John Keane is one of the most prolific thinkers of today's political theory. The accessibility of e-books and my current confinement caught found me reading his latest work (The New Despotism, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2020). From my cramped space I offer the following reflections…
The book explores a new governance that challenges traditional theories of dictatorships and democracies. It describes the power dynamics —in countries as diverse as Russia, Saudi Arabia, China, the Gulf Emirates, Hungary or Singapore— and reveals the common features of a New Despotism. It’s a political regime capable of nesting on radically different cultural, social and economic substrates. One which Keane differentiates —conceptually and empirically— both from the classical tyrannies described by Aristotle and from the competitive authoritarianism recognized by current political science.
These are governments well connected to globalization; experts in manipulation, seduction, co-optation and selective or enlarged repression. Using the mechanisms of money, legislation, the media and phantom democratic institutions, such as elections, deliberative forums and advisory councils at the service of the Power. Its hierarchical structures encourage voluntary servitude at home and capture adherents beyond its borders. Under this scheme, the brand new polygarchs —officials and entrepreneurs of a neo-communist capitalism— coexist with a broad, consumer-oriented middle class and vast popular sectors, subject to the protection and propaganda of the Leviathan.
As I read Keane, a poll on European political preferences came to light (Garton Ash, Timothy & Zimmermann, Antonia, "In Crisis, Europeans Support Radical Positions", May 6, 2020, Eupinions). Conducted in the midst of the pandemic (March 2020) in 28 countries, it revealed a disturbing preference among children under the age of 30 for authoritarian management of the environmental crisis. Such results align with studies on the growth of democratic disaffection by youth in Europe and the US. (Mounck, Y & Foa, R.S, "This Is How Democracy Dies", The Atlantic, January, 29, 2020).
Also, in the Barometer of the Americas a similar attitude is found in young Latin Americans. They are, in all cases, the rebellious grandchildren of democracy: full of information, outrage and impatience. Imaginative about other possible worlds. But ignorant that these may be —as their ancestors and contemporaries of the Afro-Asian world have found— worse than their current shelter.
At the current juncture, social protection and political protection are confused. Criticism of government performance with the demolition of the republic. The old scourges of poverty and corruption are now joined by the economic collapse and errors in the management of the pandemic. As changes in post-communist nations reveal5, there is demand for governments that promise order, even at the expense of freedoms. Will the New Despotism expand beyond its present territories? While history has more than once denied the prophets of misfortune, the shadow of the new despots is projected menacingly upon the dazed democracies on both sides of the Atlantic.