John Keane | The New Despotism
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The New Despotism

The New Despotism

Publisher: Harvard University Press (May 2020)
Language: English


One day they’ll be like us. That was once the West’s complacent and self-regarding assumption about countries emerging from poverty, imperial rule, or communism. But many have hardened into something very different from liberal democracy: what the eminent political thinker John Keane describes as a new form of despotism. And one day, he warns, we may be more like them.

Drawing on extensive travels, interviews, and a lifetime of thinking about democracy and its enemies, Keane shows how governments from Russia and China through Central Asia to the Middle East and Europe have mastered a formidable combination of political tools that threaten the established ideals and practices of power-sharing democracy. They mobilize the rhetoric of democracy and win public support for workable forms of government based on patronage, dark money, steady economic growth, sophisticated media controls, strangled judiciaries, dragnet surveillance, and selective violence against their opponents.

Casting doubt on such fashionable terms as dictatorship, autocracy, fascism, and authoritarianism, Keane makes a case for retrieving and refurbishing the old term despotism to make sense of how these regimes function and endure. He shows how they cooperate regionally and globally and draw strength from each other’s resources while breeding global anxieties and threatening the values and institutions of democracy. Like Montesquieu in the eighteenth century, Keane stresses the willing complicity of comfortable citizens in all these trends. And, like Montesquieu, he worries that the practices of despotism are closer to home than we care to admit.






Reviewed by Glyn Davis

John Keane is Australia’s leading scholar of democracy, with work that demonstrates an impressive command of global sources. Keane’s most widely cited book, The Life and Death of Democracy (2009), included new research on the origins of public assemblies in India many centuries before the familiar democracy of Greek city-states. Keane located the origins of democracy in non-European traditions, in part by tracing the linguistic origins of the concept.

This engagement with language and evidence is deployed once more in The New Despotism, an ambitious study of the non-democratic world. Despotism as a term fell out of use in the twentieth century, replaced by concern about totalitarian states. Keane seeks to revitalise the concept, not as a mirror image of democracy but, worryingly, as something that can grow out of democracy. As his many examples show, this century has seen the closing down of accountability and free elections until states retain the formal institutions of democracy but not the reality of popular sovereignty.

The challenge for Keane is shape-shifting despotism. Every despot is different, from foghorn extremes to subtle local variants. Keane includes a wide array of countries in the category, from Turkey and Iran to Brunei and Singapore, with particular attention paid to China and Russia. He argues that despotism is not an old style of government revived but a ‘form of extractive power with no historical precedent’.

There is no single definition offered for this protean concept. Instead, Keane builds, chapter by chapter, a set of despotism’s characteristics, exploring each angle in detail, complete with local terms and topical jokes to show how general trends play out in specific regimes.

Despotism, argues Keane, makes a virtue of avoiding the divisions and conflict of democracy. Despots emphasise national character, the unity possible under a single ruler. They offer ultra-modern states, keen to be seen as more efficient than democracies, more responsive to popular opinion. Rulers present themselves as voices of the people, ruling in their name.

Behind this façade is the apparatus of surveillance, tight control of social media, and the ability to make critics disappear. Despots use public-opinion surveys to understand popular moods, and tame media to lead public discussion. Violence is always the implicit threat, but the aim is stability. What despots want, above all, is voluntary servitude. This many achieve, ruling through seduction rather than terror. Across the globe, Keane reports the willingness of citizens to surrender political involvement for a quiet life. A clever despot ‘lures subjects into subjection’ so eventually ‘the slave licences the master’.

In particular, argues Keane, the middle class proves fickle about democratic principles. It can be bought with good services, cash payments, and being left alone. Older political theory expected a prosperous middle class to demand representation. Yet any assumed link between a bourgeoisie, capitalism, and democracy is daily disproved around the world.

Early in The New Despotism, Keane suggests that he might follow the example of Machiavelli’s The Prince and describe the inner dynamics of power outsider democracy. This proves hard to deliver, since despotic regimes are rarely open or accessible to independent research. So there is less Machiavelli than Montesquieu or Tocqueville, intelligent observers trying to make sense of the gap between form and substance in every despotic state.

Despots embrace many of the outward symbols of accountable and legitimate democracy. They use elections to test the public mood and identify potential opponents. Such contests are rarely free or fair. Despots proclaim the rule of law, yet everyone understands that courts can be manipulated by corruption or by the state using the law to close down its enemies. Despots promote social media to ensure lively public discussions yet just out of sight wait the censors, those cyber units that influence opinion, release disinformation, discredit other voices, and silence unwanted conversations. There are armies of Winston Smiths from 1984, trained to create a simulacrum of free speech.

