Oligarchy comes from the Greek word “oligarkhía” which means the rule of the few. It’s a form of government where the power structure is held by a few businesses, families, and individuals and can be concealed under the guise of democracy.
Plato once described oligarchy as “a constitution teeming with many ills,” one of which is greed. The main goal of oligarchs is to accumulate and preserve their personal wealth. Today, oligarchs steer politics to their benefit by funding think tanks, lobbyists, and politicians.
This is a government that is ruled by a small privileged class, often made up of hereditary nobility. In many cases, because of their wealth, intellect, or rank, these people are considered to be superior to others.
In an aristocracy, the leaders are put in power because it is believed that they are the best ones qualified to lead, mainly because of certain characteristics that they possess. The word aristocracy comes from the Greek word aristos, which means “best.” Synonyms for aristocracy includes words such as upper crust, gentry, elite, and nobility.
Related: The Different Types of Aristocracy
There are two main forms of autocracy, dictatorship, and monarchy. In an autocracy, the main power is found in the hands of one person, and that person is not held to any type of legal standard, which means they can get away with anything. Nazi Germany is a perfect example of an autocracy. Unfortunately, in this type of government, the only options available are a mass insurrection of a coup d’état. There is simply no option for the average citizen to change the political and governmental climate.
Band Society Oligarchy
This involves a government that is ruled by a very small unit, normally a family unit. Its hierarchy is semiformal and resembles a pack in certain animals, including wolves, which is where the term comes from.
In this type of oligarchy, all of the power is in the hands of the few, and usually the “few” are family members, although this doesn’t necessarily mean that the family members in future generations will automatically inherit this power. Soon after the Soviet Union fell, it became an oligarchy because a small group of billionaires dominated all of the political power and wealth.
Band societies usually have a small legislature and are stable politically. Advantages include that individualism is encouraged, security is enhanced, and it is adaptable to changes; while its disadvantages can include disorder, threats from external sources, and a more closed society.
An ethnocracy is defined as “rule by an ethnic group.” This type of political regime uses a group of people that is dominant to get more power and resources. It is essentially the rule by a certain ethnic group, sometimes the one in the majority, although this is not necessarily true in all cases.
In fact, ethnocracy often involves power by those that are not in the majority. Examples of countries that practice ethnocracy include Israel, Serbia, Sri Lanka, and Cypress, not to mention South Africa, which is perhaps the most well-known ethnocracy of all.
With a focus on problem solving and creative intelligence, Geniocracy is essentially a government that is run by geniuses. Compassion and intelligence are the two main characteristics of the person in charge of these types of countries, and these two factors are considered more important than other factors, including education, familial significance, or a majority rule.
If Tesla and Einstein formed a government, it would be called a Geniocracy because of these two men’s intelligence. Modern-day countries that practice Geniocracy include Canada, Germany, and Honduras, although officially and technically, Geniocracy describes a hypothetical type of government.
The modern form of gerontocracy has been around since the 1800s, and it involves a rule by the elderly. Any time you have a council of old people that are ruling or governing a certain society, it can be called a gerontocracy. Ancient Greece was perhaps the biggest and most well-known example of this type of government because the ancient Greeks truly believed in this form of oligarchy.
Gerontocracy affects the state of the nation and even the socio-economic conditions in that particular country. Gerontocracy is the form of government practiced in countries such as Vatican City, Hungary, Ireland, Iran, and Cuba, among others.
A kritarchy is a rule of the people by judges. Also called a dikastocracy, it originally referred to a system of rule that existed in ancient Israel and was made up of judges, although there is still a form of this type of government in existence today.
The laws in a kritarchy are customary laws, not statutory ones, and Somalia is a perfect example today. The word comes from the Greek word Krites, which means “judges.” Other examples include countries such as Iran, Albania, Kenya, Romania, and Vietnam.
A netocracy has an interesting origin. It originated when Catholic popes assigned their illegitimate sons, whom they called nephews, to positions of power within the government. They did this so that the church would continue to have the ultimate power and to own land that was, therefore, kept within the church’s possession. South America is an example of a country that once used this type of oligarchy.
If a small group takes over the power of a country, it is known as an oligarchy. Very often, these governments are corrupt and selfish, because the leader is in the job to benefit himself and to make his and his family’s life better. The U.S., Cuba, North Korea, China, and South Africa are examples of countries that now practice an oligarchy.
A plutocracy is a country in which governing is done by the wealthy. In other words, that person only gets into power because he is rich. Examples of a plutocracy include Greece, Rome, Japan, and Tunisia, among others.
