The New Despotisms of the 21st Century: Imagining the end of democracy?

Are we living in times marked by a quantum jump in anti-democratic ways of exercising power, perhaps even the birth of new political regimes with peculiarly 21st-century features? The aim of this project is to pose such questions, initially by examining the developing alternatives to democracy in contexts otherwise as different as China, Egypt, Vietnam, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia and the Central Asian republics. The research examines the common contours and inner workings of their governments and societies. Special emphasis is being given to the way these regimes mobilise democratic rhetoric and make use of election victories. Consideration is given as well to how exactly they forge workable and often legitimate forms of government, for instance by means of economic nepotism, media controls, strangled judiciaries, dragnet surveillance and selective armed crackdowns on their opponents. The project aims to be global in focus, and draws upon a variety of materials and methods, including empirical data, historical reflection and artistic and literary works. The project pays special attention to the adequacy of such descriptive terms as dictatorship, autocracy and authoritarianism. It also considers whether suitably refurbished older concepts, such as despotism, can make better sense of these polities. Why these regimes seem both crisis-ridden and remarkably resilient is of central concern to the research. Of high importance are questions about the extent to which these regimes tend to cooperate both regionally and globally, and to feed upon each other’s resources, and whether they in fact represent a serious long-term political alternative to the ideals and practices of power-sharing democracy as we have known it during the past generation.

“Dubai, United Arab Emirates – UAE” | Image Credit: Paolo Margari (April 2014)


Co-ordinator: John Keane

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