A Definition of Oligarchy
Domains: Politics, Sociology
Contexts: Forms of governance, class warfare, the corruption of democracy, sources of political corruption
The term "oligarchy" refers to any form of governance in which political power is limited to a handful of individuals. "Oligarchy" is a somewhat broader term than "dictatorship" in that dictatorships are more often referred to in the context of authoritarian and oppressive rule; but dictatorships are the oligarchical form of government taken to its logical extreme.
Of particular concern has always been one common type of oligarchy, the plutocratic oligarchy, in which a handful of wealthy individuals exercise the preponderance of political control. In such systems of governance there may be one or more "eminences grise", or grey eminences, who pull political strings behind the scenes, as David Rockefeller did for many decades in the United States. However, oligarchies may take other forms, such as military oligarchies.
The question of whether or not the United States could be said to be a plutocratic oligarchy is discussed at length, and answered in the affirmative, in Who Rules America, by sociologist G. William Domhoff.
There Domhoff remarks: "The idea that a relatively fixed group of privileged people might shape the economy and government for their own benefit goes against the American grain. Nevertheless . . . the owners and top-level managers in large income-producing properties are far and away the dominant power figures in the United States. Their corporations, banks, and agribusinesses come together as a corporate community that dominates the federal government in Washington. Their real estate, construction, and land development companies form growth coalitions that dominate most local governments."
In the US, plutocratic governance is further abetted by mass media owned by the hyperwealthy and operated in their own economic self-interest, the failure to provide public financing to political candidates, poor oversight of the electoral process, elitist Supreme Court appointments, the organization of wealth into socially-irresponsible corporations, the collapse of meaningful regulatory regimes, plutocratically financed "think tanks" (often thinly-disguised propaganda distribution centers), and an impoverished educational system that has failed utterly to provide Americans with the elements of genuine political literacy (all of which have their foundations in philosophy, another subject rarely taught).
See also: class warfare, fascism, plutocracy, democracy, progressivism and the Business Roundtable.