The 14 forms of Oligarchy- The Rule Of A Few

Oligarchy- An Introduction

An oligarchy is a form of government in which the power to rule resides in the hands of a few people. The word oligarchy is derived from the Greek word oligarkhes, meaning “a few governing”. The powers are shared and an oligarchy is therefore different from an autocracy. Unlike the common oligarchical governments, the people in power do not necessarily need to be rich. A corporate setup, with the major powers in the hands of the CEO, the Director, and the top executives, provides for an adequate example of an oligarchy.

The Iron Law of Oligarchy

The Iron Law of Oligarchy states that every form of government or organization will eventually transform into an oligarchy. Robert Michels, the man behind the term, explains this process in his book “Political Parties” in the following steps. One, any organization or form of government will tend to have a hierarchy for the proper division of labor. The complexity of this hierarchy will continuously increase with the growth of the organization, for proper administrative efficiency. This then would lead to the second step, which is the concentration of power in the hands of the people holding higher positions in the hierarchy. The minority holding the power then tends to dominate, hence transforming the system into an oligarchy.

Pros of Oligarchy:

  •    Power resides in the hands of a few people who hold expertise in various fields and can thus manage the system more efficiently.

•    More than one person is involved in decision making, which thus provides for better discussions, leading to better decisions.

•    The decisions are made quicker, as compared to most other forms of government.

Cons of Oligarchy:

•    The leaders of most oligarchical forms of government aim at increasing power, regardless of whether it benefits society.

•    Oligarchy creates divisions in society, which eventually leads to discrimination in the long run.

•    The masses are usually excluded from the political process

Based on the group enjoying the ruling powers in an oligarchical government, oligarchies can be divided into the following kinds:

1.    Aristocracy:


Derived from the Greek term aristokratia, meaning “the rule of the best born”, an aristocratic government is quite self-explanatory. An aristocracy is ruled by an elite class, usually a royal family and the transfer of powers is hereditary. The ruling class enjoys both social and economic prestige, apart from the political powers.

The first instance of an aristocratic government is reportedly seen from 621 to 528 BC when the Greek city of Athens was governed by a group of aristocratic leaders.  This form of government was later seen in Spain, Denmark and a number of other European countries including the United Kingdom and France.  The aristocratic governments in the present day are officially non-existent

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2.    Plutocracy:

A plutocracy is a form of government controlled by the rich and the wealthy. Plutocracy can be exercised either directly, i.e. by having direct control on the state, or indirectly, by influencing the authorities in power.

The Roman Empire had a plutocratic system, with the Senates or the wealthy electing the leaders of the local administration. Presently, the American system of government has elements of plutocracy, since the wealthy have a more powerful influence in the country’s elections and policymaking process.

Other countries like Russia and Saudi Arabia, though not completely plutocratic, incorporate significant elements of plutocracy.

3.    Kraterocracy:

Kraterocracy originates from the Greek word krateros, meaning “strong”. A kraterocracy is a form of government in which the ruling party is mightier in physical powers. The political powers are usually seized with the help of physical force or threat. Krateocracy, thus, follows the principle of “might makes right”.

4.    Stratocracy:

A stratocracy is a form of government in which the military exercises the ruling powers. This military control is different from military dictatorship as the officials under stratocracy are honourably given the power to govern. The ancient state of Sparta practiced stratocracy, with the retired warriors exercising control over the government.

The “State Peace and Development Council” of Myanmar, which ruled from 1997 to 2011, is also a close equivalent of a stratocracy government. The island of Cyprus and the United Kingdom overseas territory are two present-day examples having stratocracy governments.

5.    Timocracy:

Timocracy, as defined by Aristotle is a form of government in which only owners of property are allowed to be a part of the government. The desire for glory serves as the driving force for excellence in these leaders. The system is supposed to be benevolent, not taking advantage of the working class.

6.    Meritocracy:

A meritocracy government is run by a group of people who are chosen on the basis of their merit. The merits include knowledge of various fields of education and the contributions made to society. The governors are therefore not usually rich, wealthy, or belonging to royal families.

The first practical instance of a meritocratic government was seen in ancient China. Singapore in the present day has a meritocratic government, choosing governors based on tests that are non-discriminatory. South American countries like Ecuador are also moving towards a meritocratic system of government.

7.    Technocracy:

A technocracy is governed by people who hold expertise in various technical fields. Technocracy in practicality is usually practised in subparts of larger bureaucratic systems. Technocracy was particularly popular in the early 20th century to achieve industrial democracy. Later, Australia, Italy, and Tunisia went on to have a technocratic government. Presently, People’s Republic of China, Soviet Union, and Lithuania are thriving examples of technocracy.

8.    Geniocracy:

A form of government, exclusively ruled by the geniuses. The criteria to govern include excellence in problem solving and creative intelligence. A geniocratic government usually has faster economic growth and better welfare. Germany and Canada are two famous countries practising geniocracy.

9.    Noocracy:

Noocracy is a system of government ruled by philosophers. This form of government was first proposed by Plato and bears a close resemblance to his idea of Philosopher Kings. Noocracy has been advocated as one of the most futuristic forms of government.

10.    Theocracy:


The word theocracy is derived from the Greek word theokratia, meaning “rule by God”. The term was first used by a Jewish philosopher Flavius Josephus in the first century AD. A theocracy is a form of government in which a religious entity holds Supreme power. These powers are exercised via the members of the religious institutions. The rule of the Pope or “Supreme Leader” comes under theocracy. Theocracy since then has been seen throughout history.  The kings of Egypt and Tibet in the ancient days were considered as representations of the deities. In modern times, The Islamic Republic of Iran, Vatican City, Yemen, Iran, and Mauritania are few of the many countries practicing theocracy.

11.    Kritocracy:

Kritocracy is a government controlled by judges of the state. It is also known as Kritarchy or dikastocracy. The people of the state agree on any one particular set of laws, which is usually religious. Any judgments are then made by the judges, according to the particular set of chosen laws.

No country in the present time practises complete kritocracy. Although the government of Somalia bears a close resemblance, the state lacks law and order and pure kristocracy is therefore questionable.

12.    Particracy:

It is a form of government ruled by a dominant political party. This can be seen as an extension of democracy when one or more than one political party begins to dominate the system. In extreme cases, the ruling political party might dominate the democratic institutions of the state and can try eliminating the opposition to have more control over the state governance.

Particracy is practised in a number of countries around the world. Kafuristan, Luthori, Malivia, and Pontesi are some examples.

13.    Ergatocracy:

Ergatocracy is derived from the Greek word “ergates”, meaning “worker” and “cracy”, meaning “government”. It is a form of government which is ruled by the working class. The idea bears close resemblance to the beliefs of Communism. This system of government thus promotes individualism and ensures equal distribution of wealth. However, there is a lack of competition, which hinders growth in certain scenarios.

14.    Netocracy:

The term was first used by an American technology magazine named Wired in the 1990s. Netocracy is a form of government which is ruled by the people having expertise in harnessing networks of information and mastering new forms of communication. It arose when the Catholic Popes provided their illegitimate sons, whom they called nephews with powers in the government. Netocracy is seen as an extension of Capitalism.

The oligarchical forms of government are not very popular in the present day, but if the iron law holds true, the world will soon be an oligarchy.

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