Oligarchy, Form of government: Meaning and Overview

The term oligarchy has been derived from two Greek words; ‘oligos’, which means few, and ‘arkho’ which means to rule or to command. Oligarchy is a structure of power in which a small number of people, for instance, a few businessmen, a rich family, a politically dominant group, etc hold all the power that gives them the authority to rule. They acquire and maintain their power because of their wealth, education, family ties, religious, political, military, or economic control, or through their relationships with other powerful people.

The oligarchs are most likely to associate with the powerful or influential people alone who have similar features or traits like them, thus forming a minority, against the unorganized majority who are neither rich nor powerful or influential. Due to this, it becomes difficult for the common people to break the cohesive elite minority sharing similar traits and values. The oligarchs can easily use this power in their favor or for their own benefit by excluding other members of the society. They turn tyrannical and assure their rule by oppressing the public or making the people abide by their rules. Aristotle came up with another term from as a subset of an oligarchy which is called plutocracy or the rule by the rich. Most often, the leaders in any oligarchy are rich.

However, it is not a necessary condition. Thus, it can be inferred that although all plutocracies are examples of oligarchy, all oligarchies may not be plutocratic. Any political structure can turn into an oligarchy. As Robert Michels puts it in his theory developed in the early 20th century that even democracies can turn into oligarchies. Through his ‘iron law of oligarchy’, he brings into focus that the necessity of the division of labor in any society creates a ruling class with selfish desires of protecting their own power and fulfilling their own needs. This means that eventually, all the organizations will become oligarchies.

In the modern world, where the more complex organizations and institutions are becoming, the easier it is getting for the elites to gain the advantage. Within a democracy, people use their power and money to influence the elected officials. Countries that can be identified as having oligarchies are Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and so on. People often show adversity towards oligarchy because of several reasons. It mostly benefits the oligarchs giving them the power to control the majority or by providing them access to scarce resources. It prevents diversity and leads to conflicts when the majority realizes that their views are not taken into consideration.

However, there are also some positive points about oligarchy. Only the leading group holds all the power rather than all the individuals in any society. This prevents chaos and confusions. With the oligarchs maintaining the society, the majority of people can practice and participate in various other activities for the development of the society or themselves. Oligarchies are formed when the members of the leading group decide to benefit themselves anyhow even at the cost of the benefit of the society, or when the leader of the existing power structure is weak, or when the general public are not vigilant.


  1. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oligarchy
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