The New Despotism

  • Published

The New Despotism by John Keane. Harvard University Press, 2020, 272 pp.

The New Despotism analyzes emerging and troubling governmental practices across the globe. Author John Keane is a renowned political scientist whose previous works examine and interpret modern changes within democracy and the worldwide political landscape. His latest book unveils the modern phenomena of functional despotic governments and the social mechanisms that sustain despotisms and threaten to corrupt democracies at large.

Keane’s thesis is that a dangerous trend is emerging within modern governments—the capacity for those in power to employ social controls to galvanize the rule of those in power while simultaneously neutralizing and corrupting democratic systems. Keane employs contemporary case studies including Singapore, Vietnam, Hungary, and China to demonstrate the gradual degradation of democracy and the rising dangers of corrupt and despotic governments. These case studies validate the author’s argument that corrupt oligarchs capably shape internal and external forces with a singular purpose: preserving the status of those already in power regardless of consequences—to include the death of democracy.

The New Despotism suffers from selection bias as Keane works to extrapolate governmental trends from a few countries with the attempt to show how all democratic systems are endangered. Keane neither addresses counterarguments nor provides examples of governments that successfully resisted or mitigated the despotic tendencies cited throughout the book. While counterarguments and alternate case studies would bolster Keane’s analysis, he nevertheless presents a comprehensive analysis of his primary case studies and the core forces sustaining the corruption of democracies and the dangers of despotism.

The key takeaway from the book is the profound consequences of government control of internal and external threats via narrative to shape social predilections. Keane successfully argues that despotic tendencies are rampant not only in Vietnam, China, Singapore, and Hungary but also in democracies across the globe. The ease through which despotism can permeate governments while gradually corrupting democracy is proven throughout Keane’s work.

John Keane’s The New Despotism is an engaging read that is worthwhile for military and academic professionals. This book is timely in analyzing modern case studies in the information age while deriving logical conclusions applicable to democracies and despotisms alike. While the book will primarily interest students of political science and security studies, the cases are compelling and will help all citizens to better understand the threats to contemporary democracies.

            Lt Col Matthew Wunderlich, USAF




"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."