From Citizendium
Jump to: navigation, search
This article is developing and not approved.
Main Article
Related Articles  [?]
Bibliography  [?]
External Links  [?]
Citable Version  [?]
This editable Main Article is under development and subject to a disclaimer.

Oligarchy is a form of government in which political power is centralized within a small group or faction of a few persons, called oligarchs. The ruling faction is typically, though not necessarily, an economically privileged group. Oligarchy is a broad category with subtypes defined according to the composition of the oligarch class. For example, when the oligarchs are nobles, it is called an aristocracy; when they are men of wealth, it is called a plutocracy. Oligarchy often is viewed pejoratively:[1]

"We must escape the bondage of such an Oligarchy, not Aristocracy – the rule of the few, but not of the best – involving all the evils of the one, with none of the alleviations of the other. It will be the rule of men, spoiled by sudden wealth, with no hereditary sense of honor and dignity, no character to support and no name to preserve untarnished – without the training of gentlemen, or the habits of the upright poor."

Ancient and Premodern Oligarchies

Historically, many city-states of ancient Greece were oligarchies. The most prominent was Sparta, which was ruled by the military elite. Other examples include the Etruscans who ruled Italy in pre-Roman era, the Roman Republic, and the Italian city-states, including Venice and Genoa, during the Middle Ages.[2]

Modern usage

The United States has sometimes been accused of being oligarchical in that the political power is perceived as being essentially manipulated by the wealthy and big businesses.[3] The PRC regime in China is sometimes referred as an oligarchy that a small cadre of Communist party leaders dictatorially rule the country.[4] The Soviet Union's ruling class, the "nomenklatura", was in nature oligarchical. Multinational corporations have also been accused as constituting a global oligarchy.[5]

Iron law of oligarchy

The German sociologist Robert Michels formulated the famous "Iron law of oligarchy", that all political and organizational institutions, no matter what structure they are established as, will eventually devolve into oligarchies.[6]


  1. (May 1, 1881) Semi-annual report of the Railroad Commission of the State of Georgia, submitted to the Governor. Railroad Commission of Georgia, p. 47. 
  2. Oligarchy History for kids
  3. How Rich is Too Rich For Democracy? Thom Hartmann
  4. China's possible rethink on Taiwan Sushil Seth
  5. How the Rich Are Destroying the Planet: A Review Leslie Thatcher
  6. Excerpt from The Sociology of Organizations: Basic Studies Oscar Grusky and George A. Miller