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Oligarchy (from Greek ὀλιγαρχία (oligarkhía); from ὀλίγος (olígos), meaning "few", and ἄρχω (arkho), meaning "to rule or to command")[1][2][3] is a form of power structure in which power effectively rests with a small number of people. These people could be distinguished by royalty, wealth, family ties, education, corporate, or military control. Such states are often controlled by a few prominent families who typically pass their influence from one generation to the next, but inheritance is not a necessary condition for the application of this term.

Throughout history, oligarchies have been tyrannical (relying on public obedience and/or oppression to exist) or relatively benign. Aristotle pioneered the use of the term as a synonym for rule by the rich,[4] for which the exact term is plutocracy. However, oligarchy is not always a rule by wealth, as oligarchs can simply be a privileged group, and do not have to be connected by bloodlines as in a monarchy.


Athenian techniques to prevent the rise of oligarchy

Especially during the fourth century BC, after the restoration of democracy from oligarchical coups, the Athenians used the drawing of lots for selecting government officers in order to counteract what the Athenians acutely saw as a tendency toward oligarchy in government if a professional governing class were allowed to use their skills for their own benefit.[5] They drew lots from large groups of adult volunteers as a selection technique for civil servants performing judicial, executive, and administrative functions (archai, boulē, and hēliastai).[6] They even used lots for very important posts, such as judges and jurors in the political courts (nomothetai), which had the power to overrule the Assembly.[7]


Forms of government and other political structures associated with oligarchy can include aristocracy, meritocracy, military junta, plutocracy, stratocracy, technocracy, theocracy and timocracy.

Corporate oligarchy[edit]

Corporate oligarchy is a form of power, governmental or operational, where such power effectively rests with a small, elite group of inside individuals, sometimes from a small group of educational institutions, or influential economic entities or devices, such as banks, commercial entities, lobbyists that act in complicity with, or at the whim of the oligarchy, often with little or no regard for constitutionally protected prerogative. Monopolies are sometimes granted to state-controlled entities, such as the Royal Charter granted to the East India Company. Today's multinational corporations function as corporate oligarchies with influence over democratically elected officials.

Political theory[edit]

Robert Michels believed that any political system eventually evolves into an oligarchy. He called this the iron law of oligarchy. According to this school of thought, many modern democracies should be considered as oligarchies. In these systems, actual differences between viable political rivals are small, the oligarchic elite impose strict limits on what constitutes an acceptable and respectable political position, and politicians' careers depend heavily on unelected economic and media elites. Thus the popular phrase: there is only one political party, the incumbent party.[citation needed] and that is the end.

Specific examples[edit]


Currently, the central authority of the Chinese government is concentrated in the Politburo Standing Committee, which is composed of 7-members, of the Communist Party of China headed by the General Secretary of the Central Committee.[8] China's powers have been distributed from the office of General Secretary of the Communist Party and shared with the Politburo Standing Committee.

Russian Federation[edit]

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union on 31 December 1991, privately owned Russia-based multinational corporations, including producers of petroleum, natural gas, and metal have, in the view of some analysts, become oligarchs. In May 2004, the Russian edition of Forbes identified 36 of these oligarchs as being worth at least $1 billion each.[9]

South Africa[edit]

A modern example of oligarchy could be seen in South Africa during much of the twentieth century. Here, the basic characteristics of oligarchy are particularly easy to observe, since the South African form of oligarchy was based on an oligos (few) clearly defined by race. After the Second Boer War, a tacit agreement or understanding was reached between English- and Afrikaans-speaking whites. Together, they made up about twenty percent of the population, but this small percentage ruled the vast non-white and mixed-race population. Whites had access to virtually all the educational and trade opportunities, and they proceeded to deny this to the black majority even further than before.

Although this process had been going on since the mid-17th to 18th century, after 1948 it became official Afrikaner National Party government policy and became known worldwide as apartheid. This lasted until the arrival of majority rule in South Africa in 1994, punctuated by the transition to a democratically-elected government dominated by the black majority.

