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John Dunn: Setting the People Free:
the story of democracy
(Atlantic Books: 2005)


“This book sets out to explain the extraordinary presence of democracy in today’s world. It shows how it began as an improvised remedy for a very local Greek difficulty two and a half thousand years ago, flourished very briefly but scintillatingly, and then faded away almost everywhere for all but two thousand years.... It registers its slow but insistent rise over [a] century and a half, and its overwhelming triumph in the years since 1945.... [However,] when any modern state claims to be a democracy, it necessarily misdescribes itself. But that is very far from rendering the misdescription inconsequential, and cannot credibly be viewed merely as deliberate self-deception. [For] there is every reason for today’s citizens to insist that their own state describe itself in these terms.... The label of democracy...expresses symbolically...the degree to which all government, however necessary and expeditious, is also a presumption and an offence. Like every other modern state, the democracies of today demand obedience, and insist on a very large measure of compulsory alienation of judgement on the part of their citizens. (To demand that obedience and enforce such alienation is what makes a state a state.)  When they make that demand in their citizen’s own name, however, they...close the circle of civic subjection.... Everywhere that the word democracy has fought its way forward across time and space, you can hear [two] themes: the purposeful struggle to improve the practical circumstances of life, and to escape from arbitrary and often brutal coercion, but also the determination and longing to be treated with respect and some degree of consideration.”
(Dunn, pp.13-19)

I don’t know about you, but books about democracy clutter my shelves so successfully, I have to clear them out every few years...lest they overwhelm my other interests. But there are vanishingly few that can hold their place for the long haul. For the mechanics - as you might say - there’s quite a variety, as befits the (numbing) complexity of the thing...although I really can’t go past Thomas Ferguson’s Golden Rule(1995), Mancur Olsen's Rise and Decline of Nations(1982) and Diana C. Mutz’s Impersonal Influence(1998)...with Enid Lakeman’s Voting in Democracies(1955, and still the best), Richard H. Thaler & Cass Sunstein's Nudge(2008), Elinor Ostrom’s Governing the Commons(1990),  James S. Fishkin’s Voice of the People(1997) and Jane Jacobs’ Cities and the Wealth of Nations(1984) for the ongoing shapes of our cure. In the more rarified realms of history/philosophy, however, my essentials list would be much, much shorter. This one, and Eric Havelock’s groundbreaking The Liberal Temper in Greek Politics(1964).

Dunn has long impressed me, starting way back with Political Theory in the Face of the Future (1978) - a thoroughly disillusioned tour of our possibilities that, nevertheless, refuses to abandon the hope for something better. Which stance, I’d have to say, he has refined and deepened to the utmost with this recent work...making the perfect companion-piece to the Havelock. For whereas Havelock’s is an optimism tempered by care, Dunn’s vision is that of pessimism shot through w/hope. Both are extremely fine - and original - scholars and, together, they allow us to genuinely grasp the real possibilities of democracy. Furthermore, their complementary visions both start with - but are not limited by - the radically direct democracy of the Athenian polis...a very different “democracy” than ours.

“There is...little direct relation between the political institutions and practices of ancient Athens and those of any human community today. But there is unmistakably at least one connecting strand, which runs without interruption from the texts of Aeschylus to the present day. What is transmitted along this strand is seldom, if ever, firm structures of power , or definite institutional practices. What travels along it, often with great vitality, are conceptions of what to value and aim for, and why and how to act on the basis of those conceptions.... [For] as we peer back towards the democracy of Athens through the murk of history, and quarrel endlessly about what was ever really there, we largely recapitulate Greek arguments. We do so partly because of an obvious continuity of subject matter: because the reality we are trying to grasp was to such a large degree what those arguments were about: and partly too because recapitulating Greek arguments was what for almost two thousand years Europeans, and later North Americans, were tirelessly trained to do. But we also do so because of the enduring power of some of those arguments, itself a testimony to the power of the way of life from which they first came.”
(Dunn, pp.28-31)

“It is not debate which is a hindrance to action, but rather not to be instructed by debate before the time comes for action.”
(Pericles, quoted by Dunn, p.27)

If Havelock’s political ideas have been ignored - to the extent that they have had, in a way, to be “reinvented” unknowing by capabilities theorists such as Nussbaum & Sen - Dunn’s is much more the modern mainstream vision of ancient democracy...albeit both more pessimistic and more insistently hopeful (if such a combination may be conceived) than any other. Drawing primarily from the work of M. I. Finley, Mogens H. Hansen & Josiah Ober, Dunn’s Athens is no realm of sweetness & light. Instead, it is the forum - and result - of desperate political contingency.


