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Oligarchy

Oligarchy

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The word “oligarchy” and the concepts which it symbolizes originated in ancient Greece. In its basic use, the word identified one of the general forms of government recognized by the Greeks: that in which political government is conducted by a few persons or families. It was also used more narrowly, by Aristotle for example, to refer to the debased form of aristocracy, that is, to government by the few or by a faction. The term “oligarchy” was also used to refer to the small group of persons who enjoyed a monopoly of political control in oligarchic governments; the term usually had the added sense that the oligarchy ruled in its own rather than in the public interest. For Aristotle, classification of governments rested on two independent variables: the number of persons who ruled and the purposes served by their rule. Oligarchy was present when a few persons ruled for their own satisfaction.

Development of the concept. The original uses of the term were associated with particular social and political regimes and with intellectual modes of analyzing them. Typically, societies were small and traditional and rested on established classes, including a slave class. Within Greek cities citizenship status often identified a large but still minority class that could at least claim to participate in political decisions. Whatever the changes in political forms, this “upper class” was relatively stable by reason of property holding, authority relations with other classes, social position, and so on, and oligarchy could reasonably be expected to be succeeded by other known forms of government. Classical analysts found oligarchies to be endemic among ancient states, but they viewed them as unstable since they rested on military, economic, and leadership factors which were transitory as compared with the continuing forces which supported the relatively large upper classes in traditionalist societies.

In the modern view, these classical conceptions, including oligarchy and the ideas associated with it, are far too simple for effective analysis. Indeed, classical writing makes it clear that the conceptions based on the formal structure of governments were not adequate even then, in spite of the particular emphasis given to form. Greek analysts dealt with the phenomena of power, with the importance of procedures, and, of course, with the paramount role of values. These matters were merged with discussions of political form, but the elements were not clearly discriminated. The subtleties and complexities of Greek political thought do not appear to good advantage in this particular classificatory system.

To the extent that the word “oligarchy” was employed in the Roman and medieval periods, it appears to have been used in the Aristotelian sense of a perverted form of government. However, the emphasis on ideas and values of citizenship and law during the long period of Roman stability turned analytical attention away from forms of government as such. Even though the instabilities of feudalism did generate oligarchs, many of the writers of the early Middle Ages were more preoccupied with problems of legitimacy, since these problems had been given new urgency by the complexities of church-state relationships. Nevertheless, the word itself was coupled to its classical meaning and became an active term in political vocabularies following the rediscovery of Aristotle. In the late Middle Ages and early modern times, political instability among renascent states and a revival of secular realism restored earlier classificatory tools in significant measure. Machiavelli, for example, stipulated and used the Aristotelian classification of the types of government, including that of oligarchy, even though his political analyses could not be contained by them.

Significant use of the term “oligarchy” by students of sociopolitical phenomena has lessened in recent centuries. This is not to say that the term has been wholly abandoned or that notable efforts have not been made to adapt the concept of oligarchy to modern circumstances. Indeed, until relatively recently, general treatises on government have usually given some degree of credence to the classification of governments which contains oligarchy as one form (see, for example, Sidgwick 1891, or Wilson 1889). Some more specialized treatments have also sought to adapt the classical formula to new analyses. In 1832 George C. Lewis, mindful of parliamentary claims, adapted the classical scheme, including its oligarchical component, to the new realities of political sovereignty in his Remarks on the Use and Abuse of Some Political Terms.

However, these adaptations were, at best, difficult to maintain in the context of the most important social phenomena among Western nations in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: industrialization and urbanization; the radical intensification of nationalism; the improvement and spread of representative parliamentarianism and of parliamentary democracy; warfare conducted as the total effort of national populations; autocracy redefined by twentieth-century totalitarianism; and political leadership vastly heightened by new technological and organizational resources.

In contrast to students of politics, spokesmen for ideological movements frequently used the concept of oligarchy to proclaim against degenerate oligarchs. Liberal and democratic reformers did the same thing in their works. Similarly, socialists discovered ruling coteries within the capitalist class. Their protests were in the language of opinion rather than systematic analysis. However, the scale of experience in which the classical concept of oligarchy was formulated could not produce, even for the socialist movements, ideas comprehensive enough to account for nationalism, or the complex semiegalitarianism of liberal societies, or the dynamism of historical necessity expressed through the warfare of classes.

One group of twentieth-century scholars, including Ostrogorskii, Michels, Pareto, and Mosca, was particularly concerned with a redefinition of oligarchy and its successes and failures. These writers sought an accommodation between forces of social class and of elitism and found it, to a large extent, in the idea of class oligarchies. Michels’ “iron law of oligarchy” made the point most explicitly: elitist control within the party structures that are an implementing response to social conflict is as inevitable as class conflict itself. Michels, in company with others, provided a usable new definition of oligarchy, which was distinctive but had obvious kinship with the traditional form-of-government idea. But it is pertinent that these writings and their constituent ideas are now almost always indexed under a heading like “elitism” or “leadership “rather than under the word “oligarchy.”