United States[edit]

Some contemporary authors have characterized current conditions in the United States as being oligarchic in nature.[10][11] Simon Johnson wrote that "the reemergence of an American financial oligarchy is quite recent," a structure which he delineated as being the "most advanced" in the world.[12] Jeffrey A. Winters argues that "oligarchy and democracy operate within a single system, and American politics is a daily display of their interplay."[13] Bernie Sanders (I-VT) opined in a 2010 The Nation article that an "upper-crust of extremely wealthy families are hell-bent on destroying the democratic vision of a strong middle-class which has made the United States the envy of the world. In its place they are determined to create an oligarchy in which a small number of families control the economic and political life of our country."[14]

United States political and finance industry leadership has recently been dominated by people associated with Harvard and Yale.[15] All nine members of the current Supreme Court attended Harvard or Yale law schools. The last member appointed to the court who was not a former student at one of those two institutions was Sandra Day O'Connor, appointed by the newly elected President Ronald Reagan in 1981.[16] Reagan was also the last United States president who did not attend either Harvard or Yale.[17]

A study that analyzes whether the US is a democracy, rather than an oligarchy, found the majority of the American public has a “minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy” compared to the wealthy. The researchers measured key variables for 1,779 policy issues within a single statistical model in an unprecedented attempt “to test these contrasting theoretical predictions” – i.e. whether the US sets policy democratically or the process is dominated by economic elites, or some combination of both. "Despite the seemingly strong empirical support in previous studies for theories of majoritarian democracy, our analyses suggest that majorities of the American public actually have little influence over the policies our government adopts,” the researchers from Princeton University and Northwestern University wrote.[18]

In fiction[edit]

A well-known fictional oligarchy is represented by the Party in George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. The socialists in the Jack London novel The Iron Heel fight a rebellion against the oligarchy ruling in the United States. In the Ender's Quartet, by Orson Scott Card - specifically Xenocide, Speaker for the Dead, and Children of The Mind - there is an Oligarchy of the Starways Congress which rules by controlling communication by the Ansible. The nation Panem, controlled by its Capitol, in The Hunger Games trilogy is also a form of oligarchy, as is the nation of Tear (ruled by a group of High Lords, until the appointment of High Lord Darlin as King of Tear) in Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time.


Prolific authors on the subject of oligarchy include Vilfredo Pareto, Gaetano Mosca, Thomas R. Dye, Robert Michels, Jeffrey A. Winters and Plato.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "ὀλίγος", Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus Digital Library
  2. ^ "ἄρχω", Liddell/Scott.
  3. ^ "ὀλιγαρχία". Liddell/Scott.
  4. ^ Winters (2011) p.37
  5. ^ M.H. Hansen, The Athenian Democracy in the Age of Demosthenes 97, 308, et al. (Oxford, 1991)
  6. ^ Bernard Manin. Principles of Representative Government. p. 11-24 (1997).
  7. ^ Manin (1997), p. 19-23.
  8. ^ "New Politburo Standing Committee decided: Mingjing News". Want China Times. 18 October 2012. Retrieved 2 January 2013.
  9. ^ http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/60263/marshall-i-goldman/putin-and-the-oligarchs, Putin and the Oligarchs, Foreign Affairs. November/December 2004
  10. ^ Kroll, Andy (2010-12-02). "The New American Oligarchy". TomDispatch (Truthout). Retrieved 2012-08-17. 
  11. ^ America on the Brink of Oligarchy August 24, 2012 The New Republic
  12. ^ Johnson, Simon (May 2009). "The Quiet Coup". The Atlantic. Retrieved 2012-08-17. 
  13. ^ Winters, Jeffrey A. (November/December 2011) [28 Sep 2011]. "Oligarchy and Democracy". The American Interest 7 (2). Retrieved 2012-08-17. 
  14. ^ Sanders, Bernie (2010-07-22). "No To Oligarchy". The Nation. Retrieved 2012-08-18. 
  15. ^ Gordon, D. (June 1, 2009) "Hiring Law Professors: Breaking the Back of an American Plutocratic Oligarchy" Widener Law Journal 19 (2010) pp. 1-29, at pp. 18-21.
  16. ^ United States Supreme Court (2010) "Biographies of Current Justices of the Supreme Court" supremecourt.gov
  17. ^ Success Degrees Publishing (2011) "Where Did All The American Presidents Go To College?" successdegrees.com
  18. ^ Oligarchy, not democracy: Americans have ‘near-zero’ input on policy – report. RT, April 15, 2014.
  • Ostwald, M. Oligarchia: The Development of a Constitutional Form in Ancient Greece (Historia Einzelschirften; 144). Stuttgart: Steiner, 2000 (ISBN 3-515-07680-8).
  • Winters, Jeffrey Alan (2011-04-18). Oligarchy. Northwestern University, Illinois: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-1107005280. 

Further reading[edit]

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