Hence the claim of novelty. These new despots are not dinosaur authoritarian regimes, the lumbering dictatorships of North Korea or Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. They are instead flexible regimes led by ‘learning despots’, determined to develop long-term regimes, using ‘whip-smart ruling methods.’ Despots point to failed democratic states to say there is no obvious alternative. Should neighbouring democracies prove robust, they can be disrupted by the same cyber units developed for domestic control.

The New Despotism is important because it brings an acute understanding of democracy to focus on its potential fate. The first chapter in particular is a tour de force about the overly optimistic reading of the future after 1989, when democracy briefly became the dominant form of government around the world, only to slide away in many states.

Keane argues that this was not just an unsuccessful transition to democracy. It was instead a reaction to the perceived failure of democracy, the inefficiencies associated with party competition, the cynicism of people who see around them high levels of inequality, poor leadership, the hollowing of social life, dark money in elections, cuts to public services and repressive responses to terrorism. At some point, the promise of strong government and order through despotism becomes attractive.

And so a book on despotism completes its circuit, starting and finishing with democracy. If nations committed to popular rule do not address internal deficiencies, they risk populism and illiberal movements. Despotism is not the opposite of democracy, but a parasite that resides within, waiting for its opportunity.

Will Keane succeed in reviving the concept of despotism? Though boundaries blur and a single definition remains elusive, he makes a strong case in The New Despotism for the urgent need to understand this global trend. Keane offers not just a lively argument with numerous examples, and a rich assembly of sources through detailed endnotes, but also a writing style that commands attention. Democracy faces ‘desolation row’ but is marked by ‘braided tempos and multiple rhythms’. The patron–client relations that run through despotic societies mean that ‘every soul is implicated in nested circles of soiled solidarity’.

The analysis embraces a poetics of power, offering cumulatively a description as dark as Machiavelli on principalities. Here is no historical portrait but our times made stark. Democracy may once again become rare in a world dominated by despotic empires with no commitment to the rule of law. As John Keane, scholar of democracy, asks in his final sentence: is despotism our future? It is a disturbing but pressing question from a major new study.

Originally published on Australian Book Review

I read this initially thinking it was a belated usage of despotism in contrast with new and figured this will be an interested if not quick read. Despite its austere cover I was smacked with an uncomfortable feeling when Singapore (current citizen) was mentioned. I veered from shifting in my seat to being wide eyed slack jawed as Mr Keane recounted the many ways power has been manipulated and renewed with recombinant strands to purchase the hearts and minds of those in subject. I swore many times in the book, even though he could be mentioning other countries tactics in charming the populace into thinking those in power knew best. He was speaking also about Singapore.

The horror is that we knew we were accomplices to capitulating our freedom for thoughts and destinies in life to those who purports to know best -and for the harmonious living and the selected preservation of traditional ways of life.

Legacies, hubris, disconnect contributes to those in power finding and maintaining their acolytes and promoting themselves in continued elevation. As Mr Keane also mentioned towards the end of the book how this insidious connivance has handshaked itself with co-operations, democracies. I wonder if the technological marvels of curated consumerist culture is another despotism cloaking itself.

I hope to find a sliver of hope in how we could better manage ourselves despite our limited bandwith for decision making when they are served to citizens with a smile and palm shushing us quiet. Part humor part expository and all devastating, this has been quite a read and much appreciated for a renewed lens.

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26 APRIL 2020 | Voluntary servitude

The New Despotism
By John Keane | Harvard University Press | $69.99 | 320 pages

April 2020. The pandemic is in full swing and testing the mettle of leaders and institutions. Desperate times mean drastic measures. Governments have declared states of emergency. Large parts of the world are in some form of lockdown. In some countries, widespread testing is mandatory; elsewhere citizens are being tracked, traced and isolated in targeted fashion. Fateful decisions are being made to stem the flow of patients needing hospitalisation and distribute scarce pharmaceuticals and medical supplies. Stimulus packages and income support of unprecedented scale have been enacted in a matters of weeks. National and subnational governments are improvising their way through the crisis while efforts to arrive at a modicum of transnational coordination and solidarity are proceeding at what feels like glacial pace.

In the meantime, the jury is out on what has worked and what hasn’t. Rates of hospitalisation, mortality and unemployment are being monitored across countries and regions. Questions are being asked about differences in the speed and severity of different governments’ responses. Experts have attempted to second-guess who the winners and losers on the geopolitical stage will be.

It is into this world that John Keane’s new book has been launched. Keane, a professor of politics at the University of Sydney, has long been one of the world’s most erudite, original, astute and passionate students of democratic politics. With this latest offering he injects one hell of a scary book into an already frenzied world — though if I were to project his argument onto the coronacrisis, I imagine it would offer a sober assessment. In one sentence: don’t assume that the traditional power-sharing democracies of the West will prove more resilient and strategically astute in withstanding Covid-19’s onslaught than the “new despotic” regimes — in places like China, Vietnam, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Singapore — that are the focus of the book. In fact, Keane argues, pockets of despotism already exist within ostensibly democratic states; and in his recent corona-essay, “Democracy and the Great Pestilence,” he surmises that this catastrophe creates opportunities for their expansion and entrenchment.

