Oligarchy | Definition, Features, Merits & Demerits

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Oligarchy: Definition, Features, Advantages and Disadvantages

Oligarchy System of Government
Oligarchy System of Government

What is Oligarchy Form of Government?

Oligarchy is a form of government in which power is concentrated in the hands of a few. It is a minority rule political system.

Oligarchy is otherwise known as plutocracy or government by the owners of economic resources such as landowners, financiers and industrialists.

Historical Origin of Oligarchy

Like many other forms of government, the origin of oligarchy could be traced to the Greek city-states where power was exercised by the ‘oligoi’ all the few people who are distinguished by the possession of wealth.

Roberto Michels, an Italian writer argues that an oligarchy exists where there is an organisation and that democracy inevitably leads to oligarchy.

The few people who are giving power to lead organisations soon develop interests of their own which are usually different from those of the masses. This principle is known as the Iron Law of Oligarchy.

The point being made by Michels is simple: there are oligarchic tendencies in every kind of human organization which strives for the achievement of legitimate ends. Government too is a human organisation which is usually dominated by a few who claim to work in the interest of the people.

Features of Oligarchy

The main characteristics of oligarchy are as follows:

  • Power is concentrated in the hands of a few who are usually rich.
  • The principal cause of oligarchy is the presumed of technical indispensability of leadership. That is, the masses are helpless and incapable of leading the organisation in the absence of the elites and this makes the elites, who lead, indispensable.
  • Oligarchy is the opposite of popular participation.  In other words, literature is an alternative to democracy. It is tyrannical rule.
  • Leadership may take several forms such as aristocracy, theocracy and militocrazy.
  • There may be different elite groups in oligarchy which represents several interest (e.g. those representing financial, managerial and industrial interests) but they all have one common interest, which is the protection of the property interests of the elites

Advantages of Oligarchy

Oligarchy may be beneficial to a political system in the following ways:

  1. It provides leadership in situation where the masses are virtually disorganised.
  2. Oligarchy allows the best talents in society to be used for the realization of the aims and objectives of the state.
  3. The leaders usually find it difficult to ignore with impunity the aspirations and demand of the people.
  4. Oligarchy facilitates quick decision making.
  5. It is unavoidable and indispensable in any human organisation and it is, as such, a way of life.

Disadvantages of Oligarchy

Oligarchy has often been criticized on several ground, which include;

  1. Oligarchy is undemocratic.
  2. It represents a usurpation of the power belonging to all the people by a privileged few.
  3. The leaders usually act in their own interest, which may be different from and antithetical to those of the people.
  4. Oligarchy, being a government by the few, for the few may be unable to understand and appreciate the problems of the poor who are usually in the majority.

Types of Oligarchy

Types of oligarchy includes: authoritarian and aristocracy.

1. Authoritarianism

Authoritarianism may be defined as a form of government in which the subjects are expected or compelled to submit blindly to the authority of the ruler. In this type of system, freedom of thought, religion etc are not allowed.

2. Aristocracy

Aristocracy is a form of government in which the best citizens rule. In most cases, people of noble birth or wealth usually rule. It claimed that they possess the best qualities for rulership. This form of government is sometimes referred to as government by the rich.

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