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I'm giving a talk about technology (specifically the Internet) in various governments where freedoms are strongly constrained. I'm a technologist, and I have little experience with words used to described the governments of places like Cuba, China, Iran, N. Korea, Libya, etc.

I've learned from reading new articles that these governments are variously described as "totalitarian," "authoritarian," "autocractic," "despotic," "dictatorial," and so forth, and I've inferred that these are all essentially equivalent. Of course I'm anxious at the prospect of using them as synonyms if there are well-agreed-upon differences that I should be aware of. My web searches haven't really helped in my quest to answer this question and so I thought I'd ask you folks if you feel there are strong differences.

In particular, are there any terms in my list above you feel have strong differential meanings?

Note: A search here on English.SE shows two related questions both closed without an answer, so I'm hoping that my question is clear (and polite) enough to avoid this fate.

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3 Answers

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These words are related but might not refer to the same exact thing. For example if you check the Wikipedia entry for Authoritarianism you will find this entry:

Authoritarianism is a form of social organization characterized by submission to authority. It is opposed to individualism and democracy. In politics, an authoritarian government is one in which political power is concentrated in a leader or leaders, typically unelected by the people, who possess exclusive, unaccountable, and arbitrary power. Authoritarianism differs from totalitarianism in that social and economic institutions exist that are not under the government's control.

so immediately you see the distinction between authoritarianism vs. totalitarianism. If you now go to the Wikipedia entry for Totalitarianism you will find this entry:

Totalitarianism (or totalitarian rule) is a political system where the state, usually under the power of a single political person, faction, or class, recognizes no limits to its authority and strives to regulate every aspect of public and private life wherever feasible.Totalitarianism is usually characterized by the coincidence of authoritarianism (where ordinary citizens have less significant share in state decision-making) and ideology (a pervasive scheme of values promulgated by institutional means to direct most if not all aspects of public and of public and private life).

We see here that Totalitarianism is characterized by Authoritarianism AND ideology.

If we now check Despotism vs. Dictatorship we find that for Despotism is

a form of government in which a single entity, 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. The word despotism means to "rule in the fashion of a despot" and should not be confused with "despot", an individual.

the key word here is "single entity" which can actually be an individual OR a group. Under dictatorship we find this entry:

A dictatorship is defined as an autocratic form of government in which the government is ruled by an individual, the dictator.

also we find the distinction between dictatorships and totalitarian rule (with reference to authoritarianism:

For some scholars, a dictatorship is a form of government that has the power to govern without consent of those being governed (similar to authoritarianism), while totalitarianism describes a state that regulates nearly every aspect of public and private behavior of the people. In other words, dictatorship concerns the source of the governing power (where the power comes from) and totalitarianism concerns the scope of the governing power (what is the government). In this sense, dictatorship (government without people's consent) is a contrast to democracy (government whose power comes from people) and totalitarianism (government controls every aspect of people's life) opposes pluralism (government allows multiple lifestyles and opinions). Though the definitions of the terms differ, they are related in reality as most of the dictatorship states tend to show totalitarian characteristics. When governments' power does not come from the people, their power is not limited and tend to expand their scope of power to control every aspect of people's life.

For autocracy we find this entry:

An autocracy is a form of government in which one person possesses unlimited power.1 An autocrat is a person (such as a monarch) ruling with unlimited authority.

a distinction is made between autocratic rule vs. miliatry dictatorships with some reference also to totalitarian rule:

Autocracy and totalitarianism are related concepts. Autocracy is defined by one individual having unlimited legislative and executive power, while totalitarianism extends to regulating every aspect of public and private life. Totalitarianism does not imply a single ruler, but extends to include absolute rule by any faction or class of elites who recognize no limit to their authority. Autocracy differs from military dictatorship, as these often take the form of "collective presidencies" such as the South American juntas. However, an autocracy may be totalitarian or be a military dictatorship.

I hope this helps! :)

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I give the edge to The Raven's answer because it is more succinct and perhaps more accessible. However, ideally people would use both answers, as they are complementary. –  John Y Apr 25 '11 at 4:00
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To give some real-world examples, we could posit the following as exemplars (understanding, of course, that these characterizations are subject to debate):

  • Authoritarian state: Singapore
  • Totalitarian state: Maoist China (particularly during the Cultural Revolution)
  • Despotic state: Uganda under Idi Amin; Zimbabwe under Mugabe
  • Dictatorship: Italy under Mussolini, Egypt under Mubarak
  • Autocracy: Libya under Qaddafi

While we usually hold negative associations about these kinds of regimes, in some cases like Suharto's long authoritarian rule of Indonesia, we see stability and a general improvement in the citizens' standard of living.

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+1 great examples! :) –  Paul Amerigo Pajo Apr 25 '11 at 3:49
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I think this is a somewhat tricky question to answer, and making use of examples is a very good strategy here. Maybe some people will disagree with your characterizations, and maybe some people won't know enough about the countries mentioned, but at least if they do, this answer will be more helpful and quicker to grasp than pageman's (which provides some nice information, but is long and technical). –  John Y Apr 25 '11 at 3:58
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@John Y: Thank you. I liked pageman's response and rec'd it. However, some examples did seem to be in order for clarity's sake. It is tricky because few regimes are wholly one type or another. –  The Raven Apr 25 '11 at 12:42
    
Can you explain what characteristics make (say) Qaddafi an autocrat rather than a despot? Are these examples well-accepted, or more from personal opinion? –  Fixee Apr 26 '11 at 1:01
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“Authoritarian” is best understood by considering where authority/the power rests. Is it with the government/state? Or does it sit with the individual? The opposite of “authoritarianism” is “liberty”. You may have countless forms of government that support one side or the other, or anywhere along the spectrum between the two.

That said, totalitarianism is an extreme form of authoritarianism, implying total control over all affairs. "Despotic" is the degree to which those in control are willing to go to enforce their authoritarianism, often implying terrorizing the populace, even arbitrarily, as a means of gaining compliance/achieving those in power's desired ends (which may be as base as pure, morbid self-gratification, etc.).

That aside, a dictatorship (generally synonymous with autocracy) is a form of government — as are democracy, monarchy, anarchy (classic definition, not the "hoodlums busting windows chanting anti-capitalist/pro-commie slogans" pop-media usage), theocracy, etc.

Any one of these forms of government can tilt towards liberty or authoritarianism.

For example, a dictator might be a despot and deem that the nation he rules is for his personal agenda only, that people are there to serve his interest (financing it through taxes, for example), the populace essentially slaves to his whim, his national interests, etc. He and his cronies may rape and pillage and terrorize, their own populations etc. as a means of gaining compliance or/and personal gratification.

Or… the dictator may deem that liberty is the highest social order, and that the sole purpose of his government is to restore the population's liberty — their right to consent. He would jail those who would steal, murder, etc., and while he would encourage the to be charitable and good people, and otherwise leave them alone. The people would be responsible for funding the forces used to protect their own liberty, and would be free to organize that as they choose. He would probably come down on hard against those who would choose to politically organize to create a form of government that enables the violation of the individual's right to consent/liberty. In other words, the people are able to do as they please so long as they respect others' liberty — their right to say "no thanks" when it comes to their property, body, labor, etc. They may have no say in their government, but their government only intervenes to protect them. It is otherwise non existent. This is unlikely, but it is conceivable.

With that in mind, totalitarian quantifies the degree of which authoritarianism reigns. E.g. a democracy may lean quite heavily to authoritarian rule — where the majority may violate the liberty of others who lose elections. The more the people vote that individuals must defer to the State authority on all matters, the more totalitarian the authoritarian government.

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