The term authoritarianism refers to a type of social structure characterized by unquestioning obedience to authority. Used in the social sciences, this concept is particular to disciplines and fields such as international relations, history, political science, psychology, media and communication studies, sociology, and pedagogy. It may refer to a state, government, or social system; to a type of personality; to a theory of mass communication; or to a type of leadership of a group or organization. As it relates to surveillance, security, and privacy, authoritarian governments and regimes often utilize various surveillance tactics to maintain authoritarian control of their citizens. This entry first takes a brief look at how authoritarianism relates to various disciplines, followed by an in-depth examination of authoritarianism as a type of government. Actions that authoritarian states and regimes take with regard to surveillance, security, and privacy are further investigated, with examples from some current authoritarian governments.

Relation to Various Disciplines

In psychology, authoritarianism defines an individual’s tendency toward being antidemocratic, autocratic, and prejudiced. The “authoritarian personality” concept was developed in the 1950s by Theodor Adorno to explain the interwar rise of fascism in Europe. Such a personality type has several characteristic patterns of thought: It adheres to conventional values; obeys unquestionably an idealized authority; tends to condemn, reject, or punish those who (may) question authority and (may) disregard normative values; and is stereotypical. In the 1980s and 1990s, Bob Altemeyer developed the concept of right-wing authoritarianism, which is defined as a set of attitudes rather than a personality type.

The Authoritarian State and Its Classification

Most commonly, however, authoritarianism is a term that refers to a type of government. Next to autocracy, totalitarianism, despotism, dictatorship, absolutism, or theocracy, authoritarianism is a type of nondemocratic political regime characterized by obedience to authority. There is no universally accepted taxonomy of authoritarian regimes, and over the years many typologies have been proposed and many criteria used for such classifications. For instance, according to the level of control over different aspects of society, ideal and less ideal—or hard and soft, respectively—authoritarian regimes were identified. The degree of competitiveness differentiates between competitive and electoral authoritarian regimes. The methods used by authority to come to power point to inherited and acquired authoritarian governments, while the characteristics of the economy identify closed authoritarianism (in the case of a centrally planned economy) and open or capitalist authoritarianism (when market economy is in place). Authoritarian monarchy or authoritarian democracy may be recognized when the type of political regime is considered.

Some scholars distinguish between authoritarianism and totalitarianism or between authoritarianism and dictatorship, but others argue that totalitarianism and dictatorship are forms of authoritarian rule. Some argue that terms such as fascism, Nazism, communism, and totalitarianism are subsumed to authoritarianism, but others consider that there is a considerable distinction between Italian fascism and German Nazism, between fascism and communism, and between military authoritarian regimes and fascism. According to Juan Linz, for instance, there are several types of authoritarian regimes: bureaucratic-military, corporatist, mobilizing, postcolonial, racial (or ethnic), pretotalitarian, posttotalitarian, and sultanism. Stephen Levitsky, Luca A. Way, Andreas Schedler, and Larry Diamond operate with the so-called hybrid political regime, which is placed between democracy and “ideal” authoritarian states, using in their analyses the concepts of competitive authoritarianism and electoral authoritarianism. Barbara Geddes advances yet another typology, differentiating the nondemocratic regimes in personalist, military, single-party, and hybrid regimes, the latter incorporating characteristics of the first three.

However, these are characteristics of an “ideal” type of authoritarianism, while in practice much variation and overlap may be found. Less ideal authoritarian states may admit a certain degree of individual and civil society freedom, may organize and conduct free elections, and may admit the existence of democratic institutions that the contenders for authority may use to take over political power. Eastern Europe during the Cold War, Burma (1962–2011), Turkey (1923–1946), South Africa (1948–1994), Libya under Muammar Gaddafi, and Spain under Francisco Franco are examples of historically authoritarian states. Cuba under Fidel and Raúl Castro, Syria under Hafez and Bashar al-Assad, China under the Chinese Communist Party, Belarus under Alexander Lucashenko, and Russia under Vladimir Putin are examples of contemporary authoritarian regimes.

Surveillance, Security, and Privacy in the Authoritarian State

The differences that exist among authoritarian regimes make impossible any generalization with regard to the problem of surveillance, security, and privacy in such states. However, an authoritarian state often engages in regular surveillance of the civil population, at times identifying specific target groups for more attention. These groups are considered subversive—a threat to the power position of the ruling elite, to the social order in general, or to the regime’s conservative normative values. They may be identified according to criteria related to age, profession, (presumed) political or religious beliefs, level of education, sexual orientation, ethnicity, race, or gender.

