What is government? What defines a government? What is the function of a government? In the simplest terms, a government is an entity–typically a group of people–responsible for providing leadership, rulership, or administration over a given territory. But of course, this definition tells us very little about what a government actually does or how it functions. That’s because these features may be extremely different depending on the nature and form of a given government.
As part of our continuing series of Study Starters, we provide a bird’s eye view of this subject matter—a look down from the very top. Indeed, “forms of government” is something of a vague term—one that can be used to describe an economic infrastructure, a philosophical orientation, or practical administration. In most cases, there is significant overlap between all three. However, the common strand connecting these “forms” is that each refers to a strategy for instituting and maintaining civic and social stability.
We recognize that it’s easy to criticize “the government” in broad terms. But it’s a lot more rewarding to criticize the government using the proper terminology. We’re also guessing that this terminology will be a huge help as you prepare for the next research paper, PoliSci exam or political debate with your overly-opinionated uncle. That’s why we provide you with a concise definition,a real-world example, and a noteworthy influencer for each form of government. This provides you with numerous points of entry for your own deeper level of exploration. As per the series name, we get you started and the rest is on you!
A form of government is a set of political institutions vested with the power to oversee public administration, policy, services, infrastructure, economic stability, resource distribution and much more. Though “forms of government” technically refers to a style of regime (i.e. military dictatorship) or a system of rules and laws (i.e. theocracy), this phrase also implicates philosophies of rulership (i.e. fascism), economy (i.e. capitalism) and social organization (i.e. tribalism).
Monarchism is an example of a form of government. In a monarchy, a state is ruled by a single individual with royal lineage. Monarchs are either appointed through a line of succession, or may seize power by force. Monarchs are said to have absolute authority and in many cases will claim “divine right,” or a mandate to rule by God.
The two basic types of government are parliamentary and presidential. In a parliamentary government, authority is vested in a body of legislators whereas, in a presidential government, authority is vested in the administration surrounding a democratically-elected individual.
Democracy is the most popular form of government. More than half of the nations in the world are democracies-97 of 167 nations as of 2019. Democracy comes in many forms (i.e. socialist democracy, direct democracy, representative democracy, etc.), but each model is based on an electoral process where members of the public vote for their leadership.
Otherwise, read on to learn more about these 25 Forms of Government.
Following are 20 of the most commonly noted forms of governance and a few real-world examples to go with them.
Anarchism is a form of non-government that subverts the institution of “state” and emerges from a skepticism of authority. With historical ties to both anti-capitalism and socialism, as well as to the early labor rights movements, anarchism calls for the dismantling of state authority in favor of rule by the people. Anarchists employ an array of tactics including sometimes violent revolutionary acts against government and corporate entities as well as evolutionary tactics in the form of social activism. Beyond the philosophical anarchist movement, anarchy may also be a naturally occurring state—more likely to occur in the developing sphere—where a vacuum of central authority might cause a devolvement into anarchic, decentralized rule.
Learn more about the ties between anarchy and the labor movement in our look at The Labor Rights Controversy.
A strong example of this occurred in the embattled Swahili African nation of Somalia. In 1991, the outbreak of Civil War topped dictator Said Barre and led to a state of anarchy. Somalia splintered into various autonomous regions, controlled by competing tribal warlords. Following years of involvement from the international community, the early 2000s saw the reestablishment of a transitional government, and in 2012, the passage of a constitution which established Somalia as a “federation,” or a union of partially self-governing states, bringing an end to two decades without centralized rule.
August Reinsdorf was a German anarchist who is sometimes credited as being “The Father of German Anarchy.” August was a socialist anarchist who believed strongly in the rights of the workers and the common man. He attempted to assassinate the Emperor of Germany and his Princes, to end dictatorship in Germany. His plan was to blow up the Emperor’s carriage with dynamite by placing it under the bridge that the Emperor’s carriage was planned to take. His plan was foiled by rain, which put the fuse out, and he was discovered. He was executed in Halle on February 7, 1885. His assassination attempt on the Emperor was one of the first acts of terror in Germany related to politics, socialism, and anarchy.
Aristocracy is a form of government where rulership is performed by a small, privileged class. Ancient Greece gives us both the word aristocracy (“Aristos=excellent; krato=power) as well as the concept itself. The term literally translates to mean “rule of the best.” But today, . The privileged ruling class is viewed, in this system, as having the key qualities required for rulership such as a formal education and a noble birth. Thus, most nations that ultimately came to be known as monarchies were, in fact, aristocratic in nature. However, in ancient Greece, the aristocracy was actually the opposite—a council of empowered leading citizens who were viewed as offsetting the absolute power of the monarchy. Thinkers like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle viewed the concept positively, referring to the aristocracy as being composed of “philosopher kings,” those with the knowledge and intellectual curiosity to rule. These influential philosophers would likely view the modern incarnation of aristocracy as a corruption of the original terminology, more akin to an oligarchy.
