Autocracy is a system of government in which supreme power over a state 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 coup d'état or other forms of rebellion).[1]

Puck magazine, 1905 February 8.

In earlier times, the term autocrat was coined as a favorable description of a ruler, having some connection to the concept of "lack of conflicts of interests" as well as an indication of grandeur and power. This use of the term continued into modern times, as the Russian Emperor was styled "Autocrat of all the Russias" as late as the early 20th century. In the 19th century, Eastern and Central Europe were under autocratic monarchies within the territories of which lived diverse peoples.

History and etymology

Autocracy comes from the Ancient Greek autos (Greek: αὐτός; "self") and kratos (Greek: κράτος; "power", "strength") from Kratos, the Greek personification of authority. In Medieval Greek, the term Autocrates was used for anyone holding the title emperor, regardless of the actual power of the monarch. The term was used in Ancient Greece and Rome with varying meanings. In the Middle Ages, the Byzantine Emperor was styled Autocrat of the Romans. Some historical Slavic monarchs such as Russian tsars and emperors, due to byzantine influence, included the title Autocrat as part of their official styles, distinguishing them from the constitutional monarchs elsewhere in Europe.

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 society.[2] It can be headed by a supreme leader, making it autocratic, but it can also have a collective leadership such as a commune, military junta, or a single political party as in the case of a one-party state.

Origin and developments

Examples from early modern Europe suggests early statehood was favorable for democracy.[3] According to Jacob Hariri, outside Europe, history shows that early statehood has led to autocracy.[4] The reasons he gives are continuation of the original autocratic rule and absence of "institutional transplantation" or European settlement.[4] 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.[5] Because of this settlement, these countries possibly experienced setting up of new institutions. Colonization also depended on factor endowments and settler mortality.[4]

Mancur Olson theorizes the development of autocracies as the first transition from anarchy to state. For Olson, anarchy 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.[6] Peter Kurrild-Klitgaard and G.T. Svendsen have argued that the Viking expansion and settlements in the 9th-11th centuries may be interpreted as an example of roving bandits becoming stationary.[7]

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.[8]


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, their merchants, the military, the priesthood, or other elite groups.[9] Some autocracies are rationalized by assertion of divine right; historically this has mainly been reserved for medieval kingdoms. In recent years researchers have found significant connections between the types of rules governing succession in monarchies and autocracies and the frequency with which coups or succession crises occur.[10]

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. To remain in power, this elite hinders people outside the dominant coalition to access organizations and resources. Autocracy 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.[8]

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".[11] 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 states such as North Korea have attempted to export their system of government to other countries through "autocracy promotion".[12] A number of scholars are skeptical that China and Russia have successfully exported authoritarianism abroad.[13][14][15][16]

Historical examples

Nicholas II of Russia was the last leader who was officially called an "autocrat" as part of his titles.
  • The Roman Empire, which Augustus founded following the end of the Roman Republic in 27 BC. 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 AD. The crisis of the Third Century saw the barbarian invasions and insurrections by prominent generals as well as economic decline. Both Diocletian and Constantine the Great ruled as autocratic leaders, strengthening the control of the emperor in a phase known as Dominate. The empire grew extremely large and was ruled by a tetrarchy, instituted by Diocletian. Eventually, it was split into two-halves, namely 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 Germanic king.[17] On the other hand, the Eastern Roman Empire survived until 1453, with the Fall of Constantinople. Its rulers main titles in Greek were Autocrator and Basileus.
  • The Eastern Han dynasty of China under Dong Zhuo.[18]
  • The Aztec Empire, where the Mesoamerican 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 under Tsar Ivan the Terrible. Shortly after being crowned as ruler, Ivan IV immediately removed his political enemies by execution or exile and established dominance over the Russian empire, expanding the borders of his kingdom dramatically. To enforce his rule, Ivan established the Streltzy as Russia's standing army and developed two cavalry divisions that were fiercely loyal to the Tsar. He also established 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.
  • The Tokugawa shogunate, a period of Japanese history which followed a series of conflicts between warring clans, states, and rulers. Tokugawa Ieyasu seized control of all of Japan through a mix of superior tactics and diplomacy, until he became the undisputed shogun (military ruler of Japan). The shogunate established by Tokugawa and continued by his successors controlled all aspects of life, closing the borders of Japan to all foreign nations and ruling with a policy of isolationism known as sakoku.
  • Sweden during the reigns of Gustav I (1523–1560), Charles XI and Charles XII (1680–1718), and Gustav III and Gustav IV Adolf (1772–1809).[19]
  • Denmark–Norway under the House of Oldenburg.
  • The French Republic and the French Empire from 1799 to 1814 under Napoleon Bonaparte.
  • The Soviet Union under the rule of Joseph Stalin in addition to other Soviet dictators. The Soviet Union was founded in 1922 following the Russian Civil War (1917–1922), and several of its leaders have been considered autocratic. Political repression occurred in the Soviet Union until its dissolution in 1991.
  • Fascist Italy under Benito Mussolini's rule starting from 1925.
  • Empire of Japan under Hirohito and Hideki Tojo with Imperial Rule Assistance Association.
  • Nazi Germany ruled by Adolf Hitler.[2] After the failed Beer Hall Putsch, the Nazi 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 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 of Germany, 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 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 and his party.
  • Spanish State, ruled by Francisco Franco.
  • The Hungarian People's Republic as a member of the Soviet-aligned Eastern Bloc.
  • Greece under the military junta of Georgios Papadopoulos (1967–1974).
  • Paraguay under the government of Alfredo Stroessner.
  • Chile under the dictatorship of Pinochet.
  • Cuba under the dictatorships of Fulgencio Batista and Fidel Castro.