Keane urges citizens and leaders of longstanding power-sharing democracies to wake up to the uncomfortable truth that our system of government is no longer the only game in town when it comes to garnering substantively smart, popularly supported, institutionally stable and therefore normatively seductive forms of rule. Political life in the twenty-first century increasingly offers us a new great divide.

In one camp are the old power-sharing democracies, whose messiness, compromises, follies and imperfections are the devil we know and are forever trying to ameliorate. They are the old pair of shoes: well worn, no longer glamorous, perhaps even somewhat out of style, but comfortable and reliable. We, who have become used to them, put up with their limitations because we would not trade them for any other pair no matter how glitzy.

But a much larger portion of the world’s population has not had a few centuries of evolving democratic struggles, institutions and cultures to form their political prisms and value compasses. Another camp beckons them: the camp of the new kids on the block whose allure may seem cooler and smarter, albeit vaguely dangerous. They are “phantom democracies.” They go through the motions of having elections, parties, parliaments, courts and constitutions. But they are governed by ruthless yet suave operators wielding velvet fists, concentrating enormous economic and executive power in the hands of their inner circles of submissive plutocrats and loyal technocrats, and blanketing the whole operation in facetious appeals to the will of “the people” sustained by practices of self-dramatisation (and other-defamation) that are sophisticated and shameless in equal measure.

Delving deeply into the governing formulas of the likes of Vladimir Putin, Mohammed bin Salman, Ali Khamenei, Hun Sen, Narendra Modi, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Viktor Orbán, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and the regimes built around them, Keane urges us not to dismiss them as tin-pot autocrats who will sooner or later succumb to the stupidity and greed endemic to political systems lacking checks and balances. Instead, they should be thought of as “master copyists of democratic style” who do everything they can to nurture their own legitimacy using means that give them a strongly democratic feel. Their regimes are also smarter than traditional autocracies, making ample use of feedback and learning mechanisms (polling, deliberative forums and oversight bodies) to fine-tune their policies and respond to stakeholder views and user experiences — all within carefully constructed boundaries, of course.

Keane defines the new-despotic type as “pseudo-democratic government led by rulers skilled in the arts of manipulating and meddling with people’s lives, marshalling their support, and winning their conformity.” Despotisms, he writes, “are top-down pyramids of power that defy political gravity by nurturing the willing subservience and docility of their subjects.” These regimes offer their subjects — they can’t be called citizens — a social contract that many of them are willing to sign. They provide a degree of material comfort, or the hope of it (never mind the extreme inequalities of income and wealth that underpin these regimes), stable (though impenetrable and deeply corrupt) government, and opportunities to respond to their policies (albeit highly constrained and often shambolic). In exchange, subjects are expected to self-censor, keep their mouths shut and play the fool in the quasi-democratic charade that masks the reality of a political order run by an uber-rich elite that manufactures and then manipulates their consent. In short, “the rulers will deliver what their subjects need in exchange for their quiet loyalty.”

And, Keane tells us, this formula appears to work. “Tocqueville’s warning that the sheepish middle classes would plump for despotism proved prescient,” he writes. “One lesson of the new despotism is that the middle classes have no instinctual love of open power-sharing… Protected by the ‘immense tutelary power’ of the state, they strive after ‘petty pleasures’ centred on the trimmings and trappings of conspicuous consumption.” Or, in a somewhat grimmer interpretation: “Indulging private life, skilled at creating sanctuaries for themselves and their families and friends, happy in the hives of their homes, they watch what they say and to whom… Keeping silent about personal convictions is part of the chess game of existence.”

That latter description is exactly how I would characterise the coping styles of the Chinese students and colleagues I have interacted with over the years. One way or the other, the citizen-subjects leave the political field. The despotic system gives them just enough to quietly grind their teeth on, its elite creaming off the big bucks generated by the successful state capitalism that they have pioneered as a “third way” between the disaster-prone planned economies of the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century and the low-growth, high-maintenance and dangerously liberal market economies of the power-sharing democracies.

Keane’s core message is clear: we democrats may abhor these new despotisms, but we cannot afford to underestimate them. Moreover, we should not blind ourselves to the fact that, notwithstanding our loud public denunciations (and in some cases economic sanctions), virtually all power-sharing democracies are happy to supply them with arms and “do business” with them in a range of other ways.