However, from our perspective, aristocracy refers to an inherently unequal system in which authority and opportunity are both reserved for a select class of nobility. Europe, in the Middle Ages, offers a number of stark instances of such aristocracy, as well as evidence of this system’s tendency to promote hereditary monarchy, in which the ruling class is derived from what is characterized as noble lineage. France, for instance, was ruled by a select elite class referred to as the Second Estates of the Estates General. Starting in 1440, when Louis IX officially conferred special privileges upon this class, the monarchy and noble class came to constitute just .5% of France’s population while claiming ownership over roughly 20% of its land. The French Revolution brought a violent end to the French aristocracy.
Louis XIV , also known as Louis the Great or the Sun King, was King of France from 14 May 1643 until his death in 1715. His reign of 72 years and 110 days is the longest recorded of any monarch of a sovereign country in history. Louis XIV’s France was emblematic of the age of absolutism in Europe. The King surrounded himself with a variety of significant political, military, and cultural figures, such as Mazarin, Colbert, Louvois, the Grand Condé, Turenne, Vauban, Boulle, Molière, Racine, Boileau, La Fontaine, Lully, Charpentier, Marais, Le Brun, Rigaud, Bossuet, Le Vau, Mansart, Charles Perrault, Claude Perrault, and Le Nôtre.
Bureaucracy is a form of government where non-elected government officials carry out public responsibilities as dictated by administrative policy-making groups. In a bureaucracy, rules, regulations, procedures and outcomes are formulated to maintain order, achieve efficiency, and prevent favoritism within the system. Bureaucracies rarely serve as forms of government on their own, but are instead used as mechanisms to underlie and strengthen overarching forms of government. Indeed, bureaucratic streamlining of policy implementation can and does take place under the rule of a dictator, a democracy, or a socialist state.
Bureaucracy was a key vehicle to the formalization of Great Britain’s tax policy in the 18th Century. With the United Kingdom entangled in various military campaigns around the world, the sprawling empire designed a taxation strategy aimed at funding its various and overlapping war campaigns. Doing so required streamlined collection methods, more efficient organization, and more advanced technology, all of which prefigured the development of the Department of Excise, the largest public administration network in the world to that date. The tax collection bureaucracy served the interests of the British monarchy, but would actually be the precursor to Her Majesty’s Civil Service, the modern English bureaucracy.
Yuan Shikai was a Chinese military and government official who rose to power during the late Qing dynasty, becoming the Emperor of the Empire of China . He tried to save the dynasty with a number of modernization projects including bureaucratic, fiscal, judicial, educational, and other reforms, despite playing a key part in the failure of the Hundred Days’ Reform. He established the first modern army and a more efficient provincial government in North China in the last years of the Qing dynasty before the abdication of the Xuantong Emperor, the last monarch of the Qing dynasty, in 1912. Through negotiation, he became the first President of the Republic of China in 1912. This army and bureaucratic control were the foundation of his autocratic rule. He was frustrated in a short-lived attempt to restore hereditary monarchy in China, with himself as the Hongxian Emperor. His death shortly after his abdication led to the fragmentation of the Chinese political system and the end of the Beiyang government as China’s central authority.
Capitalism refers to a form of economy driven by private ownership, production and profit. Capitalism promotes the idea of open competition and proceeds from the perspective that a free market economy—one with limited regulatory control—is the most efficient for economic organization. In a capitalist market, decisions are made by those who own property, control wealth, and preside over production while conditions like pricing and demand are manifested by naturally behaving public marketplaces.
Capitalism can take various forms, from state and corporate capitalism to pure laissez-faire economies. The present-day United States may be referred to as a liberal market economy, in which firms engage in open competition within the context of existing hierarchies and market mechanisms, but in which central bodies like the Securities Exchange Commission and the Federal Reserve maintain degrees of regulatory oversight. These hierarchies and mechanisms tend to promote greater opportunities, access, and wealth for those who already enjoy an ownership stake in the U.S. economy. Political influence is also directly correlated to this ownership stake within the context of American capitalism.
To learn more about competing views and critiques on this form of government, check out our Look at the Labor Unions Controversy.
John Maynard Keynes , 1st Baron Keynes, was an English economist, whose ideas fundamentally changed the theory and practice of macroeconomics and the economic policies of governments. Originally trained in mathematics, he built on and greatly refined earlier work on the causes of business cycles. One of the most influential economists of the 20th century, his ideas are the basis for the school of thought known as Keynesian economics, and its various offshoots.
Colonialism is a form of governance in which a nation, typically one with imperial ambitions, will claim authority over territories beyond its original borders. In practical terms, colonialism refers to the expansion of a nation’s rule into new territories through means of physical occupation as well as the imposition of its own forms of governance, worship, and cultural practice. Historically, colonialism has correlated with the occupation, displacement or genocide of indigenous populations, and subsequently, the exploitation of lands and resources to the benefit of the occupying nation.
