Despotism

What Is Despotism?

Despotism—a system of government in which the governing authorities are a law unto themselves—is the bugbear of developing countries.

The term Despotism involves tyranny of some sort, in which the government, in this case the majority rule, suppresses the rights and freedoms of the citizens.

  • Despotism, by definition, is a form of government in which a single entity, often called the despot, rules with absolute power. That entity may be an individual, as in an autocracy, or it may be a group, as in an oligarchy.

Colloquially, the word ‘despot’ has been applied pejoratively to a person, particularly a head of state or government Opens in new window who abuses power and authority to oppress his people, subjects or subordinates.

Ayatollah Ali Montazeri describe the concept as follows:

  • “A political system based on force, oppression, changing people’s votes, killing, closure, arresting and using Stalinist and medieval torture, creating repression, censorship of newspapers, interruption of the means of mass communication, jailing the enlightened and the elite of society for false reasons, and forcing them to make false confessions in jail …” (Quoted in Ayittey, p.7).

Many states around the world have historically been despotic. They are not bound by any higher law that restricts how they rule, for example, by protecting the fundamental rights of the citizens or by ensuring their accountability to the people.

As a result, despots govern only for their own good, or for that of a privileged minority who support the ruling class, and not for the common good of all citizens.

Not all despotic governments are intolerably oppressive. In practice, despotism may be selfrestraining, and outright oppression may be restricted to those who visibly oppose or threaten the rulers or their interests.

Nevertheless, the defining characteristic of despotism is that it is arbitrary. Despotic rulers—whether an all-powerful monarch, a sovereign parliament, a military junta or an authoritarian president—can make laws, and can determine right and wrong, through their own unilateral decisions, without requiring broader consent or public approval, without being restrained by balancing institutions and without being held to account by the people.