The iron law of
oligarchy, Monarchy, Democracy,
Oligarchy is a society or social system ruled by a few
people. The word oligarchy is from the Greek words for "few" (olígos) 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
Many aristocrats have inherited titles of nobility such
as duke or baron.
- Latin American nations have functioned as oligarchies,
where a small European elite dominate the economy, politics, and society.
- South African form of oligarchy was based on race where a
small percentage ruled the vast native population.
- Meiji Restoration rulers from Japan's westernization era
were considered an oligarchy in the late 19th and early 20th century.
- Communist states have been seen as oligarchies, being
ruled by a class with special privileges. 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.
- Capitalism as a social system is sometimes considered an
oligarchy as in capitalist society, economic, cultural and political power rests in the
hands of the capitalist class.
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.