Oligarchy (ὀλιγαρχία (oligarkhía); ὀλίγος (olígos), few; ἄρχω (arkho), to rule or to command) is a form of power structure in which power rests with a small number of people or elite. These people might be distinguished by nobility, wealth, family ties, education or 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 or oppression to exist. Aristotle pioneered the use of the term as a synonym for rule by the rich, for which another term commonly used today is plutocracy.
- What about oligarchic cities? Don't you see beggars in them?
Almost everyone except the rulers is a beggar there.
Middle Ages and Renaissance
- If, on the other hand, unjust government is exercised, not by one man alone, but by several banded together in a clique, such a state of affairs is called an oligarchy or rule by the few. This can happen when a few rich men take advantage of their wealth to oppress the rest of the people; and such government differs from tyranny only in the fact that the oppressors are many.
- Thomas Aquinas, On Princely Government.
- There were a few human beings who gradually, through the process of invention and experiment, built and operated, first, local river and bay, next, along-shore, then off-shore rafts, dugouts, grass broats, and outrigger sailing canoes. Finally, they developed voluminous rib-bellied fishing vessels, and thereby ventured out to sea for progressively longer periods. Developing ever larger and more capable ships, the seafarers eventually were able to remain for months on the high seas. Thus, these venturers came to live normally at sea. This led them inevitably into world-around, swift, fortune - producing enterprise. Thus they became the first world men. The men who were able to establish themselves on the oceans had also to be extraordinarily effective with the sword upon both land and sea. They had also to have great anticipatory vision, great ship designing capability, and original scientific conceptioning, mathematical skill in navigation and exploration techniques for coping in fog, night, and storm with the invisible hazards of rocks, shoals, and currents. The great sea venturers had to be able to command all the people in their dry land realm order to commandeer the... skills necessary to produce their large, complex ships... There were very few of these top power men. But as they went on their sea ventures they gradually found that the waters interconnected all the world’s people and lands... these very few masters of the water world became incalculably rich and powerful.
- These hard, powerful, brilliantly resourceful sea masters had to sleep occasionally, and therefore found it necessary to surround themselves with super-loyal, muscular but dull-brained illiterates who could not see nor savvy their masters’ stratagems. There was great safety in the mental dullness of these henchmen. The Great Pirates realized that the only people who could possibly contrive to displace them were the truly bright people. For this reason their number-one strategy was secrecy. If the other powerful pirates did not know where you were going, nor when you had gone, nor when you were coming back, they would not know how to waylay you. If anyone knew when you were coming home, “small-tini-ers” could come out in small boats and waylay you in the dark and take you over-just before you got home tiredly after a two-year treasure ¬ harvesting voyage. Thus hijacking and second-rate piracy became a popular activity around the world’s shores and harbors. Thus secrecy became the essence of the lives of the successful pirates; ergo, how little is known today of that which I am relating. p. 20
- I hope we shall take warning from the example and crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of our country.
- The sponsor of an hour's television program is not buying merely the six minutes devoted to commercial message. He is determining, within broad limits, the sum total of the impact of the entire hour. If he always, invariably, reaches for the largest possible audience, then this process of insulation, of escape from reality, will continue to be massively financed, and its apologist will continue to make winsome speeches about giving the public what it wants, or "letting the public decide."
- Private capital tends to become concentrated in few hands, partly because of competition among the capitalists, and partly because technological development and the increasing division of labor encourage the formation of larger units of production at the expense of smaller ones. The result of these developments is an oligarchy of private capital the enormous power of which cannot be effectively checked even by a democratically organized political society. This is true since the members of legislative bodies are selected by political parties, largely financed or otherwise influenced by private capitalists who, for all practical purposes, separate the electorate from the legislature. The consequence is that the representatives of the people do not in fact sufficiently protect the interests of the underprivileged sections of the population. Moreover, under existing conditions, private capitalists inevitably control, directly or indirectly, the main sources of information (press, radio, education). It is thus extremely difficult, and indeed in most cases quite impossible, for the individual citizen to come to objective conclusions and to make intelligent use of his political rights.
- Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.
- G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (1908), p. 88.
- It was of the utmost importance to me that people in western Europe should see the Soviet regime for what it really was. Since 1930 I had seen little evidence that the USSR was progressing towards anything that one could truly call Socialism. On the contrary, I was struck by clear signs of its transformation into a hierarchical society, in which the rulers have no more reason to give up their power than any other ruling class.
Information Era (2000s)
- It violates the essence of what made America a great country in its political system. Now it’s just an oligarchy with unlimited political bribery being the essence of getting the nominations for president or being elected president. And the same thing applies to governors, and U.S. Senators and congress members. So, now we’ve just seen a subversion of our political system as a payoff to major contributors, who want and expect, and sometimes get, favors for themselves after the election is over. ... At the present time the incumbents, Democrats and Republicans, look upon this unlimited money as a great benefit to themselves. Somebody that is already in Congress has a great deal more to sell, to an avid contributor.
- We've become now an oligarchy instead of a democracy. And I think that's been the worst damage to the basic moral and ethical standards of the American political system that I've ever seen in my life.
- Jimmy Carter statement in an interview on SuperSoul Sunday with Oprah Winfrey, as quoted in Jimmy Carter Tells Oprah America Is No Longer a Democracy, Now an Oligarchy by Jon Levine, in Mic (24 September 2015).
