Oligarchy (from Greek ὀλιγαρχία (oligarkhía) 'rule by few'; from ὀλίγος (olígos) 'few', and ἄρχω (arkho) 'to rule or to command')[1][2][3] is a conceptual form of power structure in which power rests with a small number of people. These people may or may not be distinguished by one or several characteristics, such as nobility, fame, wealth, education, or corporate, religious, political, or military control.

Throughout history, power structures considered to be oligarchies have often been viewed as tyrannical, relying on public obedience or oppression to exist. Aristotle pioneered the use of the term as meaning rule by the rich,[4] for which another term commonly used today is plutocracy. In the early 20th century Robert Michels developed the theory that democracies, like all large organizations, tend to turn into oligarchies. In his "Iron law of oligarchy" he suggests that the necessary division of labor in large organizations leads to the establishment of a ruling class mostly concerned with protecting their own power.

Minority rule

The exclusive consolidation of power by a dominant religious or ethnic minority has also been described as a form of oligarchy.[5] Examples of this system include South Africa under apartheid, Liberia under Americo-Liberians, the Sultanate of Zanzibar, and Rhodesia, where the installation of oligarchic rule by the descendants of foreign settlers was primarily regarded as a legacy of various forms of colonialism.[5]

Putative oligarchies

A business group might be defined as an oligarchy if it satisfies all of the following conditions:

  • Owners are the largest private owners in the country.
  • It possesses sufficient political power to promote its own interests.
  • Owners control multiple businesses, which intensively coordinate their activities.[6]

Intellectual oligarchies

George Bernard Shaw defined in his play Major Barbara, premiered in 1905 and first published in 1907, a new type of Oligarchy namely the intellectual oligarchy that acts against the interests of the common people: "I now want to give the common man weapons against the intellectual man. I love the common people. I want to arm them against the lawyer, the doctor, the priest, the literary man, the professor, the artist, and the politician, who, once in authority, is the most dangerous, disastrous, and tyrannical of all the fools, rascals, and impostors. I want a democratic power strong enough to force the intellectual oligarchy to use its genius for the general good or else perish."[7]

Cases perceived as oligarchies

Jeffrey A. Winters and Benjamin I. Page have described Colombia, Indonesia, Russia, Singapore, and the United States as oligarchies.[8]


During the presidency of Ferdinand Marcos from 1965 to 1986, several monopolies arose in the Philippines, particularly centred around the family and close associates of the president. This period, as well as subsequent decades, have led some analysts to describe the country as an oligarchy.[9][10][11][12] President Rodrigo Duterte, who was elected in 2016, spoke of dismantling oligarchy during his presidency.[13][12]

Russian Federation

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and privatization of the economy in December 1991, privately owned Russia-based multinational corporations, including producers of petroleum, natural gas, and metal have, in the view of many analysts, led to the rise of Russian oligarchs.[14] Most of these are connected directly to the highest-ranked government officials, such as the president.


The religious government of Iran formed after the 1979 Iranian revolution is described as a clerical oligarchy led by a coalition of militant Khomeinist ideologues and fundamentalist Shia clergy. The ruling system led by clerical oligarchs is known as "Velayat e-Faqih" , i.e, governance by a class of Twelver Shia marja designated with the title of "Ayatollah". Highest ranking Shia cleric in the political system is the "Rahbar" (Supreme Leader) who serves for life and is considered to be a Ma'sum (infallible) and "protector of the faith" in Khomeinist theology. The clerical oligarchs supervise the activities of the parliament and controls the armed forces, state media, sectors of the national economy and religious funds. The Rahbar is also the military chief of the Iranian armed forces and directly controls the conglomerate of Khomeinist paramilitaries known as the IRGC.[15][16]


The Ukrainian oligarchs are a group of business oligarchs that quickly appeared on the economic and political scene of Ukraine after its independence in 1991. Overall there are 35 oligarchic groups.[6]

On September 23 2021 Ukrainian government released the Law (№ 1780-ІХ) which is primarily focused on protecting national interest and limiting oligarchs impact on democracy in Ukraine.

