Year 4 / Book 21: How Democracy Ends

21) How Democracy Ends by David Runciman

I got given this book for my birthday (or possibly Xmas) by my wife’s aunt, and she cheerily said as I opened it, “I look forward to finding out what the answer is”. Well, I’m not sure there is one answer but I have at least read the book and learned a lot in the process. There were a glut of books out about democracy in crisis towards the end of 2018 (this is not to be mistaken for How Democracies Die, for example), presumably as a result of Trump and Brexit. I chose this one because I’m a bit of an addict to David Runciman’s Talking Politics podcast which is basically clever, informed people talking about what the hell is happening with a clarity and insight that mainstream media isn’t delivering. My hope was that this book would do the same.

To some extent, it does so. It is, in many places, extremely interesting and thought-provoking. It splits fairly loosely into three ways democracy might end (coup, catastrophe, tech takeover) and then posits some alternatives at the end. I found the section on coups, and different types of coup, really interesting – particularly given the different methods of ‘taking power’ these days (clue: it’s not tanks rolling into streets and taking over the broadcasting headquarters these days). The catastrophe section, which runs us through a nuclear, environmental or genocidal apocalypse, is less cheery and didn’t add or do much for me. Similarly, the tech takeover largely felt like ground I’d read elsewhere – from how our consumerist expectations of speed and decision-making have changed, to the dangers of machine learning and AI (which are covered better in Hannah Fry’s Hello World and Jamie Bartlett’s People vs Tech to name two).

The chapter I enjoyed the most, and which stretched my brain the most, was the one coming up with alternative solutions (on the basis that Runciman believes democracy as it stands is in a slow decline). Because we have been so inculcated that representative democracy is *the way*, it’s actually quite challenging to consider different options. Having discussed pragmatic authoritarianism (through the medium of China), Runciman moves on to epistocracy (government by experts) which covers some fascinating ground from Hobbes’ Leviathan through to John Stuart Mill, as well as more modern philosopher-advocates. Finally, he looks at some sort of accelerated, tech-enabled democracy – which seems to be the one he would plump for in some shape or form.

There is much to enjoy here, not least the 2053 future-gazing semi-satirical epilogue, which has a verve and clarity and sharpness that isn’t always evident elsewhere in the book. At times in the midst of a section, Runciman seems to get a bit taken with his own cleverness and we end up in the middle of a discursion with little sense of direction or coherent arc and structure. I also felt the constant comparison of democracy to human life (i.e. “democracy is middle-aged”) didn’t have much to sustain it, and weakened his overall thrust. Where the expert information met excellent analysis, as in the final chapters, it really delivered on my expectations. It is worth going through some of the more ‘academic essay’ sections to get to those nuggets of gold.

Score: 7.5/10

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