What is oligarchy?

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The term “oligarchy” again enters our popular imagination. With the celebration of the EDSA People Power Revolution today, there are those who will point out that this revolution succeeded in merely doing what the word “revolution” literally imputes: replacing the singular will of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos with the interests of diversified economic and political elites.

It is easy to grasp why this sentiment is turning into a legacy of the revolution. In the 34 years since People Power, our country’s democratic institutions (especially the bureaucracy) are subject to the whims of political and economic elites that thrive under a culture of corruption, impunity, coercion, and patronage. Our society and economy are subject to recurring crises in resources, energy, the environment, health, peace and order, among others.

Social cleavage along class, religion, sexuality, and ethnicity impedes attempts of cohesion, solidarity and discourse. The Duterte administration pays lip service to the cause of displacing this web of oligarchic interests. For while the President pronounces his hatred for this or that oligarch, they end up merely replacing an entrenched set of oligarchic interests with a mix of old and new oligarchs of their own.

The ongoing attempt of the administration to strong-arm the cancellation of the ABS-CBN broadcasting franchise presents us with a very public glimpse into these nefarious attempts of oligarchic replacement and revolution.

In order to strengthen our views on these issues, perhaps now is a good time to again ask: what really is oligarchy?


Perhaps indicative of the persistence of oligarchies within political civilizations, one of the most dominant definitions of oligarchy comes from the Greek philosopher Aristotle. In The Politics, Aristotle defines an oligarchy as the rule of the wealthy over the State, where wealthier men have greater privileges than their poorer citizens: “For the real difference between democracy and oligarchy is poverty and wealth. Wherever men rule by reason of their wealth, whether they be few or many, that is an oligarchy, and where the poor rule, that is a democracy” (III viii 1279b 17 — 20).

Aristotle warns us that an oligarchy arises precisely when a society mistakenly views wealth and its accumulation as the highest good that human beings can attain (regardless of how many are ruling), and as such are keen to affirm the leadership of its wealthiest members over all others. For Aristotle, an oligarchy breeds a self-destructive society as wealth is an end that is incompatible with that of the common good. Ultimately, Aristotle suggests that a “polity” can only really be effective and just when both oligarchic and democratic forces are balanced (or effaced) in such a way that the political institutions are unable to give too much power to one over the other.

Another widely cited definition comes from the German sociologist Robert Michels. In his work Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy (1911), he defines oligarchy as an “organization which gives birth to the domination of the elected over the electors, of the mandataries over the mandators, of the delegates over the delegators. Who says organization says oligarchy.” This is what scholars now call “the iron law of oligarchy.” Michels argues that the concentration of power in an organization or society to those at the top is an intrinsic and inescapable effect of scaling up any form of human organization, whether it be political parties, churches, or nation-states. He states that: “It is the inevitable product of the very principle of organization… Every party organization which has attained to a considerable degree of complication demands that there should be a certain number of persons who devote all their activities to the work of the party.”

What enables these persons to attain oligarchic control are their access to resources that ordinary members of an organization might be incapacitated to have access to, such as: superior knowledge, control over the means of communication with the membership, and skill in the art of politics and organization.

For Michels, it does not matter whether the original aims of the organization are collectivist or democratic. Any complex social organization will inevitably create a more privileged few whose interests become inimical to the many for “a universally applicable social law, every organ of the collectivity, brought into existence through the need for the division of labor, creates for itself, as soon as it becomes consolidated, interests peculiar to itself. The existence of these special interests involves a necessary conflict with the interests of collectivity.”

From these two definitions stem our popular understanding of oligarchy: the rule of a wealthy few over an organization such as the State, such that their interests gain priority over the needs of the many or the common good. We must emphasize that oligarchic rule is a distinct form of minority rule as we tend to mistake any elite rule as oligarchic rule.