The term “plutocracy” was first used in the mid-1600s and is defined as a citizenry controlled by the wealthiest citizens, which is almost always in the minority. Plutocracy is not based on a particular political philosophy, because it simply refers to governing by very rich people.
This type of oligarchy once involved drawing or casting lots in order to choose who will rule, although its modern-day definition is the selection of the ruling class by choosing random people from a larger pool of people. It is also called a demarchy or allotment, and the leader is chosen from a random sample of a large group of candidates.
This form of oligarchy was very common in ancient Athens, as most of its political officials were chosen this way. At the time, the use of this word was an important part of a democracy. Examples of this type of oligarchy include Athens, Switzerland, and Italy.
This is a type of government whereby the rulers are people with technical or elite expertise and have a lot of technical and scientific knowledge. In other words, the rulers that govern their society are those with some type of technical expertise, usually scientists and other technical experts. Its effect is felt in all aspects of government, from the economy to social concerns. Countries operating under this type of rule include Canada, Germany, Greece, and Russia, among others.
In a theocracy, a specific deity is where all authority comes from, so it is usually religious leaders who are put in positions of authority. These types of governments are usually ruled in one of two ways – through a hierarchy of religion, or through two separate arms of government, which include both members of the clergy and governmental administrators.
Theocracy is not the same as a theonomy, because the latter is a form of government which is specifically based on divine law. In a theocracy, the leaders do not claim to be prophets, but only want to see their laws based on religious principles.
The Pros and Cons of an Oligarchy Government
- Better for women. In many oligarchy types, women are just as likely as men to gain positions of power. This is because oligarchies are based on more than just democracy or a “majority rule” type of government. Compared to other forms of government, an oligarchy tends to make it easier for women to succeed in government.
- Technically, anyone can be a member of the oligarchy. This one often applies more on paper than it does in reality, but in a true oligarchy, the positions of power are those with the best skill sets, which means anyone can join the oligarchy – provided they have skills that society considers important. So if you work hard, educate yourself, and you are a contributing member of society, technically you will always have a shot at being a part of the oligarchy.
- You still get a certain amount of debate with an oligarchy. Oligarchies are not the same things as monarchs or tyrannies. Tyrannies and monarchies rely on the opinion of just one person and therefore, there is no actual debate process involved. With an oligarchy, there is still debate, although technically it is only between a few people.
- Decisions can be made at the spur of the moment. Again, this is because of the small number of people involved in the decision making, but with an oligarchy, decisions can be made much quicker than with other forms of government, such as a democracy. After all, it simply doesn’t take that much time to make a decision if there are only a few people who need to agree.
- It can be representative of the people. Although it doesn’t always happen, an oligarchy is sometimes a true representation of the people it governs. People can be born into an oligarchy, but they can also be elected to it. In past centuries, a person had to have money or land in order to be a part of the oligarchy, but nowadays this is not the case. Because this group handles all aspects of government, it is possible for it to represent all of society, regardless of who they are.
- Living your life is easier. Since others are making the major decisions for the rest of the people, the citizens are free to live their lives as they wish. Instead of concentrating on politics, people can concentrate on their jobs, their friends, their hobbies, and their everyday lives. They simply don’t have the need to worry about the government and the choices it makes. It also means you can concentrate on creativity and innovation a lot more than in other forms of government.
- Most of the risks taken are conservative. In general, an oligarchy government makes conservative decisions so as to not upset the status quo. Even though the group in power is still a group – no matter how small – none of the group’s members is likely to take a big risk because it may negatively affect everyone in the group. Big risks, in other words, are usually not taken by those who are in charge, which is better for everyone, including the citizens.
- There is no room for free speech. Regular citizens are usually not heard when there is an oligarchy. In fact, in many instances, their rights to say how they feel are taken away from them. The only “speech” that matters is the speech given by the oligarchs themselves, and everyone else’s opinion is considered worthless.
- The status quo never changes. Because oligarchies tend to benefit only the few who are in power, these people have no incentive to change the status quo. This is also why under an oligarchy, the rich usually become richer and the poor can become poorer. There is literally no one there to speak out for the average citizen, much less those who live below the poverty level.
- Division can be a big problem. Division within society can occur because the average person has to work above and beyond to get noticed, whereas members of the oligarchy are usually already very wealthy. At the same time, it is often much more difficult for the average person to accomplish that, so income inequality is a very big problem within an oligarchy, leading to a lot of divisiveness among the citizens.
