Autocracy is a system of government in which absolute power over a state is concentrated in the hands of one person, whose decisions are subject neither to external legal restraints nor to regularized mechanisms of popular control (except perhaps for the implicit threat of a coup d'état or other forms of rebellion).[1]

Nicholas II of Russia on the cover of 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.

Autocracy is the most common and durable regime type since the emergence of the state.[2]

History and etymologyEdit

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 governmentEdit

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

Origin and developmentsEdit

Examples from early modern Europe suggests early statehood was favorable for democracy.[4] According to Jacob Hariri, outside Europe, history shows that early statehood has led to autocracy.[5] The reasons he gives are continuation of the original autocratic rule and absence of "institutional transplantation" or European settlement.[5] 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.[6] Because of this settlement, these countries possibly experienced setting up of new institutions. Colonization also depended on factor endowments and settler mortality.[5]

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.[7] 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.[8]

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.[9]

Closed vs Electoral AutocracyEdit

There are several significant distinctions between closed and electoral autocracies, both of which are authoritarian types of governance in which one person or group has total authority.

A closed autocracy is a form of governance whereby all parties except for one official party are prohibited, although political independents who are not overtly anti-regime may occasionally be elected - this elite group faces no accountability from the population, as the population receives no civil liberties.[10] These people may acquire their positions of authority by inheritance, a coup, or other illegitimate methods, with no “choice” over their leader.[11] According to the 2022 V-Dem Democracy Report, there is a growing number of closed autocracies (30 countries as of 2020), that account for 26% of the global population.[12] In order to move a country toward liberal democracy in a closed autocracy, there needs to be an initial semi-liberal autocratic transition phase (unless they become occupied by foreign powers during a war who are willing to democratize).[10]

Global Political Regimes, 2018

On the other hand, an electoral autocracy is a form of hybrid regime in which the autocrat gains control through a democratic procedure, such as an election.[13] Once in charge, an autocrat will, however, use their position to expand their authority, restrict the impact of other political figures, and attack democratic institutions like the court and the free press,[13] manipulating contestation to make turnover unlikely or impossible.[14] Although there may be some appearance of democracy under an electoral autocracy, in reality the autocrat controls most of the authority and the public has little opportunity to hold them accountable, as with a closed autocracy. This is also referred to as a “hybrid regime that leans more toward the autocratic side”.[15] Electoral autocracies are still considered to be the most common government structure globally - 44% of the world’s population live under this regime.[12] In order to move toward liberal democracy in an electoral autocracy, the remaining barriers of illegitimacy and unfairness must be gradually removed.[10]


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.[16] 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.[17]

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.[9]

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".[18] 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.

Yu-Ming Liou and Paul Musgrave have found evidence that resource-rich autocracies often times apply antisocial policies in order to harm targeted groups (for example, restricting women's autonomy, especially in Middle Eastern autocracies) as a form of strategy to stay in power.[19]

Autocracy promotionEdit

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".[20] A number of scholars are skeptical that China and Russia have successfully exported authoritarianism abroad.[21][22][23][24]

