Oligarchies: Angels or Demons of Democracy?

Posted on March. 19. 2020

“Both oligarch and tyrant mistrust
the people, and therefore deprive
them of their arms.” ―
Aristotle

BY Z. S. ANDREW DEMIRDJIAN, PH.D.

Ancient Greeks have hashed and rehashed the topic of oligarchy for many years. In fact, Aristotle and Plato have written books about it warning and educating the Athenians about the traits of oligarchy. The term oligarchy comes from the Greek word oligarkhia; it is composed of two words: oli meaning “few” and garkhia “to govern or rule”; hence, “the rule of the few”.

          Tribes, organizations, corporations, governments or any kind of social, political, economic group have had to deal with oligarchy for the main reason that this kind of governance gives power to those few in charge. The main concern is that their power could very well be used for their own benefits; thus, depriving the majority of their rights.

          It is worth noting that oligarchies are not restricted to governing nations. They could be used to manage small and large organizations such as Ararat Home of Los Angeles and General Motors. Three of the most countries with oligarchies are Russia, China, and Iran. Some other examples are Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and apartheid-era South Africa. Lately, Azerbaijan has joined this elite group of oligarchic nations.

          What prompted me to write about oligarchy is the attempt at transforming the democratic governance of the Ararat Home of Los Angeles (AH) into an oligarchy. The event is an election for the members to decide the fate of this NGO, which is slated to take place on Sunday, March 29, 2020. 

          As a member of (AH),  I would like to present the members of this organization with the pros and cons of oligarchy to help them make informed decisions whether to vote “Yes” or “No” for the change from “the rule of many” to “the rule of a few”.

          For the sake of objectivity, I have extensively researched the literature on oligarchy in order to present a balanced coverage on this important topic. Therefore, I have abstained from using my own opinions and thoughts on the subject. The following pros and cons summarize some of the benefits and issues of oligarchy leadership of an organization gleaned from different sources.

Pros of Oligarchies

1. When governing an enterprise that is technically oriented, a few experts are better qualified to lead than the majorities to decide on issues facing them.

2. During an emergency, such as a war or a pandemic disease, power of decision making located in a few leaders would be necessary to solve urgent problems rather than resort to democratic methods of voting on an issue.

3. Members of an organization can participate in activities, relationships, and work, while the group in power handles the larger issues facing them.

4. Oligarchy tends to keep the status quo, which encourages conservatism instead of pursuing risky ventures.

5. Oligarchy is not a new form of governing. In the right hands, the organization would be run effectively and efficiently.

6. The power of the oligarchy is centralized within a leadership team, rather than involving everyone in every decision.

7. Oligarchy fosters creativity and innovation because members are free from worries about running the organization or society.

Cons of Oligarchies:

1. Oligarchy is a power structure that allows a few individuals to rule the rest of a group. They maintain their power through their symbiotic relationships with one another in the elite group. 

2, Oligarchs only associate with individuals who share the same traits. They become an organized minority, while average citizens or members remain an unorganized majority.

3. Those few ruling individuals have enough power to create policies that benefit them to the exclusion of the rest of the group or society.

4.  It prevents new perspectives and diversity of ideas. It becomes difficult for the average person to break into the group of elites.

5. It limits available supplies to certain classes, fix prices, provide selective benefits, and restrict the beneficiaries of its policies and programs.

6. Oligarchies can become stale for the ruling members pick people who share the same values and worldviews. As a result, the organization can miss the creativity and synergies of a diverse team.

7. When people or members feel they cannot join the ruling class, they may no longer feel compelled to follow the rules set by the ruling class, leading to rebellion, disruption, anomie, and eventual fall of the organization

          At this juncture, we should also mention some of the causes of oligarchies. There are many causes of oligarchies, but let us present a few of them for discussion. The few individuals in charge are usually good at what they do; otherwise, they would not have risen to that level. Because of their expertise, they can continue to take more wealth and power from those who do not possess the necessary skills or interests.

