What is an oligarchy?


With the world close to (or in) a third Word War, it seems a good time to discuss what an oligarchy is. The term comes up, but it’s good to look at what it actually means.

I’ll stick to that, since I don’t have much to say about the Russian invasion of Ukraine that hasn’t been said. Except how sickening it is to watch a super power go on a killing spree in another country.


An Oligarchy comes from the Greek words ‘oligos’, meaning ‘few’ and ‘arxo’ (or ‘arkho’), meaning ‘to rule’. In an oligarchy, an elite (the few) rule a country. This sets it apart from a representative democracy, where a few often rule, but those few are elected by all. On the other side is the autocracy, where a single person rules, such as a king.

This gives some handholds to define how an oligarchy works. It is rule by more than one person, but not rule by equal representation. In other words, a small group of people rule and they are not accountable to the broader population of the country.

This still leaves a lot of room for interpretation. You can argue that the apartheid regime in South Africa was a form of oligarchy, because a minority in the country (white people) had all the power. But you can also argue that any country where minors cannot vote is an oligarchy. But that’s silly as it would mean all democracies we have today are actually oligarchies. So perhaps we should stick to a definition where it’s a minority ruling, not the majority — although, tyranny of the majority is still a thing.

Another thing to keep in mind is that there is a difference between a plutocracy and an oligarchy. A plutocracy is also ruled by a minority, but that minority is very rich. So plutocracies are a form of oligarchies, but not the other way around.


Well, the elephant in the room is of course Russia. Russia is ruled by a small elite consisting of Vladimir Putin and his friends. That said, one could argue that Russia is actually an autocracy, with only a single supreme dictator. Especially after what we’ve seen the past two weeks.

You can argue about it, but the difference might not be that important. Putin appears to run his government like a mob boss, where using kompromats is common, as are bribes in the form of handing lucrative government contracts to underlings. In fact, Putin is officially not that wealthy, but has somehow acquired things like large palaces. He uses his cronies as smoke and mirrors to hide his true power. So, oligarchy? Yeah. Autocracy? Maybe?

The end result is a lack of accountability, and a sickening war in Ukraine.

Is the US an oligarchy?

Whether the US is also an oligarchy is a very good question. I’d say it’s almost there, but not quite yet. Currently, the US has a president who is backed by the majority of the population, and a congress with representation from the people.

However, representation in the US is not on an equal basis. Because of the electoral college system, and the way congress and federal oversight is set up, as well as because of the so-called filibuster, the majority cannot actually effectively rule. The past few years we’ve seen a minority group of rich oligarchs, now in thrall to Donald Trump, derail any attempt by the majority to push through a fair agenda. That same minority is also actively changing the rules to try and remain in power.

The presidency is passed from billionaire to billionaire, and that will not likely change any time soon. So, by some definitions, yes, you could call the US a plutocracy. However, although the difference between the US and Russia is shrinking, the US is still a lot more democratic than Russia. They are still ranked 26 of 167 and said to have a ‘flawed democracy’, where Russia is in spot 124, firmly in the authoritarian regime part of the list.

Medieval Malta

Just to give a different example, let’s look at the Knights Hospitaller.

They were a Catholic military group created after the first crusade. I won’t go into their total history here, but following a number of battles and wars, they ended up in Rhodes after the end of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, and finally in Malta in the sixteenth century.

On Malta, the Ottoman empire besieged them for months, but they came out victorious. Then they ruled Malta for two centuries. They were an oligarchy, of course, a small minority of knights of mostly french descent, ruling the island.

They protected the island, of course, but were also hated for how they treated the native islanders, and especially their women.

So, oligarchies are not a modern invention. Throughout the ages, minorities have banded together to oppress large groups of people. From the Roman triumvirates to the Knights Hospitaller.

Are oligarchies bad?

I’ll end this brief look into oligarchies with a pertinent question.

Are oligarchies bad?

And the answer is, ‘yes they are’. A minority should not rule over a majority. All people should be equal, otherwise you end up with power-differences, and inevitably, escalating abuse of power.

You only have to look to the war in Ukraine to see where oligarchies can go wrong, in my opinion. Still, that is a conviction. I believe in the idea that we should strive for equality, to give every person born the same opportunities. You can disagree with that, and feel some people are more equal than others, although I would ask you ‘would you still say that if you were the less equal party?’ If not, then you’re just a self-serving bully.


Anyway, I believe oligarchies are bad. It takes effort to keep them at bay, though, and there is even the argument that all democracies eventually become oligarchies. I find that idea troubling, but I do not know if it’s wrong. I hope it is.

Martin Stellinga Written by:

I'm a science fiction and fantasy writer from the Netherlands