Dictionary Definition

authoritarianism n : a form of government in which the ruler is an absolute dictator (not restricted by a constitution or laws or opposition etc.) [syn: dictatorship, absolutism, Caesarism, despotism, monocracy, one-man rule, shogunate, Stalinism, totalitarianism, tyranny]

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. A form of government distinguished by absolute power in the executive branch of a state and little legislative or judicial control over the executive branch; the power rests generally on coercive force, rather than on the popular assembly.

Extensive Definition

Authoritarianism describes a form of social control characterized by strict obedience to the authority of a state or organization, often maintaining and enforcing control through the use of oppressive measure. Authoritarian regimes are generally considered to be highly hierarchical.
In an authoritarian form of government, citizens are subject to state authority in many aspects of their lives, including many matters that other political philosophies would see as erosion of civil liberties and freedom. There are various degrees of authoritarianism; even very democratic and liberal states will show authoritarianism to some extent, for example in areas of national security. Usually, an authoritarian government is undemocratic and has the power to govern without consent of those being governed.
John Duckitt suggests a specific link exists between authoritarianism and collectivism. He claims that in both cases individual rights and goals are subjugated to group goals, expectations and conformities. However, many of those supporting collectivism who are critical of the collectivisation which took place in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and of the Communist tradition thereafter, claim to include various degrees of voluntary and consensus politics as a basis of collectivism, and argue that collectivism is the opposite of authoritarianism.


Authoritarianism means a form of social control characterized by strict obedience to the authority of a state. Hence, the term has similar meaning with totalitarianism, with the latter being an extreme case of the former.
Various differences can reflect the difference between authoritarianism and totalitarianism. First, authoritarian leaders, although often they repress their political opponents, may also leave a larger sphere for private life than a totalitarian government. Unlike totalitarian governments, authoritarian governments usually lack a guiding ideology, tolerate some pluralism in social organization, lack the power to mobilize the whole population in pursuit of national goals, and exercise their power within relatively predictable limits.
For example, the Spanish government under Francisco Franco, while still allowing some personal freedom, would be considered as authoritarian. On the other hand, USSR under Stalin would be regarded as totalitarian as it attempted to control many aspects of personal life.

Forms of authoritarian government

There exists a gradation in authoritarianism, as well as a variety of possible authoritarian behaviors. Authoritarianism may exist under different regimes:
  • Absolute monarchies can be authoritarian, depending on the monarch.
  • Communism - Leninist theory holds that Communist states must always be authoritarian when on the path to "socialism", because of the "special repressive force" needed to attain their goals. However many self proclaimed Marxist governments ranging from Chile under Salvador Allende to Moldova under Vladimir Voronin have existed within the framework of a multiparty system. The term "communism" itself is meant to describe a stateless society advocated by Karl Marx (Stateless communism), which communists aspire to create. However most schools of Marxist thought support the model of one party government as a supposed means to reach the "communist stage" . As a result governing communist parties never refer to their system of government as being "communist", instead the term "socialist" is usually used. Non-Communists and Anti-Communists alike will usually describe all authoritarian governments led by self-proclaimed communists with the Communist label.
  • Dictatorships can also be authoritarian, though there have been cases of benevolent dictators.
  • Democracies can exhibit authoritarian behavior.
  • Fascist nations are always authoritarian.
  • Despotisms are always authoritarian.
  • Military autocracies countries run by high-ranking military officers, are almost always authoritarian. Note that militarchy does not necessarily mean a dictatorship or a junta, but a generally thoroughly militarized state. A classical example of militarchy would be Ancient Sparta or the Mamluk Egypt.
  • Theocracies are almost always authoritarian. An exception is the Quaker Consensus in Consensus decision-making: 'Decision-making arrived at by finding a "spiritual consensus," rather than voting, was developed by the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) early in the 17th century and is in use to the present day.'
  • Authoritarian Democracy is a combination of elements of both styles of government. This is different from the above democracy in the fact that it always combines both elements, not just during times of martial law. Singapore is sometimes considered an example of this tendency.
Authoritarian regimes grant wide powers to law enforcement agencies; in the extreme this leads to a police state. Authoritarian regimes may or may not have a rule of law. In the former case laws are enacted and though they may seem intrusive, unjust or excessive, they are applied to common people. In the latter case laws do not exist or are routinely ignored—government actions follow the judgments or whims of officials.

