On democracy and oligarchy

This week, I have been working on the final adjustments of a review of the book Futures of Democracy, that will hopefully be published in the next issue of Critical Studies. The most fascinating aspect about the book, is that the editors – Bas Leijssenaar, Evert van der Zweerde and Judith Martens – have tried to match its form to its content. A book about democracy that is written in a democratic way. This of course begs the question what exactly is democratic, and how one can write and edit a book in such a fashion. [Update September 2016: the review is published, you can find it here]


This question reminded me of an intriguing talk that I had a couple of years ago with emeritus professor in history and philosophy Frank Ankersmit. As editor of the journal Volonté Générale, I interviewed him about politics, society and the role of intellectuals therein. In the conversation (in Dutch), professor Ankersmit referred to his valedictory address (also in Dutch) at the university of Groningen in which he proclaimed the idea that our current political system is in fact not a democracy, but an elective aristocracy. The historical problem of aristocracy is of course its tendency to decay into oligarchy. He stressed the importance of using the right concepts in public debate, because if we fail to recognise the true form of our political system, we fight the wrong battles and run the risk that our elective aristocracy turns into oligarchy – or worse.

I was  highly impressed by Ankersmit’s idea and I use it in my review of the book Futures of Democracy to address the question what it means to write a democratic book about democracy. I stress the importance of conceptual clarity in public political discourse, because that is the only way we can stay clear of oligarchy and maybe even get a step closer to democracy – whatever that may be.


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