Uses of the concept. The meanings associated with the word “oligarchy” have remained remarkably stable throughout the centuries. Dictionary definitions accord very closely with the classical uses of the word. As a matter of fact, Webster’s New International Dictionary does indeed recognize a wider range of meanings, including extrapolitical meanings, but “government by the few “remains the primary definition. Several concomitants to this unusual consistency are relevant. First, the word has retained its usefulness as a technical symbol for scholars whose interest in political phenomena is historical and descriptive rather than contemporary and analytical. Unlike many other key words, “oligarchy” does not require an elaborate etymology to establish historically prior uses. Second, the word and its associated ideas have not proved notably useful for nineteenth-century and twentieth-century analysis, and this period has witnessed its declining use by students of current societies. Among many illustrations, it may be noted that in Agger, Goldrich, and Swanson(1964), the authors do not find it necessary to mention oligarchy, although the book is concerned with the power of elites. Nor does the elaborate classification system of the annual International Bibliography of the Social Sciences find room for the word. Finally, the new uses for the term, especially in its application to nonpolitical phenomena(for example, “oligarchy” in school systems) have been largely promoted by lay users. The epithet “oligarch “ is more apt to be found in a novel than in a technical treatise on politics.

The political phenomena associated with what previously was labeled as oligarchy, that is, effective rule by a small and often irresponsible element in a society, have been given great attention by current analysts. However, data assembled for the analyses and the methods used make the inadequacy of the concept of oligarchy apparent almost at once. Some contrasts will make the point. First, traditional treatments of oligarchy tended to restrict the role of the oligarch to simple control relationships based on command. Current analyses of leadership by a minority define a plurality of roles and include conditional responses between leaders and followers. Second, the simple distinction between the few and the many is replaced by a continuum of relationships among members of a polity who display quite different responses at different times and under differing circumstances. Interrelations between different social strata, groups, and organizations, including their leaders, and political leaders are repetitive and contingent. Third, the concept of power runs through a range marked at one end by forced compliance backed by penalties and at the other by the gentleness of influence and persuasion. The formal classical specification of oligarchy as a class of government largely avoided the question of the techniques and other means by which this form of government was maintained. Finally, contemporary analysis of elite leadership is broadly social rather than narrowly political. Politically relevant leadership by “the few “is located at many points in the society and not in the halls of government alone. In conclusion, therefore, what has happened to the concept of oligarchy in recent decades may be taken as an index to what has happened in the social sciences.

Thomas P. Jenkin

[See alsoAutocracy; Dictatorship; Elites; Legitimacy; Monarchy; Totalitarianism; and the biographies ofAristotle; Michels; Mills; Mosca; Ostrogorskii; Pareto.]

bibliography

Agger, Robert E.; Goldrich, Daniel; and Swanson, Bert 1964 The Rulers and the Ruled: Political Power and Impotence in American Communities. New York: Wiley.

American Academy OF Arts AND Sciences 1954 Totalitarianism. Edited with an introduction by Carl J. Friedrich. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard Univ. Press. →Proceedings of a conference held at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, March 1953.

Barker, Ernest (1918) 1960 Greek Political Theory:Plato and His Predecessors. 5th ed. London: Methuen.

Friedrich, Carl J.; and Brzezinski,Zbigniew K. (1956) 1965 Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy. 2d ed., rev. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Lewis,George C. (1832) 1877 Remarks on the Use and Abuse of Some Political Terms. New ed. Oxford: Thornton.

Michels, Robert (1911) 1959 Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy. New York: Dover. → First published as Zur Soziologie des Parteiwesens in der modernen Demokratie. A paperback edition was published in 1962 by Collier.

Sidgwick, Henry (1891) 1908 The Elements of Politics. 4th ed. London: Macmillan.

Wilson, Woodrow (1889) 1918 The State: Elements of Historical and Practical Politics. Boston: Heath.

