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.
In the 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 in Europe.
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 doubled.
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 settler mortality.
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 authoritarianism abroad.
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 of Commodus starting in 180 A.D. The third century saw invasions from the barbarians as well as economic decline. Both Diocletian and 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 Roman Empire fell in 476 after civic unrest, further economic decline, and invasions led to the surrender of Romulus Augustus to Odoacer, a German king.
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.
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 established the 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. The ideology 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.
|Wikisource has the text of the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica article Autocracy.|