Sociology Index


The iron law of oligarchy

Oligarchy is a society or social system ruled by a few people. The word oligarchy is from the Greek words for "few" (oligos) and "rule" (arkhe). As societies or organizations become large it is thought that political power becomes concentrated in the hand of a few individuals. Oligarchy means "the rule of the few" and monarchy means "the rule of the one". Oligarchy is a form of government where power rests with a small elite segment of society distinguished by royalty, wealth, family, military influence or occult spiritual hegemony. City-states from Ancient Greece were oligarchies.

Jeffrey A. Winters defined oligarchy as "the politics of wealth defense by materially endowed actors" and Aristotle used the term as a synonym for rule by the wealthy, but Oligarchy is not always a rule by wealthy people, for which the term is plutocracy as oligarchs can simply be a privileged group.

Oligarchies are tyrannical as they are completely reliant on public servitude to exist. States controlled by politically powerful families whose children are heavily conditioned and mentored to be heirs of the power of the oligarchy. Oligarchies can bring about change forcing monarchs or dictators to share power. Such power-sharing from one person to a larger group of persons happened when English nobles got together in 1215 to force King John of England to sign the Magna Carta, a recognition of failure of oligarchy (the nobility).

Magna Carta was revised many times (1216, 1217, and 1225), guaranteeing greater rights to greater numbers of people, thus setting the stage for English constitutional monarchy.

Oligarchy can also be compared with Aristocracy. 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.

United States political system is has 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. Large donors support national political races in the hope of compensation in return for funding the winners' campaigns, as in the current situation and societies most commonly recognized as oligarchies. A kind of a return to aristocratic rule, in which the common people have little control over their political fate.

"Oligarchic democracy" is a concept attributed 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."'

The iron law of oligarchy

Any political system eventually evolves into an oligarchy. This theory is called the "iron law of oligarchy". According to them, 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.