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Oligarchy (from Greek ὀλιγαρχία (oligarkhía); from ὀλίγος (olígos), meaning "a few", and ἄρχω (archo), meaning "to rule or to command") is a form of power structure in which power effectively rests with a small number of people. These people could be distinguished by royalty, wealth, family ties, education, corporate, or military control. Such states are often controlled by a few prominent families who pass their influence from one generation to the next.
Throughout history, oligarchies have been tyrannical (relying on public servitude to exist) or relatively benign. Aristotle pioneered the use of the term as a synonym for rule by the rich, for which the exact term is plutocracy, but oligarchy is not always a rule by wealth, as oligarchs can simply be a privileged group, and do not have to be connected by bloodlines as in a monarchy.
Especially during the Fourth Century BC, after the restoration of democracy from oligarchical coups, the Athenians used the drawing of lots for selecting government officers in order to counteract what the Athenians acutely saw as a tendency toward oligarchy in government if a professional governing class were allowed to use their skills for their own benefit. They drew lots from large groups of adult volunteers as a selection technique for civil servants performing judicial, executive, and administrative functions (archai, boulē, and hēliastai). They even used lots for very important posts, such as judges and jurors in the political courts (nomothetai), which had the power to overrule the Assembly.Manifestations
Forms of government and other political structures associated with oligarchy can include aristocracy, meritocracy, military junta, plutocracy, stratocracy, technocracy, theocracy and timocracy.Corporate oligarchy Main article: Corporatocracy
Corporate oligarchy is a form of power, governmental or operational, where such power effectively rests with a small, elite group of inside individuals, sometimes from a small group of educational institutions, or influential economic entities or devices, such as banks, commercial entities, lobbyists that act in complicity with, or at the whim of the oligarchy, often with little or no regard for constitutionally protected prerogative. Monopolies are sometimes granted to state-controlled entities, such as the Royal Charter granted to the East India Company, or privileged bargaining rights to unions (labor monopolies) with very partisan political interests. Today's multinational corporations function as corporate oligarchies with undue and excessive control and influence over democratically elected officials.Political theory Further information: Iron law of oligarchy
Robert Michels believed that any political system eventually evolves into an oligarchy. He called this the iron law of oligarchy. According to this school of thought, many modern democracies should be considered as oligarchies. In these systems, actual differences between viable political rivals are small, the oligarchic elite impose strict limits on what constitutes an acceptable and respectable political position, and politicians' careers depend heavily on unelected economic and media elites. Thus the popular phrase: there is only one political party, the incumbent party.Specific examples European Union
Some examples would include the European Union which, while it does not hold much political sway on a national level; has the authority to dictate some laws of member nations and impose norms and policies that may not have been voted for by national referendum. Given that the leadership of the EU is subject to a particularly low voter turnout, it may be termed an oligarchy of the European Council members. The political relations between members, who would normally display a broad array of responses and policies in a democratic system are repetitive and contingent. 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.Soviet Union
Another example would be the former Soviet Union where only members of the Communist Party were allowed to vote or hold office; the French First Republic government under the Directory; and the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth (only the nobility could vote). In the time of the ancient Greeks, Sparta was an oligarchy that clashed with the democratic city-state of Athens, (these two nations eventually clashed in the Peloponnesian war in which Sparta defeated Athens causing the city state to rule much of Greece for some time).
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union on 31 December 1991, privately owned Russia-based multinational corporations, including producers of petroleum, natural gas, and metal have, in the view of some analysts, become oligarchs. In May 2004, the Russian edition of Forbes identified 36 of these oligarchs as being worth at least $1 billion.South Africa
A modern example of oligarchy could be seen in South Africa during the twentieth century. Here, the basic characteristics of oligarchy are particularly easy to observe, since the South African form of oligarchy was based on race. After the Second Boer War, a tacit agreement or understanding was reached between English- and Afrikaans-speaking whites. Together, they made up about twenty percent of the population, but this small percentage ruled the vast non-white and mixed-race population. Whites had access to virtually all the educational and trade opportunities, and they proceeded to deny this to the black majority even further than before.
Although this process had been going on since the mid-17th- 18th century, after 1948 it became official government policy and became known worldwide as apartheid. This lasted until the arrival of democracy in South Africa in 1994, punctuated by the transition to a democratically-elected government dominated by the black majority.United States
Some contemporary authors have characterized the United States' current state of affairs as being oligarchic in nature. Simon Johnson wrote that "the reemergence of an American financial oligarchy is quite recent," a structure which he delineated as being the "most advanced" in the world. Jeffrey A. Winters argues that "oligarchy and democracy operate within a single system, and American politics is a daily display of their interplay." Bernie Sanders (I-VT) opined in a 2010 The Nation article that an "upper-crust of extremely wealthy families are hell-bent on destroying the democratic vision of a strong middle-class which has made the United States the envy of the world. In its place they are determined to create an oligarchy in which a small number of families control the economic and political life of our country."
United States political and finance industry leadership has recently been dominated by people associated with Harvard and Yale. All nine members of the current Supreme Court attended Harvard or Yale law schools. The last member appointed to the court who was not a former student at one of those two institutions was Sandra Day O'Connor, appointed by the newly elected President Ronald Reagan in 1981. Reagan was also the last United States President who did not attend either Harvard or Yale.In fiction
A well-known fictional oligarchy is represented by the Party in George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. The socialists in the Jack London novel The Iron Heel' fight a rebellion against the oligarchy ruling in the United States.Authors
Prolific authors on the subject of oligarchy include Vilfredo Pareto, Gaetano Mosca, Thomas R. Dye, Robert Michels, Plato, Webster Tarpley, and Ioannes Zwetsch.