Critique of “US is an Oligarchy?” Part 1: Theory of Oligarchy

So during today’s random research, I came across an article called “Oligarchy in the United States?” (tilt your head and raise the pitch of your voice) by Jeffrey Winters and Benjamin Page.

This article contains some occasional bourgeois-liberal / capitalist apologetics and the whole article is worth looking at. I’m not sure if the paper is free as I’m accessing it via my university network but here is the DOI: 10.1017/S1368980008002541 and we can copy bits of it because we’re using it for educational purposes.


We explore the possibility that the US political system can usefully be characterized as oligarchic. Using a material-based definition drawn from Aristotle, we argue that oligarchy is not inconsistent with democracy; that oligarchs need not occupy formal office or conspire together or even engage extensively in politics in order to prevail; that great wealth can provide both the resources and the motivation to exert potent political influence. Data on the US distributions of income and wealth are used to construct several Material Power Indices, which suggest that the wealthiest Americans may exert vastly greater political influence than average citizens and that a very small group of the wealthiest (perhaps the top tenth of 1 percent) may have sufficient power to dominate policy in certain key areas. A brief review of the literature suggests possible mechanisms by which such influence could occur, through lobbying, the electoral process, opinion shaping, and the US Constitution itself.


More recent attempts to define oligarchs and oligarchy, particularly in the US context, have foundered for a variety of reasons—the most important being that oligarchy has mistakenly been construed as incompatible, both conceptually and functionally, with democracy. We argue that oligarchy limits democracy but does not render it a sham.

The basic definition of democracy is control of an organisation, group or state by the majority of its members. The definition of oligarchy is a state or organisation controlled by a small amount of its members.

Possession of great wealth defines membership in an oligarchy, provides the means to exert oligarchic power, and provides the incentives to use that power for the core political objective of wealth defense (which, depending on the national and historical context, means property defense, income defense, or both).

I hope they got enough funding to work out that oligarchs are rich and interested in maintaining their own material power which can be used as political power.

 […] wealth is not the only source of political power. Power can also proceed from holding formal political office, from enjoying political rights (such as “one person, one vote” under a democratic electoral system), from personal or organizational capacity to mobilize others, and from coercive capacity or armed force. (In most modern polities, however, the coercive function is largely monopolized by the state.) Our argument is only that wealth is consistently a major source of political power and that it is often the most important source with respect to certain policies. In many or most political systems, concentrated wealth in the hands of a small fraction of a community’s members is a particularly versatile and potent source of political power.

 The wealthy often control large organizations, such as business corporations, that can act for them. They can hire armies of professional, skilled actors from the middle and upper-middle classes who labor as salaried advocates and defenders of core oligarchic interests.

They blend smoothly into the complex give and take of pluralist politics, but their character, focus, and effect is different: it is to advance the basic material interests of the wealthy.

These [race, women, gays, ethnicity, religion, morality, guns, or the environment] are issues of great importance to many ordinary citizens, but of only limited and cross-cutting concern to the wealthy. We are arguing here that the earlier critics of “the biases of pluralism” were onto something, that the skewed distribution of wealth in the United States is a source of oligarchy, and that US political scientists, and especially scholars of American politics, ought to pay much more attention to these issues than they do. To the extent that they have failed to do this, the field, in spite of its increasing technical sophistication, has made less progress than many like to believe.

Not that the political left has been shouting about this the whole time and being ignored (or not given it’s fair share of publicity by the oligarchical mass media apparatus) perhaps because it isn’t part of the privileged intelligentsia that “labor as salaried advocates and defenders of core oligarchic interests”.

From the time of the first civilizations until the rise of the modern state, oligarchs devoted most of their attention to property defense and were compelled to make major investments in capacities for violence and coercion. The advent of secure and institutionalized arrangements for property defense has allowed oligarchs to focus far more on defending income. In the US case this means deflecting redistributive taxation and shifting the burdens of social welfare downward to the less affluent. In modern societies it has also meant the legal creation and protection of limited liability corporations and the facilitation of their global reach through open markets, free trade, and investment of capital abroad.

Previously in the paper, the state’s monopoly over coercive power is mentioned. Here they have an opportunity to point out how the modern state exists to enforce the social relations between labour (“ordinary Americans”) and capital (the oligarchs, big business, corporate America etc).

