Demonstration in Hong Kong

Democracy in crisis

4 September 2020
By Susan Wyndham, SSSHARC Journalist in Residence
John Keane appears to be ageing better than the institutions of democracy he has studied for much of his career. At three score and 11 years, the prolific international scholar recently published his 17th solo-authored book, The New Despotism, and warns that the differences between post-1945 democracy and despotism are rapidly blurring.

John Keane is Professor of Politics at the University of Sydney but during the pandemic he has worked mostly from home in the nearby “republic of Glebe”. He spoke to the Sydney Social Sciences and Humanities Advanced Research Centre (SSSHARC) over strong coffee in a Vietnamese cafe.

In The New Despotism he shows how a spectrum of countries from China and Russia to Turkey, Hungary, Saudi Arabia, Singapore and Belarus, have adopted a 21st-century version of despotic government.

Rejecting the terms totalitarianism, autocracy and tyranny, he revives the old term despotism to describe governments that are pseudo-democratic, win support and conformity by offering elections, law, wealth, consumption, and media talk of “the people”, and cultivate a desire for “strong” leadership.

The insidious creep of control leads Keane to fear for the future of once-great power-sharing democracies including the United States and Britain. “Despotism is much closer to home than we care to admit,” he warned.

“I think the writing is on the wall for democracy and it has been for at least a decade. The symptoms we know well: the hollowing out of political parties; rising disaffection of citizens against politicians, parties, politics; the growing gap between rich and poor – practically every democracy has seen a 40-year widening of the gap, and that’s a violation of the ethic of equality, which is essential to democracy; the penetration of politics by dark money; the growing ruination of biomes in which democracies operate.”

Everything about Keane is robust, from his tall figure topped by grey curls to his opinions on politics, history, academia, delivered in the rounded tones of an Australian who spent decades at British universities – on a two-year fellowship at Cambridge and as a professor at the University of Westminster in London.

The invention of monitory democracy

There in 1989 he established the Centre for the Study of Democracy, first of its kind, months before the dismantling of the Soviet Union. While there he wrote his authoritative history, The Life and Death of Democracy, which was published in 2009 just before his return to Australia to take up his professorship.

His account goes back to the origins of assembly democracy in Greece – or, he argues, Mesopotamia – and 18th-century representative democracy. He disputes the influential US-biased theses of Francis Fukuyama in The End of History and Samuel Huntington in The Third Wave of Democracy. Neither recognised the phase that he identifies as beginning after World War II.

“Democracy was on its knees, only 11 representative democracies were left on the face of the earth in 1941,” he said. “The great expectation after World War I, the so-called Wilson doctrine, was that most of the world would become model representative democracies housed in sovereign territorial states. That vision was destroyed by Stalinism and Nazism and Mussolini, and by Japanese imperial rule. Representative democracy also failed in China – that’s of great consequence.”

In subsequent books, Power and Humility: The Future of Monitory Democracy (2018) and The New Despotism, he continues to show the evolution and vulnerability of the system Australians take for granted.

Professor John Keane and Nadia Urbinati

Professor John Keane and central commentator on his manuscript, Power and Humility, Nadia Urbinati, Professor of Political Theory at Columbia University.  

Monitory democracy is Keane’s term to describe the changes since the watershed of 1945. Free and fair elections once defined democracy, but the rise of fascist dictators showed the need for permanent public scrutiny – or monitoring – of government and corporate power.

“More than a hundred new and different institutions that never existed before in the history of democracy have been invented and they’re all to do with the problem of accountability of power. How do you restrain power, how do you humble power, how do you prevent arbitrary power and the foolish decisions or evils that result from arbitrary exercises of power?”

As well as cross-border parliaments in the United Nations and European Union, most are non-government and watchdog organisations. Important models have been the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission; Brazil’s participatory budgeting, which gives citizens or their representatives a say in the way budgets are allocated; anticorruption commissions, an early version of which began in South Australia, Keane’s home state, though he laments there is still no Australian national commission.

Germany’s co-determination system, formed in the late 1940s, is a model of democratic accountability in the workplace: large companies and organisations must allow employees to elect representatives who sit on the governing board.

The joy of gathering round a table

In 2018 Keane had funding from SSSHARC for an Ultimate Peer Review of Power and Humility, eight months before publication by Cambridge University Press. As the central commentator on his manuscript, he invited Italian scholar Nadia Urbinati, Professor of Political Theory at Columbia University in New York and a leading writer on the history of representative democracy.

“I wanted a world-class expert in my field who had done very much more work than me to be present, to help mentor younger people at the university, to give a public lecture, and to monitor the draft that I had done,” he said.

The Ultimate Peer Review was held in the Great Hall with 20 other scholars and journalists in “a group assessment of the past, the present and the future of democracy”.

Keane valued “the sheer joy of gathering with others to talk through sets of problems of mutual concern in a period that had some fear of an emerging darkness descending on democracy. The joy came in no small measure from the exchange of ideas, of counterpoints, of differences of opinion about the viability of monitory democracy.”

