Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy
03 December 2020


John Keane is the guest of the fifth episode of our podcast series Democracy in Question?

A new kind of elected leader has emerged across the globe: one that rules with a large parliamentary majority – and therefore with a claim to democratic legitimacy – but that uses power to hollow out democracy from the inside. Is ‘soft authoritarianism’, a form of authoritarianism that uses the law to undermine liberal principles, a new face of electoral democracy?

In the fifth episode of the podcast series Democracy in Question? Shalini Randeria and her guest John Keane, Professor of Politics at the University of Sydney, focus on the issue of soft authoritarianism. Professor Keane helps us dissect the pervasive pattern of "new despotisms" and their strategies of rule. He describes a complex transition that is neither autocratic, fascist or totalitarian, but rather looks like a nuanced disruption based on "phantom democracy". Shalini Randeria probes this transition, exploring its forms and features. She asks whether the “red line” between formal democracy and despotism has been crossed, and what part common features such as toxic masculinity and state capitalism may play. The conversation also strikes a positive note, signaling civil society resistance as a potent antidote.

Download the podcast's transcript HERE.

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Shalini Randeria is Professor of Sociology and Anthropology and Director of the Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy at the Graduate Institute in Geneva. She is also the Rector of the Institute of Human Sciences (IWM) in Vienna, and Excellence Chair, University of Bremen (Research Group: Soft Authoritarianism).

John Keane is Professor of Politics at the University of Sydney and at the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin (WZB). He is the Co-founder and Director of the Sydney Democracy Network. His new book The New Despotism (Harvard University Press, 2020) explores how governments from Russia and China through Central Asia to the Middle East and Europe have mastered a formidable combination of political tools that threaten the established ideals and practices of power-sharing democracy.

READ ALSO John Keane’s commentary “Democracy and the Great Pestilence” for the Centre’s series on democratic experiences in the coronavirus pandemic.



This podcast series is co-produced by the Graduate Institute’s Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy and the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM) Vienna, in cooperation with the Excellence Chair, University of Bremen (Research Group: Soft Authoritarianism).


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