A dictatorship is an authoritarian form of government, characterized by a single leader or group of leaders with either no party or a weak party, little mass mobilization, and limited political pluralism. According to other definitions, democracies are regimes in which „those who govern are selected through contested elections”; therefore dictatorships are „not democracies”. With the advent of the 19th and 20th centuries, dictatorships and constitutional democracies emerged as the world’s two major forms of government, gradually eliminating monarchies, one of the traditional widespread form of government of the time. Typically, in a dictatorial regime, the leader of the country is identified with the title of dictator. A common aspect that characterized dictators, is to take advantage of their strong personality, usually by suppressing freedom of thought and speech of the masses, in order to maintain political and social supremacy and stability. Dictatorship and totalitarian societies generally employ political propaganda to decrease the influence of proponents of alternative governing systems.
The word „dictator” comes from the classical Latin language word dictātor, agent noun from dictare (dictāt- , past participial stem of dictāredictate v. + -or -or suffix.) In Latin use, a dictator was a judge in the Roman republic temporarily invested with absolute power.
Types of dictatorships
Right after the end of World War II, with a more relaxed political and social climate, several studies regarding the classification of various forms of government have been conducted. Among these, has been intensely discussed by historians and political scientists the conceptualization and definition of the dictatorship form of government. Eventually, it has been concluded that dictatorship is a form of government in which the absolute power is concentrated in the hands of a leader (commonly identified as a dictator) or a „small clique” or „government organization”, and it aims the abolition of political pluralism and civilian mobilization. On the other hand, democracy, which is generally compared to the concept of dictatorship, is defined as a form of government where the supremacy belongs to the population and rulers are elected through contested elections.
A new form of government that in the 20th century has marked the beginning of a new political era and is commonly linked to the concept of dictatorship, is totalitarianism. This form of government is characterized by the presence of a single political party and more specifically, by a powerful leader (a real role model) who imposes his personal and political prominence. The two fundamental aspects that contribute to the maintenance of the power are: a steadfast collaboration between the government and the police force, and a highly developed ideology. Here, the government has „total control of mass communications and social and economic organizations”. According to Hannah Arendt, totalitarianism is a new and extreme form of dictatorship composed of „atomized, isolated individuals”. In addition, she affirmed that ideology plays a leading role in defining how the entire society should be organized. According to the political scientist Juan Linz, the distinction between an authoritarian regime and a totalitarian one is that while an authoritarian regime seeks to suffocate politics and political mobilization, totalitarianism seeks to control politics and political mobilization.
However, one of the most recent classification of dictatorships, formulated, do not identify Totalitarianism as a form of dictatorship. In her study, she focused in how elite-leader and elite-mass relations influence authoritarian politics. Geddes typology identifies the key institutions that structure elite politics in dictatorships (i.e. parties and militaries). The study is based and directly related to factors like: the simplicity of the categorizations, cross-national applicability, the emphasis on elites and leaders, and the incorporation of institutions (parties and militaries) as central to shaping politics. According to Barbara Geddes, a dictatorial government may be classified in five typologies: Military Dictatorships, Single-party Dictatorships, Personalist Dictatorships, Monarchies, Hybrid Dictatorships.
Military dictatorships are regimes in which a group of officers holds power, determines who will lead the country, and exercises influence over policy. High-level elites and a leader are the members of the military dictatorship. Military dictatorships are characterized by rule by a professionalized military as an institution. In military regimes, elites are referred to as junta members; they are typically senior officers (and often other high-level officers) in the military.
Single-party dictatorships are regimes in which one party dominates politics. In single-party dictatorships, a single party has access to political posts and control over policy. Other parties may legally exist, compete in elections, and even hold legislative seats, yet true political power lies with the dominant party. In single-party dictatorships, party elites are typically members of the ruling body of the party, sometimes called the central committee, or politburo. This group of individuals controls the selection of party officials and “organizes the distribution of benefits to supporters and mobilizes citizens to vote and show support for party leaders”.
Personalist dictatorships are regimes in which all power lies in the hands of a single individual. Personalist dictatorships differ from other forms of dictatorships in their access to key political positions, other fruits of office, and depend much more on the discretion of the personalist dictator. Personalist dictators may be members of the military or leaders of a political party. Yet, neither the military nor the party exercises power independent from the dictator. In personalist dictatorships, the elite corps is usually made up of close friends or family members of the dictator. These individuals are all typically handpicked to serve their posts by the dictator.
Monarchic dictatorships are regimes in which „a person of royal descent has inherited the position of head of state in accordance with accepted practice or constitution”. Regimes are not considered dictatorships if the monarch’s role is largely ceremonial. Real political power must be exercised by the monarch for regimes to be classified as such. Elites in monarchies are typically members of the royal family.
