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Oligarchy is a form of government where most political power effectively rests with a small segment of society (typically the most powerful, whether by wealth, military strength, ruthlessness, or political influence). The word oligarchy is from the Greek for "few" and "rule". Some political theorists have argued that all societies are inevitably oligarchies no matter the supposed political system.
Oligarchies are often controlled by a few powerful families whose children are raised and mentored to become inheritors of the power of the oligarchy, often at some sort of expense to those governed. In contrast to aristocracy ("government by the 'best'"), this power may not always be exercised openly, the oligarchs preferring to remain "the power behind the throne", exerting control through economic means. Although Aristotle pioneered the use of the term as a synonym for rule by the rich, for which the exact term is plutocracy, oligarchy is not always a rule by wealth, as oligarchs can simply be a privileged cadre. It has also been suggested that most communist states fit the definition of oligarchy.
A society may become an oligarchy by default as an outgrowth of the shifting alliances of warring tribal chieftans, although any form of government may transform into an oligarchy at some point in its evolution. The most likely mechanism for this transformation is a gradual accumulation of otherwise unchecked economic power. Oligarchies may also evolve into more classically authoritarian forms of government, sometimes as the result of one family gaining ascendancy over the others. Many of the European monarchies established during the late Middle Ages began in this way.
Oligarchies may also become instruments of transformation, insisting that monarchs or dictators share power, thereby opening the door to power-sharing by other elements of society. One example of this process occurred when English nobles banded together in 1215 to force a reluctant King John of England to sign the Magna Carta, a tacit recognition both of King John's waning political power and of the existence of an incipient oligarchy. As English society continued to grow and develop, the Magna Carta was repeatedly revised (1216,1217, and 1225), guaranteeing greater rights to greater numbers of people, thus setting the stage for British constitutional monarchy.
An unique example of an oligarchy is the ancient greek city-state Sparta. It was not a normal oligarchy but a democratic timocratic monarchical oligarchy. This meant that the power was in the hands of five men. They were called Ephores and were elected annually by the 28 members of the Council of Elders. All Ephores were over the age of 60 and had completed their military career. The Ephores controlled all daily life in Sparta. Besides that the Ephores had one very powerful role, which could be carried out only with divine approval, shown in an oracle or an omen. The Ephores had the power to force the Kings' abdication.
Under the five Ephores there were two Kings, that is what we call a dual monarchy. Those two Kings came from the two noble families of Sparta. They gave laws the equivalent of Royal Assent. Under these Kings were the Council of the Elders. These 28 native Spartan men were all over 60 and retired from the military service. The council passed laws and elected the five Ephores. This part is a timocracy because their rights were determined by their nationality and ranks. Below the Council were the rest of the free Spartan men, who voted for the Council of Elders.
A modern example of oligarchy could be seen in South Africa during the 20th century. Here, the basic characteristics of oligarchy are particularly easy to observe, since the South African form of oligarchy was based on racism. After the Boer War, a tacit agreement was reached between English- and Afrikaans-speaking whites. Together, they made up about twenty percent of the population, but this small percentage 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-18th century, after 1948 it became official government policy and became known worldwide as apartheid. This lasted until the arrival of democracy in South Africa in 1994, punctuated by the transition to a democratically-elected government dominated by the black majority.
A form of this word has entered Latin American Spanish and Portuguese from the French. Its use has been modified there to include governmental and military officials, both those who are effective and those who for whom a job was made, besides the rich.
- Online Text: Leonard Whibley, Greek Oligarchies: Their Character and Organisation (1896), still the only full-scale treatment of oligarchy in Classical Greece.
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