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Ochlocracy (Greek: οχλοκρατία or okhlokratía; Latin: ochlocratia) is government by mob or a mass of people, or the intimidation of constitutional authorities. In English, the word mobocracy is sometimes used as a synonym. As a pejorative for majoritarianism, it is akin to the Latin phrase mobile vulgus meaning "the fickle crowd", from which the term "mob" originally derives.[1]

As a term in civics it implies that there is no formal authority whatsoever, not even a commonly accepted view of anarchism,[citation needed] and so disputes are raised, contended and closed by brute forcemight makes right, but only in a very local and temporary way, as another mob or another mood might just as easily sway a decision. It is often associated with demagoguery and the rule of passion over reason. It may be considered an ad hoc democracy.[citation needed]



The term appears to have been coined by Polybius in his Histories (6.4.6).[2] He uses it to name the 'pathological' version of popular rule in opposition to the good version, which he refers to as democracy. There are numerous mentions of the word "ochlos" in the Talmud (where "ochlos" refers to anything from "mob," "populace" to "armed guard"), as well as in Rashi, a Jewish commentary on the Bible. The word is recorded in English since 1584, derived from the French ochlocratie (1568), which stems from the original Greek okhlokratia, from okhlos "mob" and kratos "rule, power, strength"

In ancient Greek political thought ochlocracy was considered as one of the three "bad" forms of government (tyranny, oligarchy and ochlocracy) as opposed to the three "good" forms of government (monarchy, aristocracy and democracy). The distinction between "good" and "bad" was made according to whether the government form would act in the interest of the whole community ("good") or special interests ("bad").

An ochlocrat is one who is an advocate or partisan of ochlocracy. It can also be used as an adjective (ochlocratic or ochlocratical).

Whether or not the decisions enforced by a mob are good or bad is another matter entirely. The threat of mob rule (like the term tyranny of the majority) is often invoked -often rhetorically- against a democracy by those who oppose its majoritary decisions, sometimes fearing oppression of the needs or freedoms of minorities if democratic government is not efficiently restrained by protections given to individuals under the rule of law, sometimes concerned that demagogery may manipulate the mob and force popular currents of thought onto minority groups without respect for their or the individual's rights. There are also some who wish to see more power assigned to a certain ruling minority.

A mob, however massive, and regardless of claims to speak for 'the people', may or may not be representative of the (often silent) majority in a large society (which usually practices indirect democracy). It may be composed of a specific segment of the population interested in a specific issue, and drawn from a limited geographical space or it may be a representative popular majority.[citation needed]

Mobs in history

Historians often comment on mob rule as a factor in the rise of Rome and its maintenance, as the city of Rome itself was large—between 100,000 and 250,000 citizens—while the aristocracy and even military was very small by comparison to the citizenry. With weapons also being crude, the military force did not exist that could have dealt with a revolt from the larger populace. There was a constant need to keep people fed, distracted, and in awe of the power of the state. Those who could do this, ruled not only Rome, but the whole of the Roman Empire.

Lapses in this control often led to loss of power, or even the loss of heads, of officials—most notably in the reign of Commodus when Cleander unwisely used the Praetorian Guard against a mob which had come to call for his head. As Edward Gibbon relates it,

The people... demanded with angry clamors the head of the public enemy. Cleander, who commanded the Praetorian Guards, ordered a body of cavalry to sally forth and disperse the seditious multitude. The multitude fled with precipitation towards the city; several were slain, and many more were trampled to death; but when the cavalry entered the streets their pursuit was checked by a shower of stones and darts from the roofs and windows of the houses. The foot guards, who had long been jealous of the prerogatives and insolence of the Praetorian cavalry, embraced the party of the people. The tumult became a regular engagement and threatened a general massacre. The Praetorians at length gave way, oppressed with numbers; and the tide of popular fury returned with redoubled violence against the gates of the palace, where Commodus lay dissolved in luxury and alone unconscious of the civil war... Commodus started from his dream of pleasure and commanded that the head of Cleander should be thrown out to the people. The desired spectacle instantly appeased the tumult...

This followed a previous incident in which the legions of Britain had demanded and received the death of Perennis, the prior administrator. The mob thus realized that it had every chance of success.

The Salem Witch Trials, in which the unified belief of the townspeople overpowered the logic of the law, has also been cited as an example of mob rule.[3] In 1837, Abraham Lincoln wrote about lynching and "the increasing disregard for law which pervades the country--the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions in lieu of the sober judgment of courts, and the worse than savage mobs for the executive ministers of justice."[4]

"Mobs" used to affect policy

One of the characteristics of a free and open society is that its people retain the right to peaceably assemble and to petition their government for the redress of grievances.

