The New Despotism

CAS SEE Weekly Seminars with Guests – John Keane

On Thursday, May 28th from 9.00 to 11.00 am we hosted the second CAS SEE Weekly Seminar with John Keane, presented by Vedran Džihić and Sanja Bojanić, and dedicated to the presentation (and discussion) of Keane’s new book The New Despotism.

In his path-breaking new book, John Keane, Professor of Politics at the University of Sydney and at the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin (WZB), and the co-founder and director of the Sydney Democracy Network (SDN), analyses and connects the antidemocratic and illiberal developments seemingly scattered through our geopolitical reality, and invites us to recognize them as a steady formation of the despotism upgraded for the 21st Century.

Despotism is an insidious form of totalitarianism, shape-shifting, complex and clever. Governments around the world have been mastering the forces of “patronage, dark money, steady economic growth, sophisticated media controls, strangled judiciaries, dragnet surveillance, and selective violence against their opponents”, and gaining influence in the population drained by deep inequality and disillusioned by what they perceive as inefficient and polarizing democratic politics. The consolidation of these top-down systems of power, plutocracies marked by top-to-bottom corruption, and media manipulation, mimicking democracies while dissolving them, is the key socio-political threat in the age of advanced technology, climate crisis, rising inequality, and post-pandemic biopolitics.

The detailed, sophisticated and deeply relevant examination of The New Despotism is one of the fundamental texts for understanding our current global political reality, and developing the theory and practice for upgrading democracy for the 21st Century, redesigning and strengthening the bulwarks of power-sharing against the creeping totalitarianisms, and making a different future possible. Ranked by Maclean’s magazine among top ten “books to watch in 2020”, John Keane’s book is described as “injecting one hell of a scary book into an already frenzied world”. In this edition of CAS SEE public seminar John Keane will present the book and establish links between his arguments and the great pestilence of our time, Covid-19 pandemic.

The following extracts from the seminar were noted by our communications interns, Magdalini Spyridon, and Eleni Maria Sifaki, University of Crete.

  • John Keane criticizes the modern regimes of power using the term “despotism” to proclaim that the new, emerging democracies are turning into authoritarian regimes.
  • The democracies of the 21st century transform into despotic ways of governance. These regimes have democratic features like voting procedures or even communist characteristics, like China’s example. The example of China serves to explain a new form of a political system that entangles authoritarian practices and control of the population. The power is concentrated in one “charismatic” leader who monopolizes power and popular opinion.
  • The “New Despotism’s” main goal is the centralization of the power into one person. The leaders of these regimes are tending to patronize the subjects by making them loyal to this system. At the same time, top-to-bottom patterns of dependency are being transformed whilst leaders are entangled with people of power (plutocracy).
  • The new-arising “despotisms” preserve certain feudal characteristics such as “vassalage”. Keane uses it in order to explain the power relations in the top-to-bottom pyramid. At the same time of being feudal, these practices are also modern because they are based on an election system in a society where “the leader” controls the media and the public opinion.

 

Watch the CAS SEE Seminar with John Keane

Important note: the seminars will be filmed by the CAS SEE. The personal data collected during this project will be managed according to the GDPR standard.

Vedran Džihić at CAS SEE

On Thursday, April 30th, 2020 the usual 10 AM “Isolation Zoom Meeting” was held within this year’s Spring Fellowship, however, the regular ten have been strengthened by an eleventh CAS teammate, Dr. Vedran Džihić, one of the Centre’s directors, who was joining us from Vienna.

With the regard to the circumstances, Dr. Džihić reminded some and amused others, of the very beginnings at the CAS SEE, and the challenges of establishing a scientific Centre in the aftermath of the last economic crisis, the one from 2008. He weaved his thoughts with the concept of democracy, having declared to have been fascinated by the works of John Keane, whom he wholeheartedly recommended (“The Life and Death of Democracy”, “The New Despotism”).
Vedran underlined that we are living in an extraordinary period, “full” of extraordinary people, and the deviations from democracy that we are experiencing require our active democratic engagement. It is ours to “infect the public with free thought” and strengthen collective efforts to build on the consciousness and/of connectedness.

The ten of us have surely been infected with Vedran’s enthusiasm, and are now aspiring to organize a Zoom meeting with John Keane, the “democracy muse” himself, and see what can we find and/or build together upon the enthusiasm, interest, respect, and inspiration already gained. Such a warm insight and clear direction in terms of vision, kept us online for a minute longer, after the official meeting, because they gave us ideas to think about within our own project(s)…

And although this meeting, like all others, has also ended with “hope to speak in ‘real-life’ soon”, it was somehow lighter, more focused on the moment at hand, and the possibilities it embeds and less concerned with the undeniable interferences and the difficulties of working remote.