Hybrid dictatorships are regimes that blend qualities of personalist, singleparty, and military dictatorships. When regimes share characteristics of all three forms of dictatorships, they are referred to as triple threats. The most common forms of hybrid dictatorships are personalist/single-party hybrids and personalist/military hybrids.
One of the tasks in political science is to measure and classify regimes as either dictatorships or democracies. Freedom House, Polity IV and Democracy-Dictatorship Index are three of the most used data seriesby political scientists.
Generally, two research approaches exist: the minimalist approach, which focuses on whether a country has continued elections that are competitive, and the substantive approach, which expands the concept of democracy to include human rights, freedom of the press, and the rule of law. The Democracy-Dictatorship Index is seen as an example of the minimalist approach, whereas the Polity data series, is more substantive.
Between the two world wars, four types of dictatorships have been described: Constitutional, Communist (nominally championing the „dictatorship of the proletariat„), Counterrevolutionary and Fascist. Since World War II, a broader range of dictatorships has been recognized, including Third World dictatorships, theocratic or religious dictatorships and dynastic or family-based dictatorships.
During the Republican phase of Ancient Rome, a Roman dictator was the special magistrate who held well defined powers, normally for six months at a time, usually in combination with a consulship. Roman dictators were allocated absolute power during times of emergency. In execution, their power was originally neither arbitrary nor unaccountable, being subject to law and requiring retrospective justification. There were no such dictatorships after the beginning of the 2nd century BC and later dictators such as Sulla and the Roman Emperors exercised power much more personally and arbitrarily. As the Roman Emperor was a king in all but name, a concept that remained anathema to traditional Roman society, the institution was not carried forward into the Roman Empire.
19th-century Latin American caudillos
After the collapse of Spanish colonial rule, various dictators came to power in many liberated countries. Often leading a private army, these caudillos or self-appointed political-military leaders, attacked weak national governments once they controlled a region’s political and economic powers, with examples such as Antonio López de Santa Anna in Mexico and Juan Manuel de Rosas in Argentina. Such dictators have been also referred to as „personalismos„.
The wave of military dictatorships in South America in the second half of the twentieth century left a particular mark on Latin American culture. In Latin American literature, the dictator novel challenging dictatorship and caudillismo is a significant genre. There are also many films depicting Latin American military dictatorships.
Communism and Fascism in 20th-century dictatorships
In the first half of the 20th century, Communist and Fascist dictatorships appeared in a variety of scientifically and technologically advanced countries, which are distinct from dictatorships in Latin America and post-colonial dictatorships in Africa and Asia. Leading examples of modern totalitarian dictatorship include:
- Adolf Hitler‘s Nazi Germany, Hideki Tojo‘s Japan, Benito Mussolini‘s Italy, Francisco Franco‘s Spain and other Fascist dictatorships;
- Joseph Stalin‘s Soviet Union, Mao Zedong‘s People’s Republic of China, Kim dynasty‘s North Korea and other Communist dictatorships that appeared after World War II in Central Europe, Eastern Europe, China and other countries.
Dictatorships in Africa and Asia after World War II
After World War II, dictators established themselves in the several new states of Africa and Asia, often at the expense or failure of the constitutions inherited from the colonial powers. These constitutions often failed to work without a strong middle class or work against the preexisting autocratic rule. Some elected presidents and prime ministers captured power by suppressing the opposition and installing one-party rule and others established military dictatorships through their armies. Whatever their form, these dictatorships had an adverse impact on economic growth and the quality of political institutions. Dictators who stayed in office for a long period of time found it increasingly difficult to carry out sound economic policies.
The global dynamics of democratization has been a central question for political scientists. The Third Wave Democracy was said to turn some dictatorships into democracies (see also the contrast between the two figures of the Democracy-Dictatorship Index in 1988 and 2008).
Theories of dictatorship
Mancur Olson suggests that the emergence of dictatorships can be linked to the concept of „roving bandits”, individuals in an atomic system who move from place to place extracting wealth from individuals. These bandits provide a disincentive for investment and production. Olson states that a community of individuals would be better served if that bandit were to establish himself as a stationary bandit to monopolize theft in the form of taxes. Except from the community, the bandits themselves will be better served, according to Olson, by transforming themselves into „stationary bandits”. By settling down and making themselves the rulers of a territory, they will be able to make more profits through taxes than they used to obtain through plunder. By maintaining order and providing protection to the community, the bandits will create a peaceful environment in which their people can maximize their surplus which means a greater taxable base. Thus a potential dictator will have a greater incentive to provide security to a given community from which he is extracting taxes and conversely, the people from whom he extracts the taxes are more likely to produce because they will be unconcerned with potential theft by other bandits. This is the rationality that bandits use in order to justify their transformation from „roving bandits” into „stationary bandits”.[