Oligarchy means ‘rule of the few.’ It is a political system where a small group of elites amasses the power and wealth in a society.
It has the effect of disempowering the masses and entrenching privilege for some and disadvantage for others.
The term originates from ancient Greek (ὀλιγαρχίᾱ – oligarkhía). Aristotle used the term to mean an unfavorable version of an aristocratic government (Aristotle, 1932).
Oligarchies can exist within a range of political systems, including aristocracies, dictatorships, absolute monarchies, communist regimes, and even (debatably) American-style democracy.
The greatest example of oligarchy in history is probably the Kingdom of France, which was overthrown by the masses when the elites took their wealth and disassociated themselves from mainstream French concerns.
In modern times, the most cited example of an oligarchy is Russia.
Many of the following examples are debated, but there have been claims that each are oligarchic.
The Kingdom of France was one of the most powerful states in Europe since the High Middle Ages.
At various times, it was either an absolute monarchy or a parliamentary constitutional monarchy. It can reasonably be argued, however, that the Kingdom of France always had oligarchic elements.
Let’s take the example of the Bourbon Restoration. This was the period of French history during which the House of Bourbon returned to power after the first fall of Napoleon in 1814.
It was briefly interrupted in 1815 but ruled until the July Revolution of 1830. The regime was overthrown by the masses when the views and interests of the elites were no longer aligned with those of the new liberal majority (Alexander, 1999).
The overthrow of Charles X was largely influenced by a group of wealthy liberal journalists and proprietors led by Adolphe Thiers (Schroeder, 1994).
The government of China describes itself as communist. China is also called the “people’s republic,” but the governance of China is maintained not by the majority of citizens.
The country is ruled by a select few. Oligarchs of China include those who were part of the Communist Party in the 1950s or later, as well as those who came into wealth and power after the opening of China to the global market in the 1980s.
The Chinese government has been widely criticized for helping the wealthy and the powerful at the expense of the majority of average citizens.
The politics of Iran have also been characterized as oligarchic. It has been called a theocracy and a clerical oligarchy. Clerics in Iran have a lot of political power.
A Supreme Leader is at the top of the political hierarchy. The Leader runs the country alongside around 2,000 clerical field operatives.
86 of these clerics form an Assembly of Experts and choose the Supreme Leader every year. Iran does have a president, but the president is subordinate to the Supreme Leader.
Furthermore, there is a Council of Guardians consisting of six clerics and six parliamentary appointees.
The Council influences who can be elected to political office and which bills get passed by the Parliament.
Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy (Cavendish, 2006), but its political arrangement does have elements of an oligarchy.
Most political decisions are made by the members of the House of Al Saud, but the ulama (Islamic religious leaders and jurists), tribal sheiks, and members of important families also have considerable influence on major issues (Teitelbaum et al., 2022).
From 1965 to 1986, many monopolies emerged in the Philippines, particularly from the family and close circles of president Ferdinand Marcos.
This has led several analysts to describe the country as an oligarchy (Mendoza et al., 2022 & Hutchcroft, 1991).
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the economy in Russia was privatized.
Privately owned corporations, including producers of petroleum, gas, and metal, have led to the development of oligarchic elements in Russian politics (Scheidel, 2017, p. 51).
Many of these corporations are directly connected with high-ranking government officials and even the president (Scheidel, 2017, pp. 222-223).
Russian oligarchs are those business oligarchs who rapidly accumulated wealth in the period following the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
These oligarchs first emerged under Mikhail Gorbachev’s rule as General Secretary.
After 2017, several Russian oligarchs and their companies have been hit by US sanctions because they supported “the Russian government’s malign activity around the globe” (Treasury Designates Russian Oligarchs, Officials, and Entities in Response to Worldwide Malign Activity, n.d.).
The oligarchs targeted by US sanctions included Vladimir Bogdanov, Oleg Deripaska, Suleiman Kerimov, Igor Rotenberg, Kirill Shamalov, Andrei Skoch, and Viktor Vekselberg.
Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, many Russian oligarchs were further targeted and sanctioned by many countries.
Turkey is not a conventional oligarchy, but it may be argued that it is one because two wealthy families (the Koc and the Sabanci) have considerable influence on political decisions.
These two families have close ties to the Justice and Development (AKP) party.
After the 1991 Ukrainian independence referendum, along with the transition to a market economy, Ukraine saw the emergence of business oligarchs.
The influence of Ukrainian oligarchs on the politics of the country, especially considering their links to Russia, has been criticized by pro-Western sources (Wilson, 2005).
