Oligarchs vs. Plutocrats

Posted on March 7, 2011 by

Critics of concentrated wealth and corporate abuse are using shorthand to describe what’s happening to the American economic and political system.

Caught up in the enthusiasm, I’ve been using some of these terms myself without fully knowing what they mean.

So I looked them up:

“Oligarchy” is when the government is controlled by a small group; “plutocracy” is when the government is controlled by the wealthy.

Am I right to assume that all plutocrats are oligarchs but not all oligarchs are plutocrats?

I wonder whether these terms will catch on with the public.  Or are we just talking to ourselves?

The expression that I’ve taken to lately is “this is what democracy looks like,” chanted, of course, by Madison protesters.  Americans have no trouble understanding what that means.

I’m also delighted with the re-entry of “collective bargaining rights” into the public discussion.  As Americans, we love our rights and will fight to keep them.

Next we’ll have to get some positive spin on the words “labor movement.”  There may be some workers willing to join a union who wouldn’t want to be part of a movement.  (I’m not sure what we should do about “organized labor.”)

But now I’m getting trivial.

The main thing is that it’s been quite a while since Americans have paid this much attention to unions.  And the good news, I think, is that unions have learned a lot about how to pay attention to Americans.

Comments (18)


  1. Simone Tuerlings says:

    “Oligarchy” is when the government is controlled by a small group; “plutocracy” is when the government is controