Thought Piece: Toward a Theory of Oligarchy

The first few weeks back to classes have been surprisingly busy, so I haven’t had time to post much in the way of my work.  In the next few days, look for a review of Arend Lijphart’s The Politics of Accommodation and several subsequent works and academic responses.

In lieu of any real material progress, here is a half-baked thought piece for a very interesting class I am taking this quarter with Jeffery Winters on Oligarchy and Elite Rule.  So far, I am fairly skeptical but I imagine that I’ll come around by the end of the quarter.

The piece below is a response to several pieces by Karl Marx, John Manley, Gaetano Mosca, James Payne, Robert Dahl, and Darcy Leach.  If they grab your interest, let me know and I’ll send you the specific citations.   Enjoy…

Thought Piece: Toward a Theory of Oligarchy

In the efforts to develop a theory of oligarchy, it seems from this week’s readings that there is still considerable confusion regarding the difference between the existence of oligarchs and effective rule by oligarchy.

In Karl Marx’s famous anti-Semitic diatribe, “On the Jewish Question,” he contends that one of the greatest sins of the Jews of Germany have been to demand political emancipation while casting aside a broader notion of human emancipation. For Marx, this more limited goal essentially means demanding equal rights to the possession and control of property and exchange without a broader goal of human material equality. In this piece, Jews as “hucksters” are set up as oligarchs controlling the world’s wealth while simultaneously depoliticizing its possession. Manley follows a similar logic, albeit without the racist undertones, arguing that although the American dream opens a space for legal and democratic equality, it is fundamentally elitist insofar as it sets aside a broader democratic dream of equality of material conditions and human worth. Complementary assertions are made by Mosca who argues that rule by the minority is an inevitable social reality. Even when participating in democratic representative elections, the material interests of this minority a priori circumscribe the selection of candidates and the issues they address.

While these selections are likely correct to attack the fundamental social and material inequality that seems to result from minority interest and political intervention, is this outcome synonymous with oligarchic rule? Payne, Dahl, and Leach are each wise to criticize this notion of oligarchy where the form, type, justifications, and modalities of rule are highly under-specified. The fact that the wealthy are both more easily able to mobilize political power and resources than the poor and are likely to react harshly with catastrophic social consequences when their fundamental interests, namely the possession of vast wealth, are challenged does not mean that these actors rule society. Marx may be correct to assert that human emancipation requires the rejoining of social (i.e. demands for social equality and just property distribution) and political power (i.e. civic participation and just representation), but it remains to be demonstrated that the “men behind the curtain” are doing much more to rule than defending their particular (however seemingly unjust) interests.

Even Mosca recants that those who rule remain dependent on the popular support of their subjects, particularly in democratic elections. This responsiveness is not mere demagoguery if they are truly dependent on the mass to rule. That economic elites may remove particular elements of social relations from the realm of political contestation only demonstrates rule by these few if these are the only issues on the table. While for someone like Marx economic relations are the irreducible sum total of the political universe, those who approach questions of civic equality, participation, education, cultural expression, and so on have a much more expansive notion of the realm of politics. I would contend that the academic challengers of oligarchy then, are less concerned with the question of rule itself, then they are with the re-politicization of material wealth and property. This certainly may be a legitimate political aim, but its object is to problematize and destabilize the power of oligarchs and, in Dahl’s terms, to create a more ideal polyarchy, rather than to deconstruct an only questionably manifest oligarchy.

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