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What is an Oligarchy?

L. S. Wynn
By L. S. Wynn
Updated May 23, 2024
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An oligarchy is a form of government in which most of the political power effectively rests with a small segment of society, typically the people who have the most wealth, military strength, ruthlessness or political influence. The word "oligarchy" from the Greek words olígos, which means "few," and archo, which means "to rule". Some political theorists have argued that all societies are inevitably oligarchies, regardless of their supposed political system.

How Oligarchies Form

Oligarchies are often controlled by a few powerful families whose children are raised and mentored to become inheritors of power, often at some sort of expense to those governed. In contrast with aristocracy — or government by the "best" — this power might not always be exercised openly, with some oligarchs preferring to remain "the power behind the throne," exerting their control through economic means. Unlike plutocracy, oligarchy is not always a rule by wealth, either, because oligarchs can simply be a privileged cadre. It also has been suggested that most communist states fit the definition of oligarchies.

Societies also might become oligarchies by default, as an outgrowth of the shifting alliances of warring tribal chieftains, although any form of government might transform into an oligarchy at some point in its evolution. The most likely mechanism for this transformation is a gradual accumulation of otherwise unchecked economic power. Oligarchies also might evolve into more classically authoritarian forms of government, sometimes as the result of one family gaining ascendancy over the others. Many of the European monarchies established during the late Middle Ages began in this way.

England in the 1200s

Oligarchies also might become instruments of transformation, insisting that monarchs or dictators share power, thereby opening the door to power-sharing by other elements of society. One example of this process occurred when English nobles banded together in 1215 to force a reluctant King John to sign the Magna Carta, a tacit recognition both of the king's waning political power and of the existence of an incipient oligarchy. As English society continued to grow and develop, the Magna Carta was repeatedly revised over the next decade, guaranteeing greater rights to greater numbers of people, thus setting the stage for British constitutional monarchy.

South Africa in the 1900s

A modern example of oligarchy could be seen in 20th-century South Africa, where the basic characteristics of oligarchy were particularly easy to observe, because the South African form of oligarchy was based on racism. After the Boer War, a tacit agreement was reached between English-speaking and Afrikaans-speaking whites. Together, they made up about 20 percent of the population, but this small percentage had access to virtually all the educational and trade opportunities, and the minority proceeded to deny these opportunities to the black majority even more than before. Although this process had been going on since the mid-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 that was dominated by the black majority.

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Discussion Comments

By anon985382 — On Jan 15, 2015

The moment that the government politicians chose to betray, and to rule 'over' the will of the people, America became an oligarchy.

By anon351909 — On Oct 17, 2013

This really helped me on my project on oligarchy!

By vnapier07 — On Oct 04, 2013

Whether or not a country is an oligarchy is entirely debatable. For example, some people would argue that Britain is an oligarchy due to how most of the bourgeoisie control most of the country, as well as the fact that there isn’t a fair distribution of wealth. However, are there really any examples throughout the world of a place where wealth is distributed effectively? Therefore, you could argue the world in general is based on oligarchic principles.

By anon339162 — On Jun 21, 2013

I agree with Clayton. The new world order is definitely an oligarchy with a few families hidden behind the scene dictating the direction of economics, politics and military maneuvers worldwide. Read, timeline of the Rothschild families online or research it if you want to know who the world's puppet masters are.

By anon326215 — On Mar 20, 2013

To everyone who is arguing whether this or that state is an oligarchy, remember that as the article said, an oligarchy can exist independently from the government.

For example, the healthcare system in the U.S. resembles an oligarchy. Deals are made between providers and insurance which consumers have no choice in, and furthermore, the consumers have no choice between different avenues of healthcare as would be the case in an open market.

Rather, insurance dictates what will be covered and what will not be covered. It's not an option to pay out-of-pocket for anything other than minor issues because it is far too expensive. Hence, no one has an open market choice and prices keep rising. As a result of higher prices, insurance companies exert even more control.

