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Engelbert Dollfuss's chancellorship in Austria contained many authoritarian elements.
Engelbert Dollfuss's chancellorship in Austria contained many authoritarian elements.
Authoritarianism is a form of social organization characterized by submission to authority. It is usually opposed to individualism and libertarianism. In politics, an authoritarian government is one in which political authority is concentrated in a small group of politicians.[1]



Authoritarianism is characterized by highly concentrated, and centralized power maintained by political repression and the exclusion of potential challengers. It uses political parties and mass organizations to mobilize people around the goals of the regime.[2]

Authoritarianism emphasizes arbitrary law rather than the rule of law, it often includes election rigging, political decisions being made by a select group of officials behind closed doors, a bureaucracy that sometimes operates independently of rules, which does not properly supervise elected officials, and fails to serve the concerns of the constituencies they purportedly serve. Authoritarianism also tends to embrace the informal and unregulated exercise of political power, a leadership that is "self-appointed and even if elected cannot be displaced by citizens' free choice among competitors," the arbitrary deprivation of civil liberties, and little tolerance for meaningful opposition;[2]

A range of social controls also attempt to stifle civil society, while political stability is maintained by control over and support of the armed forces, a bureaucracy staffed by the regime, and creation of allegiance through various means of socialization and indoctrination.[2]

Authoritarian political systems may be weakened through "inadequate performance to demands of the people."[2] Vestal writes that the tendency to respond to challenges to authoritarianism through tighter control instead of adaptation is a significant weakness, and that this overly rigid approach fails to "adapt to changes or to accommodate growing demands on the part of the populace or even groups within the system."[2] Because the legitimacy of the state is dependent on performance, authoritarian states that fail to adapt may collapse.[2]

Authoritarianism is marked by "indefinite political tenure" of the ruler or ruling party (often in a single-party state) or other authority.[2] The transition from an authoritarian system to a more democratic form of government is referred to as democratization.[2]

John Duckitt of the University of the Witwatersrand suggests a link between authoritarianism and collectivism, asserting that both stand in opposition to individualism.[3] Duckitt writes that both authoritarianism and collectivism submerge individual rights and goals to group goals, expectations and conformities.[4] Others argue that collectivism, properly defined, has a basis of consensus decision-making, the opposite of authoritarianism.

Authoritarianism and totalitarianism

Totalitarianism is an extreme version of authoritarianism. Authoritarianism primarily differs from totalitarianism in that social and economic institutions exist that are not under governmental control. Building on the work of Yale political scientist Juan Linz, Paul C. Sondrol of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs has examined the characteristics of authoritarian and totalitarian dictators and organized them in a chart:[5]

! Totalitarianism Authoritarianism
Charisma High Low
Role conception Leader as function Leader as individual
Ends of power Public Private
Corruption Low High
Official ideology Yes No
Limited pluralism No Yes
Legitimacy Yes No

Sondrol argues that while both authoritarianism and totalitarianism are forms of autocracy, they differ in "key dichotomies":

Thus, compared to totalitarian systems, authoritarian systems may also leave a larger sphere for private life, 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.

Authoritarianism and democracy

Authoritarianism and democracy are not fundamentally opposed to one another, it is thus perfectly possible for democracies to possess strong authoritarian elements, for both feature a form of submission to authority. An illiberal democracy (or procedural democracy) is distinguished from liberal democracy (or substantive democracy) in that illiberal democracies lack the more democratic features of liberal democracies, such as the rule of law, an independent judiciary, along with a further distinction that liberal democracies have rarely made war with one another. More recent research has extended the theory and finds that more democratic countries tend to have few Militarized Interstate Disputes causing less battle deaths with one another, and that democracies have few civil wars.[6][7]

  • Poor democracies tend to 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 more likely to be managed better.[8]
  • Studies suggest that several health indicators (life expectancy and infant and maternal mortality) have a stronger and more significant association with democracy than they have with GDP per capita, size of the public sector, or income inequality.[9]
  • A prominent economist, Amartya Sen, has theorized that no functioning country labeled as having a liberal democracy has ever suffered a large-scale famine.[10] 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 the least democratic countries. Looking at the volume of refugee flows for the last twenty years, the first eighty-seven cases occurred in most authoritarian countries.[8]
  • Research shows that the democratic nations have much less democide or murder by government. However it should be noted that those were also moderately developed nations before applying liberal democratic policies.[11] Similarly, they have less genocide and politicide.[12]

  • Research by the World Bank suggests that political institutions are extremely important in determining the prevalence of corruption: parliamentary systems, political stability, and freedom of the press are all associated with lower corruption.[13]

Daniel Lederman, Normal Loaza, Rodrigo Res Soares, (November 2001). "Accountability and Corruption: Political Institutions Matter". World Bank Policy Research Working Paper No. 2708. SSRN 632777. Retrieved February 19, 2006. 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."[14]

