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Oligarchy (from Greek ὀλιγαρχία (oligarkhía); from ὀλίγος (olígos), meaning "few", and ἄρχω (arkho), meaning "to rule or to command") is a form of power structure in which power effectively rests with a small number of people. These people could be distinguished by royalty, wealth, family ties, education, corporate, or military control. Such states are often controlled by a few prominent families who typically pass their influence from one generation to the next. But inheritance is not a necessary condition for the application of this term.
In his 2011 book Oligarchy, Jeffrey A. Winters defines oligarchy as "the politics of wealth defense by materially endowed actors." In Winters' definition, the possession of massive wealth is the decisive factor in identifying oligarchs. But some oligarchs, according to Winters' analysis, do not directly govern the societies they inhabit; they thus can rule directly or through an intermediary.
Throughout history, oligarchies have been tyrannical (relying on public obedience and/or oppression to exist) or relatively benign. Aristotle pioneered the use of the term as a synonym for rule by the rich, for which the exact term is plutocracy. However, oligarchy is not always a rule by wealth, as oligarchs can simply be a privileged group, and do not have to be connected by bloodlines as in a monarchy.
Especially during the fourth century BC, after the restoration of democracy from oligarchical coups, the Athenians used the drawing of lots for selecting government officers in order to counteract what the Athenians acutely saw as a tendency toward oligarchy in government if a professional governing class were allowed to use their skills for their own benefit. They drew lots from large groups of adult volunteers as a selection technique for civil servants performing judicial, executive, and administrative functions (archai, boulē, and hēliastai). They even used lots for very important posts, such as judges and jurors in the political courts (nomothetai), which had the power to overrule the Assembly.
Corporate oligarchy is a form of power, governmental or operational, where such power effectively rests with a small, elite group of inside individuals, sometimes from a small group of educational institutions, or influential economic entities or devices, such as banks, commercial entities, lobbyists that act in complicity with, or at the whim of the oligarchy, often with little or no regard for constitutionally protected prerogative. Monopolies are sometimes granted to state-controlled entities, such as the Royal Charter granted to the East India Company. Today's multinational corporations function as corporate oligarchies with influence over democratically elected officials.
Labor unions can choose to form a collective monopoly over the labor of their members by way of gaining exclusive representation to collectively bargaining for their members' safety, compensation, due process and the right to protected speech with penalties for reprisal which gives them very worker-oriented set of political interests. In countries that allow for freely formed unions, the members have the ability to not only create that monopoly but also the freedom to decertify or dissolve the union. US In some cases, they may even be run under government or business interests when laws require or when union leadership can be forced or persuaded to meet the needs of external interests rather than those of the members. Many trade unionists believe that many unions leaders are intentionally and unintentionally meeting the interests of business by operating on a service model of unionism rather than than an active organizing and mobilization model which was used to win their labor rights in the first place. Union opponents see them as a check to Capitalism and advocating for increased investment service industries in which their members work (public education, public libraries, fire departments, police, construction, transportation, etc.) and therefore a barrier to the creation of a truly free and unchecked market dominated by the capital (wealthiest and most powerful individuals, organizations and institutions in the world).
Robert Michels believed that any political system eventually evolves into an oligarchy. He called this the iron law of oligarchy. According to this school of thought, many modern democracies should be considered as oligarchies. In these systems, actual differences between viable political rivals are small, the oligarchic elite impose strict limits on what constitutes an acceptable and respectable political position, and politicians' careers depend heavily on unelected economic and media elites. Thus the popular phrase: there is only one political party, the incumbent party. and that is the end.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union on 31 December 1991, privately owned Russia-based multinational corporations, including producers of petroleum, natural gas, and metal have, in the view of some analysts, become oligarchs. In May 2004, the Russian edition of Forbes identified 36 of these oligarchs as being worth at least $1 billion each.
A modern example of oligarchy could be seen in South Africa during much of the twentieth century. Here, the basic characteristics of oligarchy are particularly easy to observe, since the South African form of oligarchy was based on an oligos (few) clearly defined by race. After the Second Boer War, a tacit agreement or understanding was reached between English- and Afrikaans-speaking whites. Together, they made up about twenty percent of the population, but this small percentage ruled the vast non-white and mixed-race population. Whites had access to virtually all the educational and trade opportunities, and they proceeded to deny this to the black majority even further than before.
Although this process had been going on since the mid-17th to 18th century, after 1948 it became official government policy and became known worldwide as apartheid. This lasted until the arrival of majority rule in South Africa in 1994, punctuated by the transition to a democratically-elected government dominated by the black majority.
Some contemporary authors have characterized current conditions in the United States as being oligarchic in nature. Simon Johnson wrote 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 argues that "oligarchy and democracy operate within a single system, and American politics is a daily display of their interplay." Bernie Sanders (I-VT) opined in a 2010 The Nation article that an "upper-crust of extremely wealthy families are hell-bent on destroying the democratic vision of a strong middle-class which has made the United States the envy of the world. In its place they are determined to create an oligarchy in which a small number of families control the economic and political life of our country."
United States political and finance industry leadership has recently been dominated by people associated with Harvard and Yale. All nine members of the current Supreme Court attended Harvard or Yale law schools. The last member appointed to the court who was not a former student at one of those two institutions was Sandra Day O'Connor, appointed by the newly elected President Ronald Reagan in 1981. Reagan was also the last United States President who did not attend either Harvard or Yale.
A well-known fictional oligarchy is represented by the Party in George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. The socialists in the Jack London novel The Iron Heel fight a rebellion against the oligarchy ruling in the United States. In the Ender's Quartet, by Orson Scott Card - specifically Xenocide, Speaker for the Dead, and Children of The Mind - there is an Oligarchy of the Starways Congress which rules by controlling communication by the Ansible. The Capitol in The Hunger Games trilogy is also a form of Oligarchy, as is the nation of Tear (ruled by a group of High Lords, until the appointment of High Lord Darlin as King of Tear) in Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time.
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