Absolute and arbitrary rule.
An autocrat is not constrained by laws or coventions, and autocracy is essentially unpredictable as a form of government.
Unlike authority, which implies a right or qualification to command, autocracy indicates no more than untrammelled power.
Roger Scruton, A Dictionary of Political Thought (London, 1982)
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. 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.
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. 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. 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 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. 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. 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.
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; 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 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 and totalitarian states such as North Korea 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, 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. 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.
- 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).
- Denmark–Norway under the House of Oldenburg.
- The French Republic and the French Empire from 1799 to 1814 under Napoleon Bonaparte.
- The President of the United States has been regarded as an autocratic ruler over sovereign Native American nations, in his role as chief executive of the Department of the Interior and its Office of Indian Affairs, which oversaw relations between the U.S. and Native American nations. The U.S. government imposed complete control over the citizens of Native nations whose nations had entered into treaties with the U.S. This was especially true in the second half of the 19th century when U.S. policy was to acquire territory from Native nations and then remove that nation’s population to the Indian Territory and confine them there. The confined population retained the citizenship of their Native nation and were not eligible for American citizenship because they were considered “Indians not taxed” under Article One of the United States Constitution. Unable to acquire U.S. citizenship, this meant that the confined population had no civil rights because they were not recognized as “persons” under American law. This deprived them of all means of legal redress to challenge the autocratic rule of the U.S. government imposed over every aspect of their lives. Native Americans were specifically excluded from the grant of universal citizenship following the abolition of slavery under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1868. It was not until 1879 that the first Native American was recognized as a “person” in the landmark civil rights case Standing Bear v. Crook. In the Standing Bear case, 29 citizens of the Ponca Nation led by Standing Bear were required to renounce their Ponca citizenship just to acquire the basic constitutional right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness following the illegal forced removal of the Ponca to the Indian Territory in 1877 by the U.S. government in violation of the Ponca Treaty of 1865. Public opinion following the Standing Bear case led to a push for Native American citizenship with many major U.S. newspapers criticizing the U.S. autocracy. In 1880, the New York Tribune editorialized: “So long as the Indians remain without the protection of the law, we give the lie to our claim to be a republic as much as we did when we permitted slavery. So far as they are concerned, our government is as autocratic today as that of Russia or Persia.” Native Americans were not granted universal American citizenship for another 45 years when the Indian Citizenship Act was enacted in 1924. Still, autocratic rule continued. In 1934, Franklin D. Roosevelt recognized his government’s autocratic rule over Native Americans, saying the “continuance of autocratic rule by a federal department over the lives of more than 200,000 citizens of this nation is incompatible with American ideals of liberty”. Despite Roosevelt’s Indian Reorganization Act, autocratic rule continued until the administration of Richard Nixon and the enactment of the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975.
- 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. 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.