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{{short description|System of government}}{{basic forms of government}}An autocracy is a system of government in which a single person or party (the autocrat) possesses supreme and absolute power. The decisions of this autocrat 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).WEB,weblink Autocracy: A Glossary of Political Economy Terms, Paul M. Johnson,, 2012-09-14, Absolute monarchies (such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Eswatini, Brunei, and Oman) and dictatorships (such as Turkmenistan, Eritrea, Belarus, and North Korea) 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 Emperor for example was styled, "Autocrat of all the Russias", as late as the early 20th century.

History and etymology

Autocracy comes from the Ancient Greek autós (self) and krátos (power, strength) from Kratos, the Greek personification of authority. 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. This not to be confused with the use of 'auto-', as in 'automatic' or 'automobile', to refer to the lack of need for human rule or power at all instead of power by one.

Comparison with other forms of government

Both totalitarian 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 societyBOOK, Hague, Rod, Harrop, Martin, McCormick, John, Comparative government and politics : an introduction, 2016, Palgrave, London, 978-1-137-52836-0, Tenthition, . It can be headed by a supreme leader, 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.BOOK, Pinker, Steven, 2011, The Better Angels Of Our Nature, 341, Penguin, 978-0-141-03464-5,

Origin and developments

Examples from early modern Europe suggests early statehood was favorable for democracy.JOURNAL, Tilly, Charles, Western-state Making and Theories of Political Transformation, But, according to Jacob Hariri, outside Europe, history shows that early statehood has led to autocracy.JOURNAL, Hariri, Jacob, The Autocratic Legacy of Early Statehood, American Political Science Review, 106, 3, 471–494,weblink 10.1017/S0003055412000238, 2012, 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 for the creation of 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.WEB, Acemoglu, Daron, Johnson, Simon, A. Robinson, James, Reversal of Fortune: Geography and Institutions in the Making of the Modern World Income Distribution.,weblink 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.JOURNAL, Olson, Mancur, 1993-01-01, Dictatorship, Democracy, and Development, The American Political Science Review, 87, 3, 567–576, 10.2307/2938736, 2938736,weblink 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.JOURNAL, Douglass C. North, John Joseph Wallis, Barry R. Weingast, Violence and the Rise of Open-Access Orders, Journal of Democracy, 2008, 20, 1, 55–68, 10.1353/jod.0.0060, 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.Tullock, Gordon. "Autocracy", Springer Science+Business, 1987. {{ISBN|90-247-3398-7}} Some autocracies are rationalized by assertion of divine right, historically this has mainly been reserved for medieval kingdoms.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".BOOK, Acemoglu, Daron, Johnson, Simon, Robinson, James A., Chapter 6 Institutions as a Fundamental Cause of Long-Run Growth, Handbook of Economic Growth, 2005, 1, Part A, 385–472, 10.1016/S1574-0684(05)01006-3, 9780444520418, 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.

Autocracy promotion

It has been argued that authoritarian regimes, such as China and Russia and totalitarian state like North Korea, have attempted to export their system of government to other countries through "autocracy promotion".NEWS,weblink A New Axis of Autocracy, Kurlantzick, Joshua, 2013-03-30, Wall Street Journal, 2017-05-17, 0099-9660, A number of scholars are skeptical that China and Russia have successfully exported authoritarianism abroad.JOURNAL, Tansey, Oisín, 2016-01-02, The problem with autocracy promotion, Democratization, 23, 1, 141–163, 10.1080/13510347.2015.1095736, 1351-0347,weblink JOURNAL, Way, Lucan, 2016-01-27, Weaknesses of Autocracy Promotion,weblink Journal of Democracy, 27, 1, 64–75, 10.1353/jod.2016.0009, 1086-3214, JOURNAL, Brownlee, Jason, 2017-05-15, The limited reach of authoritarian powers, Democratization, 0, 7, 1326–1344, 10.1080/13510347.2017.1287175, 1351-0347, JOURNAL, The limits of autocracy promotion: The case of Russia in the 'near abroad', 10.1111/1475-6765.12092, 54, 4, 2015, European Journal of Political Research, 691–706, Way, Lucan A.,

Historical examples

  • 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.
  • Paraguay under the government of Alfredo Stroessner.
  • Eastern Han under Dong Zhuo.BOOK, de Crespigny, Rafe, Fire over Luoyang: A History of the Later Han Dynasty 23-220 AD, 2017, Brill, Leiden, 9789004324916, 449–459, Rafe de Crespigny,
  • 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 generally peaceful and prosperous until the imperial rule of Commodus starting in 180 A.D. The third century saw invasions from barbarians, insurrections by prominent generals, 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 and the Eastern. 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.WEB,weblink Password Logon Page,, 2016-04-10,
  • Tsarist and Imperial Russia: Shortly after being crowned as ruler, Tsar Ivan IV 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 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 conflicts between warring clans, states, and rulers, all of them vying for power. While many of these lords struggled against each other openly, Tokugawa Ieyasu 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, 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 GermanyBOOK, Hague, Rod, Harrop, Martin, McCormick, John, Comparative government and politics : an introduction, 2016, Palgrave, London, 978-1-137-52836-0, Tenthition, : After the failed Beer Hall Putsch, the National Socialist German Workers' 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 under Joseph Stalin's rule.
  • The Spanish State, ruled by Francisco Franco.
  • Kingdom of Italy under Benito Mussolini's rule starting from 1925.
  • Empire of Japan under Hirohito.

See also



External links

{{EB1911 poster|Autocracy}}
  • Felix Bethke: weblink" title="">"Research on Autocratic Regimes: Divide et Impera'", Katapult-Magazine (2015-03-15)
{{Authoritarian types of rule}}{{Authority control}}

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Eastern Philosophy
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