A Family of Political Concepts: Tyranny, Despotism, Bonapartism, Caesarism, Dictatorship, 1750-1917

It has been argued recently that tyranny is a persisting phenomenon very much alive today, a greater danger than newer forms of misrule such as totalitarianism. One argument is based on human nature being such that the temptation to abuse political power in the form of tyranny remains a possibility in all societies. Another defines tyranny as a spiritual disorder of the soul and polity. Both date the 19th century as the time when tyranny dropped out of the western political vocabulary. In this view, modern political thought, like political science generally, has been impoverished by ignorance of, or indifference to, the nature of tyranny. By contrast, I treat tyranny not as possessing an essential, unchanging nature, but as a contested political concept used for a variety of purposes by different regimes and groups. Nor do I agree that, because tyranny' was used infrequently during the 19th century, systematic abuses of political power went unnoticed and unclassified. I treat a number of cases by postulating a family of controversial and contested regime types: tyranny, despotism, absolute monarchy, Bonapartism, Caesarism, and dictatorship. From them I conclude that, after tyranny was conflated with despotism at the end of the 18th century, both concepts were redescribed in terms of newer classifications belonging to the same conceptual family. Because tyranny' was then extended to many non-political arenas, it became so trivialized as to leave no prospect of our retrieving its once potent political meanings. If tyranny' is equally applicable to teachers, husbands, fashions, or public opinion, the concept has lost its political cutting edge. It now lacks any distinctive meaning that might frame a situation and define it as calling for urgent and decisive action, especially in foreign policy.

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