Ignorance of the Learned. John Keane.
John Keane and Tendance Coatesy’s Bed-Time Reading.
John Keane’s The Life and Death of Democracy (2009) is a thick tome. I did not expect the theorist (here) of ‘civil society’ as the site of social progress to be sympathetic reading. But, in contrast to many of the books I’ve been looking at when writing recently I thought it would be stimulating, interesting, and well-argued (add usual adjectives for someone you don’t really agree with). Besides I’ve a soft spot for anyone who annoys the Iranian theocrats.
I have not finished it yet.
But so far I have been throughly annoyed. A good thing one might think. But in this instance I think not.
To begin with Keane spends a good deal of his time sharing his knowledge of philology with us. This runs through many pages. That is, for example, he has discovered that Democracy in ancient Greek is a feminine noun. That we should try to imagine a world in which this word is surrounded bya cluster of other substantives which are also feminine. How hard! That it implies a female personification for a form of government. Er, like la République, and la Démocratie, not to mention Marianne. And (hey) la Recrue (Recruit – a word in French which is feminine regardless of the sexual gender of the person).
Not content with this erudition Keane explores the origins of the element, demos. Apparently it goes back to Minoean Greek, and the famous Linear B. It meant something slightly different to do with people’s relation to the land. Strike me pink! English ‘Folk’ no doubt goes back some time too. Perhaps he could help us out here (he probably does, I have already got to the point where he labours over the origin of the word Thing in Old English and Common Germanic). Anyway, amongst other gems Keane notes that the Greek Hubris is (he claims) an import from Hittite, huwap (Page 63). I wonder really if this is true – Hittite, dead without any descendants. Pretty hard stuff. Keane also opines that there was an ancient Sumerian word which is “semantically” related to demos. ‘Semantically‘ mother is related to all the languages of the world, but one suspects he implies rather more than this kind of relation.
Tendance Coatesy has a strong bond, (stronger than semantics) with Sumerian culture. We consider that the Fall of Ur was a great disaster (Lament here). Things have gone down-hill ever since. Sumerian civilisation had the great advantage of being: 1) The founding one for writing. 2) Its speech was neither Indo-European, Semitic, African, Turkic, Asiatic or indeed with any known cognate language. 3) No-one can therefore claim it as ‘theirs’ .
Apparently Keane differs. He uses 20th Century discoveries about Sumer (written up in any text on the subject – believe me I have read plenty of them), that they ruled with some kind of City assembly. Uses? Yes, to wage war against Marx. Citing Marx’s famous article, British Rule in India (June 10th 1853 – New York Daily Tribune), he says the following, “Had Marx the opportunity to learn Sumerian..”
Thus Marxy got the whole notion of Oriental Despotism wrong. That government in hydraulic societies (as Wittfogel called them), were based on three departments: Finance, War and Public Works. That – going back to what Marx wrote – village life, was isolated in these societies, that custom ruled them while the government ruled above. Marx did not mention if such states had, or had not, assemblies, though he said they dominated said settlements despotically, warred, and taxed without their consent. Now the newspaper article uses pretty sweeping generalisations, cites Mesopotamia (where Sumer civilisation flourished) in passing, and is concentrated in India. Where he criticises British rule (main target) and criticises (in a patronising way) Indian traditional life. No references to Sumer as such in fact.
But then, unlike Keane and Tendance Coatesy Marx could not and had not read Sumerian. That is, before cuneiform was deciphered.
I suspect the theory of Oriental Despotism and the concept of the Asiatic Mode of Production have greater weaknesses than that, but no doubt Keane has struck a blow. Like his claim that Marx disliked Democracy because (sic) George Grote (a banker) wrote a paean of praise to Athenian Democracy this makes one wonder about slipping academic standards and ego inflation in the faculties.