Autocracy and democracy are two opposing forms of government: in the former, one individual/group rules, while in the latter, the people themselves are the rulers.
Both autocracy and democracy go as far back as classical antiquity, and thinkers like Aristotle have written at length about them. Today, hundreds of nations—having diverse political systems & ideologies—claim to be democratic.
However, not of all them are actually democratic in practice, and at times, some can be as repressive as autocracies. Let us begin by understanding these two political systems in detail. Later, we will discuss the similarities and differences between them.
Autocracy vs Democracy
Although scholars disagree about the exact definition of “democracy”, the term is generally understood to mean:
“the rule of the people, and that the people have a right to rule.” (Popper, 1988).
The term “democracy” comes from the Greek terms demos (“people”) and kratos (“power). So, it literally means the “rule of the people”. However, this is quite abstract, so it is much more helpful to think of democracy in terms of its characteristics.
Rueschemeyer has identified four such features, which are present in fully developed democracies (1992):
- Parliament: There must be parliamentary or congressional bodies whose power is independent of presidents or prime ministers.
- Elections: The state has to conduct regular, free, and fair elections, and the entire adult population must have the right to vote.
- Responsibility: The other government divisions must be responsible to the parliament or legislature.
- Rights: Individuals must have individual rights (such as property rights or freedom of expression – see: individual rights examples), and the government must honor them.
There are many types of democracies in the world, but two broad categories are “direct” and “indirect” democracies. In the former, people directly decide on laws. Most democracies, however, are indirect ones, where people elect representatives to govern.
We must remember that democracy is not an all-or-none process; instead, it is a matter of degree. The distinction between “formal” democracies and “substantive” democracies can help us understand this better (Sanderson, 2007).
Formal democracies are those in which the apparatus of democracy exists but democratic principles are often not upheld in practice. In contrast, substantive democracies consistently implement democratic machinery into practice.
Another important difference exists between “restricted” and “unrestricted” democracies. In the former, only some section of the adult population (say only men or whites) has the right to vote. Unrestricted democracies, on the other hand, give the entire adult population voting rights.
Today, most developed democracies, such as those in North America or Western Europe, are both substantive and unrestricted. But they all started out as restricted—black women couldn’t vote in the US until 1960—and formal ones.
John Scott defines an autocracy as
A regime in which power is concentrated in the person of a single individual (2007)
It is made up of the Greek terms auto (“self”) and kratos (“power”): an individual has the power to rule. More importantly, this individual (or a small group of individuals) is not accountable to anybody, and they can do whatever they wish.
So, democracy and autocracy are opposites. In the former, the people have the power to rule, directly or indirectly through elected representatives. In the latter, a single individual/group rules, with no accountability to the people.
As you might guess, autocracies are quite repressive. The rulers act as they please, and silence all dissenting voices. Everyday life is also much more difficult for people, as there are severe restrictions on civil liberties.
Autocracy and Democracy Similarities
Although autocracy and democracy are opposing concepts in principle, they may sometimes share some similarities in reality.
Earlier, we discussed the difference between formal and substantive democracies. Many Third World countries are examples of the former: they may officially have some democratic apparatus (and claim to be democratic) but actually lack its implementation.
In reality, they are often under repressive regimes. Sometimes the “tyranny of the majority” also exists in democracies: those constituting the majority only pursue their interests while neglecting/harming the minorities.
For example, in the United States, black citizens have been historically oppressed despite the country’s democratic setup. At such times (or even today, for some citizens), both democracy & autocracy may feel equally repressive.
Moreover, some scholars argue that democracy is not actually a “rule of the people”. C.W. Mills, for example, argued that, in the US, the “power elite” (such as business leaders) has obliterated democratic political practices. They control everything while the citizens are quite powerless (1956).
Autocracy and Democracy Differences
Although they might share some features in a few cases, autocracy and democracy are ultimately very different political systems.
As we have been discussing throughout, democracy allows its citizens to participate in the political process, directly or indirectly. The ruling government is accountable to them and can be replaced through elections.
The citizens are equal in front of the law, and they enjoy many civil liberties, such as being able to express their opinions freely. None of these features exist in autocracies, which are usually quite repressive.
An autocracy is the rule of an individual/small group while a democracy is the rule of the people.
The former is often associated with regressive regimes, where people cannot choose their leaders and have limited civil liberties. In contrast, democracies allow people to rule directly or indirectly while also giving them many individual rights/freedoms.
Lape, Susan (2009). Reproducing Athens: Menander’s Comedy, Democratic Culture, and the Hellenistic City. Princeton University Press.
Mills, C.W. (1956). The Power Elite. Oxford University Press.
Raaflaub, Kurt A.; Ober, Josiah; Wallace, Robert W (2007). Origins of Democracy in Ancient Greece. University of California Press.
Rueschemeyer, D., Stephens, E. H., & Stephens, J. D. (1992) Capitalist Development and Democracy. University of Chicago Press.
Sanderson, Stephen K. (2007). “Democracy” in The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology (2007). Wiley-Blackwell.
Scott, John. (2007). The Oxford Dictionary of Sociology. Oxford University Press.