The New Despotism
Harvard University Press, $27.95 (cloth)
Democracy seems in bad shape these days. In contrast, its global political rivals appear to be prospering and gaining confidence in their ability to offer a viable alternative. Commenting gleefully a few weeks after Donald Trump’s election, Vladimir Putin celebrated “the degradation of the idea of democracy in western society in the political sense of the word.” Su Changhe, a Chinese scholar who has praised his country’s successes under President-for-life Xi Jinping, offers approval that “Western democracy is already showing signs of decay.” Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, ruler of Dubai and United Arab Emirates (UAE) Prime Minister, hopes that his government will soon be “closer to its people, faster, better and more responsive” than western democracy. Since the UAE’s version of democracy is deeply rooted in local society, he claims, that dream is already being realized.
The specter of powerful autocratic states that parasitically mimic democracy, while in reality eviscerating its core, should alarm us.
Of course, autocrats always tout their achievements, or insist that their regimes rest on the will of the people. Even Nazi Germany claimed popular legitimacy, a racist and anti-Semitic Volks-sovereignty. Soviet apologists and fellow travelers labeled Stalin’s Eastern European vassal states “people’s democracies.” The contemporary narrative seems depressingly familiar. Even so, the specter of powerful autocratic states that parasitically mimic democracy, while in reality eviscerating its core, should alarm us. Are democracy’s rivals indeed gaining ground? And, what precisely is different this time?
John Keane’s illuminating study of what he dubs the new despotism persuasively argues that its momentum in China, Hungary, Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, the UAE, and many other countries offers evidence both for its viability today and its longevity in times to come. A novel political formation, the new despotism impersonates democracy as it feeds leech-like on its shortcomings. Perhaps most ominously, it threatens to make inroads even in long-standing democracies, where the political decay celebrated by Putin and others represents more than a debased, self-congratulatory fantasy.
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Keane, an Australian political theorist, brings a distinctive global sensibility to his research on democracy’s vulnerabilities. Drawing on a range of political and scholarly sources, Keane digs into the intricacies of the new despotism’s workings in a variety of political contexts. He remains most at home, however, in the intellectual world of modern European political thought to make sense of what so alarms him.
Indeed, he models his book on The Prince (1532), a tough-minded analysis of early modern European autocrats’ dirty political tricks written by the Florentine thinker Niccolo Machiavelli. Keane insists that only by dissecting the new despotism’s supple, but no less shady, political techniques can we understand how it renders its subjects compliant and seemingly grateful. Admitting that his book, like Machiavelli’s classic, might inadvertently embolden the new despots and their admirers, Keane asks that we read it in the same spirit that the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau interpreted The Prince: “While pretending to give lessons to kings, he gave great ones to peoples.” Like Machiavelli, Keane wants to out illegitimate rulers and jolt democrats into taking despotism’s dangers seriously.
Keane insists that only by dissecting the new despotism’s supple, but no less shady, political techniques can we understand how it renders its subjects compliant.
The new despotism, Keane claims, represents a modern species of top-down state capitalism, whose sizable inequalities are “bridged by top-to-bottom patron-client connections, middle-class loyalty, staged elections, and a great deal of officially sanctioned talk of the people as the veritable source of political order.” It fuses state and economy so as to obliterate clear divisions between public and private, with political and economic privilege overlapping in messy ways that serve the interests of political powerholders. While the new despotism’s structure may differ in Russia or other post-communist states, from the Gulf petro-states to right-wing Singapore, some commonalities stand out.
Merging capitalism with the state greases the apparatus of power by lucrative patronage networks that guarantee, however modest, a piece of the pie for the politically pliant. Anyone willing to bolster the regime becomes a candidate for more generous rewards. As for the middle classes, conventionally celebrated as liberal democracy’s indispensable social carriers, Keane suggests that they tend to keep their heads down and mind their own business. Rather than fighting for civil liberties or legislative checks on the executive, the bourgeoisie spends its time shopping and surfing the web, where its activities are carefully monitored by paternalistic government minders and the large (oftentimes western) tech companies that assist them. The new despots make adept use of advanced digital technologies, which they exploit to gather information and, when necessary, squelch signs of political dissent.
