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.

‘From Democracy to Despotism: How Elections Can Be Used and Abused’, Global Forum on Democracy, Mexico City, 25th November 2021.



The New Despotism: Interview with Professor Badri Rao, Orion Television, February 2022

Watch the interview here.


The Desperation of Despots – Interview with Polityka (Warsaw) 1 January 2021

Full interview in Polish is available here.


Don’t underestimate resilience of the smart new despotisms

22 June 2020, Democracy Digest

The new despotism defies the standard distinction between democracy and authoritarianism, argues John Keane (above), Professor of Politics at the University of Sydney and WZB (Berlin). The “whip-smart resilience” of these distinctive regimes should not be underestimated, he writes in an adaptation from his new book, The New Despotism (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass. and London, 2020).

The writing is on democracy’s wall: not since the 1920s and early 1930s, when our planet was besieged by collapsing empires, military dictatorships and totalitarian regimes, has power-sharing constitutional democracy everywhere been under such intense pressure from self-confidently anti-democratic methods of governing people. A deep dive into the murky power dynamics within countries otherwise as different as Russia and Vietnam, Iran and Saudi Arabia, Hungary, China and the United Arab Emirates shows why. It reveals that something sinister is being born of our darkening times: a new kind of despotism the world has never before known.

The word despotism has long been out of fashion but it’s the vital keyword we need to understand how democracies can be outflanked and undermined not just by social unrest, economic stagnation, political conspiracies and military coups, but also by 21st-century technologies of power that exude a fatal charm. Despotism isn’t a synonym for rule by fear and raw force. In practice, Vladimir Putin, Viktor Orbán and other despots are not like the tyrants, autocrats and dictators of yesteryear. The new despots are masters of clever deception and seduction. They manage, using a medley of slick means, to win the loyalty of the ruled, including important parts of the middle classes, skilled and unskilled workers and the poor. Voluntary servitude is their thing. The leader of the pack of the new despotisms, the People’s Republic of China, shows that they can even win many admirers and friends well beyond the borders of the states they rule.

National Endowment for Democracy (NED)

These despotisms are divided by obvious differences. Singapore is an older and more sophisticated species of despotism than Hungary, Belarus and Vietnam, for instance. In Saudi Arabia, consuming, importing, brewing and selling alcohol is officially forbidden whereas for millions of Russians it is the fragrant elixir of everyday life. China is a global empire in the making; its business, political and military friends in Pakistan, Serbia, Nigeria, Laos and Kazakhstan are happy to tag along. The term despotism takes note of these differences. It doesn’t suppose that the earth is flat or that all dogs are Dalmatians. Instead it draws attention to the way the rulers of all these regimes skilfully win the conformity of their subjects as well as gang up against their enemies and support their allies in such matters as trade and investment, diplomacy, government intelligence and propaganda, and sales of military equipment.

The new despots of our century have a common loathing of power-sharing “monitory” democracy. Their passion is power for the sake of power exercised arbitrarily over others. They are relentless and can be ruthless and vengeful in its pursuit. Yet they are not blindly reckless. They pay meticulous attention to details, cleverly interfere with people’s lives, stand over them, and sometimes bully them into submission. The public support the rulers enjoy is thus surprising, especially when it’s considered that despotisms are systems of state capitalism run by “poligarchs”, rich government officials and business tycoons who concentrate staggering amounts of wealth in their own hands, and within the patron-client connections and family dynasties they control and protect.

These poligarchs are practised in the dark arts of corruption. They are contemptuous of independent courts – what Erdoğan calls “juristocracy” – yet they cleverly use courts to rule to their advantage. Despots know how to employ law to defeat the rule of law, to rule through law. Law is their double-edged weapon, a gentle wand waved in favour of supporters and a sharp sword used against opponents.

Despots also bolster their rule by using television, radio, newspapers and social media platforms to spread rumours and fake news, and to target and gaslight their opponents using media-savvy smears that Russians call black public relations (chernyi piar). Despots regularly administer doses of fear and targeted violence against dissenters. They disappear their critics. They pick fights with journalists and civil society groups they consider to be trouble makers and disturbers of order. But their methods are sneaky. Their violence is stocking-masked.

Violence certainly isn’t an outdated weapon in the arsenal of despotic rule. The despots of our age know by heart Machiavelli’s advice that princes must never let their thoughts wander from weapons and war. Military action by the rulers of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Russia suggests that the new despotisms, for the sake of their own domestic legitimacy and geopolitical survival, are prone to pick fights and launch wars in their neighbourhoods, and well beyond.


