An autocracy is a system of government in which supreme power (social
and political) is concentrated in the hands of one person, whose
decisions are subject to neither external legal restraints nor
regularized mechanisms of popular control (except perhaps for the
implicit threat of a coup d'état or mass insurrection). Absolute
monarchies (such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Oman,
Brunei and Swaziland) and dictatorships (such as
North Korea and
Syria) are the main modern-day forms of autocracy.
In earlier times, the term "autocrat" was coined as a favorable
feature of the ruler, having some connection to the concept of "lack
of conflicts of interests" as well as an indication of grandeur and
power. The Russian
Tsar for example was styled, "Autocrat of all the
Russias", as late as the early 20th century.
1 History and etymology
2 Comparison with other forms of government
3 Origin and developments
6 Historical examples
7 See also
9 External links
History and etymology
Medieval Greek language, the term Autocrates was used for
anyone holding the title emperor, regardless of the actual power of
the monarch. Some historical Slavic monarchs, such as Russian tsars
and emperors, included the title Autocrat as part of their official
styles, distinguishing them from the constitutional monarchs elsewhere
Comparison with other forms of government
Both totalitarianism and military dictatorship are often identified
with, but need not be, an autocracy.
Totalitarianism is a system where
the state strives to control every aspect of life and civil society.
It can be headed by a supreme dictator, making it autocratic, but it
can also have a collective leadership such as a commune, junta, or
single political party.
In an analysis of militarized disputes between two states, if one of
the states involved was an autocracy the chance of violence occurring
Origin and developments
Examples from early modern Europe suggests early statehood was
favorable for democracy. But, according to Jacob Hariri, outside
Europe, history shows that early statehood has led to autocracy.
The reasons he gives are: continuation of the original autocratic rule
and absence of "institutional transplantation" or European
settlement. This may be because of the country's capacity to fight
colonization or the presence of state infrastructure that Europeans
did not need to build new institutions to rule. In all the cases,
representative institutions were unable to get introduced in these
countries and they sustained their autocratic rule. European
colonization was varied and conditional on many factors. Countries
which were rich in natural resources had an extractive and indirect
rule, whereas other colonies saw European settlement. Because of
this settlement, these countries possibly experienced setting up of
new institutions. Colonization also depended on factor endowments and
Mancur Olson theorizes the development of autocracies as the first
transition from anarchy to state.
Anarchy for Olson is characterized
by a number of "roving bandits" who travel around many different
geographic areas extorting wealth from local populations leaving
little incentive for populations to invest, and produce. As local
populations lose the incentive to produce, there is little wealth for
either the bandits to steal or the people to use. Olson theorizes
autocrats as "stationary bandits" who solve this dilemma by
establishing control over a small fiefdom and monopolize the extortion
of wealth in the fiefdom in the form of taxes. Once an autocracy is
developed, Olson theorizes that both the autocrat and the local
population will be better off as the autocrat will have an
"encompassing interest" in the maintenance and growth of wealth in the
fiefdom. Because violence threatens the creation of rents, the
"stationary bandit" has incentives to monopolize violence and to
create a peaceful order.
Douglass North, John Joseph Wallis and
Barry R. Weingast describe
autocracies as limited access orders that arise from this need to
monopolize violence. In contrast to Olson, these scholars
understand the early state not as a single ruler, but as an
organization formed by many actors. They describe the process of
autocratic state formation as a bargaining process among individuals
with access to violence. For them, these individuals form a dominant
coalition that grants each other privileges such as the access to
resources. As violence reduces the rents, members of the dominant
coalition have incentives to cooperate and to avoid fighting. A
limited access to privileges is necessary to avoid competition among
the members of the dominant coalition, who then will credibly commit
to cooperate and will form the state.
Because autocrats need a power structure to rule, it can be difficult
to draw a clear line between historical autocracies and oligarchies.
Most historical autocrats depended on their nobles, the military, the
priesthood, or other elite groups. Some autocracies are
rationalized by assertion of divine right.
According to Douglass North, John Joseph Wallis and Barry R. Weingast,
in limited access orders the state is ruled by a dominant coalition
formed by a small elite group that relates to each other by personal
relationships. In order to remain in power, this elite hinders people
outside the dominant coalition to access organizations and resources.
Autocracy, then, is maintained as long as the personal relationships
of the elite continue to forge the dominant coalition. These scholars
further suggest that once the dominant coalition starts to become
broader and allow for impersonal relationships, limited access orders
can give place to open access orders.
