The Great Conversation:
Oligarchy

By Gabriel Blanchard

Money is power, sometimes literally.

The word oligarchy comes from the Greek ὀλίγος, meaning “few.” Technically, any government by a small group thus falls under the definition of oligarchy, but the term normally means rule by the rich (plutocracy is thus a synonym, from πλοῦτος “wealth”). In the United States, we tend to think of oligarchy as interchangeable with aristocracy. There are good reasons for this; they certainly rarely differ much in practice. The distinction is more atmospheric than philosophical, though their atmospheres really do differ. The snobbish distinction between inherited wealth and the nouveaux riches captures it rather well, both in its vague pretensions of nobility and in its extreme silliness. (As etiquette columnist Judith Martin wittily put it, “Only nouveaux riches worry about the age of other people’s money. Everyone else, including Old Money, merely worries about money.”)

Rule by the few is one of three types of government Aristotle discusses in the Politics. His ideal type of good rule by the few is what he calls aristocracy, but he does not have a hereditary noble class in mind. Rather, aristocracy in this sense is rule by the virtuous (in theory—Aristotle does not pretend that many cities actually practiced the theory). The alternatives are rule by one person and rule by the majority. Each kind of government can promote the common good; each is susceptible to corruption. Monarchies can become tyrannies, aristocracies can become oligarchies, and democracy can become mob rule. It is partly due to this balance of dangers that Aristotle proposes a mixed constitution, characterized by checks and balances. Medieval city-states in northern Italy, like Florence or Venice, sometimes made use of these mixed systems of governance, and the Founding Fathers deliberately aimed for this in framing the US Constitution.

Insofar as oligarchy means the rule of the rich, we have to consider what kind of riches are relevant. Throughout most of history, right down to the Victorian period, wealth primarily meant land. This is logical enough. Most food is grown or pastured on land; precious metals and stones are mined out of land; houses are built on land, out of wood and stone taken from land (and the more luxurious the house, the more land it generally requires). Moreover, in times and places when serfdom was practiced, owning land meant almost masterly rights over the lives and labor of the peasants who lived there. The Roman Republic included certain property qualifications to participate in the government, and the indenturing or enslavement of the poorer classes by the senatorial class provoked major civil disorders, which themselves paved the way for the formation of the Empire.

When a few rich men take advantage of their wealth to oppress the rest of the people ... such government differs from tyranny only in the fact that the oppressors are many.

St. Thomas Aquinas

Colonialism and the Industrial Revolution, however, created new possibilities that gradually took shape in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe. International trade and industrial production increasingly became the backbone of the economy, at the expense of agriculture. (It is likely no coincidence that Abolitionism began achieving international success right at the time when slave-based economies were being eclipsed.) At the same time, imperial conquest of resource-rich regions like India and sub-Saharan Africa allowed serf-like conditions to be imposed on distant peoples, who had little chance of affecting local politics. It became possible to be fabulously wealthy and thus powerful, without necessarily being the lord of a large aristocratic estate; and estates themselves cost money to maintain, while a fortune made off trade is, so to speak, cheap. Thus, the nineteenth-century transfer of power from the nobility to the hands of businessmen allowed a new type of oligarchy to continue in many places, even while democratic reforms were taking place on paper.

This sets up a contrast that cuts across the oligarchy-democracy distinction: that between political freedom and economic freedom, or between legal and practical liberty. It is easy to make legal equality the law of the land, but (as the hardships and injustices of Reconstruction teach us) difficult to make that legal equality effectively true in society. The rich are, in general, freer in practice than the poor. Which should we put first, official reforms or social ones? Is the answer to that question the same in all circumstances?

Another contrast that reflections on oligarchy often prompt is the contrast between absolutist rule and constitutional rule. The conflict of the aristocratic Ghibelline and republican Guelf parties in Medieval Italy was, formally, a conflict between partisans of the Holy Roman Emperor and those of the Pope. However, these parties largely served oligarchic versus constitutionalist interests, and it was this which motivated Dante to treat the Ghibellines not only as his political enemies, but as spiritually in the wrong, both for oppressing the disadvantaged and their contempt for the rule of law.

Suggested reading:
Herodotus, The Histories III.80-83
Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, Part II
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Le Contrat Social
Federalist No. 57 (attribution uncertain—Alexander Hamilton or James Madison)
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto
James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

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