Authoritarianism: Overview

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Authoritarianism: Overview

The term authoritarianism can be applied to a great variety of contexts. It can refer to authoritarian behavior, leadership styles, or personality types in families, industrial enterprises, bureaucracies, and other forms of organizations. Here, it refers to political regimes that fall under this broad label. The major characteristics of authoritarian regimes include a limited political pluralism with restrictions on the activities of interest groups and parties, a low level of social mobilization and popular political participation, a dominantly "subject" or "parochial" political culture, and usually a personalized form of leadership.

The term came into use in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries when it became necessary to distinguish hierarchically structured, traditional monarchical or more recent "bonapartist" autocratic regimes from liberal democracies, on the one hand, and all-encompassing "totalitarian" systems, on the other. Liberal democracies can be defined with regard to three major dimensions: an open and competitive political pluralism (usually in a multiparty system), a high level of political participation (as in fair and free elections, referenda, etc.), and political institutions that guarantee a certain separation of powers, the rule of law, and basic human rights (such as freedom of expression, information, organization, religion, etc.). Totalitarian systems, at the other extreme, are characterized by monistic, all-encompassing social and political organizations (such as a single party; dependent unions; organizations for women, youth, etc.), a high level of social mobilization (as in political rallies, high election turnouts), an explicit, monolithic, absolutist ideology, and a strong repressive apparatus. In fact, however, these distinctions cannot always be drawn precisely and some "gray" areas exist between these types. In common usage, all nondemocratic systems are lumped together as "dictatorships." Whereas the original use of this term in the Roman republic referred to emergency powers for a limited period, today it implies all kinds of arbitrary rule and political repression. Nevertheless, important qualitative differences can be found among such nondemocratic regimes.

Dominant Characteristics of Political Systems

Among the most important dimensions of political systems are the basis of legitimacy, the party system, the pattern of recruitment of the executive, the actual power structure, the scope of political control, the ideological orientation of the system, and the formal vertical and horizontal separations of power. Legitimacy can be based on strong attachment to a political leader (charismatic), on elective procedures (legal-rational), or on a customary or informal acceptance (traditional) of political incumbents or a regime. Party systems are distinguished according to their degree of competitiveness, ranging from one-party states without any competitive elements, through semicompetitive single-party structures and restricted multiparty systems, to fully competitive ones. The recruitment of the executive can be achieved by inheritance, direct election by the population, a majority vote by parliament, or through forceful usurpation. The actual power structure within the executive can be strongly personalized and clientelistic or have a small collective group at its base (e.g., a military junta or a politburo of a centralized party), or it can be broadly composed to incorporate the most important plural elements of society.

The scope of control can range from limited to totalitarian. Ideological orientation is considered in relation to its respective social basis. This can consist of a "communalistic" (e.g., ethnic or religious) group, or of the lower, middle, or upper classes of society, corresponding to the political continuum of "left," "center," and "right." Finally, in a constitutional sense, the vertical separation of power can be viewed as complete, as limited but with an independent judiciary, or as nonexistent. Similarly, the horizontal separation of power can be federal or centralized. These dimensions and their discrete expressions are listed on the left-hand side in Table 1.

Specific Forms of Authoritarian Rule

Based on the characteristics outlined above, we can differentiate six forms of authoritarian rule.

Authoritarian monarchy.

The most traditional political system in the world today is the authoritarian monarchy. Its basis of legitimacy is customary and is often linked to mythical assumptions regarding the foundation of the respective dynasty. Examples of this type are Ethiopia (until 1974) and Saudi Arabia. Accession to the throne is generally regulated by heredity, and there is little, if any, open political competition. Formal separation of powers is nonexistent, the power structures are personalistic and reinforced by an aristocratic upper-class ideology. In former times, most regimes of this kind were built upon feudal agrarian structures. Today they tend to have centralized and absolutist characteristics.

"Old" oligarchy.

Another type of authoritarianism, which has been prevalent in Latin America, is the "old" oligarchy or, to use Howard J. Wiarda's term, the traditional-authoritarian regime. Such a regime receives its support from feudalistic or "neofeudalistic" rural structures and, since the late twentieth century, from segments of the urban upper classes. In the old oligarchy's extreme forms (e.g., in Nicaragua until 1979), a small number of leading families exercise almost exclusive control over political and economic life. In this system, a leader may be replaced relatively easily by another, sometimes through holding manipulated elections that do not alter the power structure.