This cycle will probably happen over and over until a breaking point is hit, either by the healthcare industry itself or when consumers finally gain some courage and begin to speak up. Still, I doubt consumers could do so because the issue involves their very existence: health, well-being, and ability to survive. Either way, it'll get ugly and society will only have itself to blame (that includes those people directly responsible for this unethical system in the first place).

By anon291491 — On Sep 14, 2012

"It also has been suggested that most communist states fit the definition of oligarchies."

This is an example of the power of Bourgeois revisionism via the US media and education system.

By anon275385 — On Jun 18, 2012

What about any particularly famous examples? Like anything about Ancient Greece, or whatever?

By anon267637 — On May 10, 2012

Yeah, this isn't really telling me some examples of where it's used in the world today. Like in the modern world right now with everything rising, where is oligarchy still used? And I don't think it's England because that's a constitutional monarchy.

I just need some of examples, like in some rural areas of the world today, maybe oligarchy is used there? Well this article doesn't really give me many answers to the numerous questions I have right now.

By anon241805 — On Jan 20, 2012

What would it be like to live in an oligarchy government? Would it be harsh?

By Clayton — On Aug 22, 2011

A Monolithic World Conspiracy has been implemented by a most elite group of people quartered in the circles of economic, social, political and military institutions. Men like David Rockefeller and Nathan Rothschild are leading members in this New World Order or shall we refer to this powerful group of people the hidden Oligarchy? Nothing occurs on this planet other, than natural events, without the blessing of this dark and heartless menace.

President John F. Kennedy warned of this World Monolithic power. His national emergency address in 1963 about this conspiracy very well have cost him his life.

By anon161599 — On Mar 20, 2011

Egypt is a good example of a modern oligarchy. But i am not too sure if it still is but yeah, it's been one since 1953.

By anon150430 — On Feb 08, 2011

How are the rulers of the oligarchy decided?

By anon150085 — On Feb 06, 2011

The united states is not an oligarchy exactly. It has tendencies of an oligarchy but is not. The united states is a democratic republic and according to Polybus's cycle after aristocracy comes oligarchy then democracy. Then Anarchy.

Anarchy-Monarchy-tyranny-Aristocracy-Oligarchy-democracy- Anarchy *repeat*

By anon109735 — On Sep 08, 2010

How would the Bush family come to power through nazi money? And if you want my opinion,the US is turning more into socialism than an oligarchy. The united States of America is a democracy, for now. eventually we will turn into a socialist state, and this transformation will occur faster if liberals keep getting elected into power.

By anon106230 — On Aug 24, 2010

Before people bash Glenn Beck. Sorry, but although you are correct you are missing that those like Glenn Beck are part of the established oligarchy by proxy. It's called controlling the issue. They are pretending to give you information but only give you the parts they want and always pointing a finger at "the other". This allows them to control the debate. This is classic American politics: give the illusion of choice.

People should look for the information themselves and what you will find is that we all let this happen. Both sides not only sat by while "the farm was being given away", many embraced the financial worship and faith in all things monetary that allowed this to happen and resists change even today.

We didn't become an oligarchy over one election. It happened over decades, gained momentum starting with Reagan and continued until the present day. It's just blatant these days because they have converted the people to believe in power of the almighty dollar over all else. And when that happens, those with the money naturally become the rulers.

#31: You talk a good game but you are just waking up to something that has gone on for a long time. How do I know you just woke up? Because of the language you use. You use the language not of one that sees the truth. but one that has been told what the truth should be. I am not saying this to bash you -- just to warn you.

We are all both on the same side so don't take the warning as discouragement. I offer it for quite the opposite reason. We need to confront this with eyed wide open or people will just get distracted or apathetic and nothing will change.

Sadly, it's because people can be divided so easily that we are not all striving for the same things. We should be but too many refusing to put aside their ideologies long enough to come together for the common good.

