Autocracy Research Paper

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From the Greek word autokratôr meaning self-ruler, or ruler of oneself, the term autocracy refers to one-person rule, or a government led by a single person with unlimited power. The autocrat has uncontrolled and undisputed authority over the people and others in the government, controlling all aspects of social, economic, and political life. Autocracies come in two forms: an inherited autocracy is also referred to as a monarchy while a nonheredity autocracy is a dictatorship. Autocracy is often used interchangeably with the terms despotism, tyranny, and dictatorship.

Autocracies did not develop in a formal way until the emergence of the state. Human culture has experienced four basic political organizations: bands, tribes, chiefdoms, and states. Band societies are characterized by being nonstratified, essentially egalitarian, kin-based groups whose leadership is based on ability. They are highly local and, because they are kin-based, have very small membership groups. Decision-making in band society is typically done by consensus, meaning that members of the group discuss an issue until everyone agrees on a particular course of action. Tribes are larger, more regionalized groups that share many of the characteristics of bands with the exception of size. As regionalized groups, tribes are linked together and often act together in times of conflict or need. Chiefdoms and states, unlike bands and tribes, are hierarchical or stratified. The head of state or chief rules by the power of their office and can command armies and exact tribute (taxes are a form of tribute). The difference between chiefdoms and states is that chiefdoms are kin-based while states are bureaucracies. Bureaucracies are formalized public bodies that perform particular tasks such as law-making. Chiefdoms and states have large memberships and leaders may not have direct contact with most of their followers or members. Members may also have no authority in choosing those who are in positions of leadership. This is generally the case with an autocratic form of government.

In Roman times the terms imperator, Caesar, and Augustus were used to signify an autocratic form of government. Autokratôr was often used in place of imperator. Perhaps the best example historically of an autocracy would be the Russian Czarist (Tsarist) system of government. The czars were referred to as Imperator i Samodyerzhets Vserossiysky, which translates as “all-Russian emperor and autocrat.” Late-twentieth-century forms of autocratic rule (though often challenged by subjects) include the government of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Hussein, a member of the Ba’ath party, often ruled Iraq through intimidation and acts considered to be crimes against humanity. Because of this, many people in Iraq lived in fear, many were executed and murdered, and many others rose to positions of power within his government. This contrasts with other forms of government such as democracies in which leadership is decided by the people and where there are clear limits on the power of the chief executive and members of the government. The United States is technically a democracy, but is administered as a republic, wherein representatives are elected to serve the people in the House of Representatives and the Senate. There are three branches of government: the executive branch (president and the cabinet), the judicial (Supreme Court and federal court system), and the legislative (House and Senate). This configuration is designed to prevent any single branch of government from wielding too much power, including that of the executive branch and the president. Despite this, the president holds the power of veto, wherein decisions of the other branches may be overruled, and the president may also make decisions in times of emergency without consultation with or support from the other branches of government. Ultimately, this power could lead to autocratic-like authority. In the twenty-first-century United States, President George W. Bush has been compared to an autocrat in some of his decisions regarding the Iraq War, the imposition of a democratic-style government in Iraq, and in his relationship with the other branches of government in the United States.


  1. Lincoln, W. Bruce. 1990. The Great Reforms: Autocracy, Bureaucracy, and the Politics of Change in Imperial Russia. DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press.
  2. MacKay, Sandra. 2003. The Reckoning: Iraq and the Legacy of Saddam Hussein. New York: W.W. Norton.
  3. McDaniel, Tim. 1988. Autocracy, Capitalism and Revolution in Russia. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  4. McDaniel, Tim. 1991. Autocracy, Modernization and Revolution in Russia and Iran. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  5. Rotberg, Robert I. 2001. Ending Autocracy, Enabling Democracy: The Tribulations of Africa. NY: World Peace Foundation.

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