An autocracy is a system of government in which a single person (the autocrat) possesses supreme and absolute power. The decisions of this autocrat are subject to neither external legal restraints nor regularized mechanisms of popular control (except perhaps for the implicit threat of a coup d'état or mass insurrection).Absolute monarchies (such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Eswatini, Brunei, and Oman) and dictatorships (such as Turkmenistan, Eritrea, Belarus, and North Korea) are the main modern-day forms of autocracy.
In earlier times, the term "autocrat" was coined as a favorable feature of the ruler, having some connection to the concept of "lack of conflicts of interests" as well as an indication of grandeur and power. The Russian Emperor for example was styled, "Autocrat of all the Russias", as late as the early 20th century.
Autocracy comes from the Ancient Greek autós (self) and krátos (power, strength) from Kratos, the Greek personification of authority. In the Medieval Greek language, the term Autocrates was used for anyone holding the title emperor, regardless of the actual power of the monarch. Some historical Slavic monarchs, such as Russian tsars and emperors, included the title Autocrat as part of their official styles, distinguishing them from the constitutional monarchs elsewhere in Europe. This not to be confused with the use of 'auto-', as in 'automatic' or 'automobile', to refer to the lack of need for human rule or power at all instead of power by one.
Both totalitarian and military dictatorship are often identified with, but need not be, an autocracy. Totalitarianism is a system where the state strives to control every aspect of life and civil society. It can be headed by a supreme leader, making it autocratic, but it can also have a collective leadership such as a commune, junta, or single political party.
In an analysis of militarized disputes between two states, if one of the states involved was an autocracy the chance of violence occurring doubled.
Examples from early modern Europe suggests early statehood was favorable for democracy. But, according to Jacob Hariri, outside Europe, history shows that early statehood has led to autocracy. The reasons he gives are: continuation of the original autocratic rule and absence of "institutional transplantation" or European settlement. This may be because of the country's capacity to fight colonization, or the presence of state infrastructure that Europeans did not need for the creation of new institutions to rule. In all the cases, representative institutions were unable to get introduced in these countries and they sustained their autocratic rule. European colonization was varied and conditional on many factors. Countries which were rich in natural resources had an extractive[?] and indirect rule, whereas other colonies saw European settlement. Because of this settlement, these countries possibly experienced setting up of new institutions. Colonization also depended on factor endowments and settler mortality.
Mancur Olson theorizes the development of autocracies as the first transition from anarchy to state. Anarchy for Olson is characterized by a number of "roving bandits" who travel around many different geographic areas extorting wealth from local populations leaving little incentive for populations to invest, and produce. As local populations lose the incentive to produce, there is little wealth for either the bandits to steal or the people to use. Olson theorizes autocrats as "stationary bandits" who solve this dilemma by establishing control over a small fiefdom and monopolize the extortion of wealth in the fiefdom in the form of taxes. Once an autocracy is developed, Olson theorizes that both the autocrat and the local population will be better off as the autocrat will have an "encompassing interest" in the maintenance and growth of wealth in the fiefdom. Because violence threatens the creation of rents, the "stationary bandit" has incentives to monopolize violence and to create a peaceful order.
Douglass North, John Joseph Wallis and Barry R. Weingast describe autocracies as limited access orders that arise from this need to monopolize violence. In contrast to Olson, these scholars understand the early state not as a single ruler, but as an organization formed by many actors. They describe the process of autocratic state formation as a bargaining process among individuals with access to violence. For them, these individuals form a dominant coalition that grants each other privileges such as the access to resources. As violence reduces the rents, members of the dominant coalition have incentives to cooperate and to avoid fighting. A limited access to privileges is necessary to avoid competition among the members of the dominant coalition, who then will credibly commit to cooperate and will form the state.
Because autocrats need a power structure to rule, it can be difficult to draw a clear line between historical autocracies and oligarchies. Most historical autocrats depended on their nobles, the military, the priesthood, or other elite groups. Some autocracies are rationalized by assertion of divine right, historically this has mainly been reserved for medieval kingdoms.
According to Douglass North, John Joseph Wallis and Barry R. Weingast, in limited access orders the state is ruled by a dominant coalition formed by a small elite group that relates to each other by personal relationships. In order to remain in power, this elite hinders people outside the dominant coalition to access organizations and resources. Autocracy, then, is maintained as long as the personal relationships of the elite continue to forge the dominant coalition. These scholars further suggest that once the dominant coalition starts to become broader and allow for impersonal relationships, limited access orders can give place to open access orders.
For Daron Acemoglu, Simon Johnson and James Robinson, the allocation of political power explains the maintenance of autocracies, which they usually refer to as "extractive states". For them, the de jure political power comes from political institutions, whereas the de facto political power is determined by the distribution of resources. Those holding the political power in the present will design the political and economic institutions in the future according to their interests. In autocracies, both de jure and de facto political powers are concentrated in one person or a small elite that will promote institutions for keeping the de jure political power as concentrated as the de facto political power, thereby maintaining autocratic regimes with extractive institutions.
It has been argued that authoritarian regimes, such as China and Russia, have attempted to export their system of government to other countries through "autocracy promotion". A number of scholars are skeptical that China and Russia have successfully exported authoritarianism abroad.