Characteristics:Authoritarian Monarchy"Old" Oligarchy"New" OligarchySemicompetitivePersonalistic militaryCorporatistic militarySocialistic militarySocialistCommunistFascistTheocraticDemocracyCharacteristics:Authoritarian Monarchy"Old" Oligarchy"New" OligarchySemicompetitivePersonalistic militaryCorporatistic militarySocialist militarySocialistCommunistFascistTheocraticDemocracy
Legitimacy:Ideological Orientation Toward:
weak or noneXX(X)XXXXX
traditional or customaryX(X)(X)Xcommunalistic groups(X)(X)(X)(X)X
personalistic"old" upper classesXXX
(charismatic)(X)(X)(X)(X)X(X)"new" upper classesXXX
elective (legal-rational)XXlower classesXXX
Party System:middle classes or broader social basisXX
no partyXXXXXScope of Power:
one party without competitive elementsXXXXXpartialXXXXXXXXX
one party with competitive elements or restricted multiparty(X)X(X)(X)all-encompassingXXX
multipartyXVertical Separation of Power:
Head of Executive:noneXXX(X)XXXXXXX
monarchXlimited with independent judiciaryXX
president or prime ministerXXXXXXXfull(X)
military rulerXXXHorizontal Separation of Power:
religious leaderXcentralizedXXXXXXXXXXXX
Power Structure:federal(X)(X)(X)
collective groupXXXXX
Note: Marks in brackets indicate the possibility of certain variations among subtypes.

Political leadership in these states has been connected with the traditional elements of the Catholic Church and the military. Antonio de Oliveira Salazar's (18891970) Portugal, and to some extent Francisco Franco's (19171989) Spain, also can be placed in this category. Political activities and the media are usually controlled by the regime's repressive apparatus. Other elements that constitute a separation of powers, such as an independent judiciary or a federal structure, are equally lacking.

"New" oligarchy.

The "new" oligarchy receives its support from the dominant urban groups in a contemporary context. In this "hegemonic" regime, open competition for public office does not occur. Usually, there is a single-party structure, which, however, is predominantly formal and not very effective. Instead, great emphasis is placed on the bureaucracy. Public opinion and the media are controlled, while leadership is centralized and highly personalistic. In this respect, some charismatic elements of legitimacy may exist. Compliance is established either in terms of passive acceptance or by repressive measures. Both the social base and "inclusiveness" vary in ethnic and class terms. In a majority of cases, a relatively wide ethnic base is combined with more restricted class interests that favor the prosperous groups in society. Countries such as Cameroon, Tunisia, and the Philippines (under Ferdinand Marcos; 19171989) are cases in point.

Semicompetitive authoritarianism.

Another type can be termed "semicompetitive." In Latin America this system was also based on the traditionally dominant classes, but there is a greater balance between the rural and urban elements. This type also comes close to what Wiarda calls an "open corporatist" system. The contending elements are often institutionalized in "conservative" and "liberal" parties such as those found in nineteenth-century Chile, Colombia, or Uruguay. The "dominant one-party" system in postrevolutionary Mexico is a special case in point. Active participation remains restricted to the middle and upper segments of the population, while mass mobilization is largely prevented or restricted to more symbolic functions. In a different social context, one-party systems embodying competitive elements (e.g., that of Kenya until 1992) and states in which "regulated competition" prevails (e.g., Singapore, Lebanon until 1975) can also be subsumed under this category. Semicompetitive regimes tend to follow established constitutional rules within a presidential or parliamentary system. Regular transfers of power occur within the set framework. They are generally less repressive than "oligarchic" systems. The media often enjoy greater freedom as well.

Socialist authoritarianism.

