27 January 2010

Book chapter: "A Critique of Democracy" in "Ancient Worlds, Modern Reflections"

The book "Ancient Worlds, Modern Reflections: Philosophical Perspectives on Greek and Chinese Science and Culture" by Geoffrey E.R. Lloyd (Oxford University Press, 2004) contains a (not particularly instructive) chapter titled "A Critique of Democracy" (pp. 169-87):


Publisher's description: "Geoffrey Lloyd's pioneering new book uses a study of ancient Greek and Chinese science and culture to throw light on fundamental problems, both intellectual and moral, that we still face today. The issues range from the debate about realism and relativism in philosophy of science to doubts concerning the universal applicability of the discourse of human rights. Lloyd provides compelling evidence that ancient civilizations have much to offer contemporary debates in many fields of study."

Excerpts: "[T]he paradox is that there is far more agreement nowadays than in earlier centuries at least on the name of the most satisfactory political constitution, that is democracy [...]. However, that agreement on what the ideal should be called is not matched by a corresponding consensus on how democracy should work in practice, nor by a corresponding concern as to how far actual practice lives up to that ideal. [...] But my chief concern relates not to the score, of how many political regimes across the world are nominally democratic, versus how many are not, but rather with the problems of modern democracy itself. [...] I see no alternative to democracy in some form [...].

"The diagnosis I have offered of the weaknesses of democracy at both the national and the international level is utterly bleak, and the prognosis almost equally so. [...] The weaknesses of our existing political institutions [...] in not even providing an adequate framework for discussion directed at alleviating the problems [...] must be shown up for what they are. On the national scale there is the failure to engage the electorate and secure their active participation in the political process, as well as the deleterious effects of professional lobbying for commercial and other interests [...]. On the world stage, there is the need to cede some measure of sovereignty to international institutions to give them the wherewithal to implement decisions taken by the collectivity of nation-states. [...] I am not optimistic that the necessary lessons will be learnt in any other than the hardest way, through the experience of catastrophe. [...]

"While democracy is, as I said, the name of what most of the world accepts as the best national political dispensation, its weaknesses must be acknowledged, and so too its current ineffectiveness when translated on to the global scale. [...] To say that there are no easy solutions is a grotesque understatement. We need to muster all the resources for criticism and analysis that we can, including those from reflections on the past. We have to cut through the rhetoric that allows the one remaining superpower to preach the virtues of democracy for other states, while paying scant attention to the opinions of other nations in the forum of international debate. [...] What are the chances of such an argument from self-interest carrying sufficient weight in the face of mindless materialism and greed?"

Review: "[W]e can learn from ancient Chinese civilization the rich notion of solidarity, specifically the sense of the interdependence of all humans and the principle of collective responsibility for the common welfare. On the other hand, we can learn both positive and negative models of democratic behavior and accountability from the ancient Greeks. In conclusion, Lloyd argues that we need to substitute the discourse of justice and equity for that of human nature, and replace the discourse of rights with one that focuses on responsibilities, ties, and obligations." (Youngmin Kim, "Bryn Mawr Classical Review")

Unfortunately, much of Lloyd's "critique of democracy" may be owed to an old man's general ennui with the state of society and the world, with questionable bearing on politics, democratic or otherwise.

The book is fully searchable on Google Book Search (including full table of contents):


Sir Geoffrey E.R. Lloyd is Emeritus Professor of Ancient Philosophy and Science at Cambridge and a Fellow of the British Academy.

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