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Oligarchy (Greek Ὀλιγαρχία, Oligarkhía) is a form of government where power effectively rests with a small elite segment of society distinguished by royalty, wealth, family, military influence or religious hegemony. The word oligarchy is from the Greek words for "few" (ὀλίγος olígos) and "rule" (ἀρχή arkhē). Such states are often controlled by politically powerful families whose children are heavily conditioned and mentored to be heirs of the power of the oligarchy.[citation needed] Oligarchies have been tyrannical throughout history, being completely reliant on public servitude to exist. Although Aristotle pioneered the use of the term as a synonym for rule by the rich, for which the exact term is plutocracy, oligarchy is not always a rule by wealth, as oligarchs can simply be a privileged group. Some city-states from Ancient Greece were oligarchies.


[edit] Oligarchy vs. monarchy

Early societies may have become oligarchies as an outgrowth of an alliance between rival tribal chieftains or as the result of a caste system. Oligarchies can often become instruments of transformation, by insisting that monarchs or dictators share power, thereby opening the door to power-sharing by other elements of society (while oligarchy means "the rule of the few," monarchy means "the rule of the one"). One example of power-sharing from one person to a larger group of persons occurred when English 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). As English society continued to grow and develop, Magna Carta was repeatedly revised (1216, 1217, and 1225), guaranteeing greater rights to greater numbers of people, thus setting the stage for English constitutional monarchy.Oligarchy is also compared with Aristocracy and Communism[citation needed]. In an aristocracy, a small group of wealthy or socially prominent citizens control the government. Members of this high social class claim to be, or are considered by others to be, superior to the other people because of family ties, social rank, wealth, or religious affiliation. The word "aristocracy" comes from the Greek term meaning rule by the best. Many aristocrats have inherited titles of nobility such as duke or baron.

[edit] Examples of oligarchies

Some examples include Vaishali, the First French Republic government under the Directory, and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (only the nobility could vote). A modern example of oligarchy could be seen in South Africa during the 20th century. Here, the basic characteristics of oligarchy are particularly easy to observe, since the South African form of oligarchy was based on race. After the Second Boer War, a tacit agreement 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 native 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-18th century, after 1948 it became official government policy and became known worldwide as apartheid. This lasted until the arrival of democracy in South Africa in 1994, punctuated by the transition to a democratically-elected government dominated by the black majority.

Meiji Restoration rulers from Japan's westernization era were also known as an oligarchy in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Capitalism as a social system is sometimes described as an oligarchy. Socialists argue that in a capitalist society, power - economic, cultural and political - rests in the hands of the capitalist class. Socialist and communist states have also been seen as oligarchies, being ruled by a class with special privileges, the nomenklatura.

Russia has been labeled an oligarchy because of the power of certain individuals, the oligarchs (often former Nomenklatura), who gained great wealth after the fall of Communism. Critics have argued that this happened in illegitimate ways and was due to corruption. Russia ranked 143rd out of 179 countries in the 2007 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index.

Several nations in Latin America have long functioned as oligarchies, where a small, mostly European-descended elite dominate the economy, politics, and society.

The concept of an "oligarchic democracy" is one which some scholars attribute to Ancient Rome and the United States. Marxist Ellen Meiksins Wood writes, that it "conveys a truth about U.S. politics every bit as telling as its application to ancient Rome. It is no accident that the Founding Fathers of the U.S. Republic looked to Roman models for inspiration in making the Federalist case, adopting Roman names as pseudonyms and conceiving of themselves as latterday Catos, forming a natural aristocracy of republican virtue. (Americans today still have a representative body called the Senate, and their republic is still watched over by the Roman eagle, albeit in its American form.) Faced with the distasteful specter of democracy, they sought ways to redefine that unpalatable concept to accommodate aristocratic rule, producing a hybrid, "representative democracy," which was clearly meant to achieve an effect similar to the ancient Roman idea of the "mixed constitution," in fact, an "oligarchic 'democracy."'[1] However, the constitution and state laws have since been modified, with the removal of the original property requirements for voting, as well as giving the vote to women and blacks.[2]

A number of critics argue that the United States political system is, itself, an oligarchic structure. Third party candidates stand little chance of election to national office, due to the enormous monetary capital needed to purchase advertising time and to make other key connections in order to gain sufficient attention from the electorate. Since large donors fuel national political races, expecting due compensation in return for funding the winners' campaigns, it is difficult to distinguish between the current situation and societies most commonly recognized as oligarchies. It is, many feel, a return to aristocratic rule, in which the common people have little control over their political fate; feelings of being "sold out" frequently lead to apathy, now recognized as the most common problem in American politics.

[edit] The Iron Law of Oligarchy

Some authors, such as Zulma Riley, Keith Riley, Mathew Marquess, and Robert Michels, believe that any political system eventually evolves into an oligarchy. This theory is called the "iron law of oligarchy". 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 impose strict limits on what constitutes an 'acceptable' and 'respectable' political position, and politicians' careers depend heavily on unelected economic and media elites. The disadvantage of this position is that it is not falsifiable. As a proposition, it cannot ever be evaluated as incorrect, hence the "iron law" aspect derived from the "any...eventually" aspect.

[edit] See also

Government terms:

Links to a recent Russian example of oligarchy:

Relevant authors:

[edit] References

  1. ^ See Monthly Review, July-August, 1989.
  2. ^ U.S. Voting Rights
  • Ostwald, M. Oligarchia: The Development of a Constitutional Form in Ancient Greece (Historia Einzelschirften; 144). Stuttgart: Steiner, 2000 (ISBN 3-515-07680-8).

[edit] External links

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