          More often than not, an oligarchy comes into existence when a few leaders agree to increase their power regardless of whether it would benefit members of an organization or society. This can happen in any kind of political system or in any kind of organization.

          Oligarchies can also arise in a democracy if members of society or an organization do not stay informed. This happens frequently when a society or members of an organization become overly complex and difficult to understand. In the event members of an organization do not see an alternative or if they are purposely kept in the dark of what is going on, they would be willing to cede power to those with the passion and knowledge to rule.

          An oligarchy can also form under a monarchy or tyranny. A good example is during the reign of Sultan Hamid II of the Ottoman Empire. If the leader is weak in one of these political systems, an influential group such as the members of the Committee of Union and Progress band (i.e., Talat, Enver, and Djvdad) had increased its power around this feeble leader. When the leader was gone for some reason or forced to abdicate, the oligarchs remained in power. They could have either selected a puppet or one or more of their own team members to replace the leader. You already know the rest of the story.

          I tried hard to find studies that support the idea of oligarchy for a system of government. The most positive things I have found are already stated in the pros of oligarchy in the previous section. However, often this question is asked: Is there any present danger of oligarchy? Is it a viable form of governing an organization or a nation? Based on my research, I found two reliable sources to answer these questions, one from ancient times and the other one is from modern times:

          Let me start with the modern times: Robert Michels (1876-1936), the German social theorist and historian wrote the seminal book titled Political Parties in 1911, which spawned many studies and discussions about his ideas of governing organizations. In this book, he described a principle that he called the Iron Law of Oligarchy. According to him, if a democratic organization does not act truly democratic, then a non-democratic organization can never truly be democratic. Basically, he means that if a bird does not look like a duck, walk like a duck and quack like a duck, then it’s not a duck!

          Michels explicitly explained how an organization that claims to be democratic can end up being one that is not. It can over time turn into an oligarchy. An oligarchy is an organization type that is run by a few specific individuals versus the consensus of all members of that organization. This organization can be a small social organization, a large corporation or even an entire country.      

          Michels further argued that all organizations, no matter how democratic their original intentions were would eventually come to be ruled by a powerful minority. This oligarchy, when it becomes necessary, will act illegitimately to put down internal opposition and divert the organization’s goals and objectives in order to maintain its power and continue acting non-democratically to satisfy the agendas of the elite minority leaders that happen to be in power.

          Now as for ancient times, Aristotle is the best source to cite: Aristotle warned about the danger of oligarchies nearly 2,500 years ago. In his book titled Politics heused the word oligarchia to designate the rule of the few when it was exercised not by the best (righteous) but by bad men unjustly. In this sense, he claims oligarchy to be “debased” or corrupt form of aristocracy. For Aristotle’s way of thinking, “The aristocratic decline into oligarchy consists in ‘the few’ ruling in their own narrow self interest.” Aristotle concluded that “It is evident that the form of government is best in which every man, whoever he is, can act best and live happily.”

          Aristotle clearly holds that oligarchy is a “degenerate” form of aristocracy which is also the rule of the few. Aristotle was also critical of pure democracy (meaning rule by the many, poor in their own narrow interest and neglecting the common good). However, he admitted that even democracy in this sense is preferable, or more tolerable than oligarchy, the rule of the few. Heather Marsh seems to agree with Aristotle when she said: “We are in a prison of our own minds holding our own chains around us. We create our oligarchs and fight for their right to oppress us.”

          Now here you are. I gave you the pros and cons of oligarchy to make sense of what is going on with AH governance. Vote on March 29 based on your conscience and cognition of oligarchy, whether you want a democratic or oligarchic type of leadership. Although there won’t be a life-changing consequences for yourself, but your vote would determine the direction AH would take: either become subject to the rule of the few or be run by the consensus of the majority. No matter what we choose –angels or demons of democracy–we must collectively support AH reach yet higher stratospheres of excellence.

One response to “Oligarchies: Angels or Demons of Democracy?”

  1. azad mesrobian says:

    very informative

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