Authoritarianism and the Economy

In the late 20th Century political elites in East and Southeast Asia argued that countries with authoritarian regimes were more likely to be economically successful than democratic countries. Examples given to support this argument were South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, and Taiwan all of which were authoritarian and experiencing a period of rapid growth.
The belief that authoritarian governments were likely to economically out-perform democracies was reconsidered in 1997 during the Asian financial crisis.
There are of course many instances of authoritarian nations that have not encountered rapid economic growth. A good historical example is Spain in post-war Europe. More recent examples of poor economic performance in nations with authoritarian regimes are Myanmar and Zimbabwe.
Despite the Asian financial crisis the idea of developmental authoritarianism remains an attractive route to economic expansion in many developing nations. The Communist Party of China, which presides over the world’s fastest growing economy, uses this concept today as justification for its authoritarian rule.
While the link between political authoritarianism and economic growth may not be precisely understood, thinkers in anarchist and anti-authoritarian traditions have examined the "economy" itself as a realm of authoritarianism. In particular, similarities between business corporations and the state have often been highlighted. Both institutions are hierarchical, collective entities with clearly delineated chains of authority and command.

The Middle East and Middle Asia

The 21st century has the Middle East region with the highest concentration of authoritarian nations in the world. This is usually explained by reference to the region's cultural specificity (for example Bernard Lewis - Islam and the West) or its political economy.
It is true that historically the region has experienced an authoritarian tradition as exemplified by the Ottoman (13th Century to early 20th Century) and Mamluk (13th Century to late 19th Century) Empires; however, using culture to explain the region’s current political situations is rather a blunt tool. Cultural explanations fail to allow for regional diversity, are unable to account, or indeed allow, for progression and via their narrow focus fail to see the correlates between this region and other developing nations such as the People's Republic of China which have only relatively recently become members of the global political economy.

A Political Economy Approach

Political economists argue that the predominance of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East can be explained by reference to the regions economic development. Internal and external factors need to be considered and the interaction between them if a coherent argument is to be made.
External factors include a consideration of the regional and national impact of colonialism and the point at which each of these nations joined the global economy. Internal factors such as indigenous social structures and pre-existing modes of production also need to be explored.


The territorial boundaries of most Middle East nations were determined by Colonial powers in the inter-war period following the break-up of the Ottoman Empire. Roger Owen argues that this is an important factor when considering the relationship between the state and its citizens. Clearly an imposed nationhood does not carry with it a presupposition of unity. Colonised nations were required to contribute to the economy of their governors. Stability and therefore control of the populace was an important feature of the state infrastructure. In the Colonial period, ‘typically, some two thirds of public expenditure was security related.’ (Owen. 1993. p10). The historical legacy of colonialism for the citizens of Middle Eastern states was therefore one of imposed unity, economic exploitation and a state intent on controlling rather than consulting its populace.

The Global World Economy

Colonial states were turned into the globe's producers of raw materials. They serviced and supported the capitalist economies of their colonizing country. Dependency Theory adherents therefore suggest that economic under-development in the Middle East is a result of entering the global economy in a subordinate position. In other words exploitation rather than cultural specivity.
A very different economically based theory is the "no representation without taxation" theory.http://www.foreignaffairs.org/20040701faessay83408/nancy-birdsall-arvind-subramanian/saving-iraq-from-its-oil.html This posits that people will generally only demand control over their government if they are taxed; so that a government which can fund itself and pay for civic services by exporting oil or other natural resources, rather than taxing the people, can survive as an authoritarian regime.

