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Related subjects: Systems of government

Background Information

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An autocracy is a form of government in which the political power is held by a single self-appointed ruler. The term autocrat is derived from the Greek word autocratic (lit. "self-ruler", or to: "rule by one's self"). Compare with oligarchy (literally means rule by the few) and democracy (rule by the majority).

Today it is usually seen as synonymous with despot, tyrant and/or dictator, though each of these terms originally had a separate and distinct meaning (see their respective articles).

Autocracy is not synonymous with totalitarianism, as this concept was precisely forged to distinguish modern regimes that appeared in the 1920s from traditional dictatorships. It also isn't synonymous with military dictatorship, as these often take the form of "collective presidencies" (see the South-American juntas). However, an autocracy may be totalitarian or be a military dictatorship.

The term monarchy also differs in that it emphasizes the hereditary characteristic, though some Slavic monarchs, specifically Russian Emperors traditionally included the title "autocrat" as part of their official styles. The actual power of the monarch may be limited. Historically, many monarchs ruled autocratically (see absolute monarchy) but eventually their power was diminished and dissolved with the introduction of constitutions giving the people the power to make decisions for themselves through elected bodies of government.

The autocrat needs some kind of power structure to rule. Very few rulers were in the position to rule with only their personal charisma and skills however great they may be without the help of others. Most historical autocrats depended on their nobles, the military, the priesthood or others, who could turn against the ruler and depose or murder him (or her). The true nature of a historical autocracy and the difference between an autocracy and an oligarchy can be difficult to judge.

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