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Breakdown of democracy and rise of new despotism

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    2nd January, 2021
Breakdown of democracy and rise of new despotism

For the 14th year in a row a major annual report on the health of global democracy warned of its decline In its survey evaluating 195 countries and 15 territories,  Freedom House, anon - governmental non- partisan advocacy organisation established in 1941 found that political freedoms and civil liberties across the world are back sliding more often than they are improving. The decline is marked less by constitutional democracies being overthrown than by an increase in regimes that retain the formal institutional trappings while flouting the norms and values on which constitutional democracies are based. Doing the cold war, coups d’etat accounted for nearly 3 out of every 4 democratic breakdowns. Military coups toppled Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi in 2013 and Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in 2014. In cases like these, democracy dissolves in spectacular fashion. Tanks roll in the streets.The president is imprisoned or shipped off into exile.The constitution is suspended or scrapped. By and large, however overt dictatorship have disappeared across much of the world. Butthere's another way to break a democracy: not at the hands of generals, but of elected leaders who subvert the very process that brought them to power. In Hungary the Prime Minister Viktor Orbán used his party's parliamentary majority to pack the judiciary with loyalists and rewrite the constitutionaland electoral rules to weaken opponents. Elected leaders have similarly subverted democratic institutions in Ecuador, Georgia, Peru, thePhilippines Poland, Russia, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Ukraine and elsewhere. In these cases there are no tanks on the streets. Constitutions and their other nominally democratic institutions remain in place. People still vote elected autocrats maintain a veneer of democracy while eviscerating it'ssubstance. This is how most democracies die today : slowly, in barely visible steps. In his latest book “The New Despotism”, John Keane, political theorist and renowned scholar of democracy, offers a similar analysis of the aberrations of democracy and the rise of what he calls "the new despotism”. He characterises the anomalies of democracy as ‘authoritarianism’, ‘populism’, ‘totalitarianism’ or 'dictatorship' as the new despotism.

Features of new despotism

The new despotism is a new type of pseudo-democratic government led by rulers skilled in the arts of manipulating and meddling with people's lives, marshalling their support and winning conformity. Despots outwardly affirm their allegiance to the rule of law, procedures and transparency. Yet, they excel in exploiting thelaw tofrustrate the rule of law.As 'big business states’, new despotisms are plutocracies whose main goal is to regulate regimes of accumulation. They privatise profits and nationalise costs' by offering subsidies to corporate tycoons through loans fromstate-owned banks giving them an unfair competitive edge. In several instances, there is no obligation to repay; these debts are written off as "non-performing assets”, a sleight - of - hand routinely practiced in India with consummate ease. The new despotism, unlike their authoritarian predecessors, cover their tracks carefully.While diligently promoting big businesses, they also cultivate 'petty capitalism'- smalland medium enterprises  to burnish their credentials as creators of a level playing field. Nothing, however, can camouflage their theft. For example, criminal elements control about 25% of Russia's gross national income.

Why do new despotisms flourish?

New despotism emerges from the confluence of several factors such as historical traditions, economic forces, and technological advances. Secondly, ‘no despotism is fully despotic'. New despotism thrives by cultivating submission through bait and switch methods. Unlike 20th century authoritarianism, it does not resort to "denial and repression”. Alternatively it seeks to be guile and be witching its subjects into accepting despotic governance. New despotism thrives primarily by promoting hedonism, hypes consumerism and embourgeoisement. It seduces through sops such as government handouts, token welfare programmes, gala events and dazzling construction projects. Right after the 2011 Arab uprising, all despotic regimes in the region hiked welfare payments to obviate potential rebellions. Saudi Arabia has earned mass approbation by erecting a $ 500 billion city called Neom, an innovation hub for engineering firms .The new despotisms manufacture a euphoric-rhetoric,a grandiose vision that is awe-inspiring enough to make people endure present hardships.The middle class- ‘fickle pragmatists’with a yearning for the good life , fun, stability, 'tough leadership' and 'top- down rule’ -takes this amenability a notch higher andbecomes ferociously loyal to the system.

Apart from finessing public perception, new despots leverage inherited strengths local customs, legacy institutions, and so on to their advantage. Another common trait of despots is their implacable hostility to dissent, exemplified by the draconian measures of states like Russia, Belarus, Azerbaijan and China. Along with neutralising opposition, despots also sedulously guard their citadels, letting in just their trusted cronies and family members.