Indigenous Social Structures and Modes of Production

The authoritarian traditions of the Middle East have changed and evolved over time as the social, political and economic situation has changed. Political economists such as Nazih Ayubi argue that systems of patronage and clientelism are not the result of essential cultural traits but rather an outcome of articulated modes of production. The co-existing and articulated modes of production Ayubi refers to are those of capitalist waged labour and those indigenous to the Middle East for example artisans, merchants, crop-sharing.
Clientelism, which Ayubi describes as, ‘informal ties in which services (and some goods) are exchanged between people of unequal status’ (Ayubi. 2001. p169), as a concept has developed to accommodate these articulated modes of production in a macro-political setting. The resulting political structure is authoritarian corporatism. Political and economic power resides with the state which adopts the role of arbiter and mediates between a variety of social groups. With no class hegemony civil society becomes subordinate to the state.


There are many critics of authoritarianism, most of which at the same time support democracy:
  • Numerous studies using many different kinds of data, definitions, and statistical analyses have found support for the democratic peace theory. The original finding was that liberal democracies have never made war with one another. More recent research has extended the theory and finds that democracies have few Militarized Interstate Disputes causing less than 1000 battle deaths with one another, that those MIDs that have occurred between democracies have caused few deaths, and that democracies have few civil wars.
  • Poor liberal democracies have better education, longer life expectancy, lower infant mortality, access to drinking water, and better health care than poor dictatorships. This is not due to higher levels of foreign assistance or spending a larger percentage of GDP on health and education. Instead, the available resources are managed better.
  • Several health indicators (life expectancy and infant and maternal mortality) has a stronger and more significant association with liberal democracy than they have with GDP per capita, size of the public sector, or income inequality.
  • In the post-Communist nations, after an initial decline, those most democratic have achieved the greatest gains in life expectancy.
  • A prominent economist, Amartya Sen, has noted that no functioning democracy has ever suffered a large scale famine. This includes democracies that have not been very prosperous historically, like India, which had its last great famine in 1943 and many other large scale famines before that in the late nineteenth century, all under British rule. However, some others ascribe the Bengal famine of 1943 to the effects of World War II . The government of India had been becoming progressively more democratic for years. Provincial government had been entirely so since the Government of India Act of 1935.
  • Refugee crises almost always occur in nondemocracies. Looking at the volume of refugee flows for the last twenty years, the first eighty-seven cases occurred in autocracies.
  • Research shows that the more liberal democratic nations have much less democide or murder by government. Similarly, they have less genocide and politicide.
  • Liberal democracies are more often associated with a higher average self-reported happiness in a nation.
  • Research by the World Bank suggests that political institutions are extremely important in determining the prevalence of corruption: democracy, parliamentary systems, political stability, and freedom of the press are all associated with lower corruption. Freedom of information legislation is important for accountability and transparency. The Indian Right to Information Act "has already engendered mass movements in the country that is bringing the lethargic, often corrupt bureaucracy to its knees and changing power equations completely."
  • If leaving out East Asia, then during the last forty-five years poor democracies have grown their economies 50% more rapidly than nondemocracies. Poor democracies such as the Baltic countries, Botswana, Costa Rica, Ghana, and Senegal have grown more rapidly than nondemocracies such as Angola, Syria, Uzbekistan, and Zimbabwe.
  • Of the eighty worst financial catastrophes during the last four decades, only five were in democracies. Similarly, poor democracies are half likely as nondemocracies to experience a 10 percent decline in GDP per capita over the course of a single year.


External links

authoritarianism in Bulgarian: Авторитаризъм
authoritarianism in Catalan: Autoritarisme
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authoritarianism in Dutch: Autoritarisme (politicologie)
authoritarianism in Japanese: 権威主義
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authoritarianism in Polish: Autorytaryzm (system sprawowania władzy)
authoritarianism in Portuguese: Autoritarismo
authoritarianism in Russian: Авторитаризм
authoritarianism in Finnish: Autoritarismi
authoritarianism in Swedish: Auktoritär
authoritarianism in Tagalog: Awtoritarismo
authoritarianism in Thai: ลัทธิอำนาจนิยม
authoritarianism in Ukrainian: Авторитаризм
authoritarianism in Chinese: 權威主義
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