Masterclass – The New 21st-Century Despotisms: how to spot them, why they are novel and how their resilience may be surprising

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A Masterclass with John Keane, Professor of Politics, University of Sydney.

Presented by the UWA School of Social Sciences and the Institute of Advanced Studies.

There is a widespread feeling that we are living in times of a new global disorder that works in favour of the wealthy, media manipulators, populists, strategists of war and other anti-democratic forces. Opinions differ about the sources of this mounting global unease, yet about one thing there is general agreement: within states that call themselves democracies, rot and decay are spreading. A measure of our darkening times is the way journalists and political scientists, once the trumpeters of good news about the global triumph of democracy, as if it was our human destiny, are now speaking in mournful tones about the fading of the democratic dream.

In this masterclass, Professor John Keane analyses one of the most salient of these global trends: the birth of political regimes that are a serious alternative to the ideals and practices of power-sharing monitory democracy as we have known and valued it during the past generation. Drawing on evidence and fieldwork from China, Hungary, the UAE, Poland, Iran, Russia and the Central Asian republics, he shows how these regimes forge public support and workable forms of government by means of patron-client relations, economic growth, sophisticated media controls, strangled judiciaries, dragnet surveillance and selective armed crackdowns on their opponents. In a controversial move, he also explains why these regimes are not the opposite of democracy. They are in fact ‘phantom democracies’, forms of voluntary servitude whose cra y rulers are busily experimenting with a wide range of locally-made democratic tools designed to win the trust and loyalty of their subjects. These practices help explain why Russia, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and other regimes are globally significant political laboratories: testing grounds for a new type of top-down, contagiously popular government claiming to be superior to power-sharing constitutional democracy.

The masterclass pays special attention to the inadequacy of orthodox descriptive terms such as dictatorship, autocracy and authoritarianism. It makes a case for retrieving and refurbishing the old concept of despotism, to make better sense of why these 21st-century regimes seem both crisis-ridden yet remarkably resilient, why they tend to cooperate both regionally and globally, and why they breed global insecurities and threaten democratic norms and institutions.

John Keane is Professor of Politics at the University of Sydney and at the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin (WZB), and Distinguished Professor at Peking University. He is renowned globally for his creative thinking about democracy. He is the Director and co-founder of the Sydney Democracy Network. He has contributed to The New York Times, Al Jazeera, the...
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