At home, things are different. The new despotisms are much more than old-fashioned, iron-fisted military dictatorships. So long as they are not openly disobedient, people are left alone by the new despotisms. They are expected to be bored by public affairs, preoccupied with such matters as family and friends, money and jobs, sport and travel. These are not ‘fascist’ or ‘pre-fascist’ regimes. Things generally seem relaxed in their towns and cities. Lovers stroll hand-in-hand through tree-lined boulevards. Bustling cafes and restaurants, even in masked form, prove that pleasure can be innocently naïve. Everyone seems constantly to be online. The shopping malls (their numbers have grown eight times under Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan) resemble temples packed with well-dressed shoppers. Unlike the austere “socialist despotism” (Leszek Kolakowski) of the Soviet era, the new despotisms thrive on hedonism. They strive to be provident. They draw in people, invite them to submit, offer them the chance to enjoy their own powerlessness. Their aim is to persuade subjects to obey necessity and to call it freedom. They want their subjects to suppose that things are getting better and bigger and better. The new despotisms cultivate cowardice. That’s why they have no great need of paramilitaries, street violence, bricks tossed through windows or early morning visits by the secret police. Seduction, not repression, is their defining quality.

The despotisms of our age are state-of-the-art forms of tutelary power, a new type of media-saturated political rule that does something many observers thought to be impossible: they dominate their subjects by winning their calculated support and affection by means of top-down, people-friendly techniques of government. Perhaps their strangest and most striking quality is their experimentation with locally-made democratic procedures such as elections, public forums and anti-corruption agencies. The rulers operate Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts. They employ public opinion polling agencies and think tanks. They pioneer Tea Sessions and Policy Feedback Groups (Singapore), “persistent threat units” (Vietnam) and (in the UAE) “happiness and positivity” programmes backed by “councils for happiness”.

The new despotisms “feel” democratic. They are phantom democracies. It is wrong to call them systems of “authoritarianism”. That dog-tired word was coined and popularised half a century ago by Samuel Huntington, who reasoned that “authoritarian systems are non-democratic” while in “liberal democracies” leaders are chosen “through competitive elections in which the bulk of the adult population has the opportunity to participate”. The new despotisms defy this distinction. They do all they can to portray themselves as incarnations of “the people”. They trumpet their successes and mock the disorder within “Western” democracies. They build into their governing structures learning mechanisms designed to make them more efficient, effective and legitimate in the eyes of the people they rule. They are smart despotisms. They learn by doing how to handle such areas as financial services and new technology start-ups, public relations platforms, intelligence agencies and the armed forces. They come well-equipped with shock absorbers and trial-and-error learning mechanisms designed to manufacture voluntary servitude among their subjects.

The despotisms are something new under the sun. They aren’t “hybrid regimes” or half-way houses on the road to “liberal democracy”. Their whip-smart resilience under pressure from environmental shocks, downturns of the economy and internal and external political threats shouldn’t be underestimated. That they manage to win the support of their compliant subjects is especially striking, and that is why they count as a serious alternative to the ideals and power-sharing democratic arrangements we have known for a generation.

Although nobody can predict this in advance, it’s possible that the new despotisms, led by China, will outrival and defeat democracies or, at least, so deeply carve their legacy on the hearts of their loyal subjects that when despotisms are pushed onto the back foot or despots are forced to abdicate or run for their lives, millions of people will yearn for their lost masters, and for the good times remembered as their most glorious years.



Master copyists of democratic style: Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (left) and Russian president Vladimir Putin at the 2018 Group of 20 summit in Buenos Aires. Kyodo via AP Images

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


Summer 2021

Review of by Gergana Dimova in Democratic Theory, volume 8, 1 (Summer 2021), pp. 96-109.

In his latest opus, The New Despotism, John Keane continues to challenge existing wisdom in the field of democratic theory and comparative political studies. One of the key insights of the book is that there is nothing inherently democratic about democratic innovations and procedures, and thus they can be used to prop up despotisms, rather than usher in democracy. While this insight comports with existing misgivings about elections, the book stands out in the way it explains the sustainability of using the democratic procedures in the new despotisms. For democratic procedures to further the aims of the new despotisms, the condition of “voluntary servitude” needs to be met. “Voluntary servitude” means that people willingly give in to political slavery, and become accomplices in maintaining the illusion that democratic procedures are implemented (215–222). Keane’s achievement is that he creates an analytical ecosystem of interlinked assumptions, observations, conditions, and other logical connectors, which make his model of the new despotism so robust.