United States

The Bosses of the Senate, corporate interests as giant money bags looming over senators.[17]

Some contemporary authors have characterized conditions in the United States in the 21st century as oligarchic in nature.[18][19] Simon Johnson wrote in 2009 that "the reemergence of an American financial oligarchy is quite recent", a structure which he delineated as being the "most advanced" in the world.[20] Jeffrey A. Winters wrote that "oligarchy and democracy operate within a single system, and American politics is a daily display of their interplay."[21] The top 1% of the U.S. population by wealth in 2007 had a larger share of total income than at any time since 1928.[22] In 2011, according to PolitiFact and others, the top 400 wealthiest Americans "have more wealth than half of all Americans combined."[23][24][25][26]

In 1998, Bob Herbert of The New York Times referred to modern American plutocrats as "The Donor Class"[27][28] (list of top donors)[29] and defined the class, for the first time,[30] as "a tiny group—just one-quarter of 1 percent of the population—and it is not representative of the rest of the nation. But its money buys plenty of access."[27]

French economist Thomas Piketty states in his 2013 book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, that "the risk of a drift towards oligarchy is real and gives little reason for optimism about where the United States is headed."[31]

A 2014 study by political scientists Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin Page of Northwestern University stated that "majorities of the American public actually have little influence over the policies our government adopts."[32] The study analyzed nearly 1,800 policies enacted by the US government between 1981 and 2002 and compared them to the expressed preferences of the American public as opposed to wealthy Americans and large special interest groups.[33] It found that wealthy individuals and organizations representing business interests have substantial political influence, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little to none. The study did concede that "Americans do enjoy many features central to democratic governance, such as regular elections, freedom of speech and association, and a widespread (if still contested) franchise." Gilens and Page do not characterize the US as an "oligarchy" per se; however, they do apply the concept of "civil oligarchy" as used by Jeffrey Winters with respect to the US. Winters has posited a comparative theory of "oligarchy" in which the wealthiest citizens – even in a "civil oligarchy" like the United States – dominate policy concerning crucial issues of wealth- and income protection.[34]

Gilens says that average citizens only get what they want if wealthy Americans and business-oriented interest groups also want it; and that when a policy favored by the majority of the American public is implemented, it is usually because the economic elites did not oppose it.[35] Other studies have criticized the Page and Gilens study.[36][37][38][39] Page and Gilens have defended their study from criticism.[39]

In a 2015 interview, former President Jimmy Carter stated that the United States is now "an oligarchy with unlimited political bribery" due to the Citizens United v. FEC ruling which effectively removed limits on donations to political candidates.[40] Wall Street spent a record $2 billion trying to influence the 2016 United States presidential election.[41][42]