Video, audio, or digital surveillance technologies may be employed together with the use of clandestine stakeouts, spies, or informants. Surveillance techniques are employed not only in the public sphere (work, offices, restaurants) but also in the private lives of people, invading their homes. Today, digital surveillance technologies are used on a large scale by the world’s authoritarian regimes. Sometimes bought from Western (U.S., Canadian, or European) companies, such technologies are used to read emails and text messages, to filter and block online content, to listen in on mobile phone calls, to change email content en route to its recipient, to secretly turn on webcams and microphones built into personal laptops and mobile phones, to obtain banking information, or to track a citizen’s movements using the Global Positioning System. Authoritarian governments around the world—such as those in Afghanistan, Bahrain, China, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Iran, Kenya, Kuwait, Lebanon, Malaysia, Nigeria, Egypt, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, South Korea, Singapore, Thailand, Turkey, Venezuela—rely on such technologies to limit their citizens’ civil rights.

Crowded and poor living and working conditions (when associated with the authoritarian state) make privacy more elusive and facilitate surveillance among neighbors, friends, colleagues, and family members who are encouraged or pressured by the security forces to spy on their relatives, colleagues, friends, and neighbors and to denunciate them to the authorities. Police permanently monitor the (potentially) threatening citizens, keeping files on their public and private lives and using them to enforce social and political control.

In the case of authoritarian states, surveillance of individuals may be arbitrary and abusive, not implemented in accordance with the rule of law. Security forces may employ surveillance tactics against the population with no legal reason, but sometimes they can simulate the legality of their surveillance, using different legal pretexts. Often politically driven, police surveillance of individuals may be legally mandated under formal suspicion or accusations of violation of criminal law. National legislation may also be modified to allow for a severe control over the population and to legitimize the limitation of its civil rights. Public security is often a priority of the authoritarian government, with public security policies placed in the hands of the police, the secret police, or even the military, and authoritarian regimes may use surveillance under the pretext of monitoring (possible) criminal activity that violates public security.

Homosexuality is also criminalized in many authoritarian or postauthoritarian regimes and is subject to surveillance by the authorities. For instance, same-sex consensual acts were incriminated by postwar Romanian law (1948–1989), and the police were monitoring such “criminals,” who were often punished with many years of imprisonment. The police were monitoring the gay person’s life and activities, and sometimes the secret police would arrest a (perceived or real) political opponent under a false accusation of being gay. As a legacy of its authoritarian past, postcommunist Romania maintained the antigay legislation until 1996, when consensual sexual acts between same-sex adults in private were legalized. The penal code, however, continued to criminalize public manifestations of homosexuality until its abolition in 2000. In the late 1990s, the Romanian police were still monitoring (and arresting) people who identified themselves in public as gay. Today, homosexuality is criminalized in countries with authoritarian rule, such as Libya, India, Iran, Kuwait, Lebanon, Zimbabwe, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Indonesia, and Russia.

An authoritarian regime uses surveillance to maximize its power and control over a society, but authoritarianism is not associated with a single type of surveillance. In practice, much variation and overlap may be found, depending on the many possible combinations of features that characteristize an authoritarian state.

Elena Dragomir

See also Adorno, Theodor W. ; Fascism ; Global Surveillance ; Police State ; Privacy ; Totalitarian Surveillance Societies

Further Readings

Adorno, Theodore, et al.The Authoritarian Personality. New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1950.

Altemeyer, Bob. The Authoritarian Specter. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996.

Baran, Stanley J. and Dennis K. Davis. Mass Communication Theory: Foundations, Ferment and Future (6th ed.). Boston, MA: Wadsworth, 2012.

Diamond, Larry. “Thinking About Hybrid Regimes.” Journal of Democracy, v.13/2 (2002).

Geddes, Barbara. Paradigms and Sand Castles: Theory Building and Research Design in Comparative Politics. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003.

Hier, Sean P. and Joshuah Greenberg. The Surveillance Studies Reader. Maidenhead, England: Open University Press, 2007.

Jagodzinski, Jan. Pedagogical Desires: Authority, Seduction, Transference, and the Question of Ethics. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2002.

Levitsky, Steven and Lucan A. Way. Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes After the Cold War. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Linz, Juan. Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2000.

Schedler, Andreas. “The Nested Game of Democratization by Elections.” International Political Science Review, v.23/1 (2002).

Siebert, Fred S., et al.Four Theories of the Press: The Authoritarian, Libertarian, Social Responsibility and Soviet Communist Concepts of What the Press Should Be and Do. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1956.

Whitley, Bernard and Mary Kite. The Psychology of Prejudice and Discrimination (2nd ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2010.