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Title: Oligarchy  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
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Subject: Government, Authoritarianism, Empire, Sparta, Autocracy
Collection: Authoritarianism, Corruption, Economic Problems, Forms of Government, Oligarchy, Political Corruption, Political Culture, Political Philosophy
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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, religious 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 often been tyrannical (relying on public obedience and/or oppression to exist) though others have been seen as 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 rule by the wealthy, as oligarchs can simply be a privileged group, and do not have to be connected by either wealth or by bloodlines - as in a monarchy.


  • History 1
  • Specific examples 2
    • Russian Federation 2.1
    • United States 2.2
    • In fiction 2.3
  • See also 3
  • References 4
  • Further reading 5
  • External links 6


Especially during the fourth century BCE, 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]

Specific examples

Russian Federation

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, led to the rise of oligarchs. In May 2004, the Russian edition of Forbes identified 36 of these oligarchs as being worth at least US$1 billion each.[8] A report by Credit Suisse in 2013 states that: Russia has the highest level of wealth inequality in the world, apart from small Caribbean nations with resident billionaires. Worldwide, there is one billionaire for every US$170 billion in household wealth; Russia has one for every US$11 billion. Worldwide, billionaires collectively account for 1–2% of total household wealth; in Russia today 110 billionaires own 35% of all wealth.[9]

United States

Some contemporary authors have characterized current conditions in the United States as 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 wrote 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] The top 1% in 2007 had a larger share of total income than at any time since 1928.[15] In 2011, according to PolitiFact and others, the top 400 wealthiest Americans "have more wealth than half of all Americans combined."[16][17][18][19]

French economist Thomas Piketty states in his 2013 book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, that "the risk of a drift towards oligarchy is real and gives little reason for optimism about where the United States is headed."[20]

A study conducted by political scientists Martin Gilens of Princeton University, and Benjamin Page of Northwestern University, was released in April 2014,[21] which stated that their "analyses suggest that majorities of the American public actually have little influence over the policies our government adopts." It also suggested that "Americans do enjoy many features central to democratic governance, such as regular elections, freedom of speech and association, and a widespread (if still contested) franchise." Gilens and Page do not characterize the US as an "oligarchy" per se; however, they do apply the concept of "civil oligarchy" as used by Winters with respect to the US.
Most recently, Jeffrey Winters has posited a comparative theory of "oligarchy" in which the wealthiest citizens – even in a "civil oligarchy" like the United States – dominate policy concerning crucial issues of wealth- and income-protection.[22]

Gilens says that average citizens only get what they want if economic elites or interest groups also want it; that is, economic elites and interest groups are influential.[23]

In fiction

A well-known fictional oligarchy is represented by the 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 Speaker for the Dead, Xenocide, 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.

See also


  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. ^ Hansen, Mogens Herman (1991). The Athenian Democracy in the Age of Demosthenes. Oxford: Blackwell. ISBN 978-0631180173. OCLC 22809482
  6. ^ Bernard Manin. Principles of Representative Government. pp. 11-24 (1997).
  7. ^ Manin (1997), pp. 19-23.
  8. ^ Putin and the Oligarchs, Foreign Affairs. November/December 2004
  9. ^ [1] Credit Suisse, p October 2013 page 53
  10. ^ Kroll, Andy (2 December 2010). "The New American Oligarchy". TomDispatch ( 
  11. ^ America on the Brink of Oligarchy 24 August 2012 The New Republic
  12. ^  
  13. ^ Winters, Jeffrey A. (November–December 2011) [28 September 2011]. "Oligarchy and Democracy". The American Interest 7 (2). Retrieved 17 August 2012. 
  14. ^ Sanders, Bernie (22 July 2010). "No To Oligarchy". The Nation. Retrieved 18 August 2012. 
  15. ^ "Tax Data Show Richest 1 Percent Took a Hit in 2008, But Income Remained Highly Concentrated at the Top. Recent Gains of Bottom 90 Percent Wiped Out". Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. 25 May 2011. Retrieved 30 May 2014. 
  16. ^ Kertscher, Tom; Borowski, Greg (10 March 2011). - Michael Moore says 400 Americans have more wealth than half of all Americans combined"True"The Truth-O-Meter Says: .  
  17. ^  
  18. ^  
  19. ^ Pepitone, Julianne (22 September 2010). "Forbes 400: The super-rich get richer".  
  20. ^ Piketty, Thomas (2014). Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Belknap Press. ISBN 067443000X p. 514
  21. ^ Gilens, Martin; Page, Benjamin (9 April 2016). "Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens". p. 6. 
  22. ^ Gilens & Page (2014) p. 6
  23. ^ Prokop, A. (18 April 2014) "The new study about oligarchy that's blowing up the Internet, explained" Vox

Further reading

  • Aslund, Anders (2005), "Comparative Oligarchy: Russia, Ukraine and the United States", CASE Network Studies and Analyses No. 296 (PDF),  
  • Gordon, Daniel (2010). "Hiring Law Professors: Breaking the Back of an American Plutocratic Oligarchy". Widener Law Journal (Harrisburg, PA:  
  • Hollingsworth, Mark; Lansley, Stewart (12 August 2010). Londongrad: From Russia with Cash: The Inside Story of the Oligarchs. Fourth Estate.  
  • J. M. Moore, ed. (1986). Aristotle and Xenophon on democracy and oligarchy.  
  • Ostwald, M. Oligarchia: The Development of a Constitutional Form in Ancient Greece (Historia Einzelschirften; 144). Stuttgart: Steiner, 2000 (ISBN 3-515-07680-8).
  • Ramseyer, J. Mark; Rosenbluth, Frances McCall (28 March 1998). The Politics of Oligarchy: Institutional Choice in Imperial Japan. Cambridge University Press.  
  • Tabachnick, David; Koivukoski, Toivu (20 January 2012). On Oligarchy: Ancient Lessons for Global Politics. University of Toronto Press.  
  • Whibley, Leonard (1896). Greek oligarchies, their character and organisations. G. P. Putnam's Sons. Retrieved 18 August 2012. 

External links

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