“What then was Athenian democracy? Of some things, we can be quite certain. For the Athenians themselves, what it was remained fiercely contentious from its beginning to its end. It could scarcely have been less like the anodyne political recipe which democracy readily seems today, an almost wholly unreflective formula.... Democracy in Athens arose out of struggles between wealthier landowners and poorer families who...risked being forced into unfree labour by their accumulated debts. It did not arise, directly and self-consciously, through that struggle itself...but through a sequence of political initiatives which reshaped the social geography and institutions of Athens.... The most important of these initiatives, the reforms of Solon, were put in place before Athens had in any sense become a democracy. Solon was an Athenian nobleman (Eupatrid), chosen magistrate (Archon) for the year 594, and given full power to reorganize the basis of land ownership, credit, and personal status among the Athenians, and give it lasting legal form. He codified the laws, revised the levels of property on the basis of which wealthier Athenians were eligible to hold public office, modified the structure of law courts greatly improving access for the poor, freed those already enslaved for debt, and abolished debt bondage for the future. He firmly refused to redistribute land. By these means Solon tamed the brutal dynamics of appropriation...[but] what he failed to do was establish a political mechanism.”
(Dunn, pp.31-3)

“The next key initiative, the conventional date for democracy’s inauguration, came almost a century later, and after much political turmoil.... Kleisthenes, who brought to Athens in 507 BC what the Athenians in due course came to call democracy, was...also a nobleman (Eupatrid) like Solon; but...none of the historical sources presents him as setting out from a clearly articulated conception of the fundamental challenges Athens faced, or carefully selecting democracy for their remedy. Democracy, indeed, was not merely as yet unnamed. It was not even a pre-specified formula, applied to solve a clearly defined problem.... What was different about [Kleisthenes’] solution was that the framework he established was from its outset a way of organizing political choice which took it outside the ranks of the well-born and relatively wealthy, and assigned it clearly and unapologetically to the Athenian demos as a whole. Herodotus presents Kleisthenes’ adoption of this approach, not as an instance of intellectual or moral conviction, but as a practical expedient to muster support against his aristocratic rivals and their Spartan allies. But even at the time the motives and aspirations which led him to select it may not have greatly mattered, once he had done so. What mattered more even then, and still matters to this day, is that in many ways and for a surprisingly long time the expedient worked.”
(Dunn, pp.33-4)

“It is not hard...to pick up some of the fierce directness of Athenian democracy, and the formidable dispersion of personal power and responsibility across the citizen body which made it possible. What remains hard to see clearly is quite how this startling immediacy in Athenian politics, and the permanent and intensely personal accountability which it enforced, nevertheless fitted with and modified the continuing role of its political leaders.... Where the leaders made their mark, and laid themselves open to...acute personal danger, was by setting themselves forward to champion major changes in the law, or defend one line of policy...and by competing to lead the armies or fleets sent off to fight.... To do the first, they had to win the consent of the Assembly, and do so without the backing of an organized personal following which could ever have mustered a substantial proportion of the votes required. (Contrast any modern legislature in action.) To do the second, they had to get themselves elected for the purpose. [Moreover,] the election of the Generals, strangely to our eyes, was widely recognized as the least democratic feature of Athens’ political arrangements, a clear concession to the massive importance of warfare, and the dire potential costs of losing at it.”
(Dunn, pp.37-8)

While you won’t find here an exhaustive treatment of ancient Athens’ political structure - you’ll have to see Mogens Herman Hansen for that (as should, for example those seeking to successfully reform Third World tribal democracies, as Kleisthenes holds the key) - Dunn’s argument is clearly informed by same. But he is much more concerned to probe the meanings of democracy...both then & now. What’s more, he has very skilful judgement as to the compelling piece of information, which allows him to deal highly judiciously with such a broad swathe of history. For there was essentially no place for democracy in the variety of forms of European governance between Alexander and the seventeenth century wars of religion. Even amidst the latter, where the English Levellers strike us as eminently “democratical”, that word - in that period - was merely a conservative insult in the face of reform...and it took well over a century more before it would begin to be recuperated for any positive sense.


