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Summary Article: Oligarchy
from Encyclopedia of Political Theory

Oligarchy (oligarkhía) denotes the rule of the rich few. In ancient Greece (where the name originated), oligarchy was a political regime in which the ruling power (arkhé) was held by a small group of wealthy citizens (óligoy) or a class chosen by census. The regime of the Four Hundred that overturned Athenian democracy in 411 was an oligarchy. Since its inception, the term has referred particularly to the determination of a social class to acquire political power in order to further its own interests and so implied not simply a government by the few, but rule by and for the few. Oligarchy tends therefore to be unfavorably contrasted with aristocracy, rule of the few (best and wisest) for the benefit of all, although from the point of view of modern egalitarian ideals, both will seem objectionable.

Oligarchy in Antiquity

Oligarchy is a form of class rule, and so from the beginning, efforts to analyze it have focused on the distinctive character of oligarchs and their class interests. In The Republic, Plato depicted oligarchic men in the following way:

Men of this stamp [oligarchs] will be covetous of money, like those who live in oligarchies; they will have, a fierce secret longing after gold and silver, which they will hoard in dark places, having magazines and treasuries of their own for the deposit and concealment of them; also castles which are just nests for their eggs, and in which they will spend large sums on their wives, or on any others whom they please. (Book VIII)

In The Politics, Aristotle echoed Plato's view that acquisitiveness and a fixation on economic wealth are integral to an oligarchical class mentality and hence oligarchical public culture. Thus Aristotle treated oligarchy as a degenerate political regime not only because the few exercise power in their own interests, but also because they construe those interests in a narrowly economistic fashion. Both Plato and Aristotle noted a closely related deficiency of oligarchical regimes: their tendency to exacerbate antagonisms between the rich and poor. Oligarchical elites, they argued, typically enjoy their status and privileges at the expense of the populace or the many, those whose lives depend on their own work, either because they own no property at all or because their holdings are too small to exempt them from liability to work. Although in The Republic Plato ranked oligarchy above democracy, he condemned both regimes for conflating political authority and private power. In one, political authority is predicated on the private interests of the wealthy; in the other, it is predicated on the private interests of the poor. Plato argued that this precludes civic friendship, unity, and peace. This influential analysis strongly implicates the class connotations of oligarchy in its failings as a political regime.

In Athens, the theoretical identity of oligarchy as a class and as a model of political power came to be shaped precisely in its actual struggle against democracy. In the Pseudo-Xenophon's (or Old-Oligarch's) Constitution of the Athenians (c. 430s BCE), oligarchy was directly opposed to democracy. The opposition between them reflected rival interpretations of political equality. The democratization of Athenian society consisted in a progressive expansion of the community entitled to an equal share in public responsibility. Initially, this privilege was restricted to those who belonged to the narrow class of the knights or nobles. They were later joined by members of the middle class that fought in the hoplite and eventually by the lower class of thetes. In this way political equality (isonomia or equality before the law, and isegoria or the equal right to speak in the assembly), initially reserved by those who shared a privileged social position (equal treatment of social equals), was transformed into a principle distributing political rights without regard to social position. The Pseudo-Xenophon was among the first to regard this process as a degeneration of the ideal of political equality typical of democratic regimes. Later on, Plato's Laws and Aristotle's Politics offered a more systematic account of this contrast between good and bad equality (associated with oligarchy and democracy, respectively).

According to Aristotle, both arithmetical equality (treating different individuals equally or making the unequal equal) and proportional equality (treating different individuals differently or making only the equals equal) are important in a good government but only if they are used in the right domain. For instance, from the fact that all should be treated equally by the law or in a tribunal it does not follow that they should also share equally in political power. On the other hand, from the fact that official responsibilities are discharged by an elite, it does not follow that only the members of this elite should have the right to sit in the assembly or enjoy legal equality. The dualism of equality emphasized in the oligarchical polemic against democracy had tremendously important effects on the meaning of democracy, which came to be defined as a mirror image of oligarchy. Both regimes, Aristotle argued, apply the two equalities in an absolute and simple way: proportional equality becoming the privilege of the few (in oligarchies), arithmetical equality that of the many (in democracies). From an Aristotelian standpoint, these regimes are equally problematic in that they both institute monopolies of political power. Yet, by mixing the two kinds of equality propitiously, each can check the other, effectively neutralizing the monopolistic tendencies of both the few and the many, or so Aristotle maintained. He concluded that although the best form of government must institute equality before the law and equal access to the law-making process (making and obeying laws was the condition of freedom), some magistracies should nonetheless be distributed according to competence or by election. The good constitution (politeia) was thus a mixed one. In this context, Aristotle associated oligarchy not simply with social status and property ownership but also with personal qualities, intellectual and moral. Presumably, property owners were required by their business to develop and refine those mental qualities that any government would also demand. In the end, then, Aristotle did not regard oligarchy as irredeemably bad; it becomes vicious only when unmoderated by countervailing forces (the same could be said of democracy). For this reason the mix of the two would produce a good constitution.

