An oligarchy is a governmental system in which the government is controlled by a small group of people, or oligarchs. The term "oligarch" comes from an ancient Greek word, "oligarkhia", which means "the rule of the few." Oligarchs typically gain control through financial means, such as donating heavily to politicians who, in turn, rule in ways dictated by the oligarchs. However, oligarchs may also gain influence through their social status/nobility; fame; education; or political, religious, or military connections. Oligarchies in which a family rules often result in power being passed down from generation to generation. Several modern countries could be described as oligarchies, including Russia, China, and arguably even the United States.
Oligarchy is actually an umbrella term that encompasses at least 13 specific variations of "rule of the few." For example, an aristocracy is an oligarchy in which the ruling class is made up of aristocrats or nobles. A plutocracy is an oligarchy in which the ruling class is made up of extremely wealthy individuals who use their money to influence policy, typically with the goal of making even more money.
In theory, oligarchies are neither good nor evil. For example, an oligarchy in which the ruling people always made the same decisions that the population at large would make would be governing in parallel to the will of the people. Most people would consider that a "good" oligarchy. However, many theorists, from Aristotle to influential Italian sociologist Robert Michels have observed that in the overwhelming majority of cases in which a few people are given power over a larger group, those few will eventually choose to establish policies that benefit themselves at the expense of the people as a whole. In other words, an oligarchy only becomes "evil" if and when the oligarchs act to remove the checks and balances on their own power, violate (or ignore) the rule of law, and put their own self interests ahead of those of the country's people—but they have a historic tendency to do so.
When oligarchy governments become more self-serving, they typically become more authoritative and take on controlling, sometimes even oppressive or exploitative governmental policies. Income inequality tends to increase as wealth is funneled towards rulers instead of those in the working class. The middle class shrinks as the rich get richer and the poor grow poorer. Additionally, a soured oligarchy tends to inhibit economic growth and creative agility due to a ruling class focused on maintaining the status quo, typically at the expense of actions that would benefit the middle and lower classes. Lastly, an oligarchy can result in puppet leaders—weak politicians who present as strong leaders, but are in fact mere figureheads controlled by the oligarchs who funded their election campaigns.
Because "oligarchy" is a slightly amorphous, subjective term, there is no definitive list of which countries are and are not oligarchies. However, a strong case could be made for each of the following countries: China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, North Korea, Russia, Turkey, Ukraine, United States (debated), Venezuela, and Zimbabwe. Note that oligarchy is not necessarily an exclusive term. For example, while North Korea's one-party system qualifies it as an oligarchy, it could also be classified as a hereditary Stalinist dictatorship and even an absolute monarchy.
One of the most well-known oligarchies is Russia, which historians say has been ruled by one authoritative oligarchy or another since at least the 1400s. The dissolution of the Soviet Union from roughly 1988-1991 was a particular flashpoint for oligarchy, because it enabled a small group of wealthy individuals (mostly bankers) to gain controlling interest of many of the country's most valuable resources and utilities (such as oil fields). This resulted in a situation in which politicians ruled the country, but the oligarchs ruled the politicians. For example, a small group of wealthy oligarchs financed Russian President Boris Yeltsin's reelection in 1996, and were then able to wield tremendous influence over Yeltsin, as well as benefiting financially from insider knowledge about the government's economic policies and actions.
While Russia's current government publicly distanced itself from many of the old oligarchs, it is notoriously self-serving and corrupt, and is widely considered to have just replaced one set of oligarchs with another. For example, Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2020 spearheaded a constitutional amendment that, among other things, reset his term limit so he could conceivably remain president until 2036 rather than stepping down when his term expired in 2024 (despite the fact that he had already been president from 2000-2008 and 2012-present). This is exactly the kind of power-consolidating move oligarchy governments make.
Moreover, critics point out that while Russia holds elections, the ruling oligarchs control every aspect of those elections: It dictates media coverage and political advertising leading up to the event, disposes of certain opposition candidates (by often shady means), counts the actual votes, and so on. This arrangement raises significant questions about the integrity of Russia's elections. As a result of scenarios such as these, Russia scored only 5 points out of a possible 40 in a 2021 assessment of the Russian citizens' political rights by Freedom House (and only 15/60 in civil liberties) and is classified as a clear oligarchy. In 2018, the U.S. Treasury released a list of Russian oligarchs, naming 96 total, in addition to 114 political figures, as part of the fallout from Russian attempts to interfere with the 2016 presidential election. However, it was quickly revealed that the list had simply copied a Forbes magazine list of billionaires and singled out those with Russian citizenship or heritage.
Opinions differ upon whether the United States can be considered an oligarchy. Americans enjoy many features of a democratic government, such as elections and freedom of speech. However, there exists substantial evidence that powerful corporations and affluent individuals have a significantly larger influence on policymaking than ordinary citizens. For example, corporations and even private individuals are legally allowed to donate massive amounts of money to politicians' political campaigns, enabling their chosen candidates—typically those who put corporate interests ahead of those of non-wealthy people or the environment—to fund many more advertisements, assistants, and other resources (even disinformation campaigns) than their opponents. Corporations and individuals can also hire lobbyists to influence politicians already in office. In light of this scenario, many economists and researchers maintain that while the United States is a democracy in theory, it is an oligarchy in actual practice—or is at least heading in the direction of one.
An oligarchy refers to rule by a small group of people. There are no true oligarchies. Iran, Saudi Arabia, North Korea, Russia, Turkey, Columbia, Philippines, Venezuela, Zimbabwe, and the United States have oligarchic qualities.