democracy and human rights

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.

Values at Stake – SE Europe: A Normative Marketplace?

The region of Southeast Europe has been expected to progress almost linearly on the European and democratic path, accepting, implementing, and internalizing the democratic and liberal values that the European Union stands for. The EU was founded as the “greatest peace project of all time”. Its steady political and economic progress before the Great Recession of 2008 had attracted neighboring countries, especially those coming from post-communist and post-conflict zones, promising a realistically “utopian” horizon and the promise of a better, normal life.

In these times of obvious crisis for the European model in Southeast Europe, it is our message that a true transfer of European norms and values is possible only with a strong participatory democratic process that allows citizens to exchange opinions and construct shared definitions of the public good. We cannot have this process without creating society engaged in critical public debate where SEE citizens can socialize as active citizens and are treated as equal, responsible, and responsive towards their communities. This is the only path towards living as European citizens, no matter whether we live in the European Union or not. However, the first and the most important struggle in the region is for democracy of active citizens – a condicio sine qua non before we can talk at all about European values and any meaningful future of Southeast Europeans.


Featuring contributions by Gazela Pudar Draško, Vedran Džihić, Bojan Baća, Nilay Kilinç, and Senada Šelo Šabić, the most recent study in our “Academia in Dialogue” series investigates the idea of European values and their limits. The authors suggest a new “normative marketplace” is emerging, where the universality of EU norms and values such as democracy, human rights and freedoms, and the rule of law may be at stake. The paper aims to analyze this “new marketplace” and to engage in thinking about possible utopian horizons, which undoubtedly remain relevant beyond the current state of emergency.

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