Taxonomy of Government Forms

The rich have always ruled and the poor have always grumbled. There was never a golden age of good government or even a reign of terror that wasn’t like a hundred others. Everything is and always has been the same. That’s why I study politics. I want to find out if change is possible. But as the adage says, you learn the rules in order to know when and how to break them. Understanding the bones of government will tell us how best to move those bones. Learning what the creature is like is how we learn how to get along with it.

Governmental politics should be understood as the way specific people and groups interact with each other to affect whole regions, nations, or populations. It’s about each person’s wants and needs, not about their party brand or stated ideology. At the base of it, these relationships are far more mechanical than they are of the mind or belief. When we wonder why politicians take bribes, why countries call themselves “democratic” when we might consider them tyrannies, or why the government never seems to respond to the people, what we’re running into is an error in how we see the government as working. To correct that, we have to find the fundamentals of political systems, and from there we can reconstruct the animal that exists today.

What I am going to do here is only one step on mapping out the ideas and functions of government. With a map like this, it will be easier to compare governments on the terms of how they work, not what they say they believe. The step I want to take is to show how the forms of government as we usually think of them reduce down to only three basic forms: despotism, the republic, and anarchy. I’m using these words in a completely neutral form, which is to say that I’m assuming that each form of government has a best form where both government and populace are content and flourishing. I’m not ranking governments, I only want to categorize them.

The major point I want to make is that words like democracy and communism refer far more to ideologies than they do governmental forms. In essence, the idea of a democratic autocracy is not as far fetched as it might sound; I understand this might need untangling but I’m not going to do that here. My goal for now is just to lay out the groundwork for comparing these different types and sub-types.

To make this understandable, I first need to lay out the terms that I’ll be using. Most of them are fairly common but I’m going to give them specific definitions here, and their usage later on will be based on these definitions.

First, I’ll define the basic forms of government as I stated above: despotism, republic, and anarchy.

  • Despotism: A government where the ruler is self-appointed. [Example: Napoleonic France]
  • Republic: A government where the ruler is elected (or selected) by constituents. [Fifth French Republic]
  • Anarchy: A government where there is no ruler and the constituents each make their own decisions. [Second Paris Commune]

Obviously, the words “despotism”, “republic”, and “anarchy” don’t exactly correspond to each other (i.e. why not autocracy, democracy, and anocracy) but I’ve chosen the words according to their meaning and not their rhyme or meter.

Next, I will define some basic terms for describing political systems. This will make it easier to compare different systems.

  • state: a system made up of a society managed by a government
  • government: the apparatus by which a state is managed
  • society: the people & relationships within any one space at any one time
  • populace: the persons that make up the society, as an aggregate
  • ruler, or ruling clique: the persons in charge of running the state, considering all prior definitions; regardless of the number of persons included, considered as having one will
  • constituent: a person with a significant (not necessarily large) stake in the government; in other words, someone with a voice that is heard by the government
  • instrument: any item or method by which the government (as an abstract idea) interacts with persons, such as laws, speeches, and propaganda

And thirdly, terms describing aspects of a government’s essential makeup:

  • form of government, or form: the way a government interacts with its constituents
  • source of authority, or authority: the means by which the government’s position is secured
  • rational for cooperation, or rationale: the reason which the constituents accept for the government’s position; may be at odds with the actual authority
  • theory of government, or theory: a set of principles and opinions by which a group can direct itself; any group can have multiple theories that refer to different parts of life & government, such as being economically capitalist and politically theocratic
  • method of government, or method: a specific mechanical element of a government, such as type of electoral system; like theories, any group can have multiple methods

Now that these terms have been laid out, I will get on with showing how the many different forms as commonly understood actually boil down to the three basics. I have sourced the list of these “forms” primarily from Wikipedia which, if nothing else, does tend to reflect the most common understanding of ideas in the west. They’ll be organized into the sections of Democracies, Autocracies, Monarchies, Republics (and Oligarchies), and Anarchies; the group names overlap with some other terms but they’re used here in their most common reading. Though many of these forms have further insinuations — when we say “liberal democracy” we usually mean it involves capitalism as well — I’ll limit myself to just talking about what the terms themselves mean.

