Despotism is the desire for unlimited power, which is achieved regardless of the opinions and needs of others, by demanding constant and complete obedience.
In simple terms, despotism is the establishment and maintenance of absolute power, especially in a brutal way.
Synonyms for the word “despotism” include autocracy, tyranny, authoritarianism, and oppression.
Synonyms for the word “despot”: autocrat, tyrant, exploiter, oppressor.
The word “despot” comes from the Greek despotes, which means “ruler or one who holds power”. A despot has absolute control over people. For example, pharaohs and Byzantine emperors were called “despots”. After entering the English language in 1562, the word “despot” became a general title for anyone in power. But in the early 18th century, the word usage changed and began to mean “an absolute ruler of a country; any ruler who rules absolutely or tyrannically; any person with tyrannical power; a tyrant, an oppressor.” The modern use of the word gained popularity during the French Revolution, when it was used by revolutionaries to describe the government of Louis XVI. In the 20th century, the problem of despotism was discussed in connection with fascism and the Holocaust.
According to Montesquieu, some of Europe’s despotic ideas came from the most sublime sources, namely the works of Plato, his student Aristotle, and the teachings of the church. Although these sources are thought to instill virtue and thus try to make people better, Montesquieu speaks of the excesses and even cruelty of the ideas that can be found in these old and revered books. For example, he emphasizes Plato’s harmful doctrines that slaves have no right to self-defense, magistrates should be absolute, and punishments should be frequent and severe. Likewise, Aristotle’s teachings promote despotic practices by relying too much on the virtue of princes.
All of these names are also used in non-governmental contexts to describe people whose behavior we do not like. Sometimes these definitions overlap, and one term is often used to describe another, but even as synonyms they carry slightly different connotations.
Despotic power is inherited by humans from our animal past and is the most dangerous element in human sociality. Often, the despot’s unlimited power was explained by his divine origin, which led to his lifelong deification. Examples include the ancient Egyptian pharaohs, Japanese emperors, Aztec and Inca rulers. European monarchs, including the Russian emperors, although not directly deified, were nevertheless considered “anointed of God,” i.e., people who had an exclusive divine right to power.
Today, “despotism” seems to be a marginalized concept that refers to an archaic form of government. Paradoxically, however, in the modern world, despotism thrives in the shadows. And at the same time, most people voluntarily follow clearly despotic leaders. Modern despotism (or neo-despotism) is perceived as a political “art” and even tends to become normalized (as a cult of personality). All modern despotic regimes consider themselves to be a kind of democracy (e.g., Chinese “people’s democracy”) and base their power on the sovereignty of their citizens, while proclaiming their version of democracy to be superior to the traditional Western concept. These despotic regimes use tools that create the illusion of democracy without transferring real political power to citizens. These are “ghost democracies”.
The main feature of neo-despotism is that it can act as its opposite, presenting itself as a sphere of freedoms. Neo-despotism speaks the language of fear and security, but does not seek to legitimize the despotic order as such. On the contrary, it promises a new, democratic world, free from despots and their terror.
In other words, neo-despotism is despotism that convinces us that it is not despotism.
Thus, it is an oxymoron – an anti-despotic despotism.
Prof. Keane identified several key features of the new despotic regimes:
In psychology, despots are characterized as unethical and authoritarian people who use an unethical code of conduct and have little regard for the interests of others. Pursuing their own interests, they can be:
The detrimental effects of oppressive leadership in the family and workplace underscore the importance of understanding the impact of this type of leadership on the lives of family members and subordinates.
Both men and women manifest despotism as a personality trait, with only slight outward differences in the choice of methods. At first, it may seem that despotism is a purely masculine trait, just as when it comes to rape, everyone immediately sees a woman as a victim. However, women are also despotic in many ways, it just takes the form of physical violence less often. Women can destroy a man morally, with jealousy, blackmail, constant hysterics, suicide threats, reproaches, and humiliation.
Despotism is a form of government where a single ruler, known as a despot, holds absolute power and authority over the state, often without any legal constraints or checks and balances.
Despotism is distinct from other types of government, like democracy or monarchy, because it concentrates power in the hands of a single individual who often rules arbitrarily, without consideration for the interests of the people or the rule of law.
While many despots are considered dictators, not all dictators are necessarily despots. A dictator may have limited power or be bound by a constitution, whereas a despot holds absolute power and is not restricted by any legal framework.
Some factors that can contribute to the rise of despotism include political instability, weak institutions, economic challenges, and the desire of a charismatic or powerful leader to consolidate power.
While despotism can bring short-term stability and decisive decision-making, it often comes at the cost of long-term development, freedom, and fairness. Therefore, it is generally seen as an undesirable form of government.
Examples of despotism throughout history include the reigns of Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union, Mao Zedong in China, and Pol Pot in Cambodia. Each of these rulers wielded absolute power and made decisions that had severe consequences for their people.
While it can be challenging to hold despotic rulers accountable during their reign, many have faced justice or repercussions after leaving power. This can occur through domestic or international trials, sanctions, or other forms of legal action.