What Is an Oligarch? Definition and Meaning

    Oligarchy is a type of autocracy in which official power is in the hands of an irremovable small group of individuals. In an oligarchy system in which power is held by a select few persons or a small class of influential people—an oligarch is one of the select few people who rule or influence leaders. 

    Oligarchs can be leaders, or they can directly impact or control the decisions of leaders. Meaning they are the ones “pulling the strings” behind the scenes. An oligarchy is generally often used as a critique of such conditions, rather than being used as an official name for a system of governance (as the monarchy is). 

    It’s usually used to highlight the affluent and powerful influence in politics and government. Typically their influence is used to benefit themselves. In the same way, the term oligarchy is applied. A corporate oligarchy is often a business magnate with sufficient money to influence national politics. 

    What defines an oligarch?

    If the following requirements are met, a corporate leader can be classified as an oligarch: 

    • Utilizes monopolistic techniques to dominate an industry 
    • Holds sufficient political influence to advance their own interests 
    • Manages many enterprises that closely coordinate their actions 

    In general, an oligarch is a “member of an oligarchy; a person who is part of a tiny group controlling power in a state”.

    People classified as oligarchs are frequently assumed to be part of the small number of powerful, elite individuals. That dominate, and influence due to their fortune, and connections.

    Despite their small number, oligarchs may not always work in unity and may even oppose one another. The fact that they are among those people with genuine authority, nonetheless, makes them oligarchs. 

    Despite the formal form of government or the precise ideologies of its leaders, identifying someone as an oligarch typically means that they are a member of a corrupt and repressive system. 

    The term oligarch is frequently used in conjunction with other critical terms for representatives of other types of government. Assumed to be corrupt or inequitable. Including plutocrat, rich and powerful person who uses their wealth to govern or control the country. An autocrat, a powerful person who uses their ability to govern or run the government, or a ruler with unlimited power. 

    History of the term “oligarch” 

    The word oligarch first originally appeared in the early 1600s. It is derived from the Greek word “oligarcha”. That is made up of the words oligo, which means “few,” and arch, which means “ruler” or “leader” (the same ending that is applied in monarch). 

    The term “oligarch” does not indicate any particular political ideology or theory. Instead, it is founded on the notion that just a few influential individuals hold power. In this sense, oligarchy is the polar opposite of democracy. At least in terms of the words’ origins. 

    While oligarchy is defined as “rule of the few,” democracy is defined as “rule of the many”- Demo means “people” and cracy means “rule”. A dictatorship is defined as “one-man rule”. 

    The term was originally used in ancient Greece by the philosophers Plato and Aristotle. Aristotle used the term “oligarchy” to mean “the power of the rich”, contrasting it with the aristocracy. He believed that there are three ideal forms of government: monarchy, aristocracy, and polity, each of which degenerates into the wrong forms – tyranny, oligarchy, ochlocracy, respectively. 

    Aristotle considered any oligarchy imperfect. Thus, describing the polity of Sparta with its “rotational” oligarchy of ephors, which limited the power of kings. He wrote: 

    “It is a bad situation with euphoria. This power they have the most important branches of government. It is complemented by all the civilian population so that the government often consists of very poor people, who … can easily be bribed.” 

    Types of oligarchs according to Aristotle 

    When a property is moderate is in the hands of the majority, by virtue of which the proprietors are able to take part in public government. Since the number of such people is large, the supreme power is inevitably in the hands not of the people but of the law. 

    For to the extent that they are far from monarchy, if their property is not so considerable that they can, without cares, enjoy leisure, and not so insignificant that they need maintenance from the State. They will inevitably demand that they have the rule of law, not themselves. 

    The number of people with property is less than the number of people in the first kind of oligarchy. But the very size of the property is greater. Having more economic resources, these owners also have more political demands. 

    So they elect from among the rest of the citizens those who are admitted to the government. But because they are not yet strong enough to govern without the application of the law, they establish a law that suits them. 

    If the situation becomes more strained, that the number of proprietors decreases, and the size of the property in the hands of each single such proprietor increases. All offices are concentrated in the hands of the owners. The law commands that upon their death their sons inherit their offices. 

    When their property grows to enormous sizes and they get a mass of supporters, then a dynastic oligarchy close to a monarchy turns out, and then people. Oligarchs become the rulers instead of the law. This is the fourth type of oligarchy corresponding to the extreme type of the degenerated aristocracy.

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