Polis Keynote Lecture: The New 21st Century Despotisms

Electoral Regulation Research Network (VIC) and Deakin Polis

Friday 21 September


About the Lecture:

Drawing on evidence and fieldwork from China, Hungary, the UAE, Poland, Iran, Russia and the Central Asian republics, this lecture demonstrates how these regimes are using quasi-democratic means to forge new forms of 21st century despotism.

On Friday, September 21, Deakin University hosted a workshop entitled “Kinder, Gentler and Smarter Autocracies? Human Rights and Political Participation under Authoritarianism,” co-sponsored by the Alfred Deakin Institute and the Electoral Regulation Research Network. Motivating the workshop was the observation that what has conventionally been described as “autocracy” or “authoritarianism” is re-appearing around the world, but in unusual guises.

The keynote lecture for the workshop, by Prof. John Keane of the University of Sydney, emphasised this point. As Prof. Keane explained, the “New Despotisms” are not crude and totalitarian. Rather, they are led by sophisticated elites who see the value of elections and popular support; avoid violence where possible; and consciously legalise their activities. The regimes in countries such as China, Iran and Russia exemplify this new despotism. Though these regimes are more open than classic dictatorships, there seems no clear or likely path to fully-fledged democracy. Worryingly, Prof. Keane also sees evidence of democratic decline in the West and with it the risk, and in some ways already the reality, of modern despotism. The three panels following Prof. Keane’s lecture explored (a) governance under authoritarianism; (b) elections and party politics under authoritarianism; and (c) religion and authoritarianism.

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