  • Of the eighty worst financial catastrophes during the last four decades, only five were in countries labeled as democracies. Similarly, those labeled as "poor democracies" are half as likely as countries labeled as non-democracies to experience a 10 percent decline in GDP per capita over the course of a single year.[8]
  • One study has concluded that terrorism is most common in nations with intermediate political freedom. The nations with the least amount of terrorism are the most and least democratic nations.[15]

Authoritarian states

Any list of such states is bound to be controversial; certain indices have striven to ascertain the openness or democratic quality of countries based on a somewhat simplistic tick-box method, the notion of index itself being economically oriented. Within the present world system, unsurprisingly the "soft power" countries of major western power centers often come out at the top of such lists, countries such as Sweden, Norway, etc.. on the other hand, places like North Korea, Chad, Iran, Belarus, Zimbabwe and Turkmenistan appear as strongly authoritarian. For a list see, for example, The Economist magazine's democracy index, though this is a economic-liberal magazine - but indexes compiled from other points of view such as Amnesty International or Freedom House are available from time to time. It is often the more wealthy countries that come out at the top of such lists and the poorer ones that fall toward the end; whether this is a cause or result of their political systems is open to debate.

Another way of looking at the problem of trying to make a list of authoritarian regimes is not to compare the apparent forms of government (for example, whether direct election as in the Swiss Cantons or by collegiate representation etc.) but, in making such a list, to compare the balance of power between the political elite and the general populace. Such an index asks questions as to whether or not a given government allows the direct influence of its subjects in the decision making process, whether or not it suppresses Freedom of Speech, imprisons them in Gulags or other such prison systems or behaves in a belligerent manner towards more democratic nations or allows poor work conditions to flourish or even allows forms of slavery.

The government of China is generally considered to be a modern authoritarian government. China is ruled by one party only, known as the Communist Party. Policies in China are created in high-level meetings, in which the general population has no input into the choices that are made for them. The government of China keeps watch over the Chinese internet meticulously, looking for anything that may be considered politically sensitive. They also block major social networking websites such as Facebook and Twitter, as they are concerned that citizens may use these sites to organize public demonstrations. Furthermore, some citizens who have posted information on the Internet that is pro-democratic have been harassed and are sometimes even imprisoned.[16] Another measure that the government of China has taken which many argue infringes on the rights of its citizens is the enforcement of the one-child policy of 1979, which limits each couple who are ethnic Han Chinese living in urban areas to one child. While this was done for purposes of population control, it has led to the killing or abandonment of many female babies (so that the couple may instead have a son to carry on their family name). Also, there have been multiple consequences for parents who have more than one child, including fines, pressure to abort, and forced sterilization.[17]

The Vietnamese communist regime in Hanoi is also considered to be authoritarian. Vietnam is ruled by the Vietnamese Communist Party, the only legal political party in the country, whose rule is unbroken ever since 1946 in North Vietnam, and later extended to the former South Vietnam after the North Vietnamese invasion in the Vietnam War. Policies and laws are all made unilaterally by the Party, with the general public having no power in the decision-making process. Any political opposition is prohibited, like the Bloc 8406, Viet Tan and Viet Nam Quoc Dan Dang, and dissidents, including the singer and composer Viet Khang are routinely arrested and imprisoned, with the government frequently charging dissidents for "subverting the State", "endangering State security" or attempting to "overthrow the "People's" socialist government".[18] Political protests in Vietnam are usually quashed by police, most notably the protests on supporting Vietnamese sovereignty of the Paracel Islands and Spratly Islands in the summer of 2011 in the cities of Hanoi and Saigon,[19] and smaller protests on the Vietnamese regime's confiscation of land. The Internet is heavily censored by the government, and sites that are anti-communist, critical or opposing the government, or in support of the former Republic of Vietnam being blocked by the government firewall. Websites being blocked include Facebook.[20] The Vietnamese regime used to run an expansive system of gulags (referred to as "reeducation camps"), where hundreds of thousands perished. Many prisoners in the "re-education camps" were political dissidents, South Vietnamese politicians, officials and soldiers, and "land owners" (which also included former business and property owners).

Authoritarianism in history

Many different forms of authoritarianism have served as the norm in many polities and in most periods from the dawn of recorded history. Tribal chiefs and god-kings often gave way to despots and emperors, then to enlightened monarchs and juntas. Even superficially democratic constitutions or those claiming to be such can allow the concentration of power or domination by strong-men or by small groups of political elites - note the history of the Icelandic Althing.

In contrast to the varying manifestations of authoritarianism, more democratic forms of governance as a standard mode of political organization became widespread only after the Industrial Revolution had established modernity. Tyrants and oligarchs bracketed the flourishing of democracy in ancient Athens; and kings and emperors preceded and followed experimentation with democratic forms in the Roman Republic. In the 15th century, Vlad Dracula is credited for being the first ruler of Wallachia and Transylvania to rule by Authoritarianism.[21]

See also

  • Anti-authoritarianism
  • Authoritarian personality


External links

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