Calibrated coercion and measured use of violence

As closed systems, new despotisms are vulnerable to popular revolts. Yet, departing from the practice of earlier dictatorial regimes, they are circumspect in using violence, reserving it only for intractable situations. New despotisms are police states with a difference. Since blanket use of force can alienate people, they reserve their velvet fists for selective targets. They can, thus be, 'humane' and civilised despite unleashing their secret police and surveillance machinery against dissidents. The new despots are ‘a mishmash’ of legislation and lawlessness. Their preference is for ruling through law. Organised lawlessness comes naturally to them.

New despotism and media power

A singular strength of the new despotism is it's sophisticated analysis of the media power in nourishing despotism. The growth of media outlets aids despots. First, a media-saturated environment enables despots to be heard and seen all the time. The high visibility aids indoctrination and provides rulers with additional sources of legitimacy. They use media to promote a new type of government that valorises 'national pride', sovereignty and so on through programmes and celebrations. Second communicative abundance spurs the government's ability to "gaslight': to confuse, disorient and destabilise people. Third, through a judicious blend of relentless brainwashing, new despots acquire a monopoly over all forms of political discourse. Anticipating, the impending threat of mass media-driven insurrection, new rulers detests journalists. If they cannot be bought, media professionals are persecuted. The slightest whiff of opposition incurs savage reprisal, particularly in places like China, Turkey and Azerbaijan.

Democracy and new despotism

The most shocking characteristic of new despotism is that it battens on support from democratic regimes. Democracy aids new despotism in various ways. Countries like USA and Britain have partnerships in trade, technology and arms sales with despotic regimes. In fact, all advanced nations conclude trade deals, joint business ventures, and partnerships with despot’s with ease. There is a strong connection between democracy and despotism. We no longer live in a world that can be neatly divided into democracies and despotisms. New despotism is present almost everywhere; it thrives in the womb of democracies and authoritarian regimes alike. The public can never have enough information to figure out to what extent democratic rule extends from local initiatives to a systematic practice. It is also often hard for any single citizen to tell a force and fair election from a manipulated one.

Reasons for breakdown of democracy

1. Populism

Populism tends to play a positive role in the promotion of an electoral or minimal democracy, but a negative role when it comes to fostering the development of a full - fledged liberal democratic regime. Populist rule, whether left or right wing, leads to a significant risk of democratic backsliding. Some, but not all , populists are also authoritarian, emphasizing "the importance of protecting traditional lifestyles against perceived threats from "outsiders” even at the expense of civil liberty and minority rights. Populism- in - power has led to processes ofde – democratisation ( eg - Viktor Orbán in Hungary and Hugo Chávez in Venezuela ) and in some extreme cases, even to the breakdown of the democratic regime ( eg - Alberto Fujimori in Peau ).

2. Economic inequality and social discontent

Studies of democratic collapse show that economic inequality is significantly higher in countries that eventually move towards a more authoritarian model. Hungary is an example of a country where a large group of unemployed, low-educated people were dissatisfied with the high levels of inequality, especially after the financial crisis of 2007 - 2008. Viktor Orbán used this dissatisfaction of a relatively large segment of the population to his advantage, winning popular support by using national populist rhetoric.

3. Personalism

A 2019 study found that personalism had an adverse impact on democracy in Latin America: presidents who dominate their own weakly organized parties are more likely to seek to concentrate power, undermine horizontal accountability, and trample the rule of law than presidents who preside over party’s that have an independent leadership and an institutionalised bureaucracy.

4. Social media and the loss of social rules

Instead of opening up everyone to any information, the internet and social media has helped create small bubbles of information. People tend to read things that confirm to what they already believe and social media algorithms reinforce this by only showing people what they want.

Tackling new despotism: Issues and strategies

New despotism is an exceptional form of power because it gently persuades people to choose subjugation. According to John Keane, 'people don't lose their liberty, they win their enslavement’. New despotism is a resilient form of domination with "recombinant qualities”. It is nimble and capable of coping with crises. Despotic regimes like China and Vietnam have proven their ability to outperform western democracies. The challenges to democracy need multifaceted and multidimensional responses involving various stakeholders.