Although oligarchy, through its antithetical relation to democracy, came to absorb some aristocratic attributes, it was never confused with aristocracy. The aristocratic ideal of a ruling class stressed distinctive natural or acquired individual qualities, in particular, certain ethical virtues (courage, honesty, wisdom, prudence) and intellectual skills (competence in administering and devising financial plans). Property was not essential to the characterization of aristocracy as it was in oligarchy. The polemical confrontation between democracy and oligarchy makes this clear. The identification of democracy with the “rule of the poor” and the emphasis on the low economic status of the ruling demos gave property a central role in that confrontation. Thus oligarchy, and not aristocracy, was the polar opposite of democracy; democrats equated oligarchy with the predation of the wealthy, whereas oligarchs assumed that democratic regimes must be inimical to the interests of the propertied classes.

Oligarchy in Modern Society

The specters of class legislation and of the politics of economic resentment reemerged in the eighteenth century with the reinvigoration of democratic ideals. In “Federalist 10,” we read that the main risk to which a free government is exposed comes from factions, in particular, those factions that defend the interests of religion and property. Fanaticism on the one hand and envy on the other are the two dangerous passions that the republican constitution must tame without sacrificing freedom. But although the Federalists proposed the republic as a mixed constitution in a way that recalled ancient Aristotelian ideals, the moderns added something new to the classical analysis.

Two and a half centuries earlier, Niccolò Machiavelli undertook to simplify the classical typology of regimes, particularly the Aristotelian one. Machiavelli distinguished only two basic forms of government: one good (the popular or “republican”) and one bad (government by the one or the few). However, he did not equate the former with simple democracy but conceived it on the model of the Roman Republic, as a mix of aristocratic and popular elements. For Machiavelli, government by the few is inherently bad in all its forms; unlike the authors of antiquity, he made no exception for aristocracy. His innovation was remarkable and inaugurated a way of thinking about government that is close to ours: No matter how good an aristocracy might be, rule by a political elite is acceptable only if the people retain, and regularly exercise, the right to monitor them and hold them to account.

So although the dualism of democracy and oligarchy was as central in the modern political tradition as it was in ancient Athens, it persisted in an altered form. After the French Revolution, commentators often directly identified oligarchic power with the aristocratic ancien régime and leveled some distinctive objections to it. According to this new critique, oligarchical government was subversive of peace and moreover ineffective in coping with the complexity of modern society. Giuseppe Mazzini, a leading European advocate for democratic national self-determination, strengthened his claim for a new continental order by depicting the European powers of his times as oligarchic and naturally predisposed to war. To him, oligarchy meant a system of social and political power that aimed to protect a privileged class. This, he maintained, inevitably exposed both domestic and international community to a permanent risk of conflicts and instability. Mazzini concluded that oligarchy promotes war whereas democracy promotes peace. Karl Marx discerned a similar linkage between an oligarchical class structure and a propensity toward conflict. His analysis of the Bonapartist degeneration of the democratic revolution of 1848 and the repression of the Commune of Paris of 1871 referred explicitly to the dictatorial power of an oligarchic class. To Marx, oligarchy was identical with capitalist dictatorship (with proletarian dictatorship as its opposite) or the use of the coercive power of the state by the dominant class in order to perpetuate its economic supremacy over the entire society.

Under modern conditions, oligarchy did not simply put liberty and security at risk. It was also a symptom of increasingly bureaucratized modes of social control. John Stuart Mill, a founding father of modern liberalism, denounced the oligarchic structure of power in mid-nineteenth-century English society and recommended several democratic reforms as a corrective (especially the extension of suffrage to women and to members of the working classes). To some extent, Mill's arguments reprised those of the ancients. Thus he contended that the republics of antiquity persisted only because the competent few were effectively checked by the many and because under purely oligarchical conditions there is no way to guarantee the choice of competent magistrates. But Mill put a new twist on this familiar argument. Although aristocracy and nobility were becoming ever more anachronistic, he noticed that complex modern societies increasingly depended on a class of competent, responsible, and conscientious administrators. This threatened a new, bureaucratic, form of oligarchy, which Mill named pedantocracy. Writing several decades after Mill, Max Weber similarly suggested that modern government could be characterized as a bureaucratized incarnation of the sort of privileged clerisy that had first emerged in the Catholic Church.

The path of analysis that Marx, Mill, and Weber inaugurated in the modern conceptualization of oligarchy was extremely important. It indirectly inspired a new critique of parliamentarianism that became influential at the turn of the twentieth century. But to understand this, we need first to see how the relationship between democracy and oligarchy was transformed by the development of modern systems of electoral representation.

All Power Is Oligarchic

In antiquity, the selection of rulers by election was not associated with democracy but rather with aristocratic and oligarchical regimes. For Herodotus, Aristotle, and Plato, electing leaders presupposed hierarchical discrimination—for, to be electable, one must prove oneself to be superior, or in some way specially worthy of the public responsibilities for which one hopes to be selected. But this sense of distinction conflicts with democratic ideals of equality and for that reason ancient democracy rejected election in favor of sortition (selection by lot). As anyone who has served on a jury knows, lottery is necessarily indiscriminate—blind to the qualities of the chosen. By contrast, candidates in an election must bring out their differences and claim for superior qualifications. This led the ancients to perceive a close affinity between election and oligarchic or aristocratic rule and to doubt the compatibility of election and democracy. In the eighteenth century, this tension between democracy and election was reasserted by baron de Montesquieu, the Federalists, and Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès. Nevertheless, these writers all believed that modern government had to be a mix of democracy and oligarchy, equality and inequality. According to them, the novel forms of political representation characteristic of modern political systems are crucial for combining these otherwise incompatible elements.

