democracy after its most successful century. Runciman explores the factors that make the current crisis unlike those democracy has faced when it was younger.

First, he maintains that “political violence is not what it was for earlier generations, either in scale or character.” Western societies are “fundamentally peaceful societies, which means that our most destructive impulses manifest themselves in other ways.”

Second is the change in the threat of catastrophe. Whereas the prospect of disaster once tended to produce a “galvanizing effect” on people to take action, now the effect is “stultifying”—a condition in which it all seems futile.

Third, the information technology revolution has made us dependent on communication and information-sharing which we cannot control or understand.

With these suppositions, Runciman has organized his work around three themes endangering democracy: coup, catastrophe, and technological takeover. His insights into challenges that confront democracies today are compelling. His suggestion that the threat to them is not from outside, but from subversion and power grab within is intriguing.

That populism breeds in democratic societies when conditions of economic distress, technological change and growing inequality exist is evident, though the absence of war is among those conditions is questionable. Attrition and low-level conflict do afflict democracies. And democracies have shown a propensity to go and fight wars abroad.

Catastrophe can strike in one of many forms. Runciman writes that “modern civilization could destroy itself by weapons of mass destruction, by poisoning itself or it could allow itself to be infected by evil.” Climate change, artificial intelligence or technological advances resulting in extensive calamity if technology falls under the control of ruthless individuals—all threaten us.

That the power of computers by pressing a button could bring the end of democracy no longer belongs to science fiction. Robots could wreak havoc in our societies if they fell into the wrong hands. Humans might not be able to stop robots once such machines went on a destructive spree.

As Runciman puts it in the final section of his book, the appeal of modern democracy is that it offers dignity to its inhabitants with an expectation that their views will be taken seriously by politicians. And it delivers long-term benefits. But with rapid changes taking place in societies at different stages of development, what alternatives are there to twentieth century democratic systems?

The author presents three models in the end. First, Chinese-type pragmatic authoritarianism which offers personal benefits underwritten by the state, but at the cost of opportunities of self-expression. Second, epistocracy, the rule of the knowers, arguing that the right to take part in political decision-making depends on whether you know what you are doing. The model is directly opposed to democracy in which each citizen has equal rights.

Third, societies offering liberation by technology—societies in which some people, those who can afford, will try to buck death without any help from the state.

How Democracy Ends is a thorough study of democracy and its trials and tribulations on approaching midlife. Inhabitants have enjoyed its fruits: freedom, prosperity, and longevity. Democracy offers us opportunities to do exciting things.

But it also brings stability and boredom and as time passes, fear that it may not continue. If it is not going to continue, what will our future be? Runciman, in this book, has made sweeping observations about democracy in the past and present. He has raised intriguing questions about the future in imaginative ways. The book is highly recommended for general readers, undergraduates and professionals.

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