“Looking at it from today, what we most want to believe is that Athenian democracy somehow worked because it should have done so, because, within its own narrow confines, it organized power in essentially the right way...[and] it is above all that conviction, however confusedly, which we locked into place when we turned the noun which initially described it into our own name for the sole basis on which it is decent to claim political power.... [And, as such, its power] came less from its continuing capacity to elicit enthusiasm than from its utility in organizing thought, facilitating argument, and shaping judgement. This is extraordinarily important. It means that democracy entered the ideological history of the modern world reluctantly, and facing backwards. It won its vast following not by by evoking a golden past...[but] by referring, and in less than seductive terms, to possibilities now opening up before them.”
(Dunn, pp.38-9)

Our story, thus, is essentially in two parts - an ancient expedient turned way of life (and remembered mostly through the insults of its elite critics), and the development of political modernity. In treating these, we are - of necessity - faced with diametrically opposed problems. For the scanty and biased testimony of the past becomes the overwhelming flood of the present, and it is a rare scholar who can successfully deal with both. However, Dunn has an incisive eye for both key players and distinctions, and - if anything - his treatment of modernity is even more impressive than what we have already seen. He starts with the vexed question of the lineage of representational democracy, and suggests a rather disturbing hybrid:


“Beyond the Americas, the impact of [the U.S.A.] on the politics of other countries was still quite modest until the First World War, and did not really come into its own until the aftermath of the Second. Before then, democracy’s unsteady dispersion across the world was no testimony to American power, and not much even to the force of American example.... More plausibly, but still quite puzzlingly, it might instead be testimony to the force of another and far more obtrusively ambiguous historical example, the awesome Revolution which overwhelmed France. [For] what happened in France in the few short years between 1788 and 1794 changed the structure of political possibilities for human communities across the world almost beyond recognition. It did so, for reasons we still very vaguely comprehend, both radically and permanently. Even when it was over...it left a different conception of what politics meant, a new vision of how societies can or must organize themselves politically, and a transformed sense of the scale of threat which their own political life can pose to any society, and all within their reach. It was within this new conception that democracy forced itself, slowly but inexorably, upon one community after another.... The democratic legacy of the Revolution was very much the product of its intense and often devastating political struggles. But it [included] no echo of its public symbols, nor of the language in which those struggles were openly conducted. Only at a handful of points was the category democracy deployed explicitly to define what was at stake within them, and even then only once at the storm centre of the struggle itself.”
(Dunn, pp.91-2)

And, even more ambiguously, that sole deployment was by Robespierre himself, architect of the Terror - albeit, it defense of universal suffrage... However, not even he was a convinced democrat before the Revolution - or even in its earlier stages. In this, interestingly, the American and French Revolutions mirror one another...democracy being the inexorable victor (in ideological terms), despite having been discounted in advance by all the leading figures.


“Democracy perishes by two excesses, the aristocracy of those who govern, or the contempt of the people for the authorities which it has itself established.”
(Robespierre (1894), quoted in Dunn, p.118)

The French Revolution forms a complex pattern: the aristocracy revolting against monarchical rule, the commons revolting against aristocratic privilege & power, and then the self-consuming fire of its final stages - in which royalty, aristocracy, and then dissenting commons were all laid under the blade... But if much of the force of democracy as an ideal stems from its bloody French embodiment, its mechanics and - most importantly - its economic bargain is of mainly American parentage. And, by reviving the formula of a long-dead French Revolutionary - Gracchus Babeuf - not to mention the slogan of a Russian reformer, Pyotr Stolypin, Dunn illuminates our political history with a coldly uncharitable light, equally harsh on both left and right...


“In America, once the constitution was firmly in place, democracy soon became the undisputed framework and expression of the order of egoism.... American equality was above all an equality of standing, and a comprehensive rejection of all overt forms of political condescension. It arose from and endorsed a society both self-consciously and actually in rapid motion.... [Moreover,] to delegate government to relatively small numbers of citizens, but also insist that they be chosen by most, if not all, of their fellows was a cunning mixture of equality and inequality. It could not guarantee sustained victory in practice to the partisans of opulence and distinction. But it could and did open up an arena in which victory could be sought and won, time and time again, and won through the judgements and by the choices of the citizens themselves...because opulence and distinctions (the combination offered) have struck more citizens on balance as collectively beneficial than simply malign. What gives the formula such strength over time is its elasticity in settings where opulence has grown, [for] it could scarcely work for long anywhere where distinction must be sustained through stagnant or diminishing wealth, and has been widely and understandably abandoned, often with little hesitation, in circumstances of this kind.... [But] what, in the long run, has [most] blunted equality’s appeal as a goal are the unpromising instruments for realizing it, and the rigidities inherent in its pursuit...[for] these rigidities come, in effect, from the goal itself.... [And] wherever the opportunity to vote freely has been extended across an entire adult population, the majority has found it unattractive to vote explicitly for the establishment of equality.”
(Dunn, pp.125-30)