Democracies

The idea of the democratic form of government is powerful in the west, but what “democracy” means to us and what it meant to the Athenians that our history books love so much are very different things. Modern democracy is stuffed with a lot of other ideas like liberalism, capitalism, meritocracy, and so on. But stripped to its core, when considered as a “form” of government, democracy has a simple definition.

Democracy: A republic using the authority of democracy. [Republic of Turkey]

This is somewhat recursive (and repetitive), but it breaks down easily. Democracy as a pseudo-form of government is different than democracy as a source of authority. While as a form “democracy” doesn’t have much currency, as a source of authority it is fundamental. Standing alongside kratocracy (power from warfare/violence) and plutocracy (power from wealth), democracy (power from the choice of the people) is an important basic way of analyzing governments. However, quite often a government’s source of authority is not evident without digging in deeper than the surface. I could easily write a definition which cynically employs rationale here, but to reserve judgement, I’ll assume this as an ideal definition.

Most discussion about best governmental practices in the modern west center around different kinds of democracy. These fall into a variety of groups based on the way that they differ.

Democracies by method:

  • Representative democracy: A democracy using the method of representative government. [Sisiist Egypt]
  • Direct democracy: A democracy using direct representation. [Rojava in Syria]
  • Liquid democracy: A democracy using liquid elections (involves situational representation). [none, theorized by Bryan Ford]
  • Demarchy: A democracy using sortition (appointment by lottery).

Democracies by theory:

  • Social democracy: A democracy using the theory of socialism. [Venezuela]
  • Liberal democracy: A democracy using liberalism, which is to say an ideal of individual rights and self-determination. “Western democracies” are all liberal democracies, and even the most conservative politicians are politically liberal in this narrow sense. [Republic of Mongolia]
  • Totalitarian democracy: A democracy using totalitarianism. [Ba’athist Iraq]
  • Soviet democracy: A democracy using sovietism (“sovietism” is a backformation meaning the political theory of the USSR, however that might be defined). [Titoist Yugoslavia]

Autocracies

These are very easily defined in the usual way: rule by one person. I could have used the word “autocracy” in place of “despotism” as a basic form of government. The reason I didn’t is because I think our understanding of government has evolved to recognize the fact that one person can never rule alone; rulers are always leaning on a group of supporters and advisors. “Despotism” to me, because of its link to an older age, can better allow for that idea of a ruler’s entourage (or even a despotic clique) while still expressing the key fact of rule by fiat. So I’ll define autocracy’s common meaning here in terms of despotism.

Autocracy: Despotism using a ruling clique of one. [Diệmist South Vietnam]

There are two other terms which are generally as equally reviled as autocracy and despotism. These are tyranny and dictatorship. As I’ve already described autocracy in terms of numbers, I’ll describe the other three in terms of their political theories. Obviously I’m not saying that every despotic dictator in history has used these terms for themselves rigidly, but in their general and usages I have seen differences which I think are significant.

  • Despotism (per wikipedia): Despotism using the theory of absolutism. Though the classical despot was the undisputed master, they could also be thought of as benevolent and conscientious caretakers of their domain. They key fact of despots wasn’t their oppression but their absolute control of their state. [Byzantine Rome]
  • Tyranny: Despotism using the theory of selfism. Tyrant is the most consistently reviled term for any self-appointed ruler throughout history and the greatest offense is extracting the wealth of the country to enrich themselves. So I will use “selfism” to represent the idea that the self is the most important to the exclusion of everything else, results in nothing less than behavior we call tyrannical. [Pharaonic Egypt]
  • Dictatorship: Despotism using the rationale of legalism. I say legalism here in the general western sense of treating the letter of the law as the most important aspect; I do not mean “respect for law” or anything like that. Dictators in this sense — including both the Romans and the dictators of early 20th century Europe — rule by imposing “law & order” and they rule through that system instead of by their personal & arbitrary whim. [Gaddafist Libya]

