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  Authoritarianism is the belief and practice of a form of government in which the rulers exercise authority without the consent of the governed. By this definition most régimes in human history and a majority in our own time have been authoritarian. For just this reason critics sometimes complain that authoritarianism is a vague, ‘catch-all’ or residual category, used to describe all non-democratic régimes, such as despotic, absolutist, fascist, Marxist-Leninist, military and totalitarian dictatorships.

More usefully, political scientists contrast authoritarianism with totalitarianism. The two systems are both imposed on their subjects and lack genuine political competition. However, authoritarian systems usually lack an over-arching single ideology, need not be organized through a single party system, and do not aspire to control the entire social system, merely to disable their oppositions.

During the Cold War between Western liberal democracies and communist systems (1945-89) it was often argued by Western right-wingers that authoritarian systems were preferable to communist (or totalitarian) systems, on the grounds that the former could be reformed whereas the latter could only be destroyed through war. The foreign policy implication was that Western democracies should (critically) support right-wing authoritarian régimes while opposing left-wing totalitarian régimes, through war if necessary. The relatively peaceful internal collapse of communism in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union (1989-91) suggests either that Western right-wingers were wrong or that communist systems were authoritarian rather than totalitarian.

Some social scientists believe that authoritarian régimes, like empires, were very probable in agrarian societies, because power-resources were not widely distributed; by contrast in industrial and postindustrial societies the wider dispersal of power-resources and skills among their populations reduces the likelihood that authoritarian régimes can be sustained, or at least efficiently so. Let us hope they are right. BO\'L

See also Asiatic mode of production; industrial society.Further reading Carl Friedrich and , Zbigniew Brzezinski (eds.), Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy.



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