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"Oligarchy." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. 21 May. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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"Oligarchy." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved May 21, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/oligarchy-0

Oligarchy

Oligarchy

THE IRON LAW OF OLIGARCHY

RESEARCHING OLIGARCHY

BIBLIOGRAPHY

The term oligarchy refers to a form of government in which political power is in the hands of a small minority. The word oligarchy derives from the Greek word oligarkhia (government of the few), which is composed of oligoi (few) and arkhein (to rule). This definition does not necessarily distinguish oligarchy from other forms of government. Autocracy, for example, can be viewed as a form of oligarchy in which the few refers to a single individual, though autocracies, especially when they take the form of dictatorships, have commonly been associated with greater use of coercion. Democracy, some argue, is also characterized by a rule of the few because most political decisions are made by a small section of society. The key factor differentiating oligarchy and democracy is the fact that in democracy political decisions are made by representatives who can be voted out of office by the citizens in regularly scheduled elections. Direct democracy, where the people decide on policies without the intermediation of representatives, is an exception. Therefore, it can be useful to think of the different types of government as being located along a continuum that runs from autocracy to direct democracy. Furthermore, oligarchies are not confined to national politics; oligarchies can also emerge in local government (e.g., Hunter 1953) or in other organizations, such as labor unions.

THE IRON LAW OF OLIGARCHY

The most influential treatment of the politics of oligarchy is Political Parties (1911) by German social scientist Robert Michels (18761936). The focus of Michelss work was the German Social Democratic Party, but his analysis had clear references to other types of social institutions, including national government. Michelss conclusions were highly pessimistic from a democratic point of view. He argued that the necessity of organization for any large-scale social institution would sound the death knell for democratic governance. Famously, Michels went so far as to state, Who says organization, says oligarchy (1962, p. 365). The need for organization concentrated political power in the hands of a select few whose position at the apex of the organization served to solidify their standing. In Michelss view, the advantages conferred upon the leaders of the organization eliminated the possibility of democratic control through leadership elections. These advantages included greater access to information, greater ability to communicate with the organizations members, and the opportunity to develop political skills. Combined with the incompetence of the masses, evidenced by a lack of participation by ordinary members, which Michels saw as being due to the members lower degree of education, the division of labor, and organizational obstacles, the political power of the leadership was ensured.

Differences in knowledge and education also gave the appearance that the division between the leaders and the led was natural. If democratic government is defined as a form of government that serves the interests of its members, rather than being defined in procedural terms, nothing thus far suggests that democracy is impossible. However, the final component of Michelss theory was that the interests of the leaders and the members would inevitably diverge. As the heads of the organization, the leaders interests become identified with their institutional position rather than the interests of the organizations members. The leaders primary concern becomes protecting their position and serving their own ends using the organization as their means.

Despite Michelss pessimistic conclusion about the prospects of democracy, it appears that relatively few governments identified as oligarchic in the literature followed the route he described. Instead, oligarchies have appeared as a consequence of, for example, the devolution of monarchical rule (e.g., in England under King John in the thirteenth century) or the concentration of economic influence (e.g., in Florence around the turn of the fifteenth century and in Chile in the 1830s).

RESEARCHING OLIGARCHY

Since Michelss seminal contribution, there have been few systematic studies of the politics of oligarchy. There are several reasons for why this has been the case. First, many of the issues raised by Michels are not specific to oligarchy as such but have far wider applicability. Representative government has been analyzed extensively in the context of democratic governments. Similarly, whether ordinary members can control their leaders is taken up in the literature on principal-agent theory. Both issues are at the core of Michelss argument. Second, while the term oligarchy is commonly used, there exists no clear, universally accepted definition of oligarchy in the literature (Payne 1968; Leach 2005). Most scholars agree that oligarchy involves the concentration of political power in the hands of a minority, but this form of government has few other universally accepted defining characteristics. Third, because oligarchy is not necessarily seen as incompatible with (free) elections, the line between oligarchy and democracy becomes blurred. The most frequently cited factor distinguishing oligarchy from democracy is that admission into the class of oligarchs is restricted in some manner to a subset of the citizenry. The Greek philosopher Aristotle (384322 BCE) classified oligarchies on the basis of types of restrictions on participation in government, where participation depended on property qualification or heredity (Whibley 1896). South Africa during the apartheid era, where the majority was disenfranchised on the basis of race, serves as an example of another possible type of restriction.

The failure to settle on a definition of oligarchy means that comparative studies, such as The Logic of Political Survival (2004) by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, James Morrow, Randolph Siverson, and Alistair Smith, provide perhaps the most general insights into the politics of oligarchies. Rather than classifying governments as autocratic, democratic, or oligarchic, Bueno de Mesquita and his coauthors instead focus on the size of the group that has a say in the selection of the government or leader and the size of the coalition that the government needs to stay in power. Bueno de Mesquita and colleagues find, for example, that the characteristics associated with oligarchies (i.e., smaller coalitions) tend to reduce economic growth and government expenditures but to increase corruption.