Wikipedia lists two sub-types of dictatorship, so I will include them as well:

  • Military dictatorship: A dictatorship using the theory of military rule (as opposed to militarism, though they can coincide). [Francoist Spain]
  • Civilian dictatorship: A dictatorship using civilian rule. [PRI-ruled Mexico]

Monarchies

On the face of it, “monarchy” (as in rule by one person) and “autocracy” (as in power from the ruler’s self) mean exactly the same thing, but even enemies of modern monarchs don’t commonly call them autocrats. The difference between the two is traditional legitimacy. That legitimacy can be gained by several ways but the most common is simply to take control of an area, die without being dethroned, and convince people to follow your children as well. I won’t deal with the question of whether or not a monarchy is legitimate, but I will define it as such:

Monarchy: Despotism using the theory of royalism (belief in royal legitimacy). [Central African Empire]

Reduced in this way, we can see that the main distinguishing feature of monarchy isn’t the despotism (as anyone with the means could become a despot) but the royalism. This becomes important when you think on the listed sub-types of monarchy, specifically the point that two of these sub-types do not actually share the basic fact of a ruling monarch. One of the following types therefore can’t be described as “A monarchy using…”, so the basic form will be referenced again.

  • Absolute monarchy: A monarchy using the theory of absolutism. [Vatican City]
  • Constitutional monarchy: A monarchy using constitutionalism (in addition to royalism). [Saudi Arabia]
  • Elective monarchy: A monarchy using the method of election. [Cambodia]
  • Crowned republic: A republic using the theory of royalism. [Belgium]

Based on this, the United Kingdom can be better classified as a crowned republic than as a constitutional monarchy as, though the titular monarchs are bound by a “constitution”, the monarch wields no functional power over the running of the government. This is opposed to the early European constitutional monarchs who still retained a great deal of power and influence over their governments.

If one believes in the truth of the divine right of kings, we could define monarchy instead as “Despotism with the authority of theocracy” as, if the divine does exist, it must be considered to be more than just a political theory.

Republics

Placing republics here was a difficult decision because it would work very well coming right after democracies. However, I placed them here because I believe that when people think about “republics” they view them as different than “democracies”. Republic for most people does not imply broad participation, which is true, but this is usually then extended to say that there must be very narrow participation instead. In talking about republics (in the common sense), what I really want to consider is the idea of oligarchy.

First, though, I will give the basic definition:

Republic: A republic; in other words, a government where the ruler is elected (or selected) by constituents. [Romania]

Next, the definitions of the sub-types of republic according to theory:

  • Constitutional republic: A republic using the theory of constitutionalism. [Kingdom of Italy]
  • Democratic republic: A republic using the rationale of democracy (I use rationale instead of authority here as a mea culpa to those who believe sticking “democratic” in your name means the opposite). [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea]
  • Federal republic: A republic using the theory of federalism. [Russia]
  • Islamic republic: A republic using Islamic government. [Afghanistan]
  • People’s republic: A republic using the rationale of democracy. Same rational as democratic republics, but this is just used as a pejorative. [Communist Hungary]

And republics by their method:

  • Parliamentary republic: A republic using the method of parliamentary government. [Malta]
  • Presidential republic: A republic using presidential government. [Uzbekistan]
  • Semi-presidential republic: A republic using semi-presidential government. [Weimar Germany]

These have fairly neat and simple definitions. The issue in describing them arises when we move onto the subject of oligarchies. To begin on solid ground, I will give my definition of oligarchy.

Oligarchy: Despotism using a ruling clique of more than one. [Republic of Venice]

The answer to the obvious question of “Why include oligarchy here?” requires brief elaboration. An oligarchy as it is described generally means “rule by a few”. Sometimes this is taken to mean “rule by a broad class” but, when applied in most situations (such as in news stories about “Russian oligarchs”), we mean a group where we could theoretically know every person’s name by casual memory. A group like this should be considered as a single ruling clique. The members may have their own desires, but as far as state power is concerned, it is exercised as a single force by the clique as a whole, not by each member in their own capacity.