By the end of the nineteenth century, many scholars observed that established systems of parliamentary government were drifting inexorably toward oligarchy. As Carl Schmitt pointed out, after several decades of performance, parliamentarianism has

produced a situation in which all public business has become an object of spoils and compromise for the parties and their followers, and politics, far from being the concern of an elite, has become the despised business of a rather dubious class of persons. (The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy, Preface to the second edition [1926])

As a result, the eighteenth-century ideal of a propitious mix of oligarchy and democracy, which the Federalists touted as the crowning achievement of the modern republic, came to be regarded with mounting skepticism. This was particularly so among those who argued that social and political inquiry should proceed on the model provided by the natural sciences. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries a number of political analysts impressed by this ideal of an unsentimental, value-free, and rigidly empirical form of social science developed a distinctive “theory of elites.” The three most influential of these elite theorists were Gaetano Mosca, Vilfredo Pareto, and Robert Michels. They maintained that the electoral system upon which the parliamentary government relied was not a mixture of democracy and oligarchy but rather truly oligarchical. Elections served to gather popular support for government by a minority, thus making oligarchy irresistible and legitimate. The classical opposition between democracy and oligarchy gave way to the theory that all social and political organization is fated to become oligarchical, no matter how democratic it was originally intended to be. Without leaders to speak for it, the demos is necessarily a voiceless, formless mass. In the eyes of these theorists, then, democratic regimes are incapable of concerted political action unless oligarchical elites impose order and purpose from above. Michels gave the name of the “iron law of oligarchy” to this phenomenon, which he thought universal, that is to say, observable in all forms of social life, from industry to government, from parties to unions.

By asserting that all forms of government are necessarily oligarchic, the theory of elites obliterated the older, classical distinction between democratic and oligarchical government. The ideal of a democratic society systematically ruling from below was dismissed as ideological or absurd or impossible. Differences in forms of government were nothing but the circulation of elites by different methods. In this view, oligarchy becomes a social necessity, not a degeneration or a corrupted form of government. In addition, modern electoral politics gave birth to a new kind of oligarchical organization: the political party. Although purporting to be receptive conduits of a democratic will, political parties are in reality would-be elites. Electoral competition forms the venue in which they vie for control. Once they win power, however, parties govern as oligarchies, standing above the ruled and imposing their will upon them. And when out of office, they are little more than oligarchies-in-waiting. Michels's “iron law,” the claim that all political power, regardless of origin or democratic intent, ends up imposing itself oligarchically, thus poses a fundamental challenge to modern democratic ideals. It is a challenge to which representative democracy is still struggling to find an answer.

See also

Aristotle, Bureaucracy, Democracy, Equality, Federalism, Herodotus, Machiavelli, Niccolo, Marx, Karl, Mazzini, Giuseppe, Mill, John Stuart, Montesquieu, Baron de, Pareto, Vilfredo, Parliament, Plato, Political Participation, Weber, Max

Further Readings
  • Aristotle. (1995). Politics (E. Barker, Ed. & Trans.). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  • Machiavelli, N. (1995). The prince (D. Wooten, Ed. & Trans.). Indianapolis, IN: Hackett.
  • Machiavelli, N. (2003). The discourses (B. Crick, Ed., & L. J. Walker, Trans.). New York: Penguin.
  • Madison, J., Hamilton, A., & Jay, J. (1987). The Federalist papers (I. Kramnick, Ed.). Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin.
  • Marx, K. (1978). The Marx-Engels reader (2nd ed., R. C. Tucker, Ed.). New York: Norton.
  • Michels, R. (1968). Political parties: A sociological study of the oligarchical tendencies of modern democracy (C. Paul & E. Paul, Trans.). New York: The Free Press.
  • Mill, J. S. (1991). On liberty and other essays (J. Gray, Ed.). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  • Ober, J. (1989). Masses and elite in democratic Athens: Rhetoric, ideology, and the power of the people. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Plamenatz, J. (1973). Democracy and illusion: An examination of certain aspects of modern democratic theory. London: Longmans.
  • Plato. (1992). Republic (Rev. ed., C. D. Reeve, Ed.; G. M. A. Grube, Trans). Indianapolis, IN: Hackett.
  • Schmitt, C. (1985). The crisis of parliamentary democracy (E. Kennedy, Trans.). Cambridge: MIT Press. (Original work published 1923).
  • Urbinati, N. “A common law of the peoples”: Giuseppe Mazzini's democratic nationality. Journal of Modern Italian Studies 1 : 197-222.
  • Weber, M. (1958). From Max Weber: Essays in sociology (H. H. Garth & C. Wright Mills, Eds.). New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Urbinati, Nadia
    Copyright © 2010 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

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