What is Authoritarianism?

Most, if not all, of the kingdoms in the ancient world exercised authoritarianism where the monarch wielded complete and absolute power.

Authoritarianism is a system of leadership whereby the leader has absolute and authoritarian power and implements his or her objectives without seeking advice and counsel from such a leader’s followers or subjects. This system of leadership is characterized by a central power and the repression of individual freedoms of the subjects. The leader is the supreme, and there exists no higher authority above him or her, therefore giving the power to judge everything under his or her leadership at his or her discretion. Authoritarianism is among the oldest systems of leadership and has been practiced by ancient civilizations for thousands of years.


Human societies have exercised authoritarianism throughout history. Most, if not all, of the kingdoms in the ancient world exercised authoritarianism where the monarch wielded complete and absolute power and made all decisions regarding the governance of the kingdoms. These monarchs would use manipulation or even force to make their subjects follow the set laws and rules. However, the modern form of authoritarianism has its roots in Slavic monarchs which ruled over East Europe in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. These monarchs practiced authoritarianism to distinguish themselves from the constitutional monarchs which ruled over other parts of Europe such as Great Britain. Lewin, Lippitt, and White were the first scholars to describe the “authoritarianism” system of governance in 1938 and distinguished it from a democratic system of governance.


There are several characteristics which define an authoritarian form of leadership. One characteristic is that the leader has absolute power in the running of a country or organization. As a result of having absolute power, the leader’s decisions are final and cannot be compromised. The decision-making process is therefore direct since the leader requires little or no counsel or advice beforehand. The decision-making process in an authoritarian system is rigid and wholly reliant on the wishes of the leader. The subjects or subordinates have limited input in the operation of the organization or country. In most cases, the leader will use coercion, manipulation, or brutal force to make his subordinates or subjects meet the leader’s objectives. In an authoritarian system, leaders do not trust their subjects and feel that the subjects can only be controlled. The legitimacy of an authoritarian government is primarily based on emotion, where subjects identify the leadership as the remedy to all social issues ailing the society. An authoritarian government is also characterized by limited political pluralism, with political opponents of the ruling regime facing constraints placed on them by the authoritarian leader.

Merits of Authoritarianism

While the term “authoritarianism” has negative connotations in history, there are also numerous advantages to authoritarian leadership. One of the merits of authoritarianism is the streamlining of the decision-making process which allows decisions to be made quickly, an advantage that is best portrayed in urgent circumstances such as in military operations where decisions are required to be made quickly. A streamlined decision-making process saves time used in consultations. Another merit of having an authoritarian leadership is close and strict oversight from the leader which prevents the subordinates and subjects from making careless mistakes or slacking off when discharging their duties. Close oversight results in increased productivity among workers and high-quality work. Since the leader in an authoritarian system commands great respect from the followers, and the subjects are careful not to go against the leader’s directives. By being the sole decision-maker, the leader is relieved of the strenuous activity of relying on external assistance, to meet their objectives.

Demerits of Authoritarianism

Since authoritarianism is associated with dictatorship and oppressive regimes, the demerits of the system are well known and make it not an ideal system of leadership in any country. One disadvantage of an authoritarian system is that it suppresses the imagination and creativity of the subjects in an organization or country. Inputs of citizens are beneficial to the leader, but authoritarianism is an action which dehumanizes the subjects who must take instruction from the leader without question. The motivation for working in such a setting is usually low as the subjects are rarely appreciated, with the leader taking all credit for the achievements of the entire organization.


Anti-authoritarianism is the opposite of authoritarianism. Unlike authoritarianism, anti-authoritarianism is characterized by the belief in full equality of persons before the law and civil liberties. Anti-authoritarianism shares numerous characteristics with anarchism. Anti-authoritarianism prescribes for free thought where people are encouraged to express opinions which are based on reason and logic and not restricted by tradition, religious beliefs, or authority in a process known as freethinking. Anti-authoritarianism is also characterized by the sharing of opinions and voluntary subordination, whereby a person is allowed to seek counsel from professionals since such individuals have more experience and knowledge in their respective fields while reserving one’s right for criticism. The mid-20th century saw the emergence of an anti-authoritarianism movement in the West, in the aftermath of the Second World War. The wave of anti-authoritarianism which swept through Europe and the United States was based on anti-fascism and the resistance against the rise of global superpowers. The popularity of anti-authoritarianism in the mid-20th century was boosted by influential bohemian cultural movements of the 1950s and 1960s such as the hippies and the “Beat Generation” which had anti-authoritarian tendencies. Another bohemian movement of the 20th century whose beliefs were in line with anti-authoritarianism were the punks of the 1970s. These cultural movements which had a great following among the youth used non-violent means to carry out their anti-authoritarianism activism.

Authoritarianism and Gender

There exists a correlation between authoritarianism and gender inequality, a revelation that was established in a study conducted by Brandt and Henry. The study established that gender inequality was rife in societies where citizens had authoritarian beliefs. In such societies, women had few (if any) leadership positions, and all leadership traits such as imagination or independence were repressed from manifesting in women. In these authoritarian societies, men held leadership positions while women occupied extremely few dominant societal roles. The study also found that authoritarian beliefs were not only expressed by the dominant gender in society but were shared by both the male and female population in such societies, regardless of the gender being oppressed.


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