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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.
Throughout history, oligarchies have either 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 rule by the wealthy, 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.
Currently, the central authority of the Chinese government is concentrated in the Politburo Standing Committee, which is composed of 7-members, of the Communist Party of China headed by the General Secretary of the Central Committee. China's powers have been distributed from the office of General Secretary of the Communist Party and shared with the Politburo Standing Committee.
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 report by Credit Suisse in 2013 states that :Russia has the highest level of wealth inequality in the world, apart from small Caribbean nations with resident billionaires. Worldwide, there is one billionaire for every USD 170 billion in household wealth; Russia has one for every USD 11 billion. Worldwide, billionaires collectively account for 1%– 2% of total household wealth; in Russia today 110 billionaires own 35% of all wealth."
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 Afrikaner National Party 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."
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 study conducted by political scientists Martin Gilens (Princeton University) and Benjamin Page (Northwestern University) was released in April 2014, which stated that their "analyses suggest that majorities of the American public actually have little influence over the policies our government adopts." It also suggested that "Americans do enjoy many features central to democratic governance, such as regular elections, freedom of speech and association, and a widespread (if still contested) franchise." The paper does not refer to the US as an oligarchy.
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 nation Panem, controlled by its 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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