The 1400s saw an explosion of maritime exploration and trade among Europe’s monarchical powers. Sailors, merchants and would-be conquerors voyaged in search of new lands, where they ultimately encountered numerous indigenous cultures with cultures, technology and ways of life that the Europeans viewed as primitive. Colonists from Britain, France, Spain, and the Netherlands spread their influence and authority throughout the New World, dismantling and sometimes eradicating entire cultures and peoples in the process. The most familiar case in point is the race for occupation of North America between the various European powers of the world. This ultimately led to the founding of the American Colonies, the systematic displacement of countless indigenous tribes, and the eventual independence of the United States.
Edward Randolph was an English colonial administrator, best known for his role in effecting significant changes in the structure of England’s North American colonies in the later years of the 17th century. In 1676 he was the bearer of a royal letter to the governor and council of Massachusetts to resolve claims of Robert Mason and Ferdinando Gorges in the provinces of New Hampshire and Maine. Called “evil genius of New England and her angel of death”, his reports to the Lords of Trade convinced King Charles II to revoke the charter of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1684, and he was a leading figure in the unpopular Dominion of New England. Randolph served as secretary of the dominion. While in that position, he argued for tighter Crown control over proprietary and charter colonies whose administrations lacked such oversight, and he was often given the difficult task of enforcing England’s Navigation Acts in whichever colony he was posted to, often against significant local popular and political resistance. His actions were a significant contribution to the development of Great Britain’s colonial administrative infrastructure, but he remained unpopular in the dominion.
In its purest form, Communism refers to the idea of common, public ownership of the economy, including infrastructure, utilities and means of production. Communism, as idealized by thinkers Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, denotes an absence of class divisions, which inherently requires the subversion of the ruling class by the working class. As such, communism often incorporates the idea of revolutionary action by the labour class against unequal rule. Communism often positions itself as a counterpoint to the property rights and economic stratification underlying capitalism. In many real-world applications, communism has tended to manifest through the singular authority of the state. In such instances, practical communism of the style proliferated by the Soviet Union can be characterized as authoritarian in nature, especially in the restriction of political dissidence.
Modern communism has generally followed the model of Soviet communism—both ideologically and materially—and is sometimes identified as the Marxist-Leninist approach to communism. Examples of this type of communism are evident today in the Southeast Asian nations of Laos and Vietnam, as well as Cuba and, to an extent, China. Each of these nations adopted this form of government at the height of the Cold War—between the 1940s and 1960s—if not under direct Russian influence, at least inspired by the form of Soviet communism which may be characterized by its authoritarian, single-party style of rule. While the Soviet communist government crumbled in 1991, the nations cited above continue to practice their own variation of the Marxist-Leninist ideology.
Pushpa Lal Shrestha was a Nepali politician, considered to be the father of Nepali communism. He was the founding general secretary of the Communist Party of Nepal as well as leader. Career The communist movement in Nepal traces its history back to Pushpa Lal Shrestha, the father of Nepali communism and the founder and general secretary of the first Nepali communist party, the Communist Party of Nepal. Younger brother to Gangalal Shrestha, one of the four great martyrs of the Nepali democratic revolution, Pushpa Lal joined the political fight against the autocratic Rana Regime at a young age, some time after Gangalal’s martyrdom in early 1941. He was already known for his defiance of the Ranas by 1946.
Democracy refers to a form of government in which power must be consented to by the people. Its primary goal is governance through representation generally typified by free elections, individual rights, parliamentary procedure and Constitutional governance. There are numerous variants of democracy in which different practical structures are used to manifest representation of the public in some manner. However, in a proper democracy, the public is entitled to full participation in the political process from votership and electoral candidacy to the assertion of pressure on policy matters through forms like protest, activism, and journalism.
While the notion of democracy finds its roots in Greek antiquity, where leading thinkers were actually quite critical of its vulnerability to brute “mob rule,” it has evolved considerably in the millennia since, and is the proclaimed form of government for more than half of the world’s nations which today identify as some variant of democracy. The United States employs a form of democracy called “representative democracy,” in which leaders are elected by the general public, and in which the rights of this public are protected by Constitutional law and due process. The United States might also be referred to as a Presidential Democracy for the considerable power vested, by the voting public, into the Chief Executive.
To learn more about the unique characteristics of American Representative Democracy, check out our look at the Electoral College Controversy.
Robert Dahl was an American political theorist and Sterling Professor of Political Science at Yale University. He established the pluralist theory of democracy—in which political outcomes are enacted through competitive, if unequal, interest groups—and introduced “polyarchy” as a descriptor of actual democratic governance. An originator of “empirical theory” and known for advancing behavioralist characterizations of political power, Dahl’s research focused on the nature of decision making in actual institutions, such as American cities. He is the most important scholar associated with the pluralist approach to describing and understanding both city and national power structures. In addition to his work on the descriptive theory of democracy, he was long occupied with the formulation of the constituent elements of democracy considered as a theoretical but realizable ideal. By virtue of the cogency, clarity, and veracity of his portrayal of some of the key characteristics of realizable-ideal democracy, as well as his descriptive analysis of the dynamics of modern pluralist-democracy, he is considered one of the greatest theorists of democracy in history.
