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A form of political domination described by Max Weber (Economy and Society, 1920), in which authority rests on the personal and bureaucratic power exercised by a royal household, where that power is formally arbitrary and under the direct control of the ruler. This last criterion implies that domination is secured by means of a political apparatus staffed by slaves, mercenaries, conscripts, or some other group (not a traditional land-owning aristocracy) which has no independent power-base. By controlling the instruments of power in this way, the patrimonial ruler can extend personal grace and favours, at the expense of traditional limitations on the exercise of authority. Where an extreme development of the ruler's discretion has occurred then patrimonial authority shades into what Weber calls ‘sultanism’. He cites certain traditional African and Oriental societies as examples of patrimonial bureaucracies (the Chinese Empire is an obvious case), and suggests that these systems are relatively unstable, because they encourage palace revolts as the only means of voicing dissent. The absence of a ‘rational-legal’ state and bureaucracy also, in his view, acts as a significant hindrance to the development of modern (Western-type) capitalism.

Subjects: Social sciencesSociology

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