Book Review: The New Despotism by John Keane

By Sunday 26 July 2020 No Comments

By: Dr Gergana Dimova

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.

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.

I had a piercing toothache when I started reading The New Despotism, but I became numb to the physical pain halfway through the book. That is because the text unsettled me in a profound way, despite the fact that I have long been accustomed to pouring over John Keane’s work and I relish its rebellious nature. Mine is not intended to be an isolated experience. The author himself professes that the term ‘new despotism’, probably best exemplified for Keane by China, which is mentioned 206 times in the book, ‘aims to unsettle orthodox taxonomies, old-fashioned ways of ordering things. It urges readers to think in fresh ways, to see the world with new eyes, to arouse different feelings, to pry open unfamiliar horizons of action’ (13). It delivers.

If you ever held the assumption that despotic regimes are old-fashioned, technologically ‘backwards’ countries, where old men rule over poor and uneducated people, you are in for a ride. In his new book, Keane revives the notion of ‘despotism’, but he calls it ‘the new despotism’, because it contains some qualitatively different characteristics. To begin with, the author dispels the myth that ‘despots rule by killing or repressing people against their will.’ Admittedly, violence has not disappeared entirely in the new despotism. In Kazakhstan, for example, human rights workers have been recorded as being marked with an ‘X’ for censorship (176). In Singapore, police search the homes of those deemed to be risks to ‘national security’ without warrants. Yet, a new element in the new despotism is that violence is much more muted and conscious, replacing intimidation and surveillance with seduction.

The strength of the new despotism comes from its skilful use of the media, and that use goes far beyond the familiar dissemination of ‘fake news’ and the slandering of opponents. Rather than hiding from public view, the new despotism embraces communicative abundance and intrumentalises it to the fullest degree. Leaders’ media appearances are lavish, meticulously choreographed affairs. It could be said that the new despotism stages non-stop theatrical spectacles projected to the whole nation. Grand infrastructure projects are one key prop in this theatre of self-aggrandisement.

The media are only too happy to be weaponised by the new despotism as they get generous tax breaks and coveted exclusive licenses in return. It’s a win-win-win situation: the new despotism benefits from the fruits of this deception, the media conglomerates make money and the public feel entertained and pandered to. This configuration seems like a Pareto optimal equilibrium. It is eminently more sustainable than the far less media savvy communist regimes, where the Party leaders gave bleak performances, the state media was cash-starved and the audiences were irreversibly bored.

However useful, the media are only part of the new despotism’s arsenal of seduction. If I had to find one word that explains the value added and the mastery of this book, it would be ‘ambiguity’. The book manages to explain how new despotism thrives on ambiguity and what these ambiguities are. One particular strength of the new despotism – and the first ambiguity– comes from its ability to successfully blend traditional local ways of doing things with an adoption of the most modern practices of democracies. This is an important observation for Keane to make because previous failed attempts at democratisation have shown that threading the line between old customs and contemporary Western techniques for governing is a highly precarious balancing act. Having read the book, we now know that the new despotism seems to excel more in this art than democracy-exporting countries. This combination of local ways and Western practices is very misleading for the new despotism’s subjects and no less confusing for outside observers.

The second ambiguity that Keane reveals is the new despotism’s complicated relationship with democracy. On the one hand, it derives pleasure from democracy’s failures, and loudly points them out. At the same time, it examines democratic achievements and consciously tries to replicate them. Mimicking democratic arrangements, and sometimes actually adopting them, is a key element of ‘seducing’ the public. Some of the procedures that the new despotisms take from democracy’s playbook include: ‘e-consultation exercises, online public forums, and small-scale informal consultations conducted by government ministers and known as Tea Sessions, Dialogue Sessions, Policy Feedback Groups, and Policy Study Workshops. The rulers operate Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts’ (95). These innovations make the public more vested in the ruling regime. They make them accomplices.

Mimicking, or even adopting, democratic procedures is a key ambiguity in the arsenal of seduction, it seems to me. The public can never have enough information to figure out to what extent democratic rule extends from local initiatives to a systematic practice. It is also often hard for any single citizen to tell a free and fair election from a manipulated one. All the citizens see are clear signs that the government is listening to the people. This impression is heightened by the media, which invariably tells them that the people are important. In a way all too familiar to scholars of populism, the new despotisms ‘regularly deploy the rhetoric of “the people” and refer constantly to them as the presumed source of sovereign authority’ (82).

To top it all off, the new despotism makes sure to demonstrate the use of the full power of the law and legal order. The catch – and this is yet another ambiguity – is that leaders uses the law selectively to fight opponents, while subverting the law to shield themselves and their clique. While the former is plain to see, the latter is often impossible to prove. It seems that the new despotism has planted all these hints, intimations and ambiguities to mislead the public. The subjects are one step away from willingly surrendering themselves to ‘voluntary servitude’, as Keane puts it (108).