Electocracy refers to a form of government in which leadership and power are vested through an electoral process. In this regard, an electocracy shares common ground with democracy. However, the primary distinction is that the ability of the people to contribute to governance in an electocracy ends at the ballot. Once power is vested in this leadership, the public has little to no say or power in the way this power is levied. Whereas democracy implies ongoing participation in a system, electocracy does not extend this right to the voting public.
Iraq is the most frequently cited example of a modern electocracy. The current status of the Persian Gulf nation is a direct consequence of a series of American wars. Following the onset of the second Gulf War in 2003, and a subsequent U.S. occupation, the former military dictatorship was reconfigured to resemble a Western Democracy. With the approval of a new Constitution in 2005, Iraq came to be formally defined as an Islamic, democratic, federal parliamentary republic. Iraq holds elections for its Council of Representatives, which then employs a 2/3rds majority to elect the president, who subsequently appoints a prime minister. In spite of the right of Iraqis to participate in elections, Iraq is still regarded by the global community as an authoritarian regime, where a combination of security threats, corruption, regional power brokers, and outside influences such as the neighboring Iran shape government affairs. These conditions may intervene with the government’s ability to represent or perform the will of the people.
Wang Shaoguang is a Chinese political scientist and prominent theorist of the Chinese New Left. He is currently emeritus professor at the Department of Government and Public Administration of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. A critic of Western representative democracy, his particular research interests include the history of the Cultural Revolution, sortition, the welfare state, and the comparative politics of East Asia.
Aligning broadly with communist ideologies, an >ergatocracy vests power in the working class. This denotes a government in which those representing laborers would also carry on the business of administration for the state. The term is coined in a text by Eden and Cedar Paul in 1920, where they describe this as rulership by, of, and for the worker. In their definition, this is distinct from socialism—which relies on a convergence of purpose by workers and intellectuals—and from communism—which in its real-world form implicated the oppressive tactics of bolshevik Russia. In their view, ergatocracy would be a government purely forged and occupied by the working class.
The concept of an ergatocracy has been bandied about by a great many labor revolters and revolutionaries over the last century. It is not, however, readily identifiable as a leadership structure in any nation today. The best example are those drawn from brief and often violently confrontational moments in history where labor groups have organized around the purpose of achieving political autonomy. One noteworthy example occurred in Vietnam both during and immediately following World War II. As part of French Indochina, Vietnam was owned by the Japanese and administrated by the French. Across the 1930s, and culminating with the Saigon Uprising in 1945, a crosssection of organized labor groups and peasants attempted to wrest control of their nation away from foreign occupiers, and to ultimately institute a Trotskyist proletariat rule. The sustained and frequently bloody struggle was ultimately quashed in 1945.
Cedar Paul , née Gertrude Mary Davenport was a singer, author, translator and journalist.Biography Gertrude Davenport came from a musical family: she was the granddaughter of the composer George Alexander Macfarren and the daughter of the composer Francis William Davenport . She was educated at convent schools in Belgium, France, Italy and England, and studied music in Germany.
Federalism is a form of government that both combines and divides powers between a centralized federal authority and an array of regional and local authorities. This is typically a system in which a set of states, territories or provinces are both self-governing and beholden to the authority of a broad, unifying government structure. This is considered a balance in approach that provides roughly equal status of authority to two distinct levels of government.
The United States was among the first true examples of a federation, a nation built from a set of culturally and politically distinct but interconnected regions, each with its own unique set of customs, laws, and population characteristics. Today, there is continued ideological disagreement over how power should be divided and retained between individual states and the federal government. This debate and the never-ending stream of constitutional and judicial questions that arise from it keep the nature of federalism in the U.S. in a constant state of evolution. The relationship between state and federal authority is always a matter of practical and philosophical debate, as well as the occasional legal challenge.
Fabio Calzavara was an Italian entrepreneur and politician, He was the co-founder of Liga Veneta , a federalist party settled in Padua .He was a member of the board of “European Federalist Union” founded in Zurich , from 1982 till 1986. He was a member of the National Council of the “Free Autonomist Entrepreneurs Association” from 1993 - 1994 and later on the “Free European Federalist Entrepreneurs Association from 1995 - 1997.
Feudalism is a social structure revolving around land ownership, nobility, and military obligation. Though not a formal way of governing, feudalism refers to a way of life in which sharp hierarchical divisions separate noble classes, clergy and peasantry. In most contexts, opportunities for movement between these hierarchies is largely impossible. In this system, peasants typically provide labor and military service in exchange for occupancy of land and protection from outside forces under the authority of a noble lord. In turn, lordships, or fiefdoms, often engaged one another politically, economically and militarily. Feudalism was a highly decentralized and agrarian way of life that was largely supplanted when the European monarchies created the infrastructure to impose central rule over their various dominions.
France of the 11th Century is particularly noteworthy for the decentralization of power and the splintering of rulership into many smaller entities. During this period, travel through France would take one through a series of fiefdoms in which small ruling families would charge various fees for passage, participation in trade, or use of the woodlands. Though feudalism would be eliminated by the rise of the monarchy, this brief revolution in France would represent a moment of evolution for the ideas of private ownership and personal power.
