Is America an Oligarchy?

An article in the Guardian claims to tell us How the oligarchy wins: lessons from ancient Greece. It is an interesting mixture of insights from the author’s sources and complete nonsense.

Is America really at risk of becoming an oligarchy? Our political system is a democracy. If the people don’t want to be run by wealthy elites, we can just vote them out. The system, in other words, can’t really be “rigged” to work for the rich and powerful unless the people are at least willing to accept a government of the rich and powerful. If the general public opposes rule-by-economic-elites, how is it, then, that the wealthy control so much of government?

Seems straightforward. You have a two party system with: both parties under control of well established status quos; both parties taking massive contributions from the wealthy; and both going out of their way to prevent dissenting voices like the Greens and the Libertarians from getting their messages out, for example by preventing them from participating in debates.

In his fascinating and insightful book Classical Greek Oligarchy, Matthew Simonton takes us back to the ancient world, where the term oligarchy was coined. One of the primary threats to oligarchy was that the oligarchs would become divided, and that one from their number would defect, take leadership of the people, and overthrow the oligarchy.

In other words, if the establishment allowed themselves to be split into two partisan factions, a  charismatic independent could come in with a populist message that appealed to a large fraction of one party’s base, and could take control of that party, win election to the highest office, and then proceed to drain the swamp.

While the ruling class must remain united for an oligarchy to remain in power, the people must also be divided so they cannot overthrow their oppressors. Oligarchs in ancient Greece thus used a combination of coercion and co-optation to keep democracy at bay. They gave rewards to informants and found pliable citizens to take positions in the government.

Like using wedge issues to divide the people and stacking government with political hacks and lobbyists.

In addition, oligarchs controlled public spaces and livelihoods to prevent the people from organizing. They would expel people from town squares: a diffuse population in the countryside would be unable to protest and overthrow government as effectively as a concentrated group in the city.

Much like the ideologues at Google, Facebook, and Twitter who control the public spaces, colluding with the establishment media to attack people’s livelihoods with demonetization, content restriction, and shadow banning to prevent them from talking about ideas they don’t like. A population dumbed down by the corporate media is easier to control.

They also tried to keep ordinary people dependent on individual oligarchs for their economic survival, similar to how mob bosses in the movies have paternalistic relationships in their neighborhoods.

Or how the welfare state keeps the poor dependent on government.

Reading Simonton’s account, it is hard not to think about how the fragmentation of our media platforms is a modern instantiation of dividing the public sphere, or how employees and workers are sometimes chilled from speaking out.

What? Fragmentation of media takes power away from the oligarchs. It gives people more ways to get their message out.

[Oligarchs] sought to destroy monuments that were symbols of democratic success.

Like statues of Lincoln and Jefferson?

Jeffrey Winters argues that the key to oligarchy is  “wealth defense,” and divides it into two categories. “Property defense” involves protecting existing property – in the old days, this meant building castles and walls, today it involves the rule of law. “Income defense” is about protecting earnings; these days, that means advocating for low taxes.

Defending property rights–how terrible. And of course, the only reason anyone would advocate for lower taxes is to defend their own interests.

The challenge in seeing how oligarchy works, Winters says, is that we don’t normally think about the realms of politics and economics as fused together.

Rational people know that you always follow the money. Who the hell thinks that politics are not driven by economics?

Democracy is vulnerable to oligarchy because democrats focus so much on guaranteeing political equality that they overlook the indirect threat that emerges from economic inequality.

Democracy is vulnerable because democrats sell out to big donors. Politicians do not care about political equality. They care about money and power.

In civil oligarchies, governance is collective and enforced through laws, rather than by arms. America is a civil oligarchy. To use the language of recent political campaigns, our oligarchs try to rig the system to defend their wealth. They focus on lowering taxes and on reducing regulations that protect workers and citizens from corporate wrongdoing.

Lowering taxes and decreasing the size of the government is the only way to combat the oligarchy. Regulations haven’t protected workers. The government works for the corporate donors, not the citizens.

If oligarchy works because its leaders institutionalize their power through law, media, and political rituals, what is to be done? How can democracy ever gain the upper hand?

If only there were a way to elect someone who wasn’t part of the establishment and would pledge to drain the swamp.

Winters notes that political power depends on economic power. This suggests that one solution is creating a more economically equal society.

By giving the oligarchs even more power? Wouldn’t it be better to vote for people who are not bought and paid for by the establishment? If you don’t like Trump, how about the Green party or the Libertarians? As long as you aren’t willing to change the government, don’t expect them to do anything to make society more equal.

Indeed, some commentators have suggested that the economic equality of the late 20th century was exceptional because two World Wars and a Great Depression largely wiped out the holdings of the extremely wealthy. On this story, there isn’t much we can do without a major global catastrophe.

The reason things changed after the wars was that a large segment of the male population was wiped out. This meant that soldiers returning from the war and women who had for the first time entered traditionally male occupations during the war effort had massive opportunities. Don’t fool yourself: the wealthy were not “wiped out” by the depression and the wars; they made good on them.

Simonton offers another solution. He argues that democracy defeated oligarchy in ancient Greece because of “oligarchic breakdown.” Oligarchic institutions are subject to rot and collapse, as are any other kind of institution. As the oligarchs’ solidarity and practices start to break down, there is an opportunity for democracy to bring government back to the people.

But not if you continue to elect the same establishment parties.

In that moment, the people might unite for long enough that their protests lead to power. With all the upheaval in today’s politics, it’s hard not to think that this moment is one in which the future of the political system might be more up for grabs than it has been in generations. The question is whether democracy will emerge from oligarchic breakdown – or whether the oligarchs will just strengthen their grasp on the levers of government.

We’ll see. Assuming Trump fails to drain the swamp, it’s still possible that the establishment Republicans will be sufficiently weakened and the Bernie wing will do the same for establishment Democrats. If so, who knows what will emerge from the wreckage.

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About jimbelton

I'm a software developer, and a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, and I blog about movies, books, and philosophy. My interest in religious philosophy and the search for the truth inspires much of my writing.
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