Unlike twentieth-century communism or wartime fascism, the new system thrives in part because it offers middle and upper classes the consumerist lifestyle long heralded as one of liberal democracy’s great accomplishments. Mirroring that sleight of hand, political elites tend to downplay militant ideological appeals as well, or instead simply provide a political grab bag with something for everybody. As one savvy Putin-watcher observes, “Moscow can feel like an oligarchy in the morning and a democracy in the afternoon, a monarchy for dinner and a totalitarian state at bedtime.”
Unlike twentieth-century communism or wartime fascism, the new system thrives in part because it offers middle and upper classes the consumerist lifestyle long heralded as one of liberal democracy’s great accomplishments.
Keane’s book gives an especially helpful sketch of the new despotism’s staged or phantom democracy. Political leaders, preoccupied with their public image and the vagaries of mass opinion, engage in a semi-permanent political campaign—not only because they rely on mass support but also, of course, because they want to control and manipulate it. Not surprisingly, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Viktor Orbán, Xi Jinping, and other new despots tend to be “visual, noisy, and garrulous.” Large media firms, often with close ties to political elites, eagerly cooperate in exchange for tax breaks, safe havens, government handouts, and political access. And, political elites tap pollsters and experts similarly interested in the regime’s largesse.
Keane blows the whistle on private companies complicit with the new despots. The consulting firm McKinsey, for example, accrues lavish profits by supporting state-guided and operated enterprises in China, Saudi Arabia, and Russia. Other large U.S. and Western European companies provide the high-tech instruments of repression and surveillance on which the new despots depend. Capitalist democracy’s entanglements with the new system take direct material forms, as well as more indirect ones. The growing role of dark money in political affairs, unchecked corporate power, burgeoning economic inequality, militarization of police and domestic security: these and many other alarming trends within contemporary democracies feed the cynicism about democracy that Putin, Al Maktoum, and other new despots successfully peddle to their followers as hard-headed realism. They and their allies can easily spotlight democracy’s real failings.
The new despots also cultivate domestic as well as foreign intellectuals who provide ideological cover. Witness, for example, the Hungarian government’s evident glee when conservative political theorist Patrick Deneen praised Orbán for his anti-feminist and anti-LGBTQ policies. The new despots, Keane correctly observes, aspire to be strongman-rulers: masculinist political style goes hand-in-hand with reactionary gender policies.
Even as the new despots tout their use of electoral devices as evidence for their popular legitimacy, they deploy an updated array of new—and not so new—Machiavellian “dark arts.”
Elections are commonplace in the new despotism: in recent decades China, for example, has held over one million elections in six thousand villages. Even as the new despots tout their use of electoral devices as evidence for their popular legitimacy, they deploy an updated array of new—and not so new—Machiavellian “dark arts”: harassing potentially uncooperative candidates, gerrymandering constituency boundaries, and ignoring or miscounting inconvenient electoral results. Even so, elections pose potential risks to power holders. As Keane points out, however, carefully managed electoral devices blur the border between the new despotism’s “staged” and less bogus versions of democracy elsewhere.
Public forums and experiments in popular deliberation play pivotal roles as well. The new despotism, Keane argues, differs from its early modern variants and critical dissection by the Frenchman Baron de Montesquieu and other Enlightenment intellectuals. Targeting despotism, Montesquieu, John Locke, and other prominent critics associated it with secret, absolute, lawless power, exercised by force or violence.
In China, Singapore, and the UAE, the new despots are public creatures obsessed with PR. They employ a carefully staged public theatricality, along with pseudo-democratic modes of deliberation and participation. State violence takes the form of a velvet fist they generally keep hidden in their pockets. Their system of calibrated coercion economizes on brute force. Fear and insecurity are less commonplace than Montesquieu would have predicted, in part because the velvet glove only comes off when the regime faces open intransigence and public dissent. Even then state violence is “cleverly calibrated, often outsourced, and, until the moment it strikes, a shadowy affair.”
