Oligarchy is a form of government in which political power effectively rests with a small, elite segment of society. The term was used by Aristotle to refer to despotic power exercised by a small and privileged group for often corrupt or selfish purposes. In most classic oligarchies, governing elites were recruited exclusively from a hereditary ruling caste, whose members tended to exercise power in the interests of their own class.
Oligarchies have sometimes been synonymous with aristocracies, which were ruled by members of a noble class, or with plutocracies, ruled by the wealthy members of a community. However, neither wealth nor noble birth are necessary conditions for belonging to the privileged group which rules an oligarchy. Historically, there have been organized oligarchies, and unofficial oligarchies in which a group of “advisers” dictated the policies of an official ruler. In practice, almost all governments, whatever their form, are run by a small minority of members of society, and it is necessary to further examine the ways in which these individuals acquire and retain power in order to correctly understand whether a system of government is a oligarchy.
Origins and Meaning
The word oligarchy (l´ gärk) is derived from the Greek words for “few” (ὀλίγον, óligon) and “rule” (ἄρχω, arkho). Oligarchy (oligarchia, “rule by the few”) refers to the limitation of political power to only a small portion of the community, such as a few families or individuals (the oligarchs). Ancient Greek oligarchs characteristically possessed greater wealth and influence than the rest of the community, but noble birth was not a necessary condition for belonging to the ruling elite. In Greece, the oligarchs were often a section of the old nobility which had excluded the poorer nobles from power. During the second half of the fifth century B.C.E., when Athenian ascendancy promoted democratic forms of government, there were still many oligarchic states in Greece, the most notable perhaps being at Corinth and at Thebes. The government of the Roman republic is often described as “oligarchical.”
The classical definition of oligarchy, as given, for example, by Aristotle, is governance by a few, usually the wealthy, for corrupt or selfish purposes. It is compared with both aristocracy, which is defined as government by a few chosen for their virtue and ruling for the general good, and various forms of democracy, or rule by the people. In practice, however, almost all governments, whatever their form, are run by a small minority of members of society. From this perspective, the major distinction between oligarchy and democracy is that in the latter, elites compete with each other, gaining power by winning public support. In evaluating an oligarchic system of government, the extent to which those attempting join the ruling elite are excluded is also significant.
Oligarchy, Aristocracy, and Plutocracy
Historically, oligarchies have sometimes been synonymous with aristocracies, which were ruled by members of a noble class, or with plutocracies, in which wealthy members of a community reigned supreme. However, neither wealth nor noble birth are necessary conditions for belonging to the privileged group which rules an oligarchy. Oligarchies were often controlled by powerful families, whose children were raised and mentored to be heirs of the power of the oligarchy. In some cases, oligarchs chose not to exercise political power openly, but to remain “the power behind the throne,” exerting control through economic or political pressure.
Aristotle used the term oligarchia in a negative sense to refer to a debased form of aristocracy, in which rule was in the hands of a few corrupt or inept individuals. In most classic oligarchies, governing elites were recruited exclusively from a ruling caste, a hereditary social grouping set apart from the rest of society by religion, kinship, economic status, prestige, or even language. Such elites tended to exercise power in the interests of their own class.
Oligarchy and Monarchy
Oligarchy means “the rule of the few;” monarchy means “the rule of the one.” Early societies became oligarchies as an outgrowth of an alliance between rival tribal chieftains, or as the result of a caste system. Oligarchies sometimes evolved into more autocratic or monarchist forms of government, if one family or tribe gained ascendancy over the others. Many of the European monarchies established during the late Middle Ages began in this way.
Monarchies sometimes function as oligarchies, when there is a powerful and influential group of “elder statesmen” or nobles who advise or even control the ruler. Examples of this were the imperial dynasties of China, in which the emperors were often dominated by eunuchs and members of the imperial family; the shogunate system in Japan; and the royal court in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century France, in which nobles and aristocrats competed for influence over the king. If a hereditary ruler was weak or too young to rule, his power was effectively usurped by those surrounding him.
