The New Despotism

The New Despotism


An Australian Book Review Best Book of the Year

A disturbing in-depth expose of the antidemocratic practices of despotic governments now sweeping the world.

One day they'll be like us. That was once the West's complacent and self-regarding assumption about countries emerging from poverty, imperial rule, or communism. But many have hardened into something very different from liberal democracy: what the eminent political thinker John Keane describes as a new form of despotism. And one day, he warns, we may be more like them.

Drawing on extensive travels, interviews, and a lifetime of thinking about democracy and its enemies, Keane shows how governments from Russia and China through Central Asia to the Middle East and Europe have mastered a formidable combination of political tools that threaten the established ideals and practices of power-sharing democracy. They mobilize the rhetoric of democracy and win public support for workable forms of government based on patronage, dark money, steady economic growth, sophisticated media controls, strangled judiciaries, dragnet surveillance, and selective violence against their opponents.

Casting doubt on such fashionable terms as dictatorship, autocracy, fascism, and authoritarianism, Keane makes a case for retrieving and refurbishing the old term "despotism" to make sense of how these regimes function and endure. He shows how they cooperate regionally and globally and draw strength from each other's resources while breeding global anxieties and threatening the values and institutions of democracy. Like Montesquieu in the eighteenth century, Keane stresses the willing complicity of comfortable citizens in all these trends. And, like Montesquieu, he worries that the practices of despotism are closer to home than we care to admit.

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