See also


  1. "ὀλίγος", Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus Digital Library
  2. "ἄρχω", Liddell/Scott.
  3. "ὀλιγαρχία". Liddell/Scott.
  4. Winters (2011) p. 26-28. "Aristotle writes that 'oligarchy is when men of property have the government in their hands... wherever men rule by reason of their wealth, whether they be few or many, that is an oligarchy, and where the poor rule, that is a democracy'."
  5. Coleman, James; Rosberg, Carl (1966). Political Parties and National Integration in Tropical Africa. Los Angeles: University of California Press. pp. 681–683. ISBN 978-0520002531.
  6. Chernenko, Demid (2018). "Capital structure and oligarch ownership" (PDF). Economic Change and Restructuring. 52 (4): 383–411. doi:10.1007/S10644-018-9226-9. S2CID 56232563.
  7. Shaw, Bernard und Baziyan, Vitaly. 2-in-1: English-German. Major Barbara & Major in Barbara. New York, 2020, ISBN 979-8692881076
  8. Winters, Jeffrey; Page, Benjamin (2009). "Oligarchy in the United States?". Perspectives on Politics (published December 2009). 7 (4): 731–751. doi:10.1017/S1537592709991770. S2CID 144432999. Retrieved 12 March 2022. the concept of oligarchy can be fruitfully applied not only to places like Singapore, Colombia, Russia, and Indonesia, but also to the contemporary United States.
  9. Hutchcroft, Paul D. (April 1991). "Oligarchs and Cronies in the Philippine State the Politics of Patrimonial Plunder". World Politics. 43 (3): 414–450. doi:10.2307/2010401. ISSN 1086-3338. JSTOR 2010401. S2CID 154855272.
  10. Mendoza, Ronald U.; Bulaong, Oscar Jr.; Mendoza, Gabrielle Ann S. (1 February 2022). "Cronyism, Oligarchy and Governance in the Philippines: 1970s vs 2020s". SSRN 4032259.
  11. Quimpo, Nathan Gilbert (2015), "Can the Philippines' wild oligarchy be tamed?", Routledge Handbook of Southeast Asian Democratization, Routledge, pp. 347–362, doi:10.4324/9781315674735-30, ISBN 978-1-315-67473-5, retrieved 15 May 2022
  12. "Explainer: The oligarchy in the Philippines is more than just one family or firm". Philstar.com. Retrieved 15 May 2022.
  13. Ruth Abbey Gita-Carlos. "Duterte takes pride in dismantling oligarchy". Philippine News Agency. Retrieved 15 May 2022.
  14. Scheidel, Walter (2017). The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century. Princeton University Press. pp. 51 & 222–223. ISBN 978-0691165028.
  15. Kazemzadeh, Masoud (2020). Iran's Foreign Policy: Elite Factionalism, Ideology, the Nuclear Weapons Program, and the United States. 52 Vanderbilt Avenue, New York, NY 10017: Routledge. pp. 1–19. ISBN 978-0-367-49545-9.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location (link)
  16. Amuzager, Jahangir (2014). The Islamic Republic of Iran: Reflections on an Emerging Economy. 711 Third Avenue, New York, NY 10017, USA: Routledge. pp. 48–50, 88–89. ISBN 978-1-85743-748-5.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location (link)
  17. Joseph Keppler, Puck (January 23, 1889)
  18. Kroll, Andy (2 December 2010). "The New American Oligarchy". TomDispatch. Truthout. Archived from the original on 22 January 2012. Retrieved 17 August 2012.
  19. Starr, Paul (24 August 2012). "America on the Brink of Oligarchy". The New Republic.
  20. Johnson, Simon (May 2009). "The Quiet Coup". The Atlantic. Retrieved 17 August 2012.
  21. Winters, Jeffrey A. (November–December 2011) [28 September 2011]. "Oligarchy and Democracy". The American Interest. 7 (2). Retrieved 17 August 2012.
  22. "Tax Data Show Richest 1 Percent Took a Hit in 2008, But Income Remained Highly Concentrated at the Top. Recent Gains of Bottom 90 Percent Wiped Out". Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. 25 May 2011. Retrieved 30 May 2014.
  23. Kertscher, Tom; Borowski, Greg (10 March 2011). "The Truth-O-Meter Says: True – Michael Moore says 400 Americans have more wealth than half of all Americans combined". PolitiFact. Retrieved 11 August 2013.
  24. Moore, Michael (6 March 2011). "America Is Not Broke". Huffington Post. Retrieved 11 August 2013.
  25. Moore, Michael (7 March 2011). "The Forbes 400 vs. Everybody Else". michaelmoore.com. Archived from the original on 9 March 2011. Retrieved 28 August 2014.
  26. Pepitone, Julianne (22 September 2010). "Forbes 400: The super-rich get richer". CNN. Retrieved 11 August 2013.
  27. Herbert, Bob (19 July 1998). "The Donor Class". The New York Times. Retrieved 10 March 2016.
  28. Confessore, Nicholas; Cohen, Sarah; Yourish, Karen (10 October 2015). "The Families Funding the 2016 Presidential Election". The New York Times. Retrieved 10 March 2016.
  29. Lichtblau, Eric; Confessore, Nicholas (10 October 2015). "From Fracking to Finance, a Torrent of Campaign Cash – Top Donors List". The New York Times. Retrieved 11 March 2016.
  30. McCutcheon, Chuck (26 December 2014). "Why the 'donor class' matters, especially in the GOP presidential scrum". "The Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved 10 March 2016.
  31. Piketty, Thomas (2014). Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Belknap Press. ISBN 067443000X p. 514
  32. Gilens, Martin & Page, Benjamin I. (2014). "Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens" (PDF). Perspectives on Politics. 12 (3): 564–581. doi:10.1017/S1537592714001595.
  33. "Major Study Finds The US Is An Oligarchy". businessinsider.com.
  34. Gilens & Page (2014) p. 6
  35. Prokop, A. (18 April 2014) "The new study about oligarchy that's blowing up the Internet, explained" Vox
  36. Bashir, Omar S. (1 October 2015). "Testing Inferences about American Politics: A Review of the "Oligarchy" Result". Research & Politics. 2 (4): 2053168015608896. doi:10.1177/2053168015608896. ISSN 2053-1680.
  37. Enns, Peter K. (1 December 2015). "Relative Policy Support and Coincidental Representation". Perspectives on Politics. 13 (4): 1053–1064. doi:10.1017/S1537592715002315. ISSN 1541-0986. S2CID 14664012.
  38. Enns, Peter K. (1 December 2015). "Reconsidering the Middle: A Reply to Martin Gilens". Perspectives on Politics. 13 (4): 1072–1074. doi:10.1017/S1537592715002339. ISSN 1541-0986. S2CID 148467972.
  39. Matthews, Dylan (9 May 2016). "Remember that study saying America is an oligarchy? 3 rebuttals say it's wrong". Vox. Retrieved 10 November 2021.
  40. Kreps, Daniel (31 July 2015). "Jimmy Carter: U.S. Is an 'Oligarchy With Unlimited Political Bribery'". Rolling Stone.
  41. "Wall Street spends record $2bn on US election lobbying". Financial Times. 8 March 2017. Archived from the original on 10 December 2022.
  42. "Wall Street Spent $2 Billion Trying to Influence the 2016 Election". Fortune. 8 March 2017.