It would be too risky to leave potentially divisive, extreme asymmetries of wealth to the mercies of pure democracy. The rise of representative democracy involved a difficult and delicately executed trade-off of property security for the richest and historically most powerful actors in exchange for universal suffrage for the unpropertied masses. Whenever this bargain has broken down (and since World War II it has done so only in poorer states where institutions are weak), democracy has broken down with it. This same arrangement that guarantees the property of the wealthiest against serious threats forms the basis of the fusion between oligarchy and democracy.

All of this again is just meaningless apologetics and fumbling around because it seems they cannot simply come out and say that there is no democracy. Moreover, universal suffrage is useless to the unpropertied masses- it is a mere concession that gives the illusion of political power but the authors don’t make the logical connection that if rule is by oligarchy, then it doesn’t matter whether or not people can vote. We merely vote for the faces and representatives of the bourgeoisie but the actual bourgeoisie doesn’t change- it is those oligarchs with the real power.

An oligarchic-mass settlement, in which masses of ordinary citizens are persuaded to accept the key requirements of oligarchs, permits a classic Aristotelian fusion in which oligarchy respects and allows democracy and liberal freedoms, so long as democracy respects and allows oligarchy. A thriving oligarchy in the richest and most politically developed nations implies a limited, rather than a sham, democracy.

Is this a fusion of masters and slaves, patricians and plebeians, nobles and serfs? Oligarchs respect the liberal freedoms of other oligarchs to profit from and exploit those of lower class and that is justified because they are the “natural slaves” of society. If we want to apply more recent attempts at justifying the class division in society, where high class philosophers tout that poor people are stuck in poor material conditions because they are of poor human stock, we could look to Bentham, Booth and Beveridge. Admittedly Marxists include a criminal class in their analyses- the lumpenproletariat- which is seen as problematic despite also having interests which often go against those of the capitalists. However, the lumpenproletariat is distinguished from what Bentham called the “independent labourers of the lowest class”, our ever-growing proletariat not because of his formulation of the “principle of less eligibility”, but because like the vampiristic capitalists, this class sustains itself by leeching off the working masses (for example, drug dealers and loan sharks).

The limitations of this democracy, which indeed is not a sham, is extremely limited indeed- it is limited to the bourgeoisie. For the rest of us, it is a sham.

It is important to recognize that oligarchy can operate without explicit coordination or cohesion among oligarchs. School ties, clubs, social networks, interlocking directorates and the like among the wealthy can be interesting and important, but they are not necessary to enable oligarchs to act in unison. The common material interests of the wealthy can be sufficient for that. In key realms, common interests lead nearly all wealthy individuals to seek the same sorts of policies.

A Marxist analysis would agree but not fear labelling these “groups with common interests” as what they are- classes. Just as economic interests can be pursued in the anarchy of production, political interests can be pursued in a similar kind of anarchy. Capitalists do not need to come together to figure out what policies would benefit them all as what benefits one capitalist often benefits the entire class of capitalists.

Ordinary citizens, by contrast, though very much affected in the aggregate, usually have far less at stake as individuals and are more divided than the super-rich. For non-oligarchs, any effort to mobilize faces formidable collective action problems.

We are alienated from the truth of our collective power and it is in the interests of the ruling capitalist class that we should not be able to organise.

Workers of the world unite!

 Individuals who start from modest beginnings and acquire great wealth usually learn rather quickly that they have new material interests. The occasional renegade is no match for the monolithic power and shared interests of the oligarchy as a whole.

Indeed, we need not occasional renegades, but a sustained and coordinated “grassroots” movement that builds socialism from the ground up, showing it to be a true viable alternative to the contradictory violence that is capitalism.

In the next part of my admittedly shallow (this series is fairly low down on my list of priorities) analysis of this paper, I’ll be looking at the section titled “the US case” which begins by looking at actual wealth inequality in the United States, then looking how that wealth inequality can translate into inequality of power.

This section concludes by pointing out that there is a tiny fraction of the US population that wields massively disproportionate power compared to the rest of the population and unashamedly tries to infer that Marxian analyses do not predict/account for such tiny groups- despite most modern Marxist analyses including subsets of classes and do not reduce all of the complex social relations into proletarians and bourgeoisie. This uber-rich 0.1% are the monopoly capitalists that even the haute bourgeoisie disagree with at times.

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