Historical examplesEdit

Nicholas II of Russia was the last leader who was officially called an "autocrat" as part of his titles.
The president of Russia, Vladimir Putin is an example of a modern autocrat.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Johnson, Paul M. "Autocracy (Autocrat): A Glossary of Political Economy Terms". Retrieved 14 September 2012.
  2. ^ Grzymala-Busse, Anna; Finkel, Eugene (2022), "Historical Political Economy of Autocracy", The Oxford Handbook of Historical Political Economy, Oxford University Press, doi:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780197618608.013.9, ISBN 978-0-19-761860-8
  3. ^ Hague, Rod; Harrop, Martin; McCormick, John (2016). Comparative government and politics: an introduction (Tenth ed.). London: Palgrave. ISBN 978-1-137-52836-0.
  4. ^ Tilly, Charles (1975). Tilly, Charles (ed.). Western-state Making and Theories of Political Transformation. The Formation of National States in Western Europe. Studies in Political Development. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0691007721.
  5. ^ a b c Hariri, Jacob (2012). "The Autocratic Legacy of Early Statehood" (PDF). American Political Science Review. 106 (3): 471–494. doi:10.1017/S0003055412000238. S2CID 54222556.
  6. ^ Acemoglu, Daron; Johnson, Simon; A. Robinson, James. "Reversal of Fortune: Geography and Institutions in the Making of the Modern World Income Distribution".
  7. ^ Olson, Mancur (1 January 1993). "Dictatorship, Democracy, and Development". The American Political Science Review. 87 (3): 567–576. doi:10.2307/2938736. JSTOR 2938736. S2CID 145312307.
  8. ^ 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.
  9. ^ a b North, Douglass C.; Wallis, John Joseph; Weingast, Barry R. (2008). "Violence and the Rise of Open-Access Orders". Journal of Democracy. 20 (1): 55–68. doi:10.1353/jod.0.0060. S2CID 153774943.
  10. ^ a b c Siaroff, Alan (31 December 2013). Comparing Political Regimes. doi:10.3138/9781442607019. ISBN 9781442607019. S2CID 250968290.
  11. ^ "Globalisation and autocracy are locked together. For how much longer?". The Economist. ISSN 0013-0613. Retrieved 4 March 2023.
  12. ^ a b Alizada, Nazifa; Boese, Vanessa Alexandra; Lundstedt, Martin; Morrison, Kelly; Natsika, Natalia; Sato, Yuko; Tai, Hugo; Lindberg, Staffan I. (2022). "Autocratization Changing Nature?". SSRN Electronic Journal. doi:10.2139/ssrn.4052548. ISSN 1556-5068. S2CID 247431883.
  13. ^ a b Wong, Stan Hok-Wui; Or, Nick H. K. (1 December 2020). "To Compete or to Cooperate". Communist and Post-Communist Studies. 53 (4): 91–117. doi:10.1525/j.postcomstud.2020.53.4.91. ISSN 0967-067X. S2CID 234556117.
  14. ^ Miller, Michael K (5 November 2012). "Electoral authoritarianism and democracy: A formal model of regime transitions". Journal of Theoretical Politics. 25 (2): 153–181. doi:10.1177/0951629812460122. ISSN 0951-6298. S2CID 153751930.
  15. ^ Frantz, Erica (15 November 2018). "Authoritarianism". doi:10.1093/wentk/9780190880194.001.0001. ISBN 978-0-19-088019-4. {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  16. ^ Tullock, Gordon. "Autocracy", Springer Science+Business, 1987. ISBN 90-247-3398-7.
  17. ^ Kurrild-Klitgaard, Peter (2000). "The Constitutional Economics of Autocratic Succession". Public Choice. 103 (1): 63–84. doi:10.1023/A:1005078532251. S2CID 154097838.
  18. ^ Acemoglu, Daron; Johnson, Simon; Robinson, James A. (2005). Chapter 6 Institutions as a Fundamental Cause of Long-Run Growth. Handbook of Economic Growth. Vol. 1, Part A. pp. 385–472. doi:10.1016/S1574-0684(05)01006-3. ISBN 9780444520418.
  19. ^ Liou, Yu-Ming; Musgrave, Paul (13 June 2016). "Oil, Autocratic Survival, and the Gendered Resource Curse: When Inefficient Policy Is Politically Expedient". International Studies Quarterly. 60 (3): 440–456. doi:10.1093/isq/sqw021. ISSN 0020-8833.
  20. ^ Kurlantzick, Joshua (30 March 2013). "A New Axis of Autocracy". The Wall Street Journal. ISSN 0099-9660. Retrieved 17 May 2017.
  21. ^ 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.
  22. ^ 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.
  23. ^ Brownlee, Jason (15 May 2017). "The limited reach of authoritarian powers". Democratization. 24 (7): 1326–1344. doi:10.1080/13510347.2017.1287175. ISSN 1351-0347. S2CID 149353195.
  24. ^ 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.
  25. ^ "Password Logon Page". Retrieved 10 April 2016.(subscription required)
  26. ^ de Crespigny, Rafe (2017). Fire over Luoyang: A History of the Later Han Dynasty 23–220 AD. Leiden: Brill. pp. 449–459. ISBN 9789004324916.
  27. ^ Boundless World History. "The Russian Revolution". Course Hero.
  28. ^ Moss, Walter G. (July 2003). A History of Russia Volume 1: To 1917. ISBN 9781843310235.
  29. ^ Harrison, Dick (4 May 2019). "Då var Sverige en diktatur – skedde mer än en gång" [When Sweden was a dictatorship – happened more than once]. Svenska Dagbladet (in Swedish). Retrieved 27 October 2020.
  30. ^ Gottfried Plagemann: Von Allahs Gesetz zur Modernisierung per Gesetz. Gesetz und Gesetzgebung im Osmanischen Reich und der Republik Türkei. Lit Verlag
  31. ^ Cf. Jean Deny: 'Abd al-Ḥamīd. In: The Encyclopedia of Islam. New Edition. Vol. 2, Brill, Leiden 2002, pp. 64-65.
  32. ^ Esteban Navarro, Miguel Ángel (1987). "La categorización política del Franquismo. Un análisis de las principales aportaciones historiográficas". Brocar: Cuadernos de investigación histórica (in Spanish). Publicaciones Universidad de La Rioja (13): 12. ISSN 1885-8309. [...] su naturaleza antidemocrática en el mundo político y social, la actitud represiva, la continuidad autocrática en la jefatura del Estado, [...]

External linksEdit