Apologists for autocracies are optimistic, while powerful democracies around the world are distorted and weighed down. New despotisms should wake Democrats everywhere, writes University of Sydney’s John Keane
Three decades ago, democracy seemed blessed. The power of the people mattered. Public resistance to arbitrariness has changed the world. Military dictatorships have collapsed. Apartheid has been overthrown. The Soviet empire imploded. There were velvet revolutions, followed by the tulip, rose and orange revolutions.
Now things are different. In Belarus, Bolivia, Myanmar, Hong Kong and elsewhere, citizens are arrested, imprisoned, beaten and executed. Elsewhere, Democrats are in retreat, fearing that prominent democracies such as India, the United States, Britain, South Africa and Brazil could slide down a precipice, dragged down by the worsening social inequalities, the disaffection of citizens and the decay of insensitive governments. establishments.
That’s not all. The gloom is compounded by the growing realization that control and power-sharing democracies now face a new global competitor: despotic regimes, such as Turkey, Russia, the United Arab Emirates, Iran and China, whose top-down political architecture and shrewd efforts to earn the loyalty of their subjects are unlike anything known in the earlier modern world.
Public apologists for these regimes are optimistic. They actively denounce the “Summit for Democracy” of US President Joe Biden in 2021 as a self-contradictory US attempt to divide the world in its favor. Chinese critics are particularly vocal in their attacks on American-style âliberal democracyâ. A white paper recently released by the Information Office of the Chinese State Council trumpets the material successes of the country’s âintegral people’s democracyâ. Scholar Su Changhe says that a key priority is to “tear apart the language of Western democracy” and expose its “social divisions, ethnic antagonisms, political conflicts, endless political instability, and weak and weak governments.”
China’s best-known science fiction writer Liu Cixin puts it more clearly. âIf China turned into a democracy, it would be hell on earth,â he says, a provocation that reappears in a scene near the end of his hit trilogy Remembrance of Earth’s Past. It describes the disasters produced by the invasion of planet Earth by an alien species that quarantines most of the population of our planet on the Australian continent. “The society of resettled populations has undergone profound changes,” he writes. âPeople realized that on this crowded and starving continent, democracy was more terrifying than despotism. Everyone longed for order and a strong government.
Authoritarian government sanctioned by âthe peopleâ is exactly what the rulers of a new crop of despotisms are offering that are proving to be a practical alternative to power-sharing regimes. These leaders are encouraged by the feeling of their subjects that Western democracy is collapsing. Hence their temptation to confront these democracies, to question them on a global scale, as dictatorships, monarchies and totalitarian regimes have surrounded parliamentary democracies a century ago.
These new despotisms should not be confused with 20th century fascism or totalitarianism, nor with old-fashioned military tyrannies or dictatorships. And they are not âautocracies,â if that word means a type of government in which a single ruler violently rules the kingdom.
Rather, despotism is a new type of strong state, a form of “shadow democracy” run by rulers skilled at manipulating and meddling in people’s lives, mobilizing their support, and gaining their conformity.
Despotisms create dependency relationships from top to bottom oiled by wealth, money, law, elections and by the discourse on the defense of the “people” and the “nation” (the expressions are often interchangeable in local languages) against “domestic subversives” and “foreign enemies”.
Despotisms are descending pyramids of the power of manipulation. They are also very unequal forms of state capitalism, but it is a mistake to assume that they are based simply on repression and brute force. Despotisms in practice strive to learn the arts of agile governance.
They do more than repeat the mantra of “popular sovereignty”: their leaders exploit opinion polling agencies, think tanks, election campaigns, happiness forums, policy feedback groups, public hearings. line and other early warning detectors. The rulers of the new despotisms are perfectionists of deception and seduction. They do everything to cover up the violence they use against those who refuse to comply.
Using a combination of skillful means, including calibrated coercion masked by hoods, they manage to retain sections of the middle class, skilled and unskilled workers, and the poor. Despotisms are hard governments in the form of soft velvet. They work tirelessly to draw their subjects into subjection. Voluntary servitude is their thing. And they hunt in packs. The new despotisms, led by a globally resurgent China and a belligerent Russia, are adept at navigating multilateral institutions to win trade partners and strike military deals well beyond the borders of the states they rule.
While ErdoÄan, Putin, Lukashenko and other new despots claim to practice their own forms of “democracy” based on the authority of the “people”, they do not like free elections and public institutions for monitoring democracy. control. They can be ruthless and vindictive, but they are not blindly reckless. They often pay meticulous attention to detail, intelligently interfere with people’s lives, overlook them, and sometimes intimidate them until they submit.
The public support enjoyed by rulers is therefore surprising, especially considering that despotisms are dominated by great poligarchs, wealthy government and business tycoons who concentrate enormous amounts of wealth in their own hands and within the family dynasties which they control and protect.
Democracies such as Britain, Spain, South Africa and the most powerful of all, the United States, are also distorted and weighed down by massive inequalities in wealth and life chances.
Over the next year or so, we are likely to hear a lot about a historic battle between âautocracyâ and âdemocracyâ. The rhetoric is chimerical. It camouflages more disorderly realities. Think about how a new kind of “surveillance capitalism” led by giant state-backed data collection companies is colonizing, manipulating, and reshaping the personal lives of millions of people for profit and power. Or how populists and elected populist governments in countries like India and the United States, considered the world’s largest and oldest democracies, are potentially agents of despotism.
Nourished by the disaffection of the citizens and the donations of the big companies, the populists, in the name of the “people”, spread disinformation, attack the independent courts, discredit the expertise and the “officials” (the word of Narendra Modi for journalism investigative) and strengthen executive power. In the elections, the populists promise redemption for all. In practice, aided by black money, lobbying, patronage and closer ties between government, loyal journalists and the business community, they work to destroy democracy in favor of a top-down regime by a few. a few.
In these and other ways, democracies serve as incubators of despotism. When one also considers that democracies and despotisms are entangled and co-operate jointly in areas such as transport infrastructure projects, banking and arms transactions, it should be clear that the principles and practices Power-sharing constitutional democracies, as we have known them since the 1940s, are today threatened not only by external political rivals.
The experience of Hungary, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkey – to name only the most well-known recent cases – shows that a transition from a sort of power-sharing democracy to despotism can happen quickly. , in just over a decade. These cases serve as a warning that the spirit and substance of controlling democracy can be choked out the back door, stealthily, bit by bit, using methods much like those found in China, Russia, Iran. and Saudi Arabia. and elsewhere. These new despotisms should awaken democrats everywhere.
Originally published under Creative Commons by 360info â¢.
John Keane is Professor of Politics at the University of Sydney and at the WZB (Berlin). He is known worldwide for his creative thinking on politics and democracy and is the author of numerous distinguished books, including The Life and Death of Democracy (2009), Democracy and Media Decadence (2013), When Trees Fall, Monkeys Scatter ( 2017) and The Nouveau despotisme (2020). He was nominated for the 2021 Balzan Prize and the Holberg Prize for Outstanding Global Contributions to the Humanities. His latest book, The Shortest History of Democracy is published in early 2022.