- Historically, rulers derive legitimacy from one of two sources: God or voters. Rulers are in charge either because they claim some higher power put them there, or because a majority of people voted for them. Both systems have been tried for centuries. Both can work. The one system that absolutely does not work and never will is ersatz democracy. If you tell people they’re in charge, but then act as if they’re not, you’ll infuriate them. It’s too dishonest. They’ll go crazy. Oligarchies posing as democracies will always be overthrown in the end. That’s the story of 2016. What’s remarkable is how the ruling class responded. Donald Trump won the Republican primaries, and Republican leaders immediately began plotting to take his nomination at the convention. Trump won the general election, and elites schemed to have the results nullified by electors. Trump assumed office, and the permanent class in Washington worked to sabotage his administration. What message do voters take from this? All your fears are real. You may have suspected our democracy was actually an oligarchy. Now you know for sure. You can vote all you want, but voting is a charade. Your leaders don’t care what you think. Shut up and obey.
- Tucker Carlson, Ship of Fools (2018)
- When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organized interests, they generally lose. Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the US political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it.... [T]he preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.
- What is the best way to debunk a conspiracy theory? Call it a conspiracy theory, a label which in and of itself implies disbelief. The only problem with that is there have been many actual conspiracies both historically and currently and many of them are not in the least theoretical in nature. Conspiracies of several kinds brought about American participation in both world wars.... Given the multiple crises currently being experienced in the United States it is perhaps inevitable that speculation about conspiracies is at its highest level ever. To the average American it is incomprehensible how the country has become so screwed up because the political and economic elite is fundamentally incompetent, so the search for a scapegoat must go on...
- Philip Giraldi, in Some Conspiracy Theories Are for Real, Strategic Culture (July 2, 2020)
- [O]ligarchy, strictly speaking, is a regime "in which a rich minority rules for the advantage of the rich minority and in which the people composing that political society are ranked...because the ruling principle of that regime is the principle of natural inequality." Aristotle called it a deviant form of aristocracy (in the same way that tyranny is a deviant form of monarchy), and in practical terms, it exhibits its form through excessive concentrations of property in the hands of a few, the reservation of education to the elite, and the organization of government to serve the purposes of the oligarchs... Where a republic demands equality, and equality tends to ensure mobility, oligarchy is about hierarchy and stasis.
- We live in an oligarchic state where we’ve been rendered utterly powerless. The judiciary, the legislative, the executive branch is all subservient to an oligarchic corporate elite. And the press is owned by an oligarchic corporate elite which makes sure that any critique of them is never broadcast over the airwaves.
- The whole notion of the free market, laissez-faire capitalism, globalization is a very thin rationale for unmitigated greed by a tiny oligarchic elite. And they have made sure that that ideology is taught in universities across the country. And people, especially economists, who deviate from that ideology have been pushed aside, and become pariahs. And yet the driving ethos of that ideology is really to justify the hoarding of immense amounts of wealth by a very tiny percentage of the upper ruling class.
- The problem is political. [...] The oligarchic control of wealth, politics, media and public discourse explains the comprehensive institutional failure now pushing us towards disaster. Think of Donald Trump and his cabinet of multi-millionaires; the influence of the Koch brothers in funding rightwing organisations; the Murdoch empire and its massive contribution to climate science denial; or the oil and motor companies whose lobbying prevents a faster shift to new technologies.
It is not just governments that have failed to respond, though they have failed spectacularly. Public sector broadcasters have systematically shut down environmental coverage, while allowing the opaquely funded lobbyists that masquerade as thinktanks to shape public discourse and deny what we face. Academics, afraid to upset their funders and colleagues, have bitten their lips. Even the bodies that claim to be addressing our predicament remain locked within destructive frameworks. [...] Because we cannot save ourselves without contesting oligarchic control, the fight for democracy and justice and the fight against environmental breakdown are one and the same. Do not allow those who have caused this crisis to define the limits of political action. Do not allow those whose magical thinking got us into this mess to tell us what can and cannot be done.
- Reagan's story of freedom superficially alludes to the Founding Fathers, but its substance comes from the Gilded Age, devised by apologists for the robber barons. It is posed abstractly as the freedom of the individual from government control — a Jeffersonian ideal at the roots of our Bill of Rights, to be sure. But what it meant in politics a century later, and still means today, is the freedom to accumulate wealth without social or democratic responsibilities and license to buy the political system right out from everyone else.
- Bill Moyers, in his "For America's Sake" speech (12 December 2006), as quoted in Moyers on Democracy (2008), p. 17.
- White supremacy is but one species of supremacy that all antirepublican regimes incorporate in one form or the other... oligarchy was its parent.
- It is easy to imagine a state wherein each science would claim jurisdiction over its specific terrain, leaving no proper place for the political as such. Such a movement is then effectively the replacement of democracy with an oligarchy of supposed experts.
- Jan De Vos, “From La Mettrie’s voluptuous machine man to the perverse core of psychology,” Theory and Psychology, vol. 21, no. 1 (February 2011), pp. 67-85.
- The coronavirus has starkly revealed what most of us already knew: The concentration of wealth in America has created a health care system in which the wealthy can buy care others can’t. It’s also created an education system in which the super-rich can buy admission to college for their children, a political system in which they can buy Congress and the presidency, and a justice system in which they can buy their way out of jail... The system is rigged. But we can fix it... The great divide in American politics isn’t between right and left. The underlying contest is between a small minority who have gained power over the system, and the vast majority who have little or none. Forget politics as you’ve come to see it – as contests between Democrats and Republicans. The real divide is between democracy and oligarchy....
- The oligarchy understands that a “divide-and-conquer” strategy gives them more room to get what they want without opposition... oligarchies cannot hold on to power forever... When a vast majority of people come to view an oligarchy as illegitimate and an obstacle to their wellbeing, oligarchies become vulnerable. As bad as it looks right now, the great strength of this country is our resilience. We bounce back. We have before. We will again. In order for real change to occur – in order to reverse the vicious cycle in which we now find ourselves – the locus of power in the system will have to change. The challenge we face is large and complex, but we are well suited for the fight ahead. Together, we will dismantle the oligarchy. Together, we will fix the system.