Takeyoshi Kawashima was a Japanese jurist. He was a prominent representative of post-war liberalism in Japan and the country’s leading legal sociologist. Serving as Sakae Wagatsuma’s assistant after 1932, Kawashima was appointed professor of civil law at the University of Tokyo in 1934. In his writings, he sought to develop a system of modern, Western, capitalist society based on the principle of the exchange of goods, which he contrasted to Japanese society with its remaining pre-modern and feudalist elements.
Not all proposed forms of government are grounded in reality. Geniocracy is the perfect example of a “form of government” which has been articulated but which has never been credibly attempted. In a geniocracy, elected leaders would be required to meet a certain minimum threshold of intelligence in order to be considered fit to govern and the electorate would be required to meet its own intelligence threshold in order to vote. A geniocracy would generally be structured like a liberal democracy, with constitutional law, electoral cycles, and protections for individual liberties. However, only those meeting a measurable intelligence threshold would be eligible to participate at the leadership level.
To reiterate, this form of government is merely theoretical, but its particulars have been delineated by an eccentric group, founded in France in the 1970s, known as the International Raelian Movement. This “UFO religion” holds the belief that humans were created by extraterrestrial beings using advanced technology, and that the belief in god is a consequence of our failure to recognize our creators as extraterrestrial beings. Raelians believe that a general failure of democratically elected leaders to reach meaningful and effective solutions to society’s greatest problems justifies the instatement of a minimum threshold both for electoral candidates (50% above the mean) and voters (10% above the mean). Raelians have yet to succeed in manifesting this as an active form of government.
Jean Sendy was a French writer and translator, author of works on esoterica and UFO phenomena. He was also an early proponent of the ancient astronaut hypothesis. He wrote the 1968 book The Moon: The Key to the Bible in which he claimed the word “Elohim” mentioned in the Hebrew Genesis of the Bible, which is usually translated as God, should in fact be translated in the plural as “Gods” because the singular of the word Elohim is Eloah. He claimed that the “Gods” were actually space travelers . Sendy believed that Genesis was factual history of ancient astronauts colonizing earth who became “angels in human memory”. The book contains similar ideas to that of the UFO religion Raëlism.
Kleptocracy is a form of government in which the ruling party has either come to power, retained power, or both, through means of corruption and theft. This is not a form of government that a ruling class would ever self-apply, but a pejorative term used to describe a group whose power rests on a foundation of embezzlement, misappropriation of funds, and the transfer of massive amounts of wealth from public to private interests. These private interests will typically overlap the ruling party’s own economic interests.
Vladamir Putin’s post-Soviet Russia is a notable example of kleptocratic behavior by a ruling class. As the former Soviet Union collapsed and confusion reigned, Putin and other allies from within the leadership of the KGB, squirreled away billions of dollars in public money. They would ultimately use this money to fund their rise to power and, subsequently, the establishment of a quasi-authoritarian regime that, among other things, awarded billions in no-bid contracts to friends for the chaotic Sochi Olympics, handed central banking authority over to cronies, and took control of a privately owned oil company. In the latter case, Putin demonstrated his absolute power by claiming fraud against oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky in 2003. The charges saw him imprisoned for a decade, and his Yukos Oil Company distributed piecemeal to Putin’s friends and allies. In spite of its democratic facade, Putin’s Russia meets the basic qualifications for being labeled a kleptocracy.
Ferdinand Marcos was a Filipino politician, lawyer, and kleptocrat who served as the 10th President of the Philippines from 1965 to 1986. Espousing an ideology of “constitutional authoritarianism” under the New Society Movement, he ruled as a dictator under martial law from 1972 until 1981, and kept most of his martial law powers until he was deposed in 1986. One of the most controversial leaders of the 20th century, Marcos’ rule was infamous for its corruption, extravagance, and brutality.
Meritocracy refers to a system in which authority is vested in those who have demonstrated the merits deemed relevant or necessary for governing or public administration. Often, these merits are conferred through testing and academic credentials, and are meant to create an order in which education, abilities, and intellect are used to determine who should hold positions of leadership and economic stewardship. The result is a social and governmental hierarchy based on achievement.
Ancient China offers one of the clearest and earliest examples of a meritocracy. The concept is sometimes attributed to Confucius, who is believed to have advocated for a form of governance in which demonstrated merit, rather than heredity, determined the right to govern. During the Qin and Han dynasties, this idea was put into motion as a way of providing order and administration for a vast and sprawling empire. Rank was to be determined by education and performance on a civil service examination, meaning that all citizens, and not just those of noble lineage, had the opportunity for social mobility.
Daniel A. Bell is Dean of the School of Political Science and Public Administration at Shandong University and professor at Tsinghua University . He was born in Montreal, educated at McGill and Oxford, has taught in Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai, and has held research fellowships at Princeton’s University Center for Human Values, Stanford’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences and Hebrew University’s Department of Political Science. He has put forward his views in favour of China’s political meritocracy and against one person one vote as a mode of selection for political leaders in two books and in comments published in The New York Times, the Financial Times, and in regular columns published in The Huffington Post, in Project Syndicate, in The Guardian, as well as the Chinese-language periodical South Reviews and a Chinese-language blog site on Caijing . He was the recipient of the Huilin Prize in 2018.
