Osborne, Roger (2011) Of the People, For the People: A New History of Democracy. London: The Bodley Head. RRP £14.99 paperback.
With everything that’s been going on around the world over the last few years, you would be forgiven for feeling a little disillusioned with democracy. Trump’s election in the US and Brexit in the UK are just two of the most prominent examples of a world that feels increasingly divided, antagonist, and extreme. But democracy has always been flawed. As Winston Churchill is famously quoted as saying “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” So what feels to me like impending disaster might just be the normal state in a flawed system. In this context, I found Of the People, By the People: A New History of Democracy by Roger Osborne to be an engaging and illuminating read.
Let’s be clear from the beginning: democracy is humanity’s finest achievement. Championed, idealised, misused, abused, distorted, parodied and ridiculed it may be…but democracy as a way of living and a system of government is the avenue by which modern humans can fulfil their need to construct lives of real meaning.
Osborne, 2011; p.1
Of the People, By the People traces democracy from its origins in Ancient Athens right up to when the book was published in 2011. One of the first points that Roger Osborne makes is that democracy is actually a relatively unusual form of government. Durimg the Roman period it disappeared for hundreds of years, and has only really become of the dominant form of government around the world in the last century or so. With this in mind, Osborne considers historical societies that we wouldn’t consider to be democratic, but which exhibited elements of democracy, in order to try and understand why and how democracy develops. The book considers what the conditions are that are conducive to the development of democracy. By extension, it also asks ‘What is democracy?’ What are its defining characteristics? Where are the boundaries between democracy, and other forms of government? Osborne doesn’t offer clear answers – these are massive questions, and I would be very sceptical of any simple answer anyone put forward, but he encourages the reader to reflect, and come to your own opinions.
Many books that claim to offer a global history have a tendency to actually focus on Western history, with perhaps a cursory glance towards the rest of the world. In Of the People, By the People, Osborne actually takes non-Western democracy seriously, devoting entire chapters to South America in the 1800s, post-Independence India, and post-Independence Africa. This genuinely global focus is refreshing.
Osborne also considers how and why democracy has been lost throughout history. On some occasions, such as in Nazi Germany, democracy was even voluntarily given up by the people’s elected representatives. Combined with the realisation that democracy is actually a very unusual form of government, rather than the permanent factor that I think many in the West believe it to be, Of the People, For the People is a powerful reminder that democracy has to be protected and defended. If we take it for granted, we may well lose it.
Of the People, By the People, is a well-written book and informative book that I genuinely enjoyed reading. If you are feeling slightly dazed and confused by everything that’s going on in modern politics, then it may well put things into context. It probably won’t restore your faith in democracy entirely, but it might help a bit.