In the last few months, I have heard the word Oligarchy being bandied around on the edges of American political circles. In the Tea-Party wing, they are using it as a new word for “Hollywood Elite” and “Liberal Media”. On the semi-far left it is being used to refer to corporations and the wealthy. In either case, it is being used as a pejorative with the flavor of having power unjustly taken from “the People”. Both groups have sought to define Oligarchy as being opposed to democracy.
Arguments such as this always amuse me, in that they perpetuate the myth that the United States is a Democracy. It is not. Our nation has as its ideal (in the constitution) a Federalist Republican System of Oligarchy. We are not, and have never been a Democracy… In fact, I believe there has never been a form of human governance that was not an Oligarchy, excepting the occasional Tyranny (or oligarchy of one).
Oligarchy is when power is held by a few, usually a group that shares a certain characteristic. When Plato discussed Oligarchy in the Republic, he called upon oligarchs to be chosen by “merit” and that merit was to be gauged by their large wealth. Often Oligarchs are chosen by wealth, but it is not the only way a society can have an oligarchic class. Military Juntas are an oligarchy chosen by high rank in the military. Theocracy is an oligarchy of religious elite. Monarchy is an oligarchy chosen by heredity. Both Bureaucracy and Feudalism are oligarchies based on position, connection, and loyalty. Revolutionary Government is an oligarchy of those who fought in a unifying conflict and share a narrative. There have long been dreams of other ways of choosing our oligarchs: a Technocracy of oligarchs chosen for their intelligence and skills; Plato’s dream of the “Philosopher-King”; the example of Solon and benevolent tyranny… and so many more.
The political question before humanity has always been the same, and it is not whether or not to have an Oligarchy verses some other form of government. The question has always been this… how do we choose our oligarchs?
In this question I believe lies the core of political determinacy, for “The People” have really only one active political power… to overthrow the oligarchs. Beyond a very small scale (a couple of hundred people or so), “The People” cannot effectively govern. Just try running any institution as a “committee of the whole” and you will see what I mean. Human governmental structures rely on oligarchies in order to be functional.
Why do you think the Roman Emperors and Senate were so dedicated in providing the people their “Bread and Circuses”… their distractions? Because they knew “the people” really only have this one active power, and that was to throw the Emperors and the Senate out. Well, only one power they have seriously exercised, for I believe there is another power that is latent in “the People”. The Constitution of the United States was an attempt to activate this latent, second power. Unfortunately, it is an attempt that, through neglect, has failed to achieve the desired result.
There are two parts to my theory of this latent power that is resting in “the People”. The first part is that beyond using popular uprising to remove a current oligarchic power group, “the People” also could choose to exercise the power of deciding how a new oligarchy will be chosen, and what the criteria of said oligarchs will be. America’s Federalist system and the myth of Representative Democracy was an attempt at this, (and a pretty good one in concept and theory). It was an attempt to define the criteria of a new oligarchy as being based in local connections, character, civil service, and dedicated citizenship.
“The People” could define almost any criteria for the creation of a new oligarchy… but it must define those criteria, and said criteria must be as clear as possible. Any murkiness in the definition of criteria for a new class of oligarchs will encourage attempts by long-established oligarchic patterns to re-emerge, as has occurred in the United States. We are no longer an elected oligarchy based in local connections, character, civil service, and dedicated citizenship… we are now governed by a wealth based oligarchic class. Even elected representatives have learned that our political system means they represent not “the People”, but the oligarchy from which campaign funds come.
Human Beings are always, always, always governed by oligarchies. The popular masses have only two powers in human political systems… the ability to use revolution to overthow the oligarchs… and the rarely exercised ability to decide what criteria will be used to create a new oligarchic class.
So, let us not get distracted. Let us focus on seeing the Oligarchy of Wealth that is in control of our nation… and perhaps give some thought to what kind of Oligarchs we would like to replace them with…
Because human history is clear… if “the People” do not choose their oligarchs, then the oligarchs will choose themselves.
Yours in faith,