Many in today's political theater are too easily co-oped by established power (i.e. the majority of the Tea Party presently) and/or unwilling to let go of the illusions they hold on to even see the problems, let alone address them.

I agree we must all come together but that's not going to happen as long as those like Glenn Beck can control the information. When the Republicans gain power again, you will see that this uprising and will to change is just an illusion and that people really don't want to know the truth, nor do they care if they are controlled, as long as it their brand of control they have to live under.

Many people don't understand freedom, and don't really want freedom because the price is too high and their beliefs too ingrained to truly take the blinders off. I hope I am wrong, but just as I suspected this crash and rise of the fake "revolution" would unfold I fear nothing will really change, at least not in time.

By anon88474 — On Jun 05, 2010

Before people bash Glenn Beck, or even the liberal media, do your own research. Read stated objectives in organizations, such as the Trilateral, Bilderberg, etc.

If you haven't actually read Saul Alinsky or Hillary's thesis, do so! Then, use higher level thinking: analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. If you still think conservatives today aren't right, you're wearing blinders and won't let go of your own biases. Read what the founding fathers feared and tried to prevent. Unfortunately, they didn't listen to Patrick Henry and left some back doors open, and America's enemies infiltrated both the Republican and Democratic parties.

Stop pointing fingers at past presidents, their party affiliations, and accusing people of being racist. Progressives were/are all fighting for the same thing: power. Don't you get it? Only a return to strict Constitutional law and common sense is going to save America! If you truly love this country, kick every incumbent out of office and replace them with a patriotic American who will put country first and party last.

Educate yourself first, then you have a right to take sides. I know which one I'm on, and it sure isn't for an oligarchy, progressives with hidden agendas, or a welfare state.

By anon81767 — On May 03, 2010

The US is an oligarchy. The total assets of the top six banks in America is 60 percent of the United State's GNP. To add to that, they are also shareholders of the Federal Reserve.

If you have control over the money of a nation, then you pretty much have control over most of the nation and its governmental institutions.

I never understood why Tea Partiers and Republicans blame Obama and the government for the economic problems in America. Most politicians are just the bank's puppets.

By anon81393 — On May 01, 2010

The U.S. is the most blatant form of a modern oligarchy. If you cannot see this, their mission has succeeded.

By anon81067 — On Apr 29, 2010

A great example of an oligarchy is the Bush family. It came to prominence through Nazi money and slowly but surely weaseled their way into White House twice. The second time was more memorable since it was done with a blunt fraud produced by W Jr.'s brother.

But you won't get any better example of oligarchic style of thinking then the agenda of the right-wing neocons: "Let's give more money to the rich so they can fund the economy". It is the single most obvious idiosyncratic statement in the history.

What this translates into is better education, more opportunities and ultimately more political and economical power to the rich.

And behold, I give you the creation of the ruling class of people. Sounds like a direct road to oligarchy or rather plutocracy.

P.S. whoever posted that oligarchy leads to socialism should go and read the definition of both in the dictionary. Oligarchy and socialism are polar opposites on the spectrum of resource distribution and government arrangement. Think and read before posting nonsense!

By anon73400 — On Mar 27, 2010

Socialism to oligarchy. ann coulter, glenn beck, and rush limbaugh didn't get their jobs through a left-wing funded voter fraud organization (acorn, "gee, i don't remember, it's been 13 years"..."don't worry i call them.") and then once employed send their union thug pals to beat up black men in the street, then bribe and threaten U.S. reps to jam a 2.5 T HCB down the general public's throat and then lie with a straight face about all the billions being saved?

anon 58147 the only revolt you need to be concerned about are the 15 million criminals demanding free welfare, free WC, free education, free incarceration(see CA), free, free, free obama money. what will happen when the obama money runs out? hmmm?