The issue of membership in the governing class also looms large in accounts of the decline of oligarchies. J. Mark Ramseyer and Frances Rosenbluths (1995) account of Japans Meiji oligarchy highlights two problems an oligarchy must solve to survive: it must prevent the membership from being expanded, and, at the same time, it must provide for rules of succession. Ramseyer and Rosenbluth show that oligarchies may be vulnerable to competition for political influence among the oligarchs, which may induce them to mobilize previously excluded sections of society. For the same reason, oligarchs may be unable to agree on institutions that govern succession within the oligarchy. In the Soviet Union, by contrast, the Communist Party provided institutions that checked the actions of the oligarchs, although the rules guiding succession were somewhat ambiguous (Hammer 1990).

SEE ALSO Aristocracy; Aristotle; Democracy; Elites; Elitism; Power, Political; Republic

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bueno de Mesquita, Bruce, Alastair Smith, Randolph Siverson, and James Morrow. 2004. The Logic of Political Survival. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Hammer, Darrell P. 1990. The USSR: The Politics of Oligarchy. 3rd ed. Boulder, CO: Westview.

Hunter, Floyd. 1953. Community Power Structure: A Study of Decision Makers. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Leach, Darcy K. 2005. The Iron Law of What Again? Conceptualizing Oligarchy across Organizational Forms. Sociological Theory 23 (3): 312337.

Michels, Robert. [1911] 1962. Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy. Trans. Edan and Cedar Paul. New York: Free Press.

Olson, Mancur. 1971. The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Payne, James L. 1968. The Oligarchy Muddle. World Politics 20 (3): 439453.

Ramseyer, J. Mark, and Frances M. Rosenbluth. 1995. The Politics of Oligarchy: Institutional Choice in Imperial Japan. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Whibley, Leonard. 1896. Greek Oligarchies: Their Character and Organisation. London: Metheun.

Indridi H. Indridason

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oligarchy

oligarchy (ŏl´əgärkē) [Gr.,=rule by the few], rule by a few members of a community or group. When referring to governments, the classical definition of oligarchy, as given for example by Aristotle, is of government by a few, usually the rich, for their own advantage. It is compared with both aristocracy, which is defined as government by a few chosen for their virtue and ruling for the general good, and various forms of democracy, or rule by the people. In practice, however, almost all governments, whatever their form, are run by a small minority of members. From this perspective, the major distinction between oligarchy and democracy is that in the latter, the elites compete with each other, gaining power by winning public support. The extent and type of barriers impeding those who attempt to join this ruling group is also significant.

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oligarchy

ol·i·gar·chy / ˈäliˌgärkē; ˈōli-/ • n. (pl. -chies) a small group of people having control of a country, organization, or institution: the ruling oligarchy of military men around the president. ∎  a state governed by such a group: the English aristocratic oligarchy of the 19th century. ∎  government by such a group. DERIVATIVES: ol·i·gar·chic / ˌäliˈgärkik; ˌōli-/ adj. ol·i·gar·chi·cal / ˌäliˈgärkikəl; ˌōli-/ adj. ol·i·gar·chi·cal·ly / ˌäliˈgärkik(ə)lē; ˌōli-/ adv.

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oligarchy

oligarchy Any form of government in which there is ‘rule by a few’; for example, by members of a self-regulating élite having domination over a larger society. See also MICHELS, ROBERT; POLITICAL SOCIOLOGY.

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oligarchy

oligarchy System of government in which power is concentrated in the hands of a few, who rule without the requirement of popular support and without external check on their authority. Oligarchs rule in their own interests.

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oligarchy

oligarchy XVII. — (O)F. oligarchie or medL. oligarchia — Gr. oligarkhíā, f. oligárkhēs (whence oligarch XVII), f. oligos few; see -ARCH.

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oligarchy

oligarchyackee, Bacchae, baccy, cracky, Jackie, lackey, tacky, wacky •latchkey • talcy •cranky, Frankie, hanky, hanky-panky, lanky, manky, swanky, wanky, Yankee •Askey, Pulaski •Polanski • Blavatsky • Stanislavsky •ticky-tacky •Iraqi, Kawasaki, khaki, larky, malarkey, menarche, Nagasaki, narky, parky, raki, saké, saki, sarky, souvlaki, sparky, sukiyaki, teriyaki •passkey •matriarchy, patriarchy •diarchy • oligarchy • synarchy •hierarchy •Becky, recce, techie •Elkie • Palenque •Esky, pesky •Dostoevsky, Paderewski •achy, Blakey, flaky, quaky, shaky, snaky, wakey-wakey •headachy •beaky, cheeky, cliquey, cock-a-leekie, creaky, freaky, Geikie, Kon-Tiki, Leakey, leaky, peaky, reeky, sleeky, sneaky, squeaky, streaky, Thessaloníki, tiki, tzatziki

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