Historically, oligarchies have sometimes become instruments of political transformation, by insisting that monarchs or dictators share power with other elements of society, or by demanding some form of organization or constitution to protect the stability of the government. One example occurred when British nobles banded together in 1215 to force a reluctant King John of England to sign the Magna Carta, a tacit recognition both of King John’s waning political power and of the existence of an incipient oligarchy (the nobility). The Magna Carta was repeatedly revised (1216, 1217, and 1225) to guarantee the rights of greater numbers of people, setting the stage for English constitutional monarchy. Another example is the Meiji Restoration (1868) in Japan, when a group of samurai forced the shogun to relinquish power to the hereditary emperor and established themselves as genro (elder statesmen) with the power to direct government affairs.
Examples of Oligarchies
Historical examples of oligarchies are Sparta (which excluded the Helots, who made up the majority of the population, from voting); the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (in which only the nobility could vote); the English parliamentary system and execution of Charles I in 1649; and the restriction of the franchise to male property owners in young democracies, such as the early United States. A modern example of oligarchy, based on race, could be seen during the twentieth century in South Africa in the apartheid system, which became official government policy in 1948 and lasted until the democratic election of a government dominated by the black majority in 1994.
Russia has been labeled an oligarchy because, after the fall of Communism, political power became concentrated in the hands of certain individuals who amassed great wealth by taking advantage of the new system.
The social system of capitalism is sometimes described as an oligarchy. Critics argue that in a capitalist society, economic, cultural, and political power rests in the hands of the capitalist class. Communist states are also perceived as oligarchies, ruled by a class with special privileges, the nomenklatura.
The “Iron Law of Oligarchy”
It is a recurrent theory that all forms of government are, in the final analysis, reducible to the rule of a few. Whether the formal authority is vested in the people, a monarch, the proletariat, or a dictator, inevitably a small group of oligarchs will secure effective control. Some authors such as Vilfredo Pareto, Gaetano Mosca, Thomas R. Dye, and Robert Michels, believe that any political system eventually evolves into an oligarchy.
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels held that, throughout the history of capitalism, the government had been controlled by key capitalists, and coined the phrase, “the state is the executive committee of the exploiting class.” The Italian political scientist Gaetano Mosca similarly held that a “ruling class” always constituted the effective oligarchic control. Vilfredo Pareto elaborated the idea in his doctrine of the “elite.”
The German sociologist Robert Michels devised the concept of the “Iron Law of Oligarchy” to refer to what he regarded as the inevitable tendency of political parties and trade unions to become bureaucratized, centralized, and conservative. He argued that in spite of the ideals of representative government, the practical demands of politics inevitably resulted in the concentration of authority in the hands of a small group who were able to direct power efficiently, and in the establishment of an organized bureaucracy and a rigorous order to control internal dissension.
According to this school of thought, modern democracies should be considered as elected oligarchies. In these systems, actual differences between viable political rivals are small, the oligarchic elite imposes strict limits on what constitutes an “acceptable” and “respectable” political position, and politicians’ careers depend heavily on unelected economic and media elites.
Subsequent theorists have attempted either to expand on Michel’s thesis by applying it to legislatures, religious orders, and other organizations. Critics insist that the “Iron Law of Oligarchy” is not universal and that some groups and political parties do maintain a viable system of democratic expression and governance.
Oligarchy and Democracy
Political scientists and sociologists are beginning to differentiate more carefully between various types of control and power. The type of power held by a democratic leader, while much greater than that of any single individual, is very different from the power wielded by a dictator in a totalitarian and authoritarian government. In a democracy, the ruling “oligarchy” can be effectively challenged by outsiders at any time, while an oligarchy in an authoritarian government protects its position by force if necessary, and retains power indefinitely. In a democracy, effective control changes hands so frequently that it is difficult to identify those in power as a “class” or an “elite.” In speaking of “rule by the few,” the expression “the few” is difficult to define.
In an actual democracy, oligarchic tendencies arise for several reasons, including a lack of active participation by many citizens. Only a small minority of those who are voting take the initiative to research the issues and learn about the candidates during an election, in order to make an informed choice. The majority of voters are vulnerable to the ideas propagated by expensive media campaigns. Few individual political candidates have the economic resources to purchase the advertising exposure required to capture public attention, with the result that they are often under obligation to special interest groups of various kinds.
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- Shaw, Christine. 2006. Popular government and oligarchy in Renaissance Italy. The medieval Mediterranean, v. 66. Leiden: Brill.
- Wertenbaker, Thomas Jefferson. 1947. The Puritan oligarchy; the founding of American civilization. New York: C. Scribner’s Sons.
Originally published by New World Encyclopedia, 12.19.2018, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.