Despite this, most of the sub-types of oligarchy listed on Wikipedia and other sources refer not to small groups but to broad classes. For this reason, what we’re talking about in these sub-types is not oligarchy as commonly conceived, but a republic in which the government is selected by and out of a segment of the wider population. It’s very important to understand that restricting the franchise (as it were) does not discount a government from being a republic.

For this reason, I’ll list the many many concepts for “oligarchy” here, marking them as republics, generally using their stated “-ocracy” as their motivating theory. I spoke about “plutocracy” earlier as one of the basic sources of a government’s authority, but here I will be talking about it in its more common conception as a “form” of government. The same goes for theocracy, though this was not a basic source.

None of these oligarchic types carry any intrinsic ideas about how the government relates to the people. Other than telling us what type of person should be in charge, the example governments don’t resemble each other very much. What this shows us is that regardless of the “type” of oligarchy considered, understanding its government means understanding that the government is beholden to this theoretically-chosen group of society.

I note that I used “theory” for plutocracy instead of “rationale”, even though earlier I had used “rationale” when describing democracy. Both plutocracy and democracy are basic sources of authority, so it seems that their reflections should be the same. However, I am making two different points here. When I say “the theory of plutocracy” I mean that the society has the idea that the wealthy *should* rule. If I was to say “the rationale of plutocracy” what I would be saying is that the society believes wealth *does* rule, regardless of whether or not that’s true. If I say “the authority of plutocracy”, that means wealth does *in fact* rule, even if the government says that wealth doesn’t.

When I say that democratic republics use the rationale of democracy, what I’m getting at is that the government tells the people that democracy is why they (the gov’t) is in power. As should be clear by now, having democracy as a rationale or even as a source of power does not necessarily mean that there are elections. This is the basic justification that allows despotic countries like North Korea to call themselves democratic. They are not saying that they were elected, they are saying that “popular will” is what supports their rule. This makes little sense to us now but originally democracy stood in contrast not to autocracy but to royalism. This is where ideas like “tyranny of the majority” come from. All this is best gotten into another time.

Anarchies

We commonly think of anarchy as “the absence of government”. If we view humanity without government as living Hume’s “nasty, brutish, and short” lives, the kind of horror people usually give the word anarchy is justified. Of course, most of us understand that this is ridiculous. If humans aren’t fundamentally good, at the very least they don’t want trouble and generally won’t start trouble. People can live without government. I’m stating that plainly just so that we can get on categorizing; the discussion of how we can live without government is an incredibly deep one and it would take us too far off topic. What I’m saying at the base is that anarchy as a political idea is as valid as any of the others I’ve mentioned above.

Anarchy has been defined above as one of the basic forms of government, one in which the constituents each make their own decisions. The concept of voluntary associations is key to understanding how such a society could respond to large-scale crises. However, we do have to grapple with the fact that some people will have more and others will have less, and because of these imbalances it will be possible for some to build influence and structures of power which, if not state-like, are still contrary to the generally equality-focused idea of anarchy which is promoted in the west.

The term “anocracy” is, in my view, primarily an academic insult used by the kind of people who think they define what civilization is. The way it is used makes it equivalent to “corrupt government”, on a scale on which “democracy” is the highest form of achievement. This usage is a result of the kind of thinking which this article argues against; namely, that the “form” of government can express details about how it functions on a day-to-day basis. However, it’s not a term that’s very widespread, and because it will dovetail nicely with what I want to describe, I will repurpose it here.

I want to lay out two basic sub-types of anarchy now.

An anarchic system which doesn’t base itself in democracy will either use kratocracy or plutocracy as its source of authority (as defined above), which makes them a kind of verticalized anarchy as opposed to the democratic and horizontal form promoted by the anarchist left. I don’t think that this is the same thing as creating small states, but it is similar. Anocracies are like other types of state in one way: what is important is the details, not the form. It’s easy to see how exploitation could flourish in an anocratic system, but that doesn’t mean every anocracy must be exploitative. We could describe imagined hunter-gatherer tribes as anocratic groups, based on force and family ties but lacking political systems and social divisions, without throwing out the idea that it could be a healthy and egalitarian way to live.

