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Autocracy vs. Oligarchy: What's the Difference?

Edited by Harlon Moss || By Janet White || Updated on November 14, 2023
Autocracy is a system where power is held by a single individual, while oligarchy is a form of government where power rests with a small, elite group of people.

Key Differences

Autocracy is a system of government where absolute power is concentrated in the hands of a single individual, often a dictator or monarch. Oligarchy, in contrast, is a form of power structure where power effectively rests with a small number of people, often distinguished by royalty, wealth, family ties, education, or corporate, religious, or military control.
In an autocracy, decisions are made unilaterally by the sole leader, with little or no input from a broader group. An oligarchy, however, involves decision-making among a small group, where the power dynamics can be more complex and involve negotiation or conflict among the ruling elite.
Autocracies are often characterized by authoritarian rule, where dissent is suppressed and political power is maintained by force or the threat of force. Oligarchies may allow for some level of pluralism, but the power remains firmly in the hands of the few, often unelected, elite.
The succession in an autocracy is typically hereditary or dictated by the incumbent leader, while in an oligarchy, power can be transferred within the elite group based on wealth, family, or other influential connections.
An autocratic regime often revolves around the cult of personality of the leader, whereas an oligarchy, while it may have prominent figures, relies more on the collective power and influence of its small ruling class.

Comparison Chart

Number of Rulers

One individual.
Small group of individuals.

Basis of Power

Personal authority of the ruler.
Wealth, family, or elite status.


Unilateral by the autocrat.
Collective among the elite.

Characteristic Features

Often involves suppression of dissent.
May allow some pluralism but remains exclusive.


Typically hereditary or chosen by the leader.
Based on internal elite dynamics.

Autocracy and Oligarchy Definitions


A system where one person makes all decisions.
The CEO ran the company as an autocracy.


A government ruled by a few powerful individuals.
The city-state was governed as an oligarchy.


A government with centralized and unlimited power.
Under autocracy, citizens had little freedom.


Power structure where a small group holds control.
The company was an oligarchy of senior executives.


Rule by an autocrat.
The nation's autocracy lasted for decades.


Rule by an elite or privileged group.
The oligarchy maintained its grip on power through wealth.


Government by a single person with absolute power.
The king's rule was an example of autocracy.


A form of power where a few families or groups lead.
The oligarchy consisted of a few influential families.


Absolute sovereignty held by an individual.
The autocracy was marked by the leader's strict control.


Minority rule over a majority.
The country's politics turned into an oligarchy.


Government by a single person having unlimited power; despotism.


Government by a few, especially by a small faction of persons or families.


A country or state that is governed by a single person with unlimited power.


Those making up such a government.


(uncountable) A form of government in which unlimited power is held by a single individual.


A state governed by a few persons.


(countable) An instance of this government.


A government run by only a few, often the wealthy.


Independent or self-derived power; absolute or controlling authority; supremacy.
The divine will moves, not by the external impulse or inclination of objects, but determines itself by an absolute autocracy.


Those who make up an oligarchic government.


Supreme, uncontrolled, unlimited authority, or right of governing in a single person, as of an autocrat.


A state ruled by such a government.


Political independence or absolute sovereignty (of a state); autonomy.


A form of government in which the supreme power is placed in the hands of a few persons; also, those who form the ruling few.
All oligarchies, wherein a few men domineer, do what they list.


The action of the vital principle, or of the instinctive powers, toward the preservation of the individual; also, the vital principle.


A political system governed by a few people


A political system governed by a single individual


A political theory favoring unlimited authority by a single individual


Are all monarchies autocracies?

Not all; constitutional monarchies share power with elected bodies.

Can autocracies be democratic?

No, autocracies are inherently undemocratic as power is centralized.

How do autocrats maintain power?

Through control of military, media, and suppression of opposition.

What is an example of an oligarchy?

Russia is often described as an oligarchy due to its power structure.

How does one become part of an oligarchy?

Through wealth, family connections, or institutional influence.

What is autocracy?

Autocracy is a government system where one person holds absolute power.

What is an example of autocracy?

North Korea's government is often cited as a modern autocracy.

Do oligarchies allow public participation?

Public participation is typically limited and controlled.

Can autocracy lead to abuses of power?

Yes, the lack of accountability in autocracies can lead to abuses.

What defines an oligarchy?

Oligarchy is a power structure where a small group holds control.

Are oligarchies stable forms of government?

Stability varies, but internal power struggles can occur.

Do autocracies suppress freedom of speech?

Typically, yes, to maintain control and suppress dissent.

Can oligarchies be democratic?

Oligarchies can coexist with democratic elements but often limit broad participation.

Do oligarchies have a legal framework?

They may have legal frameworks, but these often serve the elite's interests.

Can oligarchies be meritocratic?

Rarely, as power is usually based on wealth or status, not merit.

Do autocracies have a succession plan?

Succession can be unclear and often leads to power struggles.

Can autocracies have economic success?

Economic success is possible but often hinges on the ruler's policies.

What is the main criticism of oligarchies?

The concentration of power and lack of broad representation.

How do oligarchies impact social equality?

They often perpetuate inequality by favoring the elite.

Is autocracy efficient in decision-making?

It can be efficient but lacks checks and balances.
About Author
Written by
Janet White
Janet White has been an esteemed writer and blogger for Difference Wiki. Holding a Master's degree in Science and Medical Journalism from the prestigious Boston University, she has consistently demonstrated her expertise and passion for her field. When she's not immersed in her work, Janet relishes her time exercising, delving into a good book, and cherishing moments with friends and family.
Edited by
Harlon Moss
Harlon is a seasoned quality moderator and accomplished content writer for Difference Wiki. An alumnus of the prestigious University of California, he earned his degree in Computer Science. Leveraging his academic background, Harlon brings a meticulous and informed perspective to his work, ensuring content accuracy and excellence.

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