Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Review: Democracy: A History

Democracy: A History Democracy: A History by John Dunn
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book gets 5 stars for content and quality but 3 stars for being difficult to read. I am sure if I was a little better versed in political philosophy and the history of democracy it would not have been as difficult to read. I am just saying this as a warning for the would be reader that it is a good but not easy intro to the history of democracy. However, since it was a short book (188 pages before about 40 pages of notes) it was like a small dive into the deep end.

Dunn splits the history of democracy into two comings - the first coming (ch.1)- athenian democracy and the 2nd coming (ch.2)- modern day democracy from the lens of the french and american revolutions. Both chapters have great historical context, original thoughts and a good overview of each democratic era and model. As a beginner to political history I was introduced to characters like Pericles, Robospierre and Babeuf along with the usual suspects of Plato, Aristotle, Rousseau, Locke, the Federalists etc.

After going through the two "comings of democracy", Dunn has a chapter titled "the long shadow of thermidor" that I recall being mainly about "egoism and equality" as political forces and how modern day democracy embodies egoism perfectly as to allow the people to put up with under the belief that they live in a society where everyone is equal (this is my very simplistic idea of his well worded and complex presentation of the dynamics of equality and egoism within modern political systems going under the name of democracy). His last chapter is titled "why Democracy" and seeks to answer the question "why has democracy become the standard system of legitimating political power in the modern world. This chapter also has some good original thoughts on the modern push for "deliberative democracy" and an enlivening of the publich sphere and some good reflections on the pitfalls and importance of representative democracy.

One of the more interesting and constant themes throughout the book is actually about the word democracy. In a way this book tells the history of a word and how it has been used and understood by people from Athens till today. I did not know that "democracy" was usually said with negative connotations for the larger part of philosophical history ranging from Plato up to the Federalist party that wrestled with how to use the term. So Dunn wrestles with how this word which used to be viewed negatively and as a sign of a country in chaos became a rallying cry of hope and has enabled America and Britian to storm into Iraq by justifying the move as liberating from tyranny and establishing democracy. How did democracy shift from a negative political term to a modern day war cry? This question, and Dunn's answers, rolls throughout the whole book.


“Why should it be the case that, for the first time in the history of our still conspicuously multi-lingual species, there is for the present a single world-wide name for the legitimate basis of political authority? Not, of course, uncontested in practice anywhere, and still roundly rejected in many quarters, but never, any longer, in favor of an alternative secular claimant to cosmopolitan legitimacy.” (pg.15)

“When any modern state claims to be a democracy, it necessarily misdescribes itself” (pg.18)

Pericles: “for we alone regard the man who takes no part in public affairs, not as one who minds his own business, but as good for nothing…. it is not debate which is a hindrance to action, but rather not to be instructed by debate before the time comes for action.” (pg.27)

“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.” (pg.92)

“A representative democracy was no system of direct citizen self-rule. Instead, what it offered was a system of highly indirect rule by representatives chosen for the purpose by the people.” (pg.122)

“Once the happiness and strength of a society is placed in riches, the exercise of political rights must necessarily be denied to those whose fortune provides no guarantee of their attachment to the creation and defense of wealth. In any such social system, the great majority of citizens is constantly subjected to painful labour, and condemned in practice to languish in poverty, ignorance and slavery.” (pg.124)

“In America, once the Constitution was firmly in place, democracy soon became the undisputed political framework and expression of the order of egoism.” (pg.125-126)

“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.” (pg.128)

“As a modern political term, democracy is above all the name for political authority exercised solely through the persuasion of the greater number, or for other sorts of authority in other spheres supposedly exercised solely on a basis acceptable to those subjected to it.” (pg.132)`

View all my reviews

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Review: Adventures of an Accidental Sociologist: How to Explain the World Without Becoming a Bore

Adventures of an Accidental Sociologist: How to Explain the World Without Becoming a Bore Adventures of an Accidental Sociologist: How to Explain the World Without Becoming a Bore by Peter L. Berger
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Great book!

An autobiographical account of Berger's sociological career that at times looks at his religious/theological journey as well, though it is not the main focus. One of the values of this book is that he summarizes almost every book and paper he wrote, giving the context of his life at the time, what the book was about and what he thinks about now. Berger has written a lot of books that I want to read (Social Construction of Reality, In Praise of Doubt...), I felt like this was a good place to start to get an intro of his work before diving into some of his specific projects.

Berger's perspective is unique and mature; it comes at the end of a long and diverse career and he doesn't fit neatly into an ideological box as some of his stances will upset both liberals and conservatives. He speaks briefly but sharply on a wide range of topics in this book: economic development of third-world countries (marxism vs capitalism), development in S.E. Asia in light of Weber's protestant ethic, Pentecostalism in South America, Evangelicalism in America, culture wars and politics, multiple modernities and globalization, development after apartheid in South Africa, the ins and outs of academia, basic explanation of some key figures and concepts in sociology and even a sociological look at comedy. For some this list might be boring, but for others it is a treasure to have such a great mind writing on so many topics in less than 250 pages.

View all my reviews