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Autocracy is Dead

February 19, 2011

Thomas Hobbes once argued that the inherently lawless state of nature breeds war and unrest. In Leviathan, his most famous exploration of government, he equates freedom with violent anarchy, and asserts that peaceful coexistence can be preserved only under the austere watch and stern fist of an authoritarian rule; deemed the commonwealth, a people must surrender their freedoms to a “man” or “assembly of men” in order to ensure their personal security.

In nearly every historical case, it has appeared that Hobbes was correct in assuming that good governance is most naturally attained by means of autocracy. While dictators are not always popular with their people, they do ensure order, a staple of successful governance. As was often said about Benito Mussolini, “He made the trains run on time.”  But a recent wave of protest in the Middle East suggests that the validity of Hobbes’ assertions is fading.

Perhaps a strong central authority does not most naturally maintain order, but rather it has appeared that way because, thus far, every regime has been fashioned faster than its society could be built. Thus, leaders have always been able to tame their disorganized citizenry by quickly isolating and crushing any and all opposition to their rule. In a world where communication is instantaneous and evermore ubiquitous, however – where a nation can be uprooted in a matter of days – the concept of a Hobbesian commonwealth appears increasingly artificial. Technology has changed the dynamic of societal development, and in doing so, has exposed people’s true tendencies. Good governance is most naturally attained by means of democracy. Autocracy is dead.

When Wael Ghonim, the famed Google executive turned forerunner of the Egyptian revolution, tweeted “Freedom is a bless that deserves fighting for it” his country erupted.  Already a distinguished leader in the uprising, he had just been released from government custody when he manifested a revolution on his Blackberry. Before President Mubarak could react, his entire country was overtaken by an unyielding and omnipresent drive for freedom, and unlike the countless tyrants before him, he could not sever the rebellion. The rebellion was everywhere, and so Mubarak was dethroned in eighteen days. It is only a matter of time, however, before every autocracy is tumbled by the overwhelming force of freedom.  Indeed, the drive for democracy is bolstered by technology, and thus, it transcends borders.

Just days after Mubarak was unseated, Bahrain, a small country on the Arabian Peninsula fell into unrest. News of the successful Egyptian protests went viral, and the once damned people of another oppressive regime were given hope. Thousands took to the streets in what would become a violent rebellion against dictatorship, and after the Bahraini army opened fire on a crowd of protesters, the cries for freedom only amplified.  King Hamad of Bahrain will not be able to subdue the will of his people, and neither will the stubborn leaders of revolting Libya, Yemen, Iran, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, Djibouti, Algeria, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, or Palestine. People want freedom, and it is becoming evermore apparent that the Hobbesian commonwealth is disappearing.

But then again, the Hobbesian commonwealth never existed. People were never willing to surrender their liberties to a dictator. It only appeared that way because they weren’t given the choice. Hobbes could have never known that communications technology would one day expose the true foundation of good governance – one that does not restrict freedom, but rather, embraces it. Rulers will no longer be able to isolate and extinguish dissent; freedom was made viral, and so autocracy is dead.


  1. Zack Orsini permalink
    February 19, 2011 6:27 PM


    Firstly, very nice post. You seem to be pretty optimistic in regard to the influence of technology on people’s freedom (political freedom). I would agree with you that the exponential increase in communication technologies has made the world a smaller place; suffering/joy on one side of the world can be felt on the opposite side of the world. Tis’ a beautiful thing.

    I think, however, that autocracy is not “dead,” as you say. As an argument in support of this disagreement I present two words to you: North Korea.

    I believe that if both technology and education are monopolized by an autocratically minded government, people are still just tiny ants underneath the government’s thumb. Common people need to have checks on the government in order to keep it in line. In the U.S., there are private industries (which develop technologies), private schools, and private gun ownerships that help keep the government in check so that it does not infringe upon our freedoms.

    If the Egyptian government had complete control over what technology its citizens were able to use and over what information could enter into their heads, there would have been no revolution. Thankfully, this was (and is) not the case.

    • Zack Orsini permalink
      February 19, 2011 6:34 PM

      Just as a note, if by your statement “Autocracy is Dead,” you mean that it is no longer the most effective system of government, I would agree with you. I would also say that, in that sense, it was always dead.

      In my (above) comment, I assumed that you meant by your statement “Autocracy is Dead” that autocracy is no longer in existence. That may have been a silly assumption, so let me know if I interpreted your statement incorrectly.

  2. fcbay31 permalink
    February 20, 2011 8:49 PM

    This was a very nicely written post! You really make a nice correlation between the advancement in technology and the spread of democracy. Nonetheless, autocracy may be significantly losing to democracy, but it is little bold to claim that it is dead.

    The reason I must side Zach is because like he said, there are still autocratic regimes present in the world today. A quick google search yielded autocratic rule in North Korea, Burma, Saudi Arabia, and many in Africa. So I am hesitant to deem autocracy “dead”, however, I will say that it surely is going out of style.

    Like you, I find Hobbes’ viewpoint on peace being obtained only through iron-fisted rule as faulty due to countries today that are flourishing under democratic-like governments. However, I find Hobbes’ labeling of men being in a state of constant war and unrest, still somewhat legitimate. History supports this! When has the world gone a significant period of time without there being some sort of war or genocide occurring in some place(s)? I feel humans have proven ourselves to be inept at ever ceasing war upon another, and it is why I feel Hobbes may have stumbled onto a somewhat valid claim.

  3. Jeff DeClaire permalink
    February 21, 2011 6:11 PM

    As was said before me, this was a very well-written post. I really enjoyed how you compared Hobbes’s views of laws and government to our world in which we live in today. For one, I do believe that autocracy has certainly taken a back to seat to more “freedom” in our world. I think that many places around the world are beginning to realize the benefits of running a government without an autocratic rule. In addition, I really enjoyed how you pointed out the role that technology has played in various countries pursuing more freedom. I never realized the grand-scale effect that a website such as Twitter, in Egypt’s case, could have on the government and well-being of a country. You did a very good job of showing how the increasing technology and media in our world has contributed to complete changes in particular governments.

    With that being said, as Zach and fcbay pointed out, there are still autocratic governments present today. The number is definitely on the decline in my opinion, but they are not extinct. I think it will be a long time before we see a complete removal of these forms of government. Many countries, such as North Korea, seem to be far from moving away from the current government.

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