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  Despotism is now largely an archaic concept in the social sciences, mostly supplanted by concepts like totalitarianism and authoritarianism. However, like the expressions absolutism and tyranny, despotism is used in political rhetoric to describe governments which exercise arbitrary and apparently total power.

Since the time of Aristotle despotism has been associated in Western political thought with the Orient. Until the 18th century four core ideas recurred in Western political speculation about despotic régimes. Such systems were believed to be presided over by a despot, untrammelled by legal or political restraints in the exercise of power; found principally in the Orient, in the land-based empires of Asia, especially Persia, India and China; administered by an élite, dependent upon the despot for their authority, office and revenue (unlike the more autonomous nobility of Western feudalism); and so oppressive that their subject populations were to all intents and purposes slaves.

The French philosopher Voltaire pointed out that the Greek word for despot had a double meaning, covering both ‘head of the family’ and ‘master of slaves’, and these connotations have remained with the concept of despotism from the time of classical antiquity. The Greeks, in particular, contrasted their freedom with the despotism of barbarian peoples. Aristotle\'s typology of political régimes was based on the idea that the bad or deviant forms of rule—tyranny, oligarchy and democracy—were characterized by despotic behaviour by rulers who governed in their own interests rather than that of their subjects. He also distinguished Asian despotisms by the existence of hereditary succession and royal bodyguards.

The Romans used the term tyranny when expressing contempt for autocratic rule, but in early medieval Europe, after Aristotle\'s Politics was rediscovered, the term despotism came back into intellectual currency, especially in attacks on the medieval papacy, and later in polemical conceptions of Turkish government. Aristotle\'s ideas became the basis for a flourishing European stereotypical classification of all Oriental and African systems of government, and reached their apogee in the 18th century work of Montesquieu, one of the most famous philosophers of the French Enlightenment.

Montesquieu argued that despotism was capricious government, based on organized fear, and maintained that it was geographically more likely in large-scale agrarian empires, especially in hot and arid regions. Voltaire, his best-known French critic, argued by contrast, in favour of ‘enlightened despotism’ suggesting that Montesquieu\'s arguments were mere apologias for the interests of the redundant feudal aristocracy and rested on the questionable foundation of unreliable ‘travellers’ tales\'. Like several other philosophers of his era Voltaire was a Sinophiliac, believing that in China the emperor governed through a meritocratic bureaucracy which rationally administered his subjects. China could therefore be commended as a model of a progressive polity.

The idea that despotism was (or could be) enlightened did not survive into the 19th century. Liberal discourse was hostile to unaccountable rulers, and philosophies of progress developed in which despotism, especially the Oriental variety, was periodized as a backward stage in human development. In the writings of the French economist Turgot and the philosopher Condorcet, and the German thinkers of the late Enlightenment, like Kant, Herder and Hegel, Asiatic régimes were condemned as despotic and stagnant, fossilized and incapable of progressive development from within their own resources. These notions became commonplace amongst the classical political economists, like the Mills, who conceived of despotic ‘Oriental society’ as an obstacle to capitalist development; and, in an altered form, they also formed the basis of Karl Marx\'s idea of a distinctive Asiatic mode of production. In the 1950s, at the height of the Cold War, the idea of a distinctively Oriental despotism was revived by Karl Wittfogel, a Sinologist and ex-Marxist. He argued that despotism in Oriental societies could be functionally explained by the need for large-scale and centrally planned irrigation in arid or semiarid regions—a thesis which was vigorously rejected by many historians of Asia. Even more controversially, Wittfogel maintained that communist régimes were the direct successors and the industrial equivalents of the ‘hydraulic despotisms’ of Asia. BO\'L

Further reading R. Koebner, ‘Despot and Despotism’ Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes (1951); , B. O\'Leary, The Asiatic Mode of Production; , K. Wittfogel, Oriental Despotism.



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