For Daron Acemoglu, Simon Johnson and James Robinson, the allocation
of political power explains the maintenance of autocracies, which they
usually refer to as "extractive states". For them, the de jure
political power comes from political institutions, whereas the de
facto political power is determined by the distribution of resources.
Those holding the political power in the present will design the
political and economic institutions in the future according to their
interests. In autocracies, both de jure and de facto political powers
are concentrated in one person or a small elite that will promote
institutions for keeping the de jure political power as concentrated
as the de facto political power, thereby maintaining autocratic
regimes with extractive institutions.
It has been argued that authoritarian regimes, such as China and
Russia, have attempted to export their system of government to other
countries through "autocracy promotion". A number of scholars are
skeptical that China and Russia have successfully exported
The Roman Empire: In 27 B.C.,
Augustus founded the Roman Empire
following the end of the Roman Republic.
Augustus officially kept the
Roman Senate while effectively consolidating all of the real power in
himself. Rome was peaceful and prosperous until the dictatorial rule
Commodus starting in 180 A.D. The third century saw invasions from
the barbarians as well as economic decline. Both
Constantine ruled as autocratic leaders, strengthening the control of
the emperor. The empire grew extremely large, and was ruled by a
tetrarchy, instituted by Diocletian. Eventually, it was split into two
halves: the Western (Roman) and the Eastern (Byzantine). The Western
Empire fell in 476 after civic unrest, further economic decline,
and invasions led to the surrender of Romulus
Augustus to Odoacer, a
Aztec Empire: In Mesoamerica, the Aztecs were a tremendous military
powerhouse that earned a fearsome reputation of capturing prisoners
during battle to be used for sacrificial rituals. The priesthood
supported a pantheon that demanded human sacrifice, and the nobility
consisted mainly of warriors who had captured many prisoners for these
sacrificial rites. The
Aztec Emperor hence functioned both as the sole
ruler of the empire and its military forces, and as the religious
figurehead behind the empire's aggressive foreign policy.
Chile under the dictatorship of Pinochet
Tsarist and Imperial Russia: Shortly after being crowned as ruler,
Tsar Ivan immediately removed his political enemies by execution or
exile and established dominance over an Empire, expanding the borders
of his kingdom dramatically. To enforce his rule, Ivan the Terrible
Streltzy as Russia's standing army, and he developed
two cavalry divisions that were fiercely loyal to the Tsar; the
Cossacks, and the Oprichniki. In his later years, Ivan made orders for
his forces to sack the city of
Novgorod in fear of being overthrown.
Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality
Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality was introduced by
Emperor Nicholas I of Russia.
Tokugawa Shogunate: Medieval Japan was caught in a vicious series of
skirmishes between warring clans, states, and rulers, all of them
vying for power in a mad scramble. While many of these lords struggled
against each other openly,
Ieyasu Tokugawa seized mastery of all of
Japan through a mix of superior tactics and cunning diplomacy, until
he became the dominant power of the land. By establishing his
shogunate as the sole ruling power in Japan,
Ieyasu Tokugawa and his
successors controlled all aspects of life, closing the borders of
Japan to all foreign nations and ruling with a policy of isolationism.
Nazi Germany: After the failed Beer Hall Putsch, the National
Socialist German Worker's Party began a more subtle political strategy
to take over the government. Following a tense social and political
environment in the 1930s, the Nazis under
Adolf Hitler took advantage
of the civil unrest of the state to seize power through cunning
propaganda and by the charismatic speeches of their party leader. By
the time Hitler was appointed chancellor, the Nazi party began to
restrict civil liberties on the public following the Reichstag Fire.
With a combination of cooperation and intimidation, Hitler and his
party systematically weakened all opposition to his rule, transforming
the Weimar Republic into a fascist dictatorship where Hitler alone
spoke and acted on behalf of Germany.
Nazi Germany is an example of an
autocracy run primarily by a single leader, but many decisions made by
Hitler coincided with the interests and ideology of the Nazi Party in
mind, also making an example of an autocracy ruled by a political
party rather than solely one man.
Soviet Union: During Joseph Stalin's rule.
Wikisource has the text of the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica article
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^ a b Douglass C. North; John Joseph Wallis;
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^ Tullock, Gordon. "Autocracy", Springer Science+Business, 1987.
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^ Way, Lucan (2016-01-27). "Weaknesses of
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Felix Bethke: Research on Autocratic Regimes: Divide et Impera,
Authoritarian and totalitarian forms of government
Tyranny of the majority