"Socialist" regimes reveal another pattern. They are characterized by an effective single-party organization, a centralized system of government, and an ideology directed toward an egalitarian social order and a "non-capitalist" and "self-reliant" development. Freedom of expression and pluralistic forms of organization are curtailed. There is, however, a great deal of variation. One group (e.g., Tanzania and Guinea after independence) attempted to found their specific type of socialism upon their societies' egalitarian traditions and culture. Another group (e.g., Algeria, Mozambique) advocated a Marxist-oriented "scientific" brand of socialism. In both groups, there may exist some semicompetitive elements in the intraparty and parliamentary spheres. Socialist regimes must be distinguished from their totalitarian "communist" counterparts, if only because of their generally "underdeveloped" condition and the relative lack of effective social control.

Military regimes.

In addition to civilian regimes, there are systems that are controlled by "men on horseback" (Janowitz). These military rulers come to power through a coup d'état after the previous civilian institutions fail. In the absence of significant countervailing powers, the military's monopoly over the physical means of coercion makes less efficient civilian governments an easy prey for armed groups. The social bases of these regimes are usually rather narrow. Some military rulers act as temporary caretakers and make genuine attempts to return their countries to civilian rule (as Olusegun Obasanjo in Nigeria in 1980). Others, on the contrary, seek to establish their power permanently. Three subtypes can be distinguished.

The first is personal military authoritarianism. These regimes center around a "strong man" and his most immediate following. Because there are few, if any, formalized input structures, they rely heavily on their centralized output apparatus. In many Latin American countries, this type of rule was exercised by the characteristic "caudillo" in the nineteenth century. Although the caudillo's ascent to power was largely due to his personal qualities (i.e., his military prowess and perhaps charismatic appeal), his rule cannot be understood without reference to the established landed oligarchy. The large haciendas remained one of the stable elements in turbulent times, and caudillos often were (or became) haciendados as well. In cases where a caudillo managed to establish a durable regime, this was often accomplished through a system of regional and local subpatrons, the "caciques." Since this type of rule is highly personalistic, it remained inherently unstable. Caudillos were often overthrown by successful rivals.

A second subtype is corporate military authoritarianism. In the 1960s some Latin American states, such as Brazil and Argentina, witnessed the emergence of more "modern" military regimes. In these countries, power had been assumed by the military on a corporate basis. Within the leading ranks of the armed forces, a certain institutionalized transfer of power was established. Although the political orientation of these regimes was "national" and favorable to "modernization," they nonetheless have left older social structures essentially intact. Formal interest groups and parties were strongly regulated, and the repressive nature of the regime was often particularly blatant.

A third subtype is that of socialist military authoritarianism, which establishes its authority on a permanent basis through the creation of a single-party system. In contrast to the other forms of military rule, these regimes have a socialist and lower-class orientation. In such cases (e.g., Gamal Abdel Nasser's Egypt, or Peru after 1968), the power of the military was directed toward social reforms. The long-term success of such reforms depends, however, upon the government's ability to secure participation from below. If these efforts fail, a shift to a semicompetitive type of regime (e.g., Anwar as-Sadat's Egypt), a polyarchic system (in Peru after 1980), or a return to personalistic military rule may take place.


After the dramatic events in Eastern Europe in 19891990 and their repercussions in other parts of the world, many of these authoritarian regimes disappeared. To a large extent, they were replaced by liberal democracies. Nevertheless, in some regions, most conspicuously in the Middle East, nondemocratic regimes persisted (e.g., the monarchies and sheikdoms in the Arabian peninsula, the personalistic military dictatorships in Iraq, Lybia, and Syria, or the "semicompetitive" systems in Egypt and Tunisia). In other areas, as in parts of the former Soviet Union, communist regimes were transformed into "post-totalitarian" but still harshly authoritarian and personalistic "new oligarchic" or "sultanistic" ones, In other cases, the newly established democratic forms of government remained defective with respect to important aspects such as truly "free and fair" elections, meaningful popular participation, and the guarantee of the rule of law and basic human rights. Some authors termed these regimes purely "electoral," "illiberal," or "delegative" democracies. In most cases, they resemble the former "semi-competitive" or even "new oligarchic" types.

Thus, at the beginning of the twenty-first century authoritarianism has been on the decline and at least the worst totalitarian forms of rule, with the possible exception of some fundamentalist "theocratic" ones, seem to be over. New variants, however, may yet occur and there remain certain authoritarian and populist dangers in some of the longer-established democracies as well.

See also Communism ; Democracy ; Socialism ; Totalitarianism .


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Dirk Berg-Schlosser