“Untrammelled and complete equality...appeals to too few human emotions, for much too little of the time, and is swamped, rapidly and fatally, by the immediacy and impact of its incessant collisions with far too many other emotions. As a goal for rule it requires of any ruler who tries to implement it extreme and permanent coercion; and it guarantees to their subjects nothing but recognition (if indeed that). Certainly neither ease nor comfort, nor amusement, and for the recalcitrant amongst them (those with opinions, tastes and wills of their own) not even security. As Benjamin Constant saw it, early in the nineteenth century, it offers ancient liberty, the delusory rewards of a notional share in rule, in exchange for the surrender of modern liberty, the real rewards of living as they please, within the bounds of the criminal law and their own incomes. It then turns this offer into a doctrinaire programme which suppresses the order of egoism en bloc.”
(Dunn, pp.145-6)

“As the title of a form of government, in the key ideological outcome of the last two centuries of an ever more global politics, the partisans of the order of egoism have captured the word of the Equals. The Equals, in the meantime, have largely been driven from the political field. But neither their scattered remnants, nor even their more sophisticated intellectual admirers, have felt inclined to surrender a word they still find irresistibly compelling. To them, the capture, even now, seems not a conquest in a just war, but an unabashed theft, secured by expedients they still do not really understand.... By now, however, the incomprehension of the losers is no testimony to their political intelligence.... In embracing the term democracy so steadily, and so purposefully, the political leaders of capitalism’s overwhelming advance have not been juggling idly with empty symbols. They have recognized, and done their best to appropriate and tap, a deep reservoir of political power.... For most of human history, it has been above all dependence and exclusion which have given structure to human societies. With the coming of literacy, and the formalization of many aspects of the relations between human beings over most of the world’s inhabited surface, both dependence and exclusion were converted increasingly into self-conscious principles of social order. Democracy’s triumph has been above all the backwash from this great movement of subordination. It signals and reinforces the steadily rising pressure to break the sway of these two principles, and refashion the relations between human beings on softer and less offensive lines.”
(Dunn, pp.133-6)

“Democracy has altered its meaning so sharply since Babeuf because it has passed definitively from the hands of the Equals to those of the political leaders of the order of egoism. These leaders apply it (with the active consent of most of us) to the form of government which selects them, and enables them to rule. It is a form of government at least minimally adapted to the current requirements of the order of egoism, shaped within, and adjusted to the continuing demands to keep that order in working condition.... What has enabled it to surmount all challenges is still open to question. But much of the answer unmistakably lies in the sheer potency of the order of egotism.... The Wager on the Strong is a wager on the rich, to some degree perforce on those with the good fortune to be rich already, but above all on those with the skill, nerve and luck to make themselves so. In the long run, the Wager on the Strong has paid off stunningly. But...why did the Strong select this of all words to name the form of government which has served them best of all in their titanic struggle to mould the world to their purposes? ...[And] what still remains harder to see is just how it aids or impedes those who do choose to use it, augmenting their political strength, exposing their deceit, or blurring their comprehension of their own goals.”
(Dunn, pp.160-1)

Dunn is quite merciless when it comes to the illusions on all sides of politics, and his strength as a historian is that he refuses to discount material or ideological factors, although he is quite clear that the latter are always more complex in their causation. In this, he reminds me at times of Ernest Gellner...particularly when he draws the connection with expanding literacy which was so important to Gellner’s arguments on nationalism. And, very like Gellner, he has a withering way with those comforting ideas that do not bear close scrutiny:


“It is quite tempting to believe that democracy has won its present eminence for either or both of two reasons. Some prefer to attribute its victory to its evident political justice, its being plainly the best, and perhaps the sole clearly justifiable basis on which human beings can accept the apparent indignity of being ruled at all. Others find it easier to believe that it owes this eminence to the fact that it and it alone can ensure the well-protected and fluent operation of a modern capitalist economy. Neither cheery view, unfortunately, can possibly be right. Democracy in itself, as we have seen, does not specify any clear and definite structure of rule. Even as an idea (let alone as a practical expedient) it wholly fails to ensure any regular and reassuring relation to just outcomes over any issue at all.... [Moreover,] any actual structure of rule will face incentives quite distinct from, and often sharply at odds with, the requirements for the fluent operation of a capitalist economy. But democracy, quite explicitly, thrusts upon its sovereign and notionally equal electors the right, and in some measure the opportunity, to insert their own preferences directly into the operating conditions of the economy.... As a bargain, this has a great many advantages. But no one could reasonably see it as a safe recipe for ensuring the dynamic efficiency of the economy at the receiving end.”
(Dunn, pp.149-50)

