The main difference between an aristocracy, plutocracy, and oligarchy is in the group that holds political power. A more detailed comparison between these government systems is given here, along with a few modern and historical examples, for a better understanding.
Did You Know?
There is a political belief called the ‘iron law of oligarchy’, which says that no matter what kind of government a country may have, it ultimately turns into an oligarchy.
The government of a country plays a vital role in fulfilling the needs of its citizens, and defending them from conflicts. It also strives to attain the common aspirations of its society as a whole. Governments of most countries around the world, except a handful, are democracies, where we are allowed to select a leader who represents our ambitions. Most of us don’t even spare a thought for such civil rights as we go about our daily lives. However, there are many other forms of government where the future of politicians doesn’t depend on our votes. While that may have got you thinking of a monarchy, there are other systems which fit this description too, such as an oligarchy, theocracy, plutocracy, dictatorship, aristocracy, to name a few. Thankfully, most of these systems were used more in historical times. This article specifically deals with the differences and comparison between an aristocracy, plutocracy, and oligarchy.
An aristocracy is a type of government run by members of the traditional elite of a society, who are considered the most fit to rule.
A plutocracy is a form of government run, or influenced by, the wealthiest members of society.
An oligarchy is a form of government in which power is vested in the hands of a small group, because of factors which favor them, like wealth, race, political connections, military capability, education, etc.
The term aristocracy was drawn from the Greek word ‘aristokratia’, in which ‘aristos’ means ‘superior’, and ‘kratos’ means ‘power’.
The term plutocracy is derived from the Greek word ‘ploutokratia’, in which ‘ploutos’ means ‘wealth’, and ‘kratos’ means ‘power’ or ‘rule’.
The term oligarchy is derived from the Greek term ‘oligarkhía’, in which ‘olígos’ means ‘few’, and ‘arkho’ means ‘to conquer’.
The terms plutocracy and oligarchy are almost always used to convey a negative impression, especially the latter. This is because, they represent the voice of a minority, who is more inclined to work selfishly for their own interests rather than that of the state. The oppression of the masses is also more likely under these systems.
On the other hand, through most of history, aristocracies have found wider acceptance, because power is given in the most capable hands, at least in an ideal situation.
Of the three systems considered here, a plutocracy is the most specific form of government, since it is explicitly based on wealth. An aristocracy, being restricted to the upper sections of society, may reserve certain privileges to only these classes, including wealth. These aristocracies may thus have a plutocratic element, since the wealth of the nobility helps them retain their power. On the contrary, an oligarchy has a much wider scope. Since it is a government of a few, the deciding factor here is what constitutes this ‘few’. If the wealthy are considered, then such an oligarchy would be a plutocracy, and if race or social status is considered, then the oligarchy would be an aristocracy. Thus, both, a plutocracy and an aristocracy are different forms of an oligarchy.
A plutocracy does not always mean that wealthy individuals are directly involved in the administration. In most cases, they may influence decision-makers by legal and illegal means, like lobbying, bearing campaign costs, and bribing. The same holds true for an oligarchy, where the powerful clique mostly indulges in ‘behind-the-throne’ politics, by projecting a puppet leader as the face of the government, and using brutal repression to keep the masses in control. An aristocracy is the most likely to have the powerful group in official command, by forming a council of the nobility which takes all decisions. In a few cases, these aristocrats may serve as advisers to a monarch.
An aristocracy vests power in one ruling class because of their supposed leadership qualities. In earlier times, it was widely accepted that such moral and intellectual superiority gets passed down from a father to his heirs. For this reason, this system involves a hereditary transfer of power. An oligarchy also vests power in political heirs, but this is mostly for selfish reasons, rather than genetic benefits. Since plutocracies involve behind-the-scenes politics by financial lobbyists who don’t have official power, the question of hereditary succession does not arise. However, since the wealth of a plutocrat is transferred to his succeeding generations, they do have some level of power over elected lawmakers.
Around 650 BC, the ancient Greek city-states of Sparta and Athens were ruled by an aristocracy, where members of royal lineage, called ‘Eupatridae’, formed a council to take decisions on military and economic matters. These councils were led by a chief magistrate, called an ‘archon’.
A popular example of a plutocracy was the city-state of Venice during the 14th century, where billionaires, called noblemen or ‘patricians’, controlled all affairs of the city which were financed by a joint-stock corporation. The downfall of the city began when the patricians restricted investment in this company to themselves, leading to financial troubles.
All communist governments in history, like that of the Soviet Union till 1991, are a type of oligarchy. The chief political power in such administrations was held by an executive committee, called the ‘politburo’. Only the most powerful leaders of the communist party were members of the politburo.
No present-day government can be explicitly called either a plutocracy, aristocracy, or oligarchy. However, several nations, including developed ones like USA and Russia, have been accused of letting industry bigwigs intrude too much into the political sphere, a characteristic feature of a plutocracy. The democratic system followed by many countries passes power into the most capable hands, as decided by the electorate. Also, many spheres of modern life, including scientific research, business, and bureaucratic offices, are all dominated by talented individuals in the respective field. The shades of an aristocracy are evident in this system. The system of apartheid existing in South Africa till 1994, is a classic example of an oligarchy, where the government was dominated by, and served only the interests of the white community.
Pros and Cons
In comparison, it can be said that an aristocracy has the edge over plutocracies and oligarchies, especially since it aims to select the most capable leaders. However, the problem is that, a well-intentioned aristocracy will lead the country to a strong path of progress, but one led by selfish individuals will endanger the rights, property, and even the lives of its citizens, as happened in the case of the Athenian aristocracy, when successive aristocrats usurped land from merchants. Both, plutocracies and oligarchies serve the interests of only those in power, leading to a widening economic divide between the rich and poor, and social immobility, which arises when the lower classes have no chance to rise up the social ladder.
It is obvious from the above comparison that all three systems give political power only to a restricted group of people, which is not healthy for the development of a modern society. Having said that, one must also remember that some elements of these systems have inevitably made their way into most modern governments.