Read the full review here


22 February 2021

Citizenship and the New Despotism – UNESCO MOST Winter School 2021 by Institute of Advanced Studies Kőszeg (iASK)


17 February 2021

Julia Suryakusuma, “New Order? New normal? New despotism!”, The Jakarta Post 

What do you associate the word “new” with? Usually pretty positive feelings, right? Enjoying new clothes or shoes, excitement over a new car, or feeling good when you make a nice new friend. How about a new president? Immense relief that his name is Joe Biden! And of course, “new normal” has become part of our daily lexicon since the coronavirus pandemic, along with work from home (WFH), online schooling, social distancing, wearing masks and frequent handwashing.

Read the full review here


11 January 2021


Indonesia’s ‘new despotism’ – Melbourne Asia Review

Dr Airlangga Pribadi Kusman & Dr Milda Istiqomah

Scholar John Keane sketches a future world dominated by what he calls new despotism, ‘a new type of pseudo-democratic government led by rulers skilled in the art of manipulating and meddling with people’s lives, marshalling their support, and winning with their conformity’. The new despotism is characterised by wealth, and the expansion of executive power by controlling the judiciary and undermining the rule of law, despite continued elections and the retention of constitutional protections relating to the separation of political and judicial power and the equality of citizens before the law.

Read the full review here


December 2020

Ibrahim Genc, Review of The New Despotism, Horizon Insights, volume 3, 4 (2021)

As someone who has been following John Keane for a while, it would be accurate to say that The New Despotism (2020) is the accumulation of his ideas and writings in the last four years or so. To briefly describe the book, it is a book that examines how countries like Hungary and China survive and thrive in the previous few decades despite their efforts to undermine democracy. For Keane, such regimes outperform their predecessor thanks to their ability to learn and adapt.

Read the full review here


16 December 2020

Badrinath Rao at India’s leading platform The Wire (16 December 2020) says:

“John Keane, political theorist and renowned scholar of democracy, offers a seminal analysis of the aberrations of democracy and the rise of what he calls ‘the new despotism’… Drawing on his sustained engagement with democratic institutions, Keane delineates the contours of contemporary changes in a compelling manner… The new despotism is an intellectual tour de force because it provides a coherent framework for making sense of apparently disjointed developments. Using examples from across the globe, Keane proves that new despotism is not ‘a frozen form of power’, instead, it has a kaleidoscopic quality that can fool an unsuspecting observer… Cogently argued and replete with apposite examples, Keane makes a forceful case for reexamining our thoughts about despotism. His book is a happy blend of prodigious scholarship, a riveting style, and original ideas. Such books are rare these days.”

Read full review here

PDF available here


December 2020

Peter Rose, editor of the Australian Book Review, picked The New Despotism as a 2020 Book of the Year: “essential, worrying reading”

Read full review here

PDF available here

6 November 2020

Seema Chishti, ‘Subverting the System: Reflections on the Fate of Democracies in the 21st Century’, The India Forum

Read full review here


15 September 2020

Dictators, Despotism and Democracy: in conversation with Tory Shepherd, Hawke Centre (Adelaide): live on Sep 15, 2020

20 August 2020

The New Despotism: webinar recording, with comments by Adam Czarnota, Martin Krygier and Wojciech Sadurski

26 July 2020

Dr Gergana Dimova, eutopia (Amsterdam)

In The New Despotism, John Keane revives this term to examine how the ‘new despotism’ functions today through qualitatively different characteristics and processes to its older forms. As the book skilfully identifies how the new despotism thrives on ambiguity above all, this is a perceptive study that will shift the analytical lens through which despotic regimes are viewed, writes Gergana Dimova, and offers a warning to the complacency of liberal democracies.

View full review here

15 July 2020

Nicholas Stuart, ‘The New Despotism Thrives in the Darkness’, Canberra Times

In his latest book, The New Despotism, Keane teases out the way despots – although they call themselves leaders – subvert democracy to seize power and then subvert the structures of the state to hold it.

Read full review


July/August, 2020

Colin Woodward, ‘What Makes Today’s Dictators Different’

Washington Monthly

There was a time, not so long ago, when the “smart people” believed that we’d moved past history, that liberal democracies were destined to spread across the planet, that we lived in a unipolar world with the United States as the benevolent hegemon, spreading the fruits of globalism far and wide. 