During the French Revolution, the mobs in Paris played a similar function, but were more carefully manipulated by political leaders who sensed that they had the power to dispose of monarchy entirely, as they did, eventually setting up a representative democracy (which in turn fell to Napoleon's model of semi-constitutional monarchy).[citation needed]

The modern theories of civil disobedience and satyagraha do not bear resemblance to "mob rule" and its mechanics, as the purpose of such acts is to demonstrate that a part of the people will not comply with and will openly defy tyrannical and usurpatious laws or governments while forgoing the use of the violence and force that the mob of ancient times employed. Instead, the object of these non-violent techniques is to provide a moral choice to those with the power to use force, to either admit to the injustice of the law or the government, to allow the law or the government to be defied, or to use force and violence against the demonstrators in an effort to force the will of the state upon those who peacefully yet defiantly refuse to comply with unjust laws or governments.

Traditional non-violent protest theory holds that if the demonstrators are restrained and do not do any violence, yet refuse to back down, then they automatically win, as they either will be joined by the forces they face, be allowed to defy the law or government openly and peacefully, or be physically attacked, struck down, and made into powerful moral symbols of the lengths to which the agents of the state will go to enforce usurpatious and tyrannical laws or governmental powers, however, police forces around the world have become adept at making such gatherings irrelevant by limiting them to areas, in some cases dubbed "free speech zones," sufficiently separate from the object of their discontent, the rest of the public, and the media, to make them easily ignored. Permitting requirements in many jurisdictions effectively make demonstrations without advance police permission illegal. Various efforts to increase demonstrators communal intelligence and mobility using cell phone networks and bicycles have been employed to circumvent crowd control and marginalizing techniques with speed. Flash mobs and Critical Mass style "bike block" actions are examples experimented with, with mixed results, notably during the 2004 Republican National Convention.

Modern theory concludes that since Roman guards, facing crucifixion for disobedience, could be swayed by mobs, it is also possible to sway modern police, even in a police state. The 1986 EDSA Revolution in the Philippines, the Velvet Revolution in former Czechoslovakia, and the resistance to the attempted military coup in the Soviet Union in 1991 that led to the collapse of that state, are situations where it is possible that it was the "mob" which won the day due to defections by authority.

Other mobs

The term "mob" is also sometimes used to describe organized crime. Since it is relatively simple for the criminal element to exploit public strife, for example by looting, or grabbing power by means of fraud, there is some resonance in that "mob rule" can be described as having power held by those people who exploit or create mobs by leading them into violence.

In certain places with a dubious record of representative democracy, physical control of polling stations is a form of mob rule that determines who wins: whoever can bring out more supporters to keep the opposing political party out, wins. Political privacy is very often nonexistent in this kind of condition, so retribution against defectors is easy.

See also


  • Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn (under pseudonym Francis Stuart Campbell), The Menace of the Herd, The Bruce Publishing Company, Milwaukee, 1943. (Note where the term "ochlocracy" is used throughout the book.)
  • Chana Shaffer, outline of presentation on ochlacracies for political science society in Touro College. Available on the Touro website
  • EtymologyOnLine


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

Ochlocracy (Greek: οχλοκρατια; Latin: ochlocratia) is government by mob or a disorganized mass of people. Ochlocracy is also used as a pejorative term for democracy and more specifically, majoritarianism.


  • "...the other when the members of the oligarchy curry popularity with the mob (οχλον), as the Civic Guards at Larisa courted popularity with the mob (οχλον) because it elected them,..." Politics, Aristotle, trans. by H. Rackham, Loeb Classical Library, BkV v 5; 1305 b 25-30; Vol 264 pg 404-405.
  • "...and in putting no trust in the multitude (which is why they resort to the measure of stripping the people of arms, and why ill-treatment of the mob (οχλον) and its expulsion from the city and settlement in scattered places is common to both forms of government, both oligarchy and tyranny),..." Politics, Aristotle, trans. by H. Rackham, Loeb Classical Library, BkV viii 7; 1311a 10; Vol 264, pg 442-443.
  • "Ochlocratia, such a state, as in which the rude and rusticall people moderate all thinges after their own luste." Serm., J. Stockwood, C ij b. year: 1584. OED
  • "We will not carry on any further our picture of the ochlocracy, in which all social union was entirely dissolved, and the state surrendered to the arbitrary will of a turbelent populace". The History and Antiquities of the Doric Race, Karl Otfried Müller, 2nd ed. rev., John Murray, Albemarle Str. London, 1839. Vol II, pg 10.
  • "The commonest of the old charges against democracy was that it passed into ochlocracy." Amer. Commw., Bryce, III. v. xcv. 337. year: 1888. OED.
  • "Our motto must be: liberty, fraternity and inequality. Democracy must never degenerate into ochlocracy." Aristodemocracy, From the Great War back to Moses, Christ and Plato, An essay, Sir Charles Waldstein, Longmans, Green and Co., NY, 1917. pg 327.
  • "Ochlocracy, the dictatorship of the mob, is the goal toward which the development of the mass-democracy of Caesarism is leading." The Revolution of Nihilism, Hermann Rauschning, Alliance Book Corp., NY, 1939. pg 86.
  • "Yet the great impulse for our modern ochlocracy and democratism comes from France". The Menace of the Herd, 1943. pg 31
  • "This leads us to another ochlocratic problem: the bourgeois origin of ochlocracy in relation to an integral political and cultural egalitarianism". The Menace of the Herd, 1943. pg 56.
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