John Keane intends this book not just as a window on an emerging, unsavoury and  yet institutionally viable political system, I think, but first and foremost as a mirror for us, the citizens of seemingly entrenched and seemingly superior power-sharing democracies, to look into. His is a cautionary tale. He implores us to think harder about our own system’s shortcomings: “It is a big mistake to describe these regimes as in transition to or from democracy. The new despotisms are in fact reactions against the ideals and practical mistakes and failures of power-sharing democracy. They are like parasites, feeding upon democracy’s present dysfunctions.” They are adept at twisting democratic totems to their aims, having found ways, as Keane puts it, to “practice elections without democracy.”

Keane puts quite a bit of distance between his argument and recent writing by other public intellectuals about populism-fuelled “democratic backsliding” in the West, and possibly even its descent into “autocracy,” “tyranny” and “fascism.” Yet he shares their sense of urgency and their analytical approach of looking at the political landscape of the third decade of the twenty-first century for what it really is.

Traditional political scientists — given short shrift here for adhering to outdated typologies and characterisations of political regimes — might find Keane’s research too impressionistic, but unlike their works this book is written, with poise and urgency, in Keane’s inimical prose. Noting that “ethical numbness flourishes” in regimes that thrive on fealty to the despot and his cronies, he observes that “nobody is innocent. Each soul is implicated in nested circles of soiled solidarity… Everybody is forced to drink from the waters of incertitude: it feels as if political order is riddled with ambiguity.” Conveying the subtlety of despots’ attempts to engender “voluntary servitude” from the populace, he notes that “they buy rather than bully, deflect instead of deny, co-opt rather than confront.” And: “Clever despots strive to be both agile and attractive to those they seek to master. Their task is to magnetise flesh-and-blood people, to encourage them to pay attention to their leaders and to be charmed by their tunes. Real people must be persuaded of their rulers’ rightness, convinced that their leaders’ authority and the system are good for them and their country, and that they have no serious alternative.” Substantively and stylistically, he operates at Orwellian heights. If only I could coin phrases like these.

Of course a sweeping book like this has its loose ends and inconsistencies. Throughout his story, for instance, Keane repeatedly notes the sophistication, self-confidence and ruthless political professionalism of the new despots and the resilience of the regimes they have built. But in the final chapter he performs something of a U-turn by intoning that “despotism thrives on popular beliefs in good queens and benign kings, skilled managers and shrewd technicians of power. But the harsh truth is that despotism unleashes vaulting ambition and lusts for power that frustrate its own search for eternality.”

All of a sudden we seem to be back at the very thesis he wanted us to discard, namely that when push comes to shove, political systems that lack proper checks and balances and any fixed way of resolving the problem of leader succession are bound to go up in flames. In short, it’s Lord Acton’s classic bon mot (“power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”) all over again. Having digested 250 relentlessly worrying and brilliantly persuasive pages of the opposite claim — that these regimes are viable and here to stay — this conclusion strikes me as a rare slip into wishful thinking by a passionate democrat who, despite his trenchant analysis, needs to believe that power-sharing, monitorial democracies will be able to stare them down.

But this is really the exception. The book’s confident bird’s-eye perspective is buttressed by Keane’s having put his feet on the ground and talked to local figures (unlike, I should add, the vast bulk of mainstream political scientists who send out surveys and crunch numbers while glued to their chairs at university campuses). He knows these political economies and their political dramaturgies inside and out. He intends this book as a provocation, putting his polaroid pictures of the new despotisms into words that demand us to stop and take a good look at what is going on around us — partly in response to our own frivolities and hypocrisies — not just afar, but close to home.

Originally published on Inside Story

“An original and incisive analysis of the rise of demagogue-style leaders across large parts of the world today. New-style despotism, the author shows, is distinctive to our age—less openly violent than that of the past, but more insidious, posing a threat not just in less-developed parts of the world but to the established democracies.”—Anthony Giddens, Member of the House of Lords, United Kingdom, and Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge

“In these dark times for democracy, the books of John Keane bring new light, refreshing perspectives, and what we need most: hope.”—Enrique Krauze, author of Mexico: Biography of Power and Redeemers: Ideas and Power in Latin America

“John Keane is right to see his book as Machiavelli’s Prince for our times. His thesis that ‘despotisms are top-down pyramids of power that defy political gravity by nurturing the willing subservience and docility of their subjects’ is a caution for all times.”—Patricia Springborg, Centre for British Studies, Humboldt University, Berlin

“In his new book, John Keane, one of the world’s prominent political theorists, forcefully argues that what we witness today is not simply a crisis of democracy or the return of authoritarianism but the emergence of a new type of despotism that is more effective, more subtle, and less crazy than the despotic regimes we know—and because of this, more dangerous.”—Ivan Krastev, Permanent Fellow, Institute for Human Sciences (IWM), Vienna

The New Despotism was ranked by Maclean’s magazine as among the top ten books to watch in 2020