The Decline and Rise of Democracy: A Global History from Antiquity to Today
Princeton University Press, 424 pp., $35
The problem with elitists is they are prone to pessimism. During times of great dislocation, the elite, those guardians of the truth, tend to look at the swinish multitude with trembling fear. This goes some way to explain the deep pessimism of two texts begun during the time of the Spanish flu epidemic: T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West. Both Eliot and Spengler were taught of the classical canon: How it was ancient Greece that pointed the way to the good life; how the West strayed from that course during the Dark Ages until it rediscovered the Greats during the Renaissance. As a result of this narrow reading, democracy was seen as fragile, precious, and prone to failure, which in turn can account for the weary pessimism of Eliot and Spengler.
Today, too, there is considerable elite pessimism as democracies struggle to cope with the health and economic crisis of COVID-19. And as real fear builds over democratic backsliding, bookshelves groan with tomes on the death of democracy.
David Stasavage’s book The Decline and Rise of Democracy: A Global History from Antiquity to Today comes as a much-needed antidote to all the gloom and doom. Stasavage makes the compelling case that democracy—the desire to have agency and restrain power from above—is a deeply human instinct. Moreover, due to the very human nature of this desire it does not belong to one civilization, race, or religion. At the same time, Stasavage is no liberal utopian. He identifies the conditions in which this need can take hold and also the reasons why, in other circumstances, it may not, ever.
Early on he establishes that there was nothing unique about Greek democracy and that similar democratic practices had existed in different parts of the world, including among the Huron people in North America, in the Mesoamerican republic of Tlaxcala, and in the Mari Kingdom of Mesopotomia.
The Huron inhabited the Northeastern woodlands around present-day Ontario. These were village-based maize farmers who self-governed on three different levels. Each village had several chiefs from different clans, and the clan elected their chief. Each village was governed by a council that included the chiefs and a group called the “Old Men.” These councils were not exclusionary; as a visiting French Jesuit in the 1600s noted, “everyone who wishes may be present, and has the right to express his opinion.” The council organized public goods, adjudicated local disputes, and performed basic welfare roles.
The second level was above the specific village. Each Huron tribe also had a council composed of a tribal chief and clan chiefs. The final level was a confederacy council. As in the tribe structure, central authority was weak and the focus was on decision-making by consensus. As Stasavage points out, this is a means of governance not dissimilar from the European Union today, or the early Dutch republic.
Like the visiting Jesuits of the 1600s, Hernán Cortés in 1519 found in Tlaxcala a society organized around democratic principles. As Cortés put it, with just a sense of Castilian condescending wonder: “The province is 90 leagues in circumference, and, as far as I have been able to judge about the form of government, it is almost like of Venice, or Genoa, or Pisa, because there is no one supreme ruler. . . . In undertaking wars, they all gather together and thus assembled they decide and plan them.”
Stasavage argues that the reason why democratic principles took hold in these and other communities is due to geography—the particular soil of their settlements—along with the availability of exit options and the sequencing of their development. Sweeping from Asia to Mesoamerica, case study after case study shows that the more agriculturally backward the region and the lower-yielding the soil, the more likely democracy would take hold. In short, it was Europe’s very backwardness—rather than the rediscovery of the classics—that may have made it a cradle of democracy.
With lower, unpredictable yields, rulers had less of a consistent resource base from which to tax the people, which in turn stunted the development of a strong state. Moreover, if people could leave the territory and still find decent land to farm, this would also stunt the development of the state and ensure that rulers would have to govern via councils of consent.
This goes to explain one of many divergences between the European and Chinese experience. Early Chinese dynasties were formed on the Loess Plateau around the Yellow River. The rich Loess soil was easy to work with and people congregated in large numbers on that plateau. In Europe, by contrast, fertile soil was much scarcer and geographically isolated, which led to smaller settlements that were harder to govern. This allowed those early Chinese dynasties to map soil much more effectively and in turn develop much stronger state bureaucracies. And as Stasavage points out, if a strong state preceded early democracy, democratic roots would struggle to take hold in the longer run.
This argument is elegantly used to gut the claims of cultural supremacists that there is something inimical about the “Oriental mind” or Islam that has made democracy such a fragile flower in China and the Middle East. In early Arabian society, for instance, high levels of mobility meant that decisions were made by consent, as detailed in the Koran, where reference is made to the shura, and how it must be used to “conduct their affairs by mutual consultation.” Thus, it is not the ideology of Islam that is anti-democratic. Rather, as Islam spread suddenly from the Arabian peninsula, it inherited strong states that knew how to irrigate land‚ creating greater stability of yield, and thereby helping raise taxes to fund a bureaucracy that obviated the need to govern by consensus.
Turning from early to modern democracy, Stasavage shows the same forces at work in the founding of America. The early colonies of Massachusetts, Maryland, and Virginia involved shipping labor from Britain, at a time when the standard of living was higher there than in early settlements. As a result, early laborers had exit options and many of the early indentured servants, once they had paid their debts, set up freeholds in small communities. Moreover, land was plentiful, which in turn made it harder for early colonialists to command their fellow men.
In the case of Virginia, Edwyn Sandys of the Virginia Company knew that he had to offer more to entice new settlers from England, including land grants and democratic rights. Virginia would be governed by a governor and council with important affairs managed with a general assembly composed of two representatives from each of the 11 settlements. (Needless to say, none of these rights extended to the African slaves imported into the colony.)
The English settlement of North America diverged from the Spanish experience of Latin America because, first, early settlers’ living standards in Spain were lower than those in Britain, and hence they didn’t need to be offered the same democratic rights, and, even more crucially, because the Spanish inherited the strong states of the Inca and Aztec empires. Unlike the small communities of North America, these empires had large populations in dense areas, thanks to their intensive, advanced farming techniques. Once the leaders of these states had been decapitated, the Spanish could use the same extractive means as the previous rulers.
Once again, we see how a strong state can snuff out the early flickering of democratic light. It was the very absence of such a state in North America that probably facilitated the strong founding of democracy there.
In his telling of the journey from early democracy to its modern founding, Stasavage expands our vision and reminds us that deep desire for control over our lives is a profoundly human instinct that is not particular to one group, one religion, or one civilization. Instead he shows that democracy is fecund and is only inhibited by the presence of a pre-existing strong state, which in turn may result from early agricultural development. In light of that, we in the West should show much more confidence in making the case for democracy. Moreover, as this book elegantly shows, advancing democracy is not about the imposition of Western values, because democracy is not an invention of the West. Yes, democracy flourished in Ancient Greece, but it also did so in the woods of the Northeastern United States, India, and in parts of Mesoamerica and Africa.
As a result, the current pessimism and—let’s call a spade a spade—the defeatism in elite circles is overdone. Democracy is not inviolable and can be eroded, but we should also be clear what a deeply held desire it is to have power over our lives.
And yet, while this book should give supporters of democracy confidence, it should also guard against the excesses of liberal utopians. As powerfully as Stasavage makes the case for humans’ widespread desire for agency, he also makes clear that certain factors can make it very hard to impose democracy in territories where it has long failed to flourish. For that reason, it is right to question the liberal belief that further economic development will lead to a democratic opening in China. As Stasavage makes clear, China, like Europe during the Renaissance, went through a great economic acceleration, but in China’s case this led to the strengthening of the Song dynasty, not its weakening.
In light of this, this book might well become a foundational text for a future D-10 as we enter a long contest of ideas and systems. Whatever happens, this book’s optimism and wide-eyed wonder sprouts like T.S. Eliot’s lilac through the dead earth of current Western declinism.