A graffiti artist paints a mural of some of Lebanon's oligarchs on a wall erected near Riad al-Solh Square in downtown Beirut. October 24, 2019. (Lara Bitar/The Public Source)

A graffiti artist paints a mural of some of Lebanon's oligarchs on a wall erected near Riad al-Solh Square in downtown Beirut. October 24, 2019. (Lara Bitar/The Public Source)

What is Oligarchy? (Part 1 of 2)

Day 111: Tuesday, February 4, 2020

In moments of acute social struggle, reality itself is contested, as are the words used to describe it. What do we call Lebanon’s popular uprising? Hirak empowers Algerian protesters but insults their Lebanese counterparts. Intifada is audacious enough for some; for others only thawra will do. Grammar itself becomes a battleground:Revolution [n.] insist some; others concede only revolutionary [adj.], reserving the noun for the yet-to-come overturning. What do we even call the order to be overturned? The post-Ta’if regime? Ta’ifiyya altogether? The patriarchal racist system? Neoliberalism? Capitalism? Oligarchy?

Perhaps no other term elicits more confusion than “oligarchy.” Appearing as oligarchiyya, it has sporadically graced protest banners, popping up more frequently in social media posts, where exchanges inevitably turn to the term’s intelligibility rather than whether it is an apt characterization of Lebanon’s order. “Oligarchy is a foreign concept.” “It’s no more foreign than ‘democracy’ or ‘technocrat.’” “The layperson doesn’t know what oligarchy means.” “The layperson is welcome to google it.”

Snark aside, the advocates of using the term have a point: Too often, concepts like oligarchy that draw attention to material conditions and economic inequality are held to a higher standard than those that don't. But confusion around the meaning of oligarchy can also be forgiven: What used to be an intuitive idea for centuries has become muddled, thanks in large part to how it is used in specialized literature. In the social sciences, oligarchy is widely used but rarely theorized, rendering it an all-encompassing term with little explanatory power.

The main problem is that most contemporary interpretations, in resorting to etymology (and influenced by elite theory coming out of the American academy in the early twentieth century) focus solely on the “minority rule” idea embedded in the term. The International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences notes that the word derives from the “Greek word oligarkhia (government of the few), which is composed of oligoi (few) and arkhein (to rule),” and therefore that oligarchy is “a form of government in which political power is in the hands of a small minority.” And as many a political scientist will tell you, oligarchy has something to do with Aristotle’s typology of rule, often simplistically summarized as "rule by the few" (as opposed to rule by one or rule by many). But how far does a focus on the number of people ruling get us? Is any system that falls short of full, regular participation by all its members oligarchic? And what distinguishes oligarchs from other concepts like “the ruling class” or “the political class” or “elites?”

What fewer social scientists these days will tell you is that there is another component that has long been recognized as essential to oligarchy: stratified wealth. In this context, Jeffrey A. Winters's 2011 book Oligarchy is a critical intervention. By bringing wealth back in to emphasize, as Aristotle did, the material foundations of the concept, Winters rescues oligarchy from the conceptual muddle that the focus on “minority rule” has created. He reminds us that Aristotle writes that the number of actors exerting influence over the system of government "is simply an accident due to the fact that the rich everywhere are few, and the poor numerous." What distinguishes oligarchy from democracy for Aristotle is not the number of rulers but their material position: “For the real difference between democracy and oligarchy is poverty and wealth...Whenever men rule by reason of their wealth, whether they be few of many, that is an oligarchy, and where the poor rule, that is a democracy.”

In returning to the materialist origins of the concept, Winters elaborates a new theory of oligarchy, founded on the idea of “wealth defense.” According to this framework, what defines oligarchs and makes them worthy of study as a special set of actors is the extreme concentration of one specific power resource: wealth. Oligarchs are actors who personally command massive concentrations of material resources, which they then employ to defend that wealth from being expropriated. A business owner, a corporate CEO, capitalist — all may be oligarchs, but only if they themselves are in possession of massive economic resources (otherwise, we can just call them economic elites). And oligarchs and politicians are not one and the same. A politician may be an oligarch if they personally hold and deploy extensive material power (otherwise, we can refer to them as political elites, who rely on other forms of power such as  mobilizational or coercive). And an oligarch is still an oligarch even if they don't govern personally.

Oligarchy refers to the politics by which oligarchs defend their wealth. It is neither a system of government nor a method of rule; it is a material project rooted in the condition of having to defend concentrated wealth. Given the conflict inherent in stratified societies — all property is secured by violent coercion or the threat of coercion — all oligarchs live in fear their wealth will be taken. But how they defend their wealth varies across contexts and historical periods. Oligarchs are the same everywhere; oligarchies are not. 

In some societies, oligarchs invest in directly controlling the means of coercion; in others, they need not arm themselves or hold political power because they trust the coercive power of the state to protect their wealth. Moreover, in some oligarchies a single individual dominates; others have multiple players working more or less in harmony.

This framework leads to four ideal types of oligarchies. Warring oligarchies feature oligarchs who are personally involved in defending their wealth through violence, but who do not work with each other to do so. One of the most compelling examples is the escalating violence among rival oligarchs that doomed the Roman Republic. Ruling oligarchies also showcase oligarchs engaged in the direct provision of coercion, but who do so collectively through some sort of compact to abstain from turning their coercive resources on each other. Arrangements of armed oligarchs have been highly unstable historically. Perhaps the most memorable examples are the Mafia Commission in the United States and the Italian Commissione. Yet others proved more enduring, in large part because oligarchs played a less direct role in the violence needed to defend their wealth. The classic examples are the Greco-Roman consuls and senates of antiquity, as well as the Italian magnati, or noble families that dominated medieval city-states. Lebanon today most approximates a ruling oligarchy, as is discussed in Part 2 of this series.

Ruling oligarchies also showcase oligarchs engaged in the direct provision of coercion, but who do so collectively through some sort of compact to abstain from turning their coercive resources on each other.

Sultanistic oligarchies give a single individual a monopoly on coercion, allowing them to act as supreme arbiter among unarmed oligarchs. The most salient examples are Suharto’s Indonesia and the Philippines under Marcos. Civil oligarchies are systems where oligarchs rely on an institutionalized apparatus to defend their property and income. Singapore and the United States are two iconic examples of contemporary civil oligarchy. American oligarchs have built what Winters calls a “wealth defense industry,” populated by lawyers, experts, and technocrats who work assiduously on legislation and tax law to ensure that wealth is not redistributed. They have also established a media landscape dominated by corporate propaganda that vilifies compulsory redistribution and glorifies charitable billionaires’ right to choose to give. 

Like all typologies, this one too caricatures for the sake of conceptual breadth. Naturally, it does not seek to explain many nuances, be they in Lebanon or elsewhere. Nor does it explain oligarchs’ behaviors when they are not wealth defending. With those caveats in mind, looking at Lebanon through the politics of extreme economic stratification is a powerful way to frame how power is being wielded today and what it will take to dislodge it. The next part of this series turns to that task.