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Oligarchy (Greek Ὀλιγαρχία, Oligarkhía) is a form of government where political power effectively rests with a small elite segment of society (whether distinguished by wealth, family, military powers or spiritual hegemony). The word oligarchy is translated into "rule by few." Compare with autocracy (rule by one person) and democracy (rule by the majority).

Oligarchy, aristocracy, and plutocracy

Historically, many oligarchies openly gave the political power to a minority group, sometimes arguing that this was an aristocracy organization by the best and the brightest. Such states were often controlled by powerful families whose children were raised and mentored to be heirs of the power of the oligarchy. However, this power may also not be exercised openly, the oligarchs preferring to remain "the power behind the throne", exerting control through economic means. 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.

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 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.

Oligarchies may also evolve into more autocratic or monarchist forms of government, sometimes as the result of one family gaining ascendancy over the others. Many of the European monarchies established during the late Middle Ages began in this way.

Examples of oligarchies

Examples include Sparta (excluding the Helots, who were the majority of the population, from voting), 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.

Russia has been labeled an oligarchy because of the power of certain individuals, the oligarchs, who gained great wealth after the fall of Communism. Critics have argued that this happened in illegitimate ways and was due to corruption.

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

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.) 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."' However, the constitution and state laws has since been modified, with the removal of the original property requirements for voting, as well as giving the vote to women and blacks.

The Iron Law of Oligarchy

Some authors such as Vilfredo Pareto, Gaetano Mosca, Thomas R. Dye, 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 historian Spencer R. Weart in his book Never at War argues that oligarchies rarely make war with one another.

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