Participants at the Ultimate Peer Review of  'Power and Humility'.

Participants at the Ultimate Peer Review of  'Power and Humility'. 

He also had support from SSSHARC and the Sydney Democracy Network (SDN), which he co-founded at Sydney University, for a Huddle on the subject of dark money, or undisclosed political spending. In the group were David Cay Johnston, an American journalist and author of books on Donald Trump and on dark money in American politics, and Australian investigative journalist Michael West, who was then an Adjunct Professor in the School of Social and Political Sciences.

Among other publications emerging since the Huddle’s day-long discussions, Keane’s book, The New Despotism, was published in May by Harvard University Press and has already been reviewed in more than a dozen countries. The idea for the book was born at another symposium at the university run by the SDN in 2014, but as Keane said, “My whole scholarly life has been preoccupied with the problem of arbitrary power, the enemies of democracy”.

He grew up near the Southern Ocean on a dairy farm at the end of the Adelaide Airport runway, among hard-working post-war European migrants, until the government compulsorily bought the farm and exiled his family to the suburbs.

First in the family to attend university, on a scholarship to Adelaide University, he then won a Commonwealth scholarship to attend Oxford or Toronto. Oxford was the obvious choice but he wrote to the doyen of scholars in the field of democracy, C.B. Macpherson at the University of Toronto, and was accepted. “It turned out to be the right choice.” With a Masters and PhD in Political Economy, he took up a fellowship to Cambridge and “defected” for several decades to Britain.

Encounters with arbitrary power

In the 1980s Keane was involved in apartment seminars held by the underground universities of Eastern Europe and wrote articles under the name Erica Blair (with a nod to George Orwell) in order to keep his visas. He edited the first book in English by Václav Havel, The Power of the Powerless, written in 1978 by the Czech dissident, dramatist and later president.   

“I was from South Australia and I’d never experienced what felt like one large dark prison, with people demoralised by that Soviet model and fearing they would lose everything. It had a huge long-term impact on my thinking.”

In his view the “new despotism” is not a repeat of Soviet-style rule. He uses Hungary under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán since 2010 as an example of what can happen.

“In 10 years, Orbán has shown how to transform a power-sharing monitory democracy with rule of law, by using elections, into a despotism. In the name of the people, the transition involves winning elections, building a tightly organised party machine, leadership that turns into demagoguery. It entails stifling independent journalism, tampering with the constitution, neutering the judiciary and civil service so that those institutions no longer function as watchdogs of power.

“You make sure the surveillance bodies and police and army are on your side, you shut down independent watchdogs – Central European University, newspaper platforms – and you cultivate a loyal coterie of journalists who only give you good publicity. You weaken radically alternative parties, you humiliate them by winning elections, which demonstrates that they don’t have the people on their side, and you build up a strong state that does not have the normal check-and-balance institutions.

“And you do something very surprising – you redefine who the people are. The Hungarian people do not include Jews, Romany travellers, they certainly don’t include Muslims and desperate refugees fleeing war and chaos.”

In 2009, after a disputed election in Iran led to an uprising and a government crackdown, the deputy state prosecutor named Keane and philosophers Jürgen Habermas and Richard Rorty as masterminds of the “velvet revolution”. The story was a confabulation but he would be arrested if he returned to the country. “So I’ve had a life of encounters with arbitrary power,” he said.

Keane moved back to Australia in 2010, headhunted by the University of Sydney, at a time when he didn’t much like the political atmosphere in the UK and saw the Asia-Pacific region becoming “the geopolitical and geo-economic centre of gravity of the world”. The move enabled him to travel often to China, where he said The New Despotism will probably not be translated, unlike previous books. He keeps a foot in Europe with a professorship at the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin, Europe’s largest social science research centre.

Despite his concerns about present political trends, Keane warns against catastrophism – a belief that everything is going wrong and we can’t do anything about it. Monitory democracy gave birth to progressive policy ideas during the past generation, he said, and they are still happening.

Among new developments that defy the crisis of democracy he noted green cities, women refusing men’s power to humiliate and violate, the victories of queer politics, experiments with basic income schemes, and laws (as in South Korea) to prevent bullying in the workplace.

“The pattern is clear: parties and parliaments and governments belatedly register the shift of atmosphere and themes that are tabled in public by citizens and watchdog and barking dog organisations,” Keane said. “These are all countertrends and we need to pay attention, because they are the sources of hope for the future of democracy.”

Nadia Urbinati’s SSSHARC Ultimate Peer Review of Power and Humility by John Keane was held in the Great Hall, University of Sydney on 18 April, 2018.

The SSSHARC Huddle on Dark Money was at the University of Sydney on 2 November, 2017. 

This article is part of the 2020 SSSHARC series on how the humanities and social sciences can help us see the world in new ways.

Susan Wyndham

Susan Wyndham. Credit: Nicola Bailey.
Inaugural SSSHARC Journalist in Residence

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