Oligarchy (from Greek ὀλιγαρχία, oligarkhía[1]) is a form of power structure in which power effectively rests with an elite class distinguished by royalty, wealth, family ties, commercial, and/or military legitimacy. The word oligarchy is derived from the Greek words "ὀλίγος" (olígos), "a few"[2] and the verb "ἄρχω" (archo), "to rule, to govern, to command".[3]

Throughout history, most oligarchies have been tyrannical, relying on public servitude to exist, although others have been relatively benign. Plato pioneered the use of the term in Chapter Four, Book Eight of "The Republic" as a society in which wealth is the criterion of merit and the wealthy are in control. The actual literal translation from the Greek is "rule of the few". However oligarchy is not always a rule by wealth, as oligarchs can simply be a privileged group, and do not have to be connected by bloodlines as in a monarchy. Some city-states from ancient Greece were oligarchies.


Examples of oligarchies

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union on 31 December 1991, privately owned Russia-based multinational corporations, including producers of petroleum, natural gas, and metal have become oligarchs. Privatization allowed executives to amass phenomenal wealth and power almost overnight. In May 2004, the Russian edition of Forbes identified 36 of these oligarchs as being worth at least US$1 billion.[4]

A fictional oligarchy is represented by the Party in George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Modern democracy as oligarchy

Robert Michels believed that any political system eventually evolves into an oligarchy. He called this the iron law of oligarchy. According to this school of thought, modern democracies should be considered as 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. Thus the popular phrase: there is only one political party, the incumbent party.

Corporate Oligarchy (Corporatocracy)

Corporate oligarchy is a form of power, governmental or operational, where such power effectively rests with a small, elite group of inside individuals, sometimes from a small group of educational institutions, or influential economic entities or devices, such as banks, commercial entities that act in complicity with, or at the whim of the oligarchy, often with little or no regard for constitutionally protected prerogative. Monopolies are sometimes granted to state-controlled entities, such as the Royal Charter granted to the East India Company. Some (see Kalle Lasn) are of the opinion that due to the effects of the unfettered laissez-faire capitalism present in its economy, the increasingly powerful influence of corporations on its political system is turning (or has already turned) the modern United States into a corporate oligarchy. While this claim is accepted by some, it is also rejected by others who voice that laissez-faire economics has never existed in true (or unfettered) form and that the collusion of regulators and industry would be the more plausible source of power.

Athenian techniques to prevent the rise of oligarchy

Especially during the Fourth Century BC, after the restoration of democracy from oligarchical coups, the Athenians used the drawing of lots for selecting government officers in order to counteract what the Athenians acutely saw as a tendency toward oligarchy in government if a professional governing class were allowed to use their skills for their own benefit.[5] They drew lots from large groups of adult volunteers as a selection technique for civil servants performing judicial, executive, and administrative functions (archai, boulē, and hēliastai).[6] They even used lots for very important posts, such as judges and jurors in the political courts (nomothetai), which had the power to overrule the Assembly.[7]

See also

Government terms:

Relevant authors:


  1. ^ ὀλιγαρχία, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus Digital Library
  2. ^ ὀλίγος, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus Digital Library
  3. ^ ἄρχω, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus Digital Library
  4. ^ http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/60263/marshall-i-goldman/putin-and-the-oligarchs, Putin and the Oligarchs, Foreign Affairs. November/December 2004
  5. ^ M.H. Hansen, The Athenian Democracy in the Age of Demosthenes 97, 308, et al. (Oxford, 1991)
  6. ^ Bernard Manin, Principles of Representative Government 11-24 (1997).
  7. ^ Bernard Manin, Principles of Representative Government 19-23 (1997).
  • Ostwald, M. Oligarchia: The Development of a Constitutional Form in Ancient Greece (Historia Einzelschirften; 144). Stuttgart: Steiner, 2000 (ISBN 3-515-07680-8).

External links

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • oligarchy — ol‧i‧gar‧chy [ˈɒlgɑːki ǁ ˈɑːlgɑːrki, ˈoʊ ] noun oligarchies PLURALFORM 1. [uncountable] when a country is ruled or controlled by a small group of people, usually from the same social class: • Oligarchy took over from democracy. 2. [countable] a …   Financial and business terms

  • oligarchy — oligarchy, aristocracy, plutocracy are comparable when they mean government by, or a state governed by, the few. The terms are often applied to governments or states that are ostensibly monarchies or republics but are, in the opinion of the user …   New Dictionary of Synonyms

  • Oligarchy — Ol i*gar chy, n.; pl. {Oligarchies}. [Gr. ?; oli gos few, little + a rchein to rule, govern: cf. F. oligarchie.] A form of government in which the supreme power is placed in the hands of a few persons; also, those who form the ruling few. [1913… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • oligarchy — n. Rule of a nation, institution, etc., by a few, i.e., by a small group of people. The Essential Law Dictionary. Sphinx Publishing, An imprint of Sourcebooks, Inc. Amy Hackney Blackwell. 2008 …   Law dictionary

  • oligarchy — (n.) 1570s, from M.Fr. oligarchie (14c.), from Gk. oligarkhia government by the few, from oligoi few, small, little (of unknown origin) + arkhein to rule (see ARCHON (Cf. archon)) …   Etymology dictionary

  • oligarchy — ► NOUN (pl. oligarchies) 1) a small group of people having control of a state. 2) a state governed by such a group. DERIVATIVES oligarchic adjective. ORIGIN from Greek oligoi few + arkhein to rule …   English terms dictionary

  • oligarchy — [äl′i gär΄kē] n. pl. oligarchies [Gr oligarchia: see OLIG(O) & ARCHY] 1. a form of government in which the ruling power belongs to a few persons 2. a state governed in this way 3. the persons ruling such a state oligarchic adj. oligarchical …   English World dictionary

  • oligarchy — [[t]ɒ̱lɪgɑː(r)ki[/t]] oligarchies 1) N COUNT An oligarchy is a small group of people who control and run a particular country or organization. You can also refer to a country which is governed in this way as an oligarchy. Athens was suffering… …   English dictionary

  • oligarchy — /ol i gahr kee/, n., pl. oligarchies. 1. a form of government in which all power is vested in a few persons or in a dominant class or clique; government by the few. 2. a state or organization so ruled. 3. the persons or class so ruling. [1570 80; …   Universalium

  • oligarchy — UK [ˈɒlɪˌɡɑː(r)kɪ] / US [ˈɑlɪˌɡɑrkɪ] noun Word forms oligarchy : singular oligarchy plural oligarchies 1) [countable] a country governed by a small group of people. Someone in this group is called an oligarch. 2) [uncountable] the control of a… …   English dictionary

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