Read the full review here


12 July 2020

‘Montesquieu and despotism’, The Philosopher’s Zone, ABC Radio National

Montesquieu was the 18th century French philosopher who introduced the term “despotism” into our political vocabulary.

The word denotes a form of government in which a single individual or group rules with absolute power and, according to this week’s guests, despotism is making a strong 21st century comeback.

From China to Russia, Turkey to Hungary, democracy is threatened in ways that Montesquieu would not have found surprising.


8 July 2020

William E. Scheuerman, ‘Why Do Authoritarians Win?’, Boston Review

Not by repudiating democracy but by simulating it, a new book argues.

Read full review here


3 July 2020

Review of The New Despotism (in Spanish) by Armando Chaguaceda on Spotify

El Ágora Infinita- Ep. 2 “El Nuevo Despotismo”
El Ágora Infinita

Listen on Spotify

30 June 2020

Book Review by Dr Gergana Dimova, LSE

In The New Despotism, John Keane revives this term to examine how the ‘new despotism’ functions today through qualitatively different characteristics and processes to its older forms. As the book skilfully identifies how the new despotism thrives on ambiguity above all, this is a perceptive study that will shift the analytical lens through which despotic regimes are viewed, writes Gergana Dimova, and offers a warning to the complacency of liberal democracies.

Read full review here


26 June 2020

Robert Manne, ‘Critique on ‘new despots’ lacks vital foundation’, The Sydney Morning Herald

‘bold, spirited and original’,  a ‘rather extraordinary book’

Read full review


>>Reply to Robert Manne

Thanks to Robert Manne for his review of my “rather extraordinary” new book. Fair-minded readers of the review have already told me it’s a “rather extraordinary” misreading of the book. Whether this is inadvertent or wilful is hard to say, but I’m inclined to agree. The misrepresentations are out of the ordinary.

To begin with the boring bits: the new despotism isn’t a type of state, as he claims. It’s a seductive new form of anti-democratic power that’s alive and well within our so-named democracies. The book shows how despotic states such as China, Iran and Saudi Arabia cooperate and go hunting in packs, and how in matters like arms sales and business deals they’re heavily entangled with and fed by big powers such as the United States. There are no angels and devils. Manne interprets the new despotism in Cold War, bloc-versus-bloc terms. And wrongly surmises that the book is ‘unintentionally Orientalist’ because the new despotism phrase “covers those countries European Christianity once thought of as ‘Oriental’”. That’s not what the book says. Our world isn’t like that. It’s much messier. Despotism is inside our democracies.

Manne complains that there’s no explanation of the rise of the new despotism. Yet the whole book is about the many sources of their rulers’ resilience, above all their whip-smart ability to learn how to rule despotically, to solve problems and win the loyalty of their subjects, which is the key to understanding their rise to prominence, and durability.

Manne also grumbles that The New Despotism steamrolls differences, overdoes the genus at the expense of the species, shows that I’m not “interested in complications or exceptions”. These early lines from the book are worth quoting in reply: “Yes, Singapore is an older and much more sophisticated species of despotism than Hungary, Belarus, and Vietnam. In Saudi Arabia, consuming, importing, brewing, and selling alcohol are forbidden, whereas for millions of Russians liquor is the fragrant elixir of everyday life. China is a global imperial power in the making; its business, political, and military friends in Pakistan, Laos, and Kazakhstan are happy to tag along.”

Most worrying is Manne’s throwaway complaint that not only didn’t I write a book about climate change, but that dealing with the despoliation of our biosphere requires “the cooperation of the United States and China”. Well, yes it does. But hidden in Manne’s remark are pretty serious questions about the terms and conditions of such cooperation. Is he saying democracy – by which the book means not just free and fair elections but the public scrutiny and institutional restraint of the powerful – is a tradeable value, just one set of ideals and a way of life amongst others? Does the climate emergency we face require emergency rule? Manne the catastrophist and fellow traveller of despotism seems to think so. The New Despotism certainly doesn’t.