Jeffrey A. Winters, a political scientist from Northwestern University, reminds us in his work Oligarchy (2011) that other types of elite rule (defined as extreme concentrations of power to the few) are subject to various modes of power dispersal or democratization that are relatively executable. However, the source of oligarchic power, i.e., wealth and its accumulation, is notoriously difficult to disperse or equalize.

In the kind of world we live in today, massive amounts of wealth inevitably leads to the capture of political power in order to maintain and protect that wealth. Key to defining oligarchs today, according to him, is in understanding that “oligarchs alone are able to use wealth for wealth’s defense.” This “wealth defense” has two components: “property defense (securing claims to wealth and property) and income defense (keeping as much of the flow of income and profits from one’s wealth as possible under the conditions of property rights).” Oligarchy, therefore, “refers to the politics of wealth defense by materially endowed actors.”

Winters applies this framework in understanding oligarchies to a short section in his book devoted to the Philippines. In it, he describes Filipino oligarchy as “fully matured” even well before Marcos’s “sultanistic oligarchy” during martial law. He also laments the fact that oligarchs in the Philippines, in contrast to other oligarchs from other countries, have never been fully disarmed. As such, an integral tactic of wealth defense in Philippine society remains in (government-backed) violence and coercion.

Filipino oligarchic power is also expansive in the sense that it is not concentrated on a specific ethno-linguistic group (compared to our neighbor Indonesia). Finally, the political shifts in power throughout Philippine history had never really imbued Philippine political institutions with a “high” sense of the rule of law, which Winters argues is necessary to constrain oligarchic behavior.

If it is true that the concentration of power to the few is an inherent feature of any organization, and that the Philippine experience with oligarchy is deeply-rooted in its history, culture, and politics, wherein lies our hope in going beyond oligarchic rule?

Jacques Rancière, a French philosopher, in his work the Hatred of Democracy (2005), reminds us that at the heart of any argument for any hierarchical order based on domination is oligarchic logic. Rancière, echoing Michels, writes: “There is, strictly speaking, no such thing as democratic government. Government is always exercised by the minority over a majority.”

What can debase this oligarchic logic is what Rancière calls the scandal of democracy. This scandal is the kind of democracy that is not based on any claims of natural rule or hierarchy. He writes: “the scandal lies in the disjoining of entitlements to govern from any analogy to those that order social relations … it is the scandal of a superiority based on no other title than the very absence of superiority.”

Democracy therefore is the disruption of hierarchical (oligarchic) logic by those who have no right to rule. Democracy, for Rancière, is “not based on any nature of things nor guaranteed by any institutional form. It is not borne along by any historical necessity and does not bear any. It is only entrusted to the constancy of its specific acts. This can provoke fear, and so hatred, among those who are used to exercizing the magisterium of thought. But among those who know how to share with anybody and everybody the equal power of intelligence, it can conversely inspire courage, and hence joy.”

Perhaps an example will help elucidate these passages. I was recently asked by a student why the EDSA People Power Revolution is categorized as a form of democratic action, given that at its root, it would not have happened if it were not for the coup d’état launched against President Marcos and the subsequent plea of the late Cardinal Sin to protect the coup leaders holed up in Camp Crame.

What we must bear in mind against this response is that it was precisely the presence of the people in EDSA which exemplifies the undefined logic of democracy that can disrupt oligarchic logic. If it were true that only oligarchs and the elites mattered, we would have in our history either the continuance of the dictatorship or the installation of just another military regime against that dictatorship. But it took the power of unintelligible people with no titles, capacities, claims to rule, or expertise — and their presence in a space that they had no right to be in — to give us a glimpse of the real meaning of democracy.

Regardless of how it began, the outcome of the People Power Revolution relied on a democratic gamble. This rare, brief manifestation of demos (people) and their kratos (power) was enough to force these two warring oligarchic logics to a direction that neither of them had planned nor expected. Whether this direction can be maintained or had already been lost, I can only hope that I will see us manifest this capacity again when we most need it.


Miguel Paolo P. Rivera is an Instructor at the Political Science Department at the School of Social Sciences, Ateneo de Manila University — Loyola Schools.