Finally, the new despotism fails to abide by the rule of law in which power holders follow the same rules as their subjects and are checked by constitutional devices. Yet their rule can take on surprisingly legalistic hues, with the new despots vocally advertising their fidelity to some notion of law-based government. They seek a degraded rule by law, Keane argues, that provides state activity with a legal veneer while failing to restrain the system’s main players. Not Montesquieu’s lawless despotism, but instead a messy mix of law and lawlessness dominates the political scene.
The new despotism fails to abide by the rule of law in which power holders follow the same rules as their subjects and are checked by constitutional devices.
Together these elements of a phantom democracy allow political elites to measure the public temperature and, when politically advantageous, keep it from heating up too quickly. Indeed, Keane views the new despotism’s capacity to adjust and learn as precisely what makes it so challenging to democrats. Its feedback mechanisms render it surprisingly adaptive.
To be sure, the system has weaknesses. As in other top-down regimes, political elites overestimate their wisdom and capacities. Powerful figures—Xi Jinping is one prominent example—seem keen to ward off rivals and prevent the rise of talented, younger leaders. How then might a smooth transition of power transpire? Since the new despots rely heavily on digital technologies, they are vulnerable to new types of protest too. The decentralized, networked character of digital technologies means that they “cannot be controlled outright by any single user or group of users.” Cautiously hopeful that political opponents might creatively tap them, Keane describes the 2019 Hong Kong protests as “the most serious digital storm the rulers of China have faced so far.”
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Keane makes sense of some complex as well as alarming and surprising trends. Yet, his recourse to Enlightenment political thought is puzzling. What is gained by characterizing the new system as a type of modernized despotism, particularly given the term’s checkered past?
Among Enlightenment political critics, Keane concedes, the idea of despotism took on worrisome orientalist connotations. Despotism’s native home, they assumed, was the alien and supposedly unfree East, the Turkish seraglios satirized by Montesquieu, or perhaps China, as Voltaire suggested. Some readers might accuse Keane of reproducing the term’s orientalism: his cases are located outside Western Europe and North America.
Keane rightly insists that our choice of conceptual terms matters: we need to name the new political configuration and analyze it properly. He defends the category new despotism as best capturing its on-the-ground political realities—how the regimes at hand mimic democracy and selectively steal from its political toolkit. The anodyne category authoritarianism, a favorite among political scientists and sociologists, distorts the new despotism’s special traits, including its dependence on staged or phantom democracy. Some older terminological cousins—autocracy, tyranny, and dictatorship—misleadingly suggest an absolute contrast between democracy and its undemocratic rivals. Totalitarianism is even less suitable: neither Putin’s Russia nor Xi Jinping’s China looks like Stalinist Russia or Maoist China. Surely today’s Beijing and Moscow shopping mall would shock Mao’s peasants and Stalin’s proletarians. The martial spirit and war-mongering of mid-century European fascism, similarly, seem remote. Within limits, the new despotism’s subjects can express their views without having to worry about being thrown in jail or sent to a detention camp.
Keane wants to sound the alarm before it’s too late.
Less persuasively, Keane suggests that the category new despotism best allows us to capture the fact that so many of its subjects willingly genuflect to arbitrary and unaccountable power, that they practice voluntary servitude, something he considers indispensable to the new political constellation. Yet precisely this phenomenon consumed mid-twentieth century debates about fascism and National Socialism. As the refugee Frankfurt School psychoanalyst Erich Fromm asked in Escape from Freedom (1941), why were seemingly “civilized” members of the middle class, residing in politically and economically developed countries, so willing to give up—and escape from—the challenges of freedom? Fromm’s colleagues, philosopher Max Horkheimer and political economist Friedrich Pollock, likewise located mid-century fascism’s material basis in a relatively stable state-capitalist political economy. In sum, neither present-day voluntary servitude nor its state-capitalist basis seems completely novel.
