So what is oligarchy? Well, it is basically a term to describe a form of government system ruled by a small group of people within a society. This is people are so called the “elite”, either defined in terms of wealth, military status, family or even race!
The term oligarchy originates from the Greek word meaning “few” and “rule”.
Origin and History of oligarchy
Now that we know the origin of the word, however, we cannot conclude that oligarchy first originated in Greece. Historical records have shown that oligarchy was practiced by places around the world long ago and this form of government was not very common. The Spring and Autumn Era and the Warring States Period in the Chinese history was in some sense oligarchic where political power rested in the hands of a group of nobles and warlords. Other common states that exercised oligarchy in ancient time would be the Etruscans and city-states in Greek like Sparta and the Roman Republic. In modern times, countries like Japan (notably in the Meiji Era) and 20th century South Africa (Apartheid period), where privilege and power were in the hands of the local European descent who constituted only 20% of the total population.
Map of Sparta
Impact on Society
There are two types of oligarchy: caste and elected oligarchy. In the case of caste, oligarchy is of inheritance. This means if your parents are oligarchs, their political power will be passed on to you when they die. Elected oligarchy was, ironically, just the synonym for democracy. In this type of “oligarchy”, the common elects the members of government. This small group of representative of people is in charge of running the country and faced by hundreds of decisions to make, cannot afford to take into account of every single opinion from the others. Hence, democracy nevertheless is still oligarchic. In fact, Robert Michels, a syndicalism sociologist suggested in his book “Political Parties” that any forms of organization will develop into oligarchy, some are more democratic and some are more autocratic. This is known as the “Iron Law of Oligarchy”. Knowing what kind of organization the oligarchy aimed to reach e.g. democracy at the start is a key point to know what effect it will bring to the society.
In this part of section, we are going to have a closer look on the impact of oligarchy on a society. We will focus mainly on the “caste” oligarchy rather than democracy (you can study it by entering the democracy page). This is because most people were more familiar with this type of oligarchy.
Oligarchy is inevitably related to aristocracy (rule by noble and elite) and plutocracy
(Rule of the wealthy).The oligarchs are a group of privileged people. They receive probably the best education and hold many special rights. This is more likely to create a system of social classification. In the Roman Republic, there are three distinctive classes, namely the Patrician, Equestrian and Plebian class. Likewise, any other oligarchic society will have two groups - the rich and the privileged and the poor who does not have influence. The majority of the people will be classified into the group “poor and not influential”. However, you will find that most wealth went into the pocket of those few privileged people.
In an oligarchic society, not all children will be able to receive good education; the destitute ones cannot afford to have it as a result of deepening of social cracks created by this system. In Britain, those having access to real power appear to have attended private schools and the two oldest English universities.
The level of economy will be based on how good the rulers are. However, under some circumstances there may be a monopoly of trade. This is not good news for people who have the potential to be great businessman.
1. Social hierarchy distinguishes poor and rich.
2. The rich and powerful will become richer and more powerful and the poor will be likely to remain poor as before.
3. Fewer opportunities for the common.
4. With most of the money in the hands of a few, the common may not be happy and a revolution may happen,
5. In the case of hereditary oligarchy, the rulers may not always be competent and this may result in the collapse of a nation.
6. Corruption is likely to occur.
According to the pro-oligarchic article “Oligarchy, the Utopian system” it is stated that one thing fantastic about the oligarchy is the ratio of those holding power to the ordinary people, not the system itself. This so-called perfect ratio is 1 to 400.This ratio allows the oligarchs to govern easily. Suppose I described democracy and autocracy as two opposing ends, oligarchy will be right at the center. Suppose that an autocratic government can be represented by the ratio 1 to 10000; in this case the ruler will be out of touch of what is going on in the country because he is in charge with so many people. On the other hand, suppose that a democratic government is represented by 1 to 100, the government officials will be lazy to deal with problems because they had virtually no control over the government. Nevertheless this is just an assumption.
If you are a poor person, you probably won’t like this system at all and likewise if you are a rich person, you will love it and maybe you will be even getting opportunity to rule because of your wealth and your generous donation to the authority. Perhaps it’s quite hard to make people patriotic to their nation because the oligarchs will probably be thinking of many more money, as well as the affluent ones and the destitute will be struggling through and grumbling about the government and after all, oligarchy usually does not aim to raise nationalism and unity. Below are some quotes about oligarchy from several famous people.
“Where some people are very wealthy and others have nothing, the result will be either extreme democracy or absolute oligarchy, or despotism will come from either of those excesses.”
Aristotle (Ancient Greek Philosopher, Scientist and Physician, 384 BC-322 BC).
“Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to that arrogant oligarchy who merely happen to be walking around.”
G. K. Chesterton quotes (English born Gabonese Critic, Essayist, Novelist and Poet, 1874-1936)
“An oligarchy of private capital cannot be effectively checked even by a democratically organized political society because under existing conditions, private capitalists inevitably control, directly or indirectly, the main sources of information.”
Albert Einstein quotes (German born American Physicist)
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Oligarchy page. (2007, August 9). Retrieved March 22, 2008, from http://www.angelfire.com/mac/egmatthews/worldinfo/glossary/oligarchy.html.
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