The book’s final pages explain to readers why democracy remains a superior way of handling dangerous problems such as banking bubbles, shadowy arms deals and environmental destruction. These pages say that a thorough cleaning of democracy’s Augean stables is the best way to deal with the new despotism of the 21st century. In our darkening times, what might renewing the spirit and substance of democracy mean in Australia? How about a first-ever national anti-corruption commission? Granting rights of meaningful representation to our indigenous peoples? Ring-fencing public service media? Clampdowns on corporate tax dodgers? Extending the franchise to permanent residents? Establishing new ways of politically protecting our endangered, precious biomes?

What’s wrong with such democratic reforms, Robert Manne? Are they really “the last thing that we need at present”? Aren’t they rather the best way of ensuring that those who exercise power are prevented from making idiotic decisions that damage the lives of people and ruin the environments in which they dwell?


John Keane
Sydney and Berlin
29 June 2020


23 June 2020

The new despotism – By Phillip Adams on Late Night Live

For a time the West believed that following the fall of the Berlin Wall, the rest would become democratic just like us. Now, for a new age, enter a new type of anti-democratic leader. Quite unlike any we’ve seen before, John Keane argues that the new despotisms currently spreading the globe, defy standard definitions between democracy and authoritarianism.

Listen to the conversation on the ABC Late Night Live


22 June 2020

‘Don’t underestimate the resilience of the smart new despotisms’, DemDigest (Washington DC.)

The new despotisms defy the standard distinction between democracy and authoritarianism, argues John Keane. The “whip-smart resilience” of these distinctive regimes should not be underestimated…

17 June 2020

Marcel ten Hooven, ‘Number 45’s America is a Phantom Democracy’, De Groene Amsterdammer

June 2020

‘The Great Plague: emergency rule as democracy’s menace’, Lettre International (Berlin) 129

Australian philosopher John Keane warns of the dangers of state-enforced anti-corona strategies. Could the emergency scenarios and crisis management strategies in Wuhan become a model for future governance? In a world plagued by unending pandemics and societies that regard survival as the greatest good, exceptional despotism – savvy in making the art of voluntary servitude a general scheme of action, using Chinese-style social credit programmes – could become a permanent temptation in formally democratic systems.

13 June 2020

Steve Donoghue, Open Letters Review

‘a brilliant re-interpretation of tyranny…a vital book for the times’


10 June 2020

‘Despotism, Democracy and the Great Pestilence’, Interview with Daniel Gascón, editor Letras Libres (Madrid)

‘Actions taken by governments to deal with the pandemic can jeopardize freedoms. Keeping an eye on power is an indispensable requirement for preventing despotism from becoming the new normal.’


4 June 2020

Interview with Matthew Taylor, Royal Society of Arts, London, 4 June 2020, who says the book is ‘completely gripping’, ‘not a simple read if you think you can divide the world up into good and bad guys’, ‘highly recommended’ and ‘a roller coaster…both exhilarating and terrifying’



3 June 2020

Despotism, Democracy and the Great Pestilence [in Swedish], Ord & Bild (Stockholm) 3 (2020)

View in PDF here


31 May 2020

‘The greed of capitalism. Unexpected socialism. The cult of individualism. A great political scientist reflects on the current risks faced by democracy. And he unmasks the strongest temptation: despotism.’

‘The New Authoritarian Virus’, L’Espresso

View in PDF here


29 May 2020

‘Keane’s key point is that today’s despotic states aren’t some kind of hybrid regime on the way to democracy, or in transition or fragile. They are a new type of political rule that’s here to stay and may even live on after the collapse of Western democracies.’

Ditte Maria Brasso Sørensen, ‘Despotism: the New Political Ideal the World is Moving Towards’, Dagbladet Information (Denmark)

Full review in PDF available here

29 May – 1 June 2020

‘A brilliant work’

Hans-Jürgen Jakobs, in Handelsblatt (Germany)

Full review in PDF available here

28 May 2020

‘The detailed, sophisticated and deeply relevant examination of The New Despotism is one of the fundamental texts for understanding our current global political reality’

Vedran Džihić and Sanja Bojanić, book presentation of The New Despotism, Centre for Advanced Studies of Southeastern Europe, University of Rijeka, Croatia

The full presentation is available at:

26 May 2020

Radio interview with Amy Mullins, ‘Uncommon Sense’, 3RRR (Melbourne);

21 May 2020

‘Absolutely essential reading for our troubled times.’ 
J. Michael Cole, Senior Fellow, China Policy Institute/Taiwan Studies Programme at the University of Nottingham, UK; Editor in Chief, Taiwan Sentinel; Associate Researcher, Paris-based Centre for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC).

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.


“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