John Keane is Professor of Politics at the University of Sydney and at the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin (WZB). He is the Director of the newly-founded Sydney Democracy Network (SDN). Renowned globally for his creative thinking about democracy, John Keane was educated at the Universities of Adelaide and Toronto (where he was mentored by C.B.Macpherson) and King’s College, University of Cambridge.
Well before the European revolutions of 1989, he first came to public prominence as a defender of ‘civil society’ and the democratic opposition in central and eastern Europe. His political and scholarly writing during that period was often published under the pen name Erica Blair. In 1989 he founded the world’s first Centre for the Study of Democracy in London. During his many years living in Europe, The Times ranked him one of Britain’s leading political thinkers and writers whose work has 'world-wide importance'. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) has described him as “one of Australia’s great intellectual exports".
Among his best-known books are The Media and Democracy (translated into more than 25 languages); the best-selling biography Tom Paine: A Political Life (2009); a new interpretation of the gains and losses of globalisation Global Civil Society? (2003); Violence and Democracy (2004); and the recently published Democracy and Media Decadence (2013). He writes a column for the London/Melbourne-based web platform The Conversation. His Life and Death of Democracy was short-listed for the 2010 Non-Fiction Prime Minister's Literary Award. It is the first full-scale history of democracy for over a century. Portuguese, Greek, Brazilian and Japanese translations have appeared and Chinese, Korean, Spanish and Arabic editions are on their way.
Disquiet and disaffection are spreading through the drought fields of democracy. The trends demand unorthodox political thinking, a new sense of urgency about democracy’s strengths and weaknesses. But fresh democratic thinking requires different methods of saying things, of exposing silences and taken-for-granted presumptions. The academic article and the book are poorly suited to the task. Notebooks are a better medium for doing these things: they’re a democratic form of writing, as I try to show in a new column for the Melbourne-based web platform The Conversation. Made up of broken and interrupted fragments, they grip the ground but don’t suppose they own it. The democracy notebooks expose perplexities and pose question marks. But as you read them please remember: there are no known maps, timetabled destinations or guaranteed safe passages.
The Democracy Field Notes series is also available to Spanish readers.
5 July, 2014 There’s a time-tested ‘law’ in the history of modern self-government: when a bounded nation-state democracy prosecutes war abroad, the spirit and institutions of its democracy are usually vandalised at home. The Life and Death of Democracy analyses many historical instances of a rule that most definitely applies to the Abbott government’s Operation [...]
24 June, 2014 The following field notes grapple with the problem of how to understand the emergent polity of Antarctica, and why its break with the language and politics of sovereignty is of global significance. The remarks were prepared for a workshop hosted by the Antarctica Futures project, Sydney Democracy Network, University of Sydney, Tuesday [...]
3 June, 2014 Most people know from daily experience that memories are vital for their sense of well-being. Memory is the bearer of lavish gifts. It strengthens our capacity for living in the present. Memory brings direction. It prompts us to move on, to imagine different futures. When it comes to whole political orders, the [...]
29 April, 2014 The following commentary on the Abbott government’s policy of forcibly preventing people from seeking asylum within Australia has aroused considerable controversy. Several thousand public and private comments, from a wide variety of sources, have so far been received. More than a few readers have seen the point of calling troubling things by [...]
20 April, 2014 Readers interested in the emerging politics of the human/non-human and the deep and difficult tensions between capitalism and democracy are bound to find stimulating a recent public lecture by one of the world’s leading social scientists, Bruno Latour. Delivered in late February 2014 at the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences in Copenhagen, [...]
The following remarks on love and politics were first delivered at a welcome symposium for all first-year humanities and social science students in the Great Hall, the University of Sydney, 27th February 2014: Good morning and a warm welcome to the University of Sydney. I was asked by our Dean of the Faculty of Arts [...]
THE CONFIDENCE TRAP: A HISTORY OF DEMOCRACY IN CRISIS FROM WORLD WAR I TO THE PRESENT By David Runciman Princeton University Press, $52.95 With talk of democracy in crisis commonplace, especially in Europe, smart assessments of how well democracies have fared during past crises are badly needed. It’s what David Runciman offers – with decidedly [...]
The future shape of Thailand is up for grabs, and if democracy survives, it won’t resemble the ‘Washminster’ system that the West is used to, writes John Keane. Gripped by a deadly crisis, with grenades exploding in the streets of Bangkok, the people and politicians of Thailand once again find themselves back in the global [...]
When visiting Tokyo last week for the launch of the Japanese edition of The Life and Death of Democracy, it was pure coincidence, or sweet and sour serendipity, that the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe steamrolled through parliament a controversial bill to set stricter penalties for intelligence breaches. Shigeru Ishiba, secretary-general of the ruling Liberal [...]
Vibrant democracies need sharp-angled and unceremonious characters like Lou Reed who can rail against imperiousness and conformity, writes John Keane. It’s said often that democracy requires shared public virtues such as respect for others and belief in free and fair elections, as well as the ability of citizens to live with differences and have a [...]