“Athenian democracy had very serious reservations about the divisions of political labour. Except under the special conditions of open warfare...it simply refused to pick individuals to exercise power in its name, and without further recourse to it. It organized the daily tasks of government, quite largely, by rotating them across the citizen body; and it made every great decision of state, legislative, executive, or even judicial, by the majority choice of very large numbers, whether in the Assembly or the Courts. Under democracy, the citizens of Athens, quite reasonably and accurately, supposed that they were ruling themselves. But the vastly less exclusive citizen bodies of modern democracies very obviously do nothing of the kind. Instead, they select from a menu which they themselves can do little individually to modify, whichever they find least dismaying amongst the options on offer...[and] it is easy for electors not merely to regret individual past choices (bargains that have gone astray), but also to lose heart more generally in face of the options presented to them.”
(Dunn, pp.164-6)

“Any coherent complaint must, in the end, once again be made on behalf of the order of equality, and against the order of egoism. [And,] however else we understand democracy today, we cannot safely or honourably brush aside the recognition that it has been the clear verdict of democracy that the struggle between these two orders is one which the order of egoism must win.... [Therefore,] the big question raised by that victory is how much of the distant agenda of the order of equality can still be rescued from the ruins of its overwhelming defeat.... What is not elusive about it, however, is that it requires the systematic elimination of power (the capacity to make others act against their own firm inclinations) from human relations. At the very least, it demands the removal of any form of power stable enough to disclose itself to others, and resistant enough to survive for any length of time once it has done so.... Incoherent and implausible though it almost certainly is, it is almost unmistakably the full programme of the Equals.... But it is not a coherent description of how power can be organized, or institutions constructed: not a causal model of anything at all.”
(Dunn, pp.168-9)

“The world in which we all live is a world principally structured by the radicalization and intensification of inequalities. Between the inhabitants of much richer countries, these inequalities need not result in wider gaps in wealth, status, or personal power than those which...still exist in far poorer countries today. But, by the principle of economic competition and its cumulative consequences, they work through, and have to work through, the sharpening and systematization of inequality in the lives of virtually everyone. It is by its pervasiveness and its peremptory practical priority that the order of egoism precludes equality. It tolerates, and even welcomes, many particular impulses towards equalization. But what drives it, and in the end organizes the whole human world, is a relentless and all-conquering principle of division and contrast.... [And] the precise limits which the order of egoism sets to equality do not form a clear fixed structure, which can be specified in advance of political experience. They are an endless and ever shifting battleground.... The role of democracy within this remarkable form of life...is to probe constantly the tolerable limits of injustice, a permanent and and sometimes very intense blend of cultural enquiry with social and political struggle...an endless tug of war between two instructive but very different senses of democracy. In that struggle, the second sense, democracy as a political value, constantly subverts the legitimacy of democracy as an already existing form of government. But the first, too, almost as constantly on its own behalf, explores, but then insists on and in the end imposes, its own priority over the second.”
(Dunn, pp.170-1)

John Dunn’s Setting the People Free: the story of democracy (2005) is a major work, both deeply learned and accessible to the general reader. Building on the best revisionist historical work of the last half century, it brings into stark relief typically unquestioned aspects of our political faith - via historical insight - and serves the new humanities project as the dark counterpart to Eric Havelock’s extraordinary (and neglected) Liberal Temper in Greek Politics (1964). By juxtaposing our modern political realities with those of Ancient Athens, and the ideas of key players in the eighteenth century revolutions that ushered democracy back onto the public stage, Dunn forces us to see what an extraordinary compromise it is that we so unhesitatingly label democracy...and, moreover, why it is that we are so readily disgusted with what it brings forth. This is not a “pleasant” book, by any means. But it is a very clear and important one...


“What we affirm today, when we align ourselves with democracy, is hesitant, confused, and often in bad faith. It becomes less convincing, almost always, the more clearly we bring out the premisses which lie behind our own values, and the more openly we acknowledge the realities which make up the institutions which we take them to commend. Where we have become clearer, more frank, and more confident as time has gone by is in what we deny when we take our stand on democracy. Above all, what we deny is that any set of human beings, because of who or what they simply are, deserve and can be trusted with political authority. We reject, in the great Leveller formula, redolent of England’s seventeenth-century Civil War, the claim (or judgement) that any human being comes into the world with a saddle on their back, or any other booted and spurred to ride them.”
(Dunn, pp.69-70)



John Henry Calvinist