Oligarchy (; ) 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 Nobility is a social class found in many societies that have an aristocracy (class), aristocracy. It is normally ranked immediately below Royal family, royalty. Nobility has often been an Estates of the realm, estate of the realm with many e ...
, 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 Aristotle (; grc-gre, Ἀριστοτέλης ''Aristotélēs'', ; 384–322 BC) was a Greek philosopher and polymath during the Classical Greece, Classical period in Ancient Greece. Taught by Plato, he was the founder of the Peripatet ...
pioneered the use of the term as meaning rule by the rich, 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. Examples of this system include South Africa under ''
apartheid Apartheid (, especially South African English: , ; , "aparthood") was a system of institutionalised racial segregation that existed in South Africa South Africa, officially the Republic of South Africa (RSA), is the So ...
'', 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 Colonialism is a practice or policy of control by one people or power over other people or areas, often by establishing colonies and generally with the aim of economic dominance. In the process of colonisation, colonisers may impose their relig ...

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.

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."

Cases perceived as oligarchies

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


During the presidency of
Ferdinand Marcos Ferdinand Emmanuel Edralin Marcos Sr. ( , , ; September 11, 1917 – September 28, 1989) was a Filipino politician, lawyer, dictator, and kleptocrat who was the 10th president of the Philippines from History of the Philippines (1965–1986 ...
from 1965 to 1986, several monopolies arose in the Philippines, particularly centred around the
family Family (from la, familia) is a Social group, group of people related either by consanguinity (by recognized birth) or Affinity (law), affinity (by marriage or other relationship). The purpose of the family is to maintain the well-being of its ...
and close associates of the president. This period, as well as subsequent decades, have led some analysts to describe the country as an oligarchy. President Rodrigo Duterte, who was elected in 2016, spoke of dismantling oligarchy during his presidency.

Russian Federation

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and
privatization Privatization (also privatisation in British English) can mean several different things, most commonly referring to moving something from the public sector into the private sector. It is also sometimes used as a synonym for deregulation when ...
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. Most of these are connected directly to the highest-ranked government officials, such as the president.


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. 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

Some contemporary authors have characterized conditions in the United States in the 21st century as oligarchic in nature. 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. Jeffrey A. Winters wrote that "oligarchy and democracy operate within a single system, and American politics is a daily display of their interplay." 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. In 2011, according to PolitiFact and others, the top 400 wealthiest Americans "have more wealth than half of all Americans combined." In 1998, Bob Herbert of ''
The New York Times ''The New York Times'' (''the Times'', ''NYT'', or the Gray Lady) is a daily newspaper based in New York City with a worldwide readership reported in 2020 to comprise a declining 840,000 paid print subscribers, and a growing 6 million paid d ...
'' referred to modern American plutocrats as "The Donor Class" (list of top donors) and defined the class, for the first time, 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." 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." A 2014 study by political scientists Martin Gilens of
Princeton University Princeton University is a private university, private research university in Princeton, New Jersey. Founded in 1746 in Elizabeth, New Jersey, Elizabeth as the College of New Jersey, Princeton is the List of Colonial Colleges, fourth-oldest ins ...
and Benjamin Page of
Northwestern University Northwestern University is a private research university in Evanston, Illinois. Founded in 1851, Northwestern is the oldest chartered university in Illinois Illinois ( ) is a state in the Midwestern United States, Midwestern Unite ...
stated that "majorities of the American public actually have little influence over the policies our government adopts." 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. 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 Freedom of speech is a principle that supports the freedom of an individual or a community to articulate their opinions and ideas without fear of retaliation, censorship, or legal sanction. The rights, right to freedom of expression has been ...
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. 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. Other studies have criticized the Page and Gilens study. Page and Gilens have defended their study from criticism. 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. Wall Street spent a record $2 billion trying to influence the 2016 United States presidential election.

See also

Aristocracy Aristocracy (, ) is a form of government that places strength in the hands of a small, privileged ruling class, the aristocracy (class), aristocrats. The term derives from the el, αριστοκρατία (), meaning 'rule of the best'. At t ...
* Cacique democracy * Despotism * Dictatorship * Inverted totalitarianism * Iron law of oligarchy *
Kleptocracy Kleptocracy (from Ancient Greek, Greek κλέπτης ''kléptēs'', "thief", κλέπτω ''kléptō'', "I steal", and -κρατία -''kratía'' from κράτος ''krátos'', "power, rule") is a government whose Corruption, corrupt leaders ...
* Meritocracy * Military dictatorship *
Minoritarianism In political science, minoritarianism (or minorityism) is a neologism for a political structure or process in which a Minority group, minority segment of a population has a certain degree of primacy in that entity's decision making. Minoritariani ...
Nepotism Nepotism is an In-group favoritism, advantage, privilege, or position that is granted to Kinship, relatives and friends in an occupation or field. These fields may include but are not limited to, business, politics, academia, entertainment, s ...
* Netocracy * Oligopoly * Oligarchical collectivism * Parasitism * Plutocracy * Political family * Power behind the throne * '' The Power Elite ''(1956 book by C. Wright Mills) *
Stratocracy A stratocracy (from :wikt:στρατός, στρατός, ''stratos'', "army" and :wikt:κράτος, κράτος, ''kratos'', "dominion", "power", also ''stratiocracy'') is a form of government headed by military chiefs. The Separation of power ...
* Synarchism *
Theocracy Theocracy is a form of government in which one or more deity, deities are recognized as supreme ruling authorities, giving divine guidance to human intermediaries who manage the government's daily affairs. Etymology The word theocracy origina ...
* Timocracy


Further reading

* * * * * Ostwald, M. ''Oligarchia: The Development of a Constitutional Form in Ancient Greece (''Historia'' Einzelschirften; 144)''. Stuttgart: Steiner, 2000 (). * * * *

External links

* {{authority control Authoritarianism Political culture