See also


  1. Paul M. Johnson. "Autocracy: A Glossary of Political Economy Terms". Retrieved 14 September 2012.
  2. Hague, Rod; Harrop, Martin; McCormick, John (2016). Comparative government and politics : an introduction (Tenth ed.). London: Palgrave. ISBN 978-1-137-52836-0.
  3. Tilly, Charles. "Western-state Making and Theories of Political Transformation". Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  4. Hariri, Jacob (2012). "The Autocratic Legacy of Early Statehood" (PDF). American Political Science Review. 106 (3): 471–494. doi:10.1017/S0003055412000238. S2CID 54222556.
  5. Acemoglu, Daron; Johnson, Simon; A. Robinson, James. "Reversal of Fortune: Geography and Institutions in the Making of the Modern World Income Distribution".
  6. Olson, Mancur (1 January 1993). "Dictatorship, Democracy, and Development". The American Political Science Review. 87 (3): 567–576. doi:10.2307/2938736. JSTOR 2938736.
  7. Kurrild-Klitgaard, Peter & Svendsen, Gert Tinggaard, 2003. "Rational Bandits: Plunder, Public Goods, and the Vikings," Public Choice, Springer, vol. 117(3–4), pages 255–272.
  8. Douglass C. North; John Joseph Wallis; Barry R. Weingast (2008). "Violence and the Rise of Open-Access Orders". Journal of Democracy. 20 (1): 55–68. doi:10.1353/jod.0.0060. S2CID 153774943.
  9. Tullock, Gordon. "Autocracy", Springer Science+Business, 1987. ISBN 90-247-3398-7.
  10. Kurrild-Klitgaard, Peter (2000). "The constitutional economics of autocratic succession," Public Choice, 103(1/2), pp. 63–84.
  11. Acemoglu, Daron; Johnson, Simon; Robinson, James A. (2005). Chapter 6 Institutions as a Fundamental Cause of Long-Run Growth. Handbook of Economic Growth. 1, Part A. pp. 385–472. doi:10.1016/S1574-0684(05)01006-3. ISBN 9780444520418.
  12. Kurlantzick, Joshua (30 March 2013). "A New Axis of Autocracy". Wall Street Journal. ISSN 0099-9660. Retrieved 17 May 2017.
  13. Tansey, Oisín (2 January 2016). "The problem with autocracy promotion". Democratization. 23 (1): 141–163. doi:10.1080/13510347.2015.1095736. ISSN 1351-0347. S2CID 146222778.
  14. Way, Lucan (27 January 2016). "Weaknesses of Autocracy Promotion". Journal of Democracy. 27 (1): 64–75. doi:10.1353/jod.2016.0009. ISSN 1086-3214. S2CID 155187881.
  15. Brownlee, Jason (15 May 2017). "The limited reach of authoritarian powers". Democratization. 0 (7): 1326–1344. doi:10.1080/13510347.2017.1287175. ISSN 1351-0347. S2CID 149353195.
  16. Way, Lucan A. (2015). "The limits of autocracy promotion: The case of Russia in the 'near abroad'". European Journal of Political Research. 54 (4): 691–706. doi:10.1111/1475-6765.12092.
  17. "Password Logon Page". Retrieved 10 April 2016.(subscription required)
  18. de Crespigny, Rafe (2017). Fire over Luoyang: A History of the Later Han Dynasty 23–220 AD. Leiden: Brill. pp. 449–459. ISBN 9789004324916.
  19. Harrison, Dick (4 May 2019). "Då var Sverige en diktatur – skedde mer än en gång" [When Sweden was a dictatorship – happened more than once] (in Swedish). Svenska Dagbladet. Retrieved 27 October 2020.


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