Further reading

  • Aslund, Anders (2005), "Comparative Oligarchy: Russia, Ukraine and the United States", CASE Network Studies and Analyses No. 296 (PDF), Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, doi:10.2139/ssrn.1441910, S2CID 153769623
  • Gordon, Daniel (2010). "Hiring Law Professors: Breaking the Back of an American Plutocratic Oligarchy". Widener Law Journal. 19: 1–29. SSRN 1412783.
  • Hollingsworth, Mark; Lansley, Stewart (12 August 2010). Londongrad: From Russia with Cash: The Inside Story of the Oligarchs. Fourth Estate. ISBN 978-0007356379.
  • J. M. Moore, ed. (1986). Aristotle and Xenophon on democracy and oligarchy. University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-02909-5.
  • Ostwald, M. Oligarchia: The Development of a Constitutional Form in Ancient Greece (Historia Einzelschirften; 144). Stuttgart: Steiner, 2000 (ISBN 3-515-07680-8).
  • Ramseyer, J. Mark; Rosenbluth, Frances McCall (28 March 1998). The Politics of Oligarchy: Institutional Choice in Imperial Japan. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0521636490.
  • Tabachnick, David; Koivukoski, Toivu (20 January 2012). On Oligarchy: Ancient Lessons for Global Politics. University of Toronto Press. ISBN 978-1442661165.
  • Whibley, Leonard (1896). Greek oligarchies, their character and organisations. G. P. Putnam's Sons.
  • Winters, Jeffrey A. (2011). Oligarchy. Northwestern University, Illinois: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-1107005280.
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