1. Administrative decentralisation

The 19 century philosopher, Alexis de Tocqueville, stated that “without local institutions a nation may give itself a free government, but it has not got the spirit of liberty". Administrative decentralisation allows people to exercise their freedom. Local liberties are equally important as are political nights in deciding the general affairs of an entire country. Minor questions of local interest have an obvious visible effect on everyday life. As a result, people are much more effectively drawn together and more likely to exercise their liberty if they are given control of minor local affairs. Free institutions and the political rights enjoyed there provide a thousand continual reminders to every citizen that he lives in society. Decentralization of power in nations under authoritarian regimes with a focus on streamlining the citizen- politician collective will lead towards a more effective form of democracy.

2.Independent judicial system

An independent judiciary, with the power of judicial review, is extremely important because it could proclaim certain laws unconstitutional. For many countries, including in India, the Supreme Court provides practically the only check on the tyranny of the majority. Judges are appointed not elected, and have security of tenure giving them a great deal of independence to make the decisions that they believe are best without needing to worry excessively about public opinion. An independent judiciary system serves as an institutional preserver of liberty of the citizens and judicial checks and balances prevent a regime from becoming authoritarian and despotic.

3. Freedom of the Press

Freedom of the Press serves as a means of keeping liberty alive and foiling the tyranny of the majority. It is an institution that helps to maintain democracy by keeping people informed of politics, encouraging political activity, and motivating them to exercise their freedom. The free press is the despot’s enemy, which makes the free press the guardian of democracy. The World Press Freedom Report, published by Reporters sans Frontieres, in its 2020 report highlighted that press freedom is under pressure from aggressive authoritarian regimes. Freedom of press is what underlines the difference between democracy and despotism.

4. The Right of Association

Free association can be an excellent tool for combating individualism and allowing people to exercise their freedom by taking part in politics. People gain contact with one another via their associations. They share and spread their political thoughts through this contact. The press assists them in spreading these messages to the public. Civil society must engage with political parties to advance reform agendas and develop policies that address people's concerns. People in South Korea were able to hold government leaders accountable and defend the country's constitution through the Candle light Movement in 2016 – 2017 against the high-level corruption in the government. The movement mobilised over 2 million people onto the streets to protest. The movement was successful in activating citizenship and defending South Korea's democracy.

5. Independently monitored elections

States should provide for independent monitoring in respect of the funding of political parties and electoral campaigns by establishing independent auditing bodies. The regulatory agencies for monitoring and conducting elections must be independent in terms of appointments, security of tenure and funding and should themselves be independently supervised. This will prevent election conducting bodies from being pressurized by the government of the party in power. Preventing the politicization of such bodies will lead to free and fair elections preventing authoritarian regimes from manipulating election results.

6. Democratic education

In words of Nelson Mandela, “an educated, enlightened and informed population is one of the surest ways of promoting the health of a democracy ". Education and democracy are highly correlated. Schooling teaches people to interact and raises the benefits of civic participation, including voting and organizing. The role of education lies not just in disseminating knowledge, but in sculpting the fabric of a nation. Therefore, education must encompass constitutional principles and democratic values so that each student comes out as a responsible citizen to preserve and enhance the democracy.

7. Building Citizens' movements

Active citizenship is crucial for revitalising democracy and protects country from despotism. The pro-democracy movements in Hong Kong, Thailand and Belarus and many other citizens' movements around the world have shown that citizens are ready to lead and act as agents of democratic change and be responsible for the future of their societies. These movements should serve as platforms to inform, mobilise and organise people at the grassroot levels to engage in public debates on issues important to their societies such as fighting corruption, eradicating social inequality, and effective delivery of public services and so on.


A quarter-century ago, at the end of the Cold war, it appeared that totalitarianism had at last been vanquished and liberal democracy had won the great ideological battle of the 20th century. Today, it is democracy that finds itself battered and weakened, being misused by the despots who prefer to use the label of democracy to remain popular and obscure their anti-democratic practices. This new despotism derives its power from its subjects. Withholding this power collectively will deflate despotism. Ultimately, what will hasten the demise of the new despotism and save the democracies around the globe from breakdown is our collective resolve to not participate in voluntary servitude.