Frustrating as well is Keane’s failure to engage alternative frameworks that seem more plausible than those he discounts. Writing in the early 1950s, another Frankfurt School figure, the political theorist Franz L. Neumann, redeployed the old term Caesarism partly as a way to make sense of staged or pseudo-democracy within illiberal movements and regimes. More recently, political scientists have used the category electoral authoritarianism to capture how some political regimes render elections instruments of authoritarian rather than democratic rule. Some scholars doing so, like Keane, seem alert to the prospect of stable, basically autocratic regimes that deceptively ape democracy. Though Keane probably does a better job at highlighting the new political order’s state capitalist social and economic foundations, he conveniently downplays the overlap between his approach and theirs, briefly acknowledging—but then shrugging off—an impressive rival analytic framework.
Even more oddly, Keane’s volume ignores ongoing debates about populism, a phenomenon he interrogates elsewhere. Admittedly, populism has its own weaknesses as a category and explanatory framework. Yet its presumed differentia specifica overlap with traits Keane associates with the new despotism. Theorists of authoritarian populism worry, for example, about the global ascent of strongmen rulers exercising power in the name of the people while demonizing imaginary enemies. If not identical, how then exactly do the two phenomena relate?
In the end, Keane’s strongest reason for favoring the term new despotism derives from its “powerful ethical sting”: it brings “shivers to our spines” and “prods and pokes us” to take seriously the specter of a global order dominated not by liberals and democrats but popular strongmen rulers. His analysis tracks Alexis de Tocqueville’s earlier attempt to update Enlightenment political ideas by diagnosing the possibility of a novel, mass-based, democratic despotism. Such a system, Tocqueville prophesied in Democracy in America’s dreary second volume (1840), might accumulate vast tutelary power over pampered subjects, preoccupied with their narrow private affairs but robbed of real opportunities to exercise political autonomy. Although Keane correctly identifies the many things Tocqueville got wrong, he credits him with anticipating how twenty-first century despotism’s roots can sometimes be traced to “failed local efforts by citizens and their elites” to build democracy. As in Hungary or Russia, it can emerge in the aftermath of failed democratic experiments.
Like Tocqueville, Keane wants to sound the alarm before it’s too late. Whether new despotism’s political shock value can justify its analytic merits, however, remains unclear.
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Donald Trump only makes a few brief appearances in Keane’s book. However, its pertinence to the forty-fifth U.S. president seems obvious. Trump’s incestuous ties with media toadies at Fox News, hostility to law-based government, preference for gerrymandering and other dirty political tricks, soft spot for corporate oligarchs who do his political bidding, effective use of new technologies: ample evidence suggests, at the very least, that Trump represents a wannabe new despot, whose publicly staged, noisy, and garrulous brand of top-down executive rule sometimes makes Xi Jinping seem statesmanlike by comparison. Should we then worry not only about the new despotism’s unsettling global but also domestic political prospects?
Keane paints an unnerving portrait of a possible global future in which democracy, in any defensible sense of the term, has been demoted and marginalized.
Keane’s answer is a resolute, though incomplete, “yes.” While alerting readers to trends that potentially motor despotism’s growth within democracy, Keane focuses on its present-day workings in political contexts where democracy never really flourished (China and the UAE, for example), or democratization occurred fitfully before coming to an abrupt standstill (Hungary, Russia). But what then of its prospects in Trump’s United States, Narendra Modi’s India, or even Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil? Like Trump, Bolsonaro and Modi are now eagerly drawing on the Machiavellian playbook whose shenanigans Keane dissects so skillfully. Might democratic political culture and institutions there and elsewhere successfully hold the line? What can citizens do not only to halt further political regression but also reverse the terrible trends at hand?
Keane provides no easy answers to these obvious questions. Yet his rich and insightful book stands out as a major contribution to contemporary debates about democracy’s prospects. He paints an unnerving portrait of a possible global future in which democracy, in any defensible sense of the term, has been demoted and marginalized. As Keane successfully documents, evidence for a disturbing dalliance between democracy and despotism continues to pile up: the prospect of a state-of-the-art, globally ascendant autocracy that successfully masquerades as popular rule seems real enough. Those of us worried about that possibility can learn from and constructively build on his thoughtful reflections.