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.