- The middle class often becomes nonexistent. Oligarchies tend to consist of the extra rich, the extra poor, and very few people who are considered middle class. In essence, the middle class can become nonexistent. The poor and middle class are simply shut out in an oligarchy because there is no one there to represent these people’s interests.
- Too much power in the hands of too few people. In an oligarchy, the people elected end up with more power than those who elected them. In many cases, the leaders branch off on their own and form opinions and goals which are detrimental to the wellbeing of the people. Because the rulers are such a small group, there is no overall diversity, which can cause the government to become stale because no new ideas are ever brought to the table.
- It is conducive to violence. Much of the time, an oligarchy results in protests and violence by those who are not in power, with reasons that are understandable. Because a certain amount of unquestioning obedience is necessary for the oligarchy to survive, it can cause a lot of resentment within the citizenry, especially if those citizens notice that the oligarchy is not acting in their best interest. Frustration is an inevitable result, and this can cause clashes between those in power and society as a whole, which means it is a perfect recipe for violent consequences.
- It harms the domestic economy. Since the main goal of an oligarchy is to retain power and not to move forward, and even if it does happen that the average citizen actually benefits from this form of government, that doesn’t mean the oligarchy is going to step aside and let another type of government formation take place. Even if a threat to the oligarchy occurs that is only a perceived threat, members of the oligarchy concentrate on keeping its power and not paying attention to other areas, and the first catastrophe of this situation is usually the economy.
Further Reading: What are the Pros and Cons of Oligarchy?
Three Causes of Oligarchies
- If a certain government made up of tyrants or a monarchy has a weak leader, this situation can be conducive to the creation of an oligarchy. Ironically, this is a fairly simple feat to accomplish. With a weak leader, oligarchs gain more and more power over that leader, so when the leader is out of office, the oligarchs simply choose a puppet or even someone from their own group to replace that leader.
- When the citizenry is ill-informed, an oligarchy government can result. When citizens don’t stay informed, or when the current leader makes it sound as though what is going on in the country is too complicated for the average citizen to understand, people eventually give up and let people take over who they think are more knowledgeable to rule. More often than not, the people who take over are not, in fact, more knowledgeable or informed. However, if this is the perception of the citizenry, it is easy for an oligarch to step in and take control.
- If a particular country has leaders who suddenly decide to increase the amount of power they have, even if it doesn’t benefit the rest of the population, an oligarchy can result. In essence, oligarchs take more and more power and wealth from the rest of the people – people whose interests or skills do not equal the leaders’ interests or skills. The leaders are motivated to take that power away, and the citizens just don’t have the expertise to fully understand what is happening.
Glossary of Terms
Anarchy: A total absence of leadership and government. It is a government with no power or laws in existence, which results in chaos, disorder, and confusion.
Communist State: A form of government that consists of a dominant-party or single-party rule, which is based on the type of government advocated by Marx and Lenin.
Confederation: This term refers to the act of forming an alliance or a union of political organizations. It is a league of some sort that usually consists of states or countries with something in common.
Corporatism: This refers to the takeover of a government by a very large interest group, and it is not necessarily a group with good intentions.
Democracy: A democracy is a group whereby the majority of the people in the group make decisions for the rest of the group, and they have to abide by those decisions.
Despotism: A despot is a dictator who is not held to any type of standards and doesn’t follow the laws, constitution, or any of the opposition in the citizenry.
Ethnic Democracy: Different than an ethnocracy, ethnic democracy refers to a type of government that is very structured and which gives everyone equal civil and political rights. This form of democracy consists of a dominant and at least one minority ethnic group, yet all groups have equal rights under their laws.
Exilarchy: Usually either theocratic or monarchic in nature, an exilarchy is usually devised to rule over a certain ethnic or religious group, regardless of where that diaspora originated.
Fascism: Contradictory to liberalism or democracy, fascism advocates for a government that is hierarchical and authoritative in nature. Fascism can include a dictatorship or autocracy, such as Nazism.
Feudalism: A term from the eighth century, it represents a social system in which vassals had to serve in the war to protect their lords.
Kleptocracy: This term refers to a corrupt form of government in which the rulers are there just to better their own lives, while the lives of most of the population are ignored.
Republic: In a republic, the ruler is not normally a monarch, but instead, it is usually a president. It consists of a citizenry who elects their leaders, and those elected represent them in the legislature.
Socialist State: A socialist state is the opposite of a capitalist society, whereby the belief that a socialist economy can be devised through government policies is the norm.
Tyranny: The ruler in a tyranny is a tyrant who is cruel and oppresses others. In a tyranny, people with no legal right to power often grab it, with disastrous results.