Autocracy is a form of government in which absolute control lies in the hands of a single person, or of a tightly held group of people. Under autocratic law, the ruler has unlimited and undisputed power. The most recent forms of autocracy practiced by some nations include absolute monarchies and dictatorships. To explore this concept, consider the following autocracy definition.

Definition of Autocracy




  1. A form of government in which a single person has unlimited and unquestioned authority
  2. A nation ruled by an autocrat


1645-1655       Greek autokráteia    (power over oneself, sole power)

What is Autocracy

Throughout history, people have been governed by rulers with differing levels of power and authority. Autocracies were common in ancient times, when kings, emperors, czars, and other sovereign rulers protected their people, kept them fed, and dispensed justice according to their own rules. A number of modern rulers are considered by many to be autocratic, including Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Kim Jong Il of North Korea, Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela, and Fidel Castro of Cuba.

Systems of Government

There are three terms that categorize the different systems of government: autocracy, oligarchy, and democracy. The various systems under each of these categories range from governments in which a single person makes all of the rules, to governments in which all rules are made by many, or by all, people.


Autocracy is a society ruled by one individual. One person, the “autocrat,” has unquestioned power, and makes all of the decisions. The people living under an autocratic government have no recourse to effect change, no power of election, no say in their government, and no leverage to encourage a different course of action.

There is one advantage to an autocracy, in that decisions can be made easily, and put into effect quickly. Without the need to obtain a consensus of multiple politicians or delegates, the force of government moves forward without delay.


Oligarchy is a form of government in which all power is held by members of an elite segment of society. Such elite individuals are members of royalty, the very wealthy, the highly intellectual, and others. Oligarchical rulers come to power as a result of their elite status, being born into a royal family, being born into affluence and fortune, or otherwise claiming high favor. Rulers in oligarchy exercise their authority in their own best interests, not for the interests of the people they govern. Unlike an autocratic ruler, an oligarchical ruler need not be the official ruler of the nation, but may rule from behind the scenes.


Democracy comes in many forms, but in every case it requires the participation of the people. Most democracies have some form of a constitution that constrains authority, guaranteeing its citizens at least some level of civil rights. Democratic societies rule by the creation and enforcement of law. Citizens of a direct democracy are encouraged to participate in the decision-making process by voting on the institution of rules, policies, and laws. In a representative democracy, such as the United States, citizens instead elect representatives to make such decisions on their behalf.

Autocracy through Dictatorship

Dictatorship is the system of exerting absolute authority most commonly used in the world today. Even so, autocracy through dictatorship is accomplished in three primary ways.

Absolute Monarchy

The leader in an absolute monarchy, the “monarch,” wields absolute power, with no restrictions. An absolute monarch makes the nation’s rules, laws, and policies, and is solely responsible for enforcing those laws, and punishing offenders. Any officers he may appoint to carry out enforcement and punishment, act solely under his directives. Autocracy through absolute monarchy has been, at various times throughout history, volatile and unpredictable for the country’s citizens, as an absolute monarch can make and change laws on a whim.

Absolute Monarchs come to power by right of succession, having been born into the royal family. Examples of absolute monarchy in modern nations include Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Andorra, and Vatican City.

Benevolent Dictatorship

A benevolent dictatorship is a form of autocracy government in which a single authoritarian leader holds absolute power, but is seen by the people to exercise his authority for the benefit of his country’s citizens. In any dictatorial government, democratic processes are viewed as a messy and inefficient way to get things done. Democracy is also viewed by many as corrupt.

A benevolent dictator portrays himself as compassionate and altruistic, allowing for some decisions to be made by a democratic process. A benevolent dictator remains in power only while the people allow him to. Examples of autocracy through benevolent dictatorship in modern nations include Singapore, Rwanda, Jordan, and Belarus.

Military Dictatorship

A military dictatorship is a form of government in which the absolute authority of the dictator lies with the military. This type of government is most commonly formed as a result of the previous government having been overthrown by force. While the objective of such a revolution is to establish a new or better democratic-type government in which the people have a say, this type of coup may also result in the military force holding onto its power indefinitely.

In such a situation, the military regime often portrays itself as a neutral party, ousting unpopular leaders in times of great turmoil, “saving” the people by bringing stability. Autocracy examples through military dictatorship in modern history include such nations as Algeria, Guinea, Argentina, Peru, Iraq, and Pakistan.

Autocracy Example in Wildly Popular U.S. Presidency

President Abraham Lincoln is most definitely one of the most popular leaders in U.S. history. Through the rose-colored lenses of time, the tall, thin man, with the tall, thin hat is remembered as a president willing to make the difficult decisions in an effort abolish the greatest civil rights humiliation the nation has ever known. Individuals who make an effort to look back through time at the actual everyday events and endeavors of the Lincoln presidency often come to the conclusion that Lincoln often acted in autocracy.

The question for some, then, is whether Lincoln took extraordinary action, not fearing autocracy when needed, to steer the nation through the depths of political turmoil, or whether he was simply an ambitious tyrant bent on wielding his executive powers. Lincoln presided in a democratic nation during a time of crisis, which required him to make many autocratic decisions. Lincoln clearly wanted what was best for the people of his country, but understood the sentiment that what is right is not always popular, and what is popular is not always right. In this example of autocracy through a diverse leadership style, Lincoln did what was needed, acting swiftly when the situation called for speed.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Coup – A sudden, often violent seizure of power in politics; a violent overthrow of an existing government.