Such concerns have been raised since the 2000s. The issue became more important after the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Along with Russian oligarchs, Ukrainian oligarchs with ties to Russia were also sanctioned by countries around the globe. The influence of oligarchs in Ukrainian politics is, according to some analysts (Lavrov, 2011), out of the ordinary.
Data often suggests that despite being democratic in many ways, US policies are generally determined by a small number of people—the political and economic elite (Gilens & Page, 2014).
This implies that the United States is, in many respects, oligarchic.
Some scholars suggest that a shift towards oligarchic rule is caused by the influence of corporations, wealthy individuals, and special interest groups (Piketty, 2014).
The researchers Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page (2014) analyzed nearly 1,800 US policies between 1981 and 2002. They concluded that most government policies tend to favor special interests and lobbying organizations.
According to the study, whenever the majority of citizens disagree with the economic elites on a policy, the elites tend to get their way:
“When the preferences of economic elites and the stands of organized interest groups are controlled for, the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy” (Gilens & Page, 2014).
This does not make the US an oligarchy per se, but it does suggest that oligarchic elements exist within the government of the United States.
Venezuela is not a true oligarchy, but the new ruling class created by the Venezuelan government, known as the Bolibourgeoisie or Bolichicos, proves that there are oligarchic elements in Venezuelan politics.
This group is made up of people who became rich under the Chávez regime and continue to have considerable influence on politics (Romero, 2010).
Their dominance is maintained through many non-democratic means such as overthrowing of democratic norms and control of the media.
According to some analysts, Zimbabwe has been an oligarchy that is ruled by a small but influential network of political, military, and business elites (Magaisa, 2018).
The degree to which the nation is oligarchic is debated. It has alternated between limited democracy, coups, and political influences that have upheld the power of the elites.
The following are often cited as examples of oligarchies, although as always, this is debated:
- North Korea
- United Arab Emirates
- Vatican City
- Cambodia under Khmer Rouge
An oligarchy is a power structure in which power rests with a small number of people. It originated in ancient Greece and is often used when discussing historical and contemporary political arrangements.
Alexander, M. S. (1999). French History Since Napoleon. Arnold.
Aristotle. (1932). Politics (H. Rackham, Trans.) [Data set]. Harvard University Press. https://doi.org/10.4159/DLCL.aristotle-politics.1932
Cavendish, M. (2006). World and Its Peoples. Marshall Cavendish.
Coleman, J. S. (1964). Political parties and national integration in tropical Africa. Berkeley : University of California Press. http://archive.org/details/politicalparties0000cole
Gilens, M., & Page, B. I. (2014). Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens. Perspectives on Politics, 12(3), 564–581. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1537592714001595
Hutchcroft, P. D. (1991). Oligarchs and Cronies in the Philippine State: The Politics of Patrimonial Plunder. World Politics, 43(3), 414–450. https://doi.org/10.2307/2010401
Lavrov, V. (2011, December 15). EU Hopes Fade As Gas Lobby Triumphs—Dec. 16, 2011. Kyiv Post. https://www.kyivpost.com/article/content/ukraine-politics/eu-hopes-fade-as-gas-lobby-triumphs-119066.html
Magaisa, A. (2018, October 27). BSR: “Our Thing” – Understanding Zimbabwe’s Oligarchy. Big Saturday Read. https://bigsr.africa/bsr-our-thing-understanding-zimbabwe-e2-80-99s-oligarchy/
Mendoza, R. U., Bulaong Jr., O., & Mendoza, G. A. S. (2022). Cronyism, Oligarchy and Governance in the Philippines: 1970s vs 2020s (SSRN Scholarly Paper No. 4032259). https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.4032259
Oligarchy | National Geographic Society. (n.d.). Retrieved December 12, 2022, from https://education.nationalgeographic.org/resource/oligarchy
Piketty, T. (2014). Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Harvard University Press.
Romero, S. (2010, February 17). Purging Loyalists, Chávez Tightens His Inner Circle. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/17/world/americas/17venez.html
Scheidel, W. (2017). The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century. Princeton University Press.
Schroeder, P. W. (1994). The Transformation of European Politics, 1763-1848. Clarendon Press.
Teitelbaum, J. , Philby, . Harry St. John Bridger and Ochsenwald, . William L. (2022, December 10). Saudi Arabia. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/place/Saudi-Arabia
Treasury Designates Russian Oligarchs, Officials, and Entities in Response to Worldwide Malign Activity. (n.d.). U.S. Department of the Treasury. Retrieved December 12, 2022, from https://home.treasury.gov/news/press-releases/sm0338
Wilson, A. (2005). Virtual Politics: Faking Democracy in the Post-Soviet World. Yale University Press.