Ochlocracy (Greek: ὀχλοκρατία, okhlokratía; Latin: ochlocratia) panic or mob rule is the rule of government by mob or a mass of people, or, the intimidation of legitimate authorities. As a pejorative for majoritarianism, it is akin to the Latin phrase mobile vulgus meaning "the fickle crowd", from which the English term "mob" originally was derived in the 1680s.

Ochlocracy is synonymous in meaning and usage to the modern, informal term "mobocracy", which arose in the 18th century as a colloquial neologism.

Ochlocracy, or Mob Rule, is often incorrectly equated with Tyranny of the Majority, but differs because Ochlocracy involves illegal action and does not necessitate a majority.


Polybius (second century BCE) appears to have coined the term in his Histories (6.4.6).[1] 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 (meaning "rule, power, strength").

Ancient Greek political thinkers regarded ochlocracy 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). They distinguished "good" and "bad" according to whether the government form would act in the interest of the whole community ("good") or in the exclusive interests of a group or individual at the expense of justice ("bad").

This (Polybian) terminology for forms of state in ancient Greek philosophy has become customary. It should be noted, however, that Aristotle termed democracy as "polity" (sometimes translated as "republic", which confusingly is used by other Aristotle-translators for "aristocracy", instead) while giving the name of "democracy" to ochlocracy.

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

The threat of "mob rule" to a democracy is restrained by ensuring that the rule of law protects minorities or individuals against short-term demagoguery or moral panic. Although considering how laws in a democracy are established or repealed by the majority, the protection of minorities by rule of law is questionable.


Anarchism, meaning "without rulers", is a term covering various anti-authoritarian philosophies and movements, generally viewing themselves as communist or socialist, which are dedicated to the replacement of states and/or governments (either capitalist governments or all governments) by various suggested alternatives such as autonomous self-realizing direct-democratic structures. Anarchists reject the criticism that anarchism is inherently ochlocratic as a mischaracterization of anarchism, arguing that it includes theories of structure and mutual support rooted in direct democracy and free association.

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. Lapses in this control often led to loss of official power (and often enough, the heads of the 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 historian 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 footguards, 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...[2]

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 colonial Massachusetts during the 1690s, in which the unified belief of the townspeople overpowered the logic of the law, also has 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

The modern theories of civil disobedience and satyagraha may be differentiated from "mob rule" and its mechanics, as these approaches forgo the use of violence and force that the mob of ancient times employed.

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 conceivably could 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 its laws.[5] Police forces around the world now have become adept at making such gatherings irrelevant, however, 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 making them easily ignored. Permitting requirements in many jurisdictions effectively make demonstrations without advance police permission illegal. Various efforts to increase communal intelligence and mobility of demonstrators, using cell phone networks and bicycles have been employed to circumvent crowd control and marginalizing techniques. 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 also is 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 dissolution of that state are situations where it is possible that it was the mob that won the day, due to defections by authority.[5] The use of political pressure put on by a large amassed group of people also was demonstrated frequently in the Arab Spring, which contributed to swift political change in countries such as Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya.

See also

Wikiquote has quotations related to: Ochlocracy
Look up ochlocracy in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.


  1. "Polybius, Histories, The Rotation of Polities". www.perseus.tufts.edu. Retrieved 2008-03-29.
  2. Gibbon, Edward (1862). The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. 1 (Sir William Smith ed.). pp. 228–229.
  3. Mob Rule and Violence in American Culture
  4. "Opposition to Mob-Rule", The Writings of Abraham Lincoln, Volume 1.
  5. 1 2 From Dictatorship to Democracy by Gene Sharp
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