________________ CM . . . . Volume XV Number 20 . . . . May 29, 2009

cover Democracy. (A Groundwork Guide).

James Laxer.
Toronto, ON: Groundwood/House of Anansi Press, 2009.
143 pp., pbk. & hc., $12.00 (pbk.), $18.95 (hc.).
ISBN 978-0-88899-913-9 (pbk.),
ISBN 978-0-88899-912-2 (hc.).

Subject Headings:
Economic policy.
Sustainable development.

Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.

Grades 9 and up / Ages 14 and up.

Review by Greg Bak.

*1/2 /4


The democratic agenda needs to regard this staggering [economic] inequality as the most important matter to be addressed. Unless it is effectively addressed, little else that is achieved will matter very much.

Is democracy doomed?

     James Laxer paints a dire picture. According to Laxer, democracy will soon be overcome by a combination of plutocracy, allowing political power to millionaires alone, and global capitalism, which is creating international legal structures that limit the agency of national governments. Perhaps most surprisingly, Laxer suggests that only massive civil unrest, unrest on the order of the American, French and Russian revolutions, can save democracy now.

     Is this the whole story? Missing from Laxer's account is any discussion of e-democracy, Wikipedia's catch-all term for the many forms of citizen participation through the Internet. Laxer cites, for example, Barak Obama's presidential campaign as evidence of American plutocracy, emphasizing his rejection of federal funding in favor of unlimited campaign spending, failing to note that Obama did so by relying on the Netroots to raise vast quantities of small donations. Laxer is similarly silent on the ways in which Facebook users have been able to influence politics at all levels in Canada through online petitions. Nor are such strategies limited to the Internet. One of the big stories in Canadian politics right now is how Stephen Harper was able to unite the right, forming the Conservative Party of Canada, while maintaining the support – and donations – of the former Reform Party's grass roots. With the passage of Bill C-24 in 2003, which included a ban on corporate donations over $1,000, the Conservative Party's small-donor base gave them a significant advantage over the Liberal Party.

     This is a story that does not find space in Laxer's book. Also missing from Laxer's book is any serious engagement with the nuts and bolts of democracy. At the end of this book, the reader will have no understanding of the differences between parliamentary and non-parliamentary democracies, the reasons behind the division of power into legislative, executive and judicial branches, why some democracies are bicameral while others are unicameral, the difference between a president and a prime minister, or between a ceremonial head of state and an executive head of state. The reader will not understand how legislation is created, nor the process by which it is refined in committee before becoming law.

     Reading Democracy is like watching CNN on fast-forward: a blur of catastrophe, from rocket attacks in Israel to ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, from kleptocracy in Africa to military repression in Pakistan. Absent from the book is an explanation of how democracy does or does not work, and any sense of hope for progress through citizen participation.

     The “Groundwork Guides” are provocative, fascinating and short introductions to contemporary issues. The series, which includes titles such as Genocide, Pornography and The Betrayal of Africa, does not skirt controversy. The publisher's website states that "these guides offer both a lively introduction and a strong point of view" on "pressing and sometimes controversial topics."

     The best of these slim volumes use controversy as a hook to promote broader engagement with a given topic. Democracy certainly is controversial, but Laxer's grim assessment of contemporary democracy, paired with his view that only widespread civil disobedience can save the world from global capitalism, would leave teen readers without any means of engagement other than to head outside and start a riot.

     But here is a revolutionary idea: how about we encourage our youth to visit their library or the Internet, inform themselves, and then head outside and vote? And if too young to vote, then to volunteer for a candidate that inspires them?

     Now that would be radical.

Not Recommended.

Greg Bak is an archivist with Library and Archives Canada in Gatineau, Quebec.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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