Communism

Hopefully, I have made my case well enough that you will agree with me when I say that communism is not a form of government, it is best seen a theory and perhaps a rationale. At the very least, this will hold up with the rest of my argument. I want to devote a little space here to just parse out how communism relates to this framework. Being as definite as I have been with the previous pseudo-forms is difficult now because communism has never actually achieved communism. As far as I know, no state with a communist ideology has ever declared “We’re finished, we got 100% communism.” So when we say “this is what a communist state is”, we’re conflating two different ideas: the ideal version and the version we’ve seen so far.

Complicating this further, the “real version” of communism is distorted by decades of misinformation between the liberal and the communist worlds. It’s very difficult for me to know exactly how the PRC government interacts with its people — how accessible party membership and advancement is, etc — because I’m not an expert in studying China. I have a similar problem with the USSR and other communist regimes. I don’t completely trust the sources of information that I have and I’m not well-versed enough to find one that’s trustworthy.

Because of these limits, what I’m going to do is to lay out three different definitions to match the different conceptions of what a communist state is. Like the definitions above, these should be considered as broad types, not boxes that existing governments must or do fit neatly into.

I want to make a final note. Democracy, as a source of authority, is shared by ideal communism and it can be the source of authority for any conception of state communism as well. If your idea of democracy is “the rule of the people”, communism is not counter to that. Its ideal concept could even be described as a radical democracy (as commonly understood, i.e. the pseudo-form). What people believe they are supporting when they say “democracy is better than communism” is not democracy but liberalism, or at least anti-collectivism. This distinction is important because inasmuch as definitions matter to people, democracy as in “rule of the people” is worth fighting for while liberalism as in “the individual is the most important” is not quite as compelling.

Concluding Statement

The examples and links in this article were chosen in order to stretch the common concept of governmental forms. Some terms like “republic”, “democracy”, and “monarchy” tend to give us a positive reaction, while “autocracy”, “oligarchy”, and “people’s” are coded negatively. In some cases, the fit between term and example will not be perfect. That’s the idea. All I wanted to do was have examples meet the most stripped-down definition so that it would be obvious just how stretchable they are. Instead of viewing forms of government through the lens of what governments say about themselves or through our own pre-conceived ideas concerning their results, we should analyze how a government operates in a mechanistic way. That’s the best way to find out about the true nature of a government and state.

My goal with this piece is two-fold: first, to lay out these conflicting and overlapping “forms” in a way that they can be more directly compared; second, to show that there is less fundamental difference between “forms” than we typically believe. Each of the basic forms that I defined at the start — despotism, republic, and anarchy — means that there is a different fundamental interaction between the ruler and the state. In despotism, the ruler has to basically guess what the state wants, or what the state will bear. In a republic, the state tells the ruler what they want done. In anarchy, each member of the state makes their own decision. Understanding this is an aid to understanding what the state really is.

The basic form and the source of authority of a state show, on a very fundamental level, what the ruler & government are bound to do. If a state is a democratic republic (republic according to the rigid definition from the open, i.e. any government where the ruler is elected (or selected) by constituents), the ruler has to obey the will of the members of the state as a group. If it is a plutocratic republic, the ruler is motivated only through the spending of wealth, which is controlled by persons or institutions.

In reality, political distinctions are never quite so clear as I’m illustrating here. Don’t think of them as divisions, think of them as descriptions of possibilities. The sources of authority aren’t categories, they’re elaborations of the universal motivating drives for people. Ideally, people want to make their own choices; this is democracy-as-authority. If they aren’t making their own decisions, they are either being bribed to choose one way or they are being forced to do so. The first is plutocracy, the second is kratocracy. This doesn’t mean that money is unimportant to a democracy, but instead that a democratic government is not responsible to the sources of wealth, it is responsible to the members of the state.

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