By anon72876 — On Mar 24, 2010

The whole explanation and using the apartheid system as an example for an oligarchy just is true, but only a half truth. I'm so tired of political correctness. If a white man kills he's a murderer. If a black man kills he reckons it's his culture.

By anon62671 — On Jan 27, 2010

In response to post 22, it is indeed sad that the current White House and the 14 percent or so of liberals within this great country have turned us into an oligarchy.

Proving this fact is the loud very minority whining about the majority being fed up with our country being driven by the long-standing oligarchy of liberals being allowed to dictate U.S. internal and external policy because of politically correct B.S.

We're tired of hearing how bad our society is from those who wouldn't leave here and go to where it is so much better because it's all a perpetuated lie, so that woe is me attitude dictates the U.S. oligarchy through the courts and white house.

Please feel free to emigrate if freedom of speech only applies to the 14 percent or so, because we the people want our freedom of speech, freedoms and our country back. Good luck!

By anon58147 — On Dec 30, 2009

Sadly, the United States has become an oligarchy. When the people do not speak up and allow the insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies, and Wall Street execs to become greedy and even bring this country to its knees with the recent financial meltdown, democracy takes a hard hit.

This hard hit was also manifested when Al Gore was the elected president, yet a mainly right-wing Supreme Court handed the presidency over to Bush, and we saw what an eight-year disaster that turned out to be!

Until the people stop being manipulated by right-wing propaganda (from irresponsible nut cases like Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, etc.) rise up and protest, as they do in France, things will just get worse for most Americans. I keep wondering how much worse it will have to get before the majority population revolts.

By anon56684 — On Dec 16, 2009

Some fox news nuts are spreading more propaganda. pathetic. all the crazy right wingers need to come out and say its because obama is black. hell, under bush and Reagan together, fiscal responsibility went out of the window, yet none of them said a thing. the only president in recent times to bring the deficit to a surplus was clinton, and while they were anti-clinton he was white, so its all right.

By anon55444 — On Dec 07, 2009

The USA is not an oligarchy!

By anon54853 — On Dec 02, 2009

yes, since the end of apartheid ended in South Africa, the poor have become poorer and the a new social class of elite rich have established themselves. Poor South Africa

By anon48001 — On Oct 08, 2009

how do they make decisions? do they just ask each other?

By anon47375 — On Oct 04, 2009

there are no modern forms of oligarchy, unless you want to count the USA, though I believe we aren't there yet.

By anon43440 — On Aug 28, 2009

watch glen beck on fox channel TV to learn more about oligarchy government.

By anon43432 — On Aug 28, 2009

our US government is on the verge of being transformed into an oligarchy. this is the number 1 agenda of obama and his czars including some members of Congress. Beware!

By anon42677 — On Aug 23, 2009

khilafah is the solution for mankind. it will rule world peacefully. by the will of god. Asim

By wisereal — On Jul 28, 2009

Nigeria is a practical example of an Oligarchy in modern society if Nigeria. Since the Independence in 1960 till now, only one two region has been producing presidents and as matter of fact they are seeing themselves as the sole owners of Nigeria. They make rules for others to follow, if they say no to anything, everyone must accept it. These two regions are namely, Hausa/Fulani and Yoruba. but the hausa people are more dangerous because they never allow other regions to survive in politics, economics, socially or otherwise.

By anon37156 — On Jul 17, 2009

USA is an example of an Oligarchy

By katiesue — On Nov 05, 2008

does anyone know where i might find the history of oligarchical governments?!

By anon18079 — On Sep 14, 2008

this passage was very helpful with my report on an oligarchy.

By anon17925 — On Sep 10, 2008

china, south africa, and previously, Sparta and Russia

By jobmorrison — On Jun 30, 2008

I would like an answer to the last post, as I am working on the Citizenship in the World merit badge. Are there any modern examples of an oligarchy in the world today?

By anon10335 — On Mar 25, 2008

what are some more modern examples of countries under an oligarchy government?

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