But to make that final step, the public needs an internal motivating factor. It needs to feel that there is something in it for them. This something needs to be individual and tangible; it needs to be something material. The public needs to be not only cajoled; it also needs to be bribed. Those bribes come in the form of the enjoyment of small material possessions and luxury experiences, such as vacations and hobbies. Perhaps the most stinging rebuke in this book is aimed at the middle classes, who are ‘prepared to trade some liberties for comfortable peace and quiet’ (237).

The book tells us that it is quite possible, and even probable, for well-educated, well-travelled and ‘well brought up’ people to give up their ability to think critically for the opportunity to frequent fancy airport lounges, hotels and shops. Instead of inspiring ideals, driving progress and defending the less fortunate, these middle classes embrace cynical morals and fickle pragmatism. In the best possible scenario, they will forsake morals for professional prestige, not for replicas of Louis Vuitton bags.

On the surface, the new despotism’s middle classes seem like opportunistic intellectuals turned ultimate consumerists. But Keane underscores that they lead a comfortable, rather than a luxurious, life. It seems that this ambiguous situation – yet another ambiguity – puts the middle classes at risk. Looking up to the unattainable riches of the elites and looking down upon the insufferable misery of the poor, the survival instinct of the middle classes seems to kick in. It leads them to be satisfied with the small but stable private property they have rather than chase bigger but elusive riches. Thus, the middle classes have consciously or subconsciously become the beacons of the seductively repressive new despotism. And while their numbers are small, the book tells us, their importance is big, because they are visible. Their life is up for show, and it is meant to demonstrate that it is not only the ruling elite that can live a relatively good and stable life. The implication, it seems, is that poverty is a personal failure, not the new despotism’s fault.

Like all things in the new despotism, this statement – that poverty is an individual, rather than the regime’s, failure – is half-true and half-false. By laying it all out, Keane has masterfully uncovered yet another source of ambiguity. The true part of it is that in a state capitalist economy, which the author believes the new despotism is based upon, the small business is market-driven and is open to all entrants. The false part of this account is that big business is entirely under state patronage, which precludes access to people not affiliated with the political elite.

The half-true and half-false nature of economic relations is further complicated by the fact that all economic relations are based on networks of mutual favours. While this system of favours has often been analysed before (e.g. Alena V. Ledeneva, 1998), Keane goes one step further. He writes that the system creates enormous anxiety and uncertainty – and, yes, this is also an ambiguity – as it is never clear whether you would know ‘the right person’ for every emergency you run into. Instead of feeling repulsed by such a system, the people entangled in these networks feel a sense of solidarity as everyone is an accomplice, and a sense of relief that they have managed to navigate and survive these ambiguities for so long.

A key feature of the new despotism is its quietness. Unlike in Mussolini’s Italy, Hitler’s Germany and Mao’s China, public expressions of celebration and loyalty are discouraged. In the new despotism, ‘flesh-and-blood citizens are expected to stay quiet, locked down in private forms of self-celebration’ (97). For example, ‘in Tajikistan, which bans lavish private gatherings on the grounds that extravagant parties strain family budgets, a Dushanbe resident was fined for hosting friends at a local restaurant to celebrate his twenty-fifth birthday’ (97). It seems to me that being quiet is important for the state of ambiguity to perpetuate itself. If people get together, they will compare notes; they will exchange stories. Isolation (here conceived of before the widespread lockdown in response to COVID-19), especially in the company of small material comforts, probably nourishes self-congratulation and self-regard.

The insights outlined above, while not exhaustive, are indicative of the outstanding contribution that this book makes. Revealing combinations of motives, blends of practices, mixtures of economic structures, fluidity in relationships, duplicity in using the law and the media – in short what I have here termed ‘ambiguities’ – requires a high degree of perception and an utter lack of dogmatic and stereotypical thinking. This book will undoubtedly shift the analytical lens through which we view despotic regimes.

Why is this important? If Keane is correct that the new despotism is more flexible, subtle and efficient than we had suspected (24), then it can overcome various crises. As such, the new despotism is less prone to implosions reminiscent of the Soviet Union or breakdowns as witnessed in Latin America. If it is that durable, it constitutes an attractive alternative to liberal democracy. This means that the self-regard, the feeling of invincibility and the arguable complacency of such democracies are misplaced. You have been warned.

The New Despotism. John Keane. Harvard University Press. 2020.

Dr Gergana Dimova is an associate lecturer at the University of Winchester. Previously, she was a Jeremy Haworth Research Fellow at the University of Cambridge and a PhD candidate in political science at Harvard University. Her most recent book is: Democracy beyond Elections: Government Accountability in the Media Age. More info is available on her website is: https://gerganadimova.wixsite.com/website



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.

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.