A dictatorship is an authoritarian form of government in which that authority is vested in a single figure with absolute power. In a military dictatorship, this figure is typically the head of a nation’s armed forces. Military dictatorships frequently attain power through force as with a military coup or armed revolution in which an existing seat of government is displaced. Such displacement is often justified by claims of corruption, weakness, or ineffectiveness, claims which are ultimately used to justify a new and authoritarian brand of law and order. Military dictatorships will frequently prioritize the retention of power over due process, civil liberties, or political freedoms, and typically meet political dissent and civil unrest with violent force.
The North-central African Republic of Chad is at once one of the world’s poorest and most politically corrupt nations. As such, it has a detailed history of political instability that leads up to the present day. In April of 2021, authoritarian President Idriss Deby was killed by rebels identifying as the Front for Change and Concord in Chad. His son, Mahamat Deby seized control through the Transitional Military Council, and subsequently dissolved Chad’s national legislature. Today, Deby rules as a military dictator over a nation that is plagued by human rights violations such as false imprisonment, extrajudicial killings and deprivation of civil liberties.
Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn was a Thai military dictator. A staunch anti-communist, Thanom oversaw a decade of military rule in Thailand from 1963 to 1973, during which he staged a self-coup, until public protests which exploded into violence forced him to step down. His return from exile in 1976 sparked protests which led to a massacre of demonstrators, followed by a military coup.
Monarchy is a state in which a single individual of royal lineage holds absolute power, and in which the government is broadly composed of others who share this bloodline. The monarch of such a state is said to have “divine right,” or the mandate of God, to rule. Thus, power is inherited in accordance with a “line of succession” based on royal birth order. Monarchies were once a dominant form of government throughout the known world, but the Age of Enlightenment promoted Democratic ideals in a way that ultimately spelled doom for many kindships. Today, a number of monarchies do remain. Some, called commonwealth monarchies, retain royal families whose roles are merely symbolic. Constitutional monarchies are those which vest limited power in a monarch while actually functioning within democratic frameworks. A select few nations—many concentrated in Africa and the Middle East—retain absolute monarchies to this date.
At the time of writing in 2021, 44 nations recognize some form of monarchy. In many cases, this monarchy is largely symbolic and subservient to a constitution, as in Great Britain. By contrast, monarchies continue to enjoy some degree of political authority in Brunei, Liechtenstein, Monaco, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, and Swaziland. Saudi Arabia, with its expansive royal family—some estimates place the ruling House of Saud at 15,000 family members—is a prominent example of an absolute monarchy.
Philip Hunton was an English clergyman and political writer, known for his May 1643 anti-absolutist work A Treatise of Monarchy. It became a banned book under the Restoration. A Treatise of Monarchie At the time of publication, it provoked a much better-known rebuttal, the 1648 Anarchy of a Limited and Mixed Monarchy by Robert Filmer. It was part of a pamphleteering exchange initiated by the royal chaplain Henry Ferne.
In an oligarchy, a nation is ruled over by a very small number of individuals. Oligarchy is a broad term that can be said to characterize a number of other forms identified here including aristocracies and monarchies. However, where such forms typically point to a specific set of characteristics in the ruling class, oligarchy more generally describes any government where a select few are given authority over a great many on the basis of any characteristics, whether ethnic, economic, familial or otherwise. The term oligarchy is generally used in a pejorative way to describe a state in which this selectivity promotes authoritarianism, inequality and the deprivation of individual liberties.
Venezuela identifies as a presidential republic but it is accurate to refer to this South American nation as an oligarchy, particularly under the authoritarian rule of President Nicolas Madura. On the approach of reelection in 2018, Maduro declared that leading opposition parties would be forbidden from participating in the vote, which he ultimately won’t with 67.8% of the electorate. Though numerous neighboring countries and world leaders rejected the outcome as fraudulent, Maduro and his political cronies rule over a nation in deep economic crisis and widespread human rights violations. Leadership is retained by a select few, a condition assured by violent suppression of the political opposition.
Charicles , son of Apollodorus, was an ancient Athenian politician, notorious for his role as one of the Thirty Tyrants. His actual role within the Thirty may have been somewhat overestimated by modern scholars, due to his brief mention by Aristotle and by Xenophon and the lack of other details about the power-structure of that oligarchy.
Plutocracy is a form of government controlled by the wealthy elite. In this hierarchical system, it isn’t necessary that wealth be a function of heredity or merit. Instead, a plutocracy merely describes any system of governance in which opportunities for leadership are generally reserved for the affluent regardless of how this wealth might have been attained. As with the closely-connected concept of an oligarchy, a plutocracy is a term that no ruling class would self-apply, but is more generally used by those offering critique of structural inequality, especially in capitalist societies.
Allegations of plutocracy have commonly been used to critique governance in a number of societies with widespread and systemic inequality. The United States and Russia have both been characterized this way because national wealth in both of these societies is concentrated in the hands of an extremely select group of billionaires. Critics argue that this select group exerts a dramatically unequal influence over policy, resource distribution, and economic opportunity, ultimately undermining equality and preventing fair economic competition.
Gonzalo Córdova was President of Ecuador from 1924-1925. Like his immediate predecessors in the Liberal Party, he was considered to be a pawn of “La Argolla” , a plutocracy of coastal agricultural and banking interests whose linchpin was the Commercial and Agricultural Bank of Guayaquil led by Francisco Urbina Jado.
Republicanism, which is not to be confused with the American Republican political party, refers to a system in which the citizens hold power. A republic is technically defined as a nation in which the people determine their own leadership through the elections, input into the legislative processes, and participation in public life. In its earliest form, the Republic was perceived as a counterbalance to monarchy, an approach which merged monarchy and aristocracy with some aspects of democracy.
Informed by the philosophical ideals of the enlightenment, particularly the writing of Jean-Jacque Rousseau, the Revolutionaries who toppled the French monarchy in the 1790s established a new Republic in their wake. Though the Republic was short-lived—Napoleon’s rule transformed France into an aristocracy by the turn of the next century—its founding on the principles of Rousseau’s Social Contract would be particularly influential to the myriad nations that would soon emerge from crumbling European monarchies and splintering colonial empires.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a Genevan philosopher, writer, and composer. His political philosophy influenced the progress of the Enlightenment throughout Europe, as well as aspects of the French Revolution and the development of modern political, economic and educational thought.
Socialism refers to a form of government in which the primary means of production are owned by the people. Often presented as a philosophical counterpoint to capitalism, socialism is an ideology that has existed in many forms throughout history and around the world. From small communal societies to centralized state-level governments that provide encompassing public services, the concept of socialism permeates governments the world over. By contrast to the less compromising and often more authoritarian nature of communism, socialism tends to be a malleable concept. There are those adherents who view socialism as referring to a strict policy of shared ownership and equal distribution of resources and others who believe free market capitalism can coexist with socialist forms of public administration. To wit, the declaratively capitalist United States does administer a Social Security system that is inherently socialist in nature.
To learn more, check out our look at The Social Security Controversy.
The Nordic model of social democracy represents perhaps the most effective real-world implementation of socialist principles. The European states in this region—Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden—offer their citizens an extremely wide range of social services in exchange for equally high rates of taxation. This includes universally free healthcare, a generous financial safety net, and a high propensity toward labor unionization. However, these policies coexist alongside a free market economy that includes opportunities for private ownership and competition.
Max Wexler was a Romanian socialist activist and journalist, regarded as one of the main Marxist theorists of the early Romanian workers’ movement. Active in the first Romanian socialist party, the Romanian Social Democratic Workers’ Party, he became dissatisfied with the party’s passivity and its failure to openly support political rights for the Romanian Jews, initiating a separate Jewish socialist group. Following the party’s demise, he was one of the main activists for the revival of the socialist movement in Iaşi, introducing to Marxism many future leaders of the Romanian socialist parties. Sympathetic to the 1917 February Revolution, he was arrested after attempting to gain the support of Russian soldiers present in the country during World War I. Wexler was assassinated in custody shortly after, with the Romanian authorities suppressing any formal enquiry into his death.
Statism is something of an umbrella term, one that captures numerous forms of governance in which a high degree of power is concentrated in the state itself, typically at the expense of individual liberties and legal protections. The form of the state’s power may vary such that statism is practiced by governments that are theocratic, monarchic, fascist or otherwise given over to authoritarian rule. In a statist society, order and the rule of law take precedence over constitutional freedoms, though the tactics and ideologies used to enforce this arrangement can vary significantly from state-controlled media and para-military law enforcement to military dictatorship and an absence of legal due process.
The rise of the Third Reich and the Nazi regime serves as one of history’s most prominent examples of statism. Under Hitler’s authority, the German state assumed encompassing and unrestrained authority over the German people. This condition allowed for the establishment of a fascist police state in which the state had total latitude to require party loyalty, ethnic purity, and ideological alliance. A failure to comply could mean extra-judicial execution, a right which the Nazi authorities granted themselves.
Rashidi Kawawa was the Prime Minister of Tanganyika in 1962 and of Tanzania in 1972 to 1977. He was the effective ruler of the country from January to December 1962 while Julius Nyerere toured the countryside. Kawawa was a strong advocate of economic statism. He later served as Defense Minister from 1977 to 1980.
Technocracy is a system of government in which key leaders and decision-makers are chosen based on their technical abilities, usually in the areas of science and technology. The phrase makes no direct distinction in determining whether such leadership should be placed through election or appointment. In this way, a technocracy is not inherently aligned with the structures of representative democracy, nor is it inherently at odds either. This idea is derived from the practical interest in using science—rather than financial interests or political prerogatives—to drive certain policy decisions. Beyond the theoretical, there may be areas of a government bureaucracy that are run, in all practical regards, by technocrats.
The late-era Soviet Union has been described by some as a technocracy, with a vast majority of its key political leaders carrying technical knowledge and background into their roles. The Soviet Union’s focus on science, engineering, and defense as the vehicles to its dominance over Western values is reflected in the personnel who occupied its top leadership roles in the 1980s. In fact, a 1986 survey of personnel found that a staggering 89% of the Politburo—the Executive Committee for Communist Parties—was made up of engineers.
Guido Marx was an American mechanical engineer who was active in progressive politics, the technocracy movement, and civil liberties. He contributed to helping feed and house hundreds of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake survivors and led the Stanford Academic Council through changes in academic freedom, culminating in founding both the American Association of University Professors and the California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
A theocratic state is one ruled by a single religious ideology. The head of state is generally seen as both a spiritual leader and a practical authority. In a theocracy, the legal system is typically beholden to a set of religious rules and beliefs and, in many cases, the general public is required to adhere to these rules and beliefs. Because theocracies are necessarily counterintuitive to democratic societies, nations exercising this form of government frequently run afoul of organizations and agencies advocating for global human rights.
At the time of writing in 2021, the nation of Afghanistan is undergoing a period of transition from attempted democracy to theocracy. With the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, and the subsequent displacement of the hardline Islamic rule of the Taliban, the embattled nation underwent a 20 year period of war and reconstruction. This included attempts at holding elections, establishing a provisional government and training a sovereign military. But with the final departure of remaining American personnel in August of 2021, both the Afghani government and military immediately collapsed as the Taliban recaptured the nation’s major cities. With the Taliban’s rapid occupation of the capital city of Kabul, Afghanistan is in the immediate process of once again being subsumed under an extremely strict brand of Sharia law that promises to erase a number of freedoms gained by the Afghani people over the last 20 years.
Hasan Yousefi Eshkevari is an Iranian cleric, researcher, journalist, reformist and former political prisoner. He has been described as “an active supporter of the revolution” who became “an outspoken and influential critic of the current Iranian version of theocracy.”
Totalitarianism is a nation where a ruler or ruling party has absolute power and, in most cases, will exercise this power in an authoritarian way. This will usually include the suppression of a free and fair press, imprisonment or execution of political enemies, and violent response to any form of social or political protest. Totalitarian states generally eschew the electoral process, or place significant controls over the outcomes of such processes. Moreover, the power of the state generally overshadows both individual freedoms and property rights.
North Korea is among the most prominent demonstrations of totalitarian governance in the world today. Kim Jong-un identifies as the Supreme Leader of North Korea, a title he earned in 2011 with the death of his father, Kim Jong-il. Kim Jong-il, in turn, inherited his role in 1994 with the death of his father, Kim Il-Sung. Since the nation’s founding in 1948, North Korea has been ruled with an iron fist by a single authoritarian figure derived from a line of succession. Today, the people of North Korea are subject to permeating state authority including a state-run media, a police force that operates without due process, and a society in which an extremely wide array of offenses may be punishable by arbitrary imprisonment or death.
Carl Joachim Friedrich was a German-American professor and political theorist.His writings on state and constitutional theory, constitutionalism and government made him one of the world’s leading political scientists in the post-World War II period. He is one of the most influential scholars of totalitarianism.
Tribalism refers to a form of governance in which there is an absence of central authority and where, instead, various regional tribes lay claim to different territories, resources or domains. In this system, trade, commerce, and war may occur between different tribes without the involvement or oversight of a unifying structure. This was a particularly common way of life in the pre-modern world, where different families and clans would establish a set of common rules and rituals specific to their community. While many tribes have forms of leadership—from councils and chiefdoms to warlords and patriarchs—tribes are often distinguishable for having relatively limited role differentiation or role stratification within. In some regards, this can make the customs internal to some tribes particularly egalitarian. That said, tribalism as a way of life has been largely threatened, and in many parts of the world extinguished, by modernity, development and the imposition of outside authority.
Afghanistan is a nation that is naturally predisposed to tribalism. Centuries of interference from outside invaders—the Soviet Union and the United States chief among them—have created an ongoing state of disarray for the central government of Afghanistan. This—combined with a treacherous and incongruous set of geographical realities—has effectively reduced Afghanistan to a state of regional tribes. Until the departure of the United States and the return of the Taliban’s Islamic rule in August of 2021, the authority of local warlords, drug cartels, or Islamic clergy have taken on far more immediate importance than the authority of a central government.
Mohammad Gulab Mangal is an Afghan politician. Since October 2016, he has been serving as the senior adviser minister of borders and tribal affairs for the president of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. He is also actively involved in the tribal conflict resolutions. On 23 October 2016, he was appointed as the senior adviser for the minister of borders, tribal affairs, and provincial governor of Nangarhar province until he resigned in April 2018. From 22 April 2015 to 23 October 2016, based on the presidential decree, he was appointed as the acting minister of Ministry of Borders and Tribal Affairs. In 2002, he was elected as the Representative of Paktia Province for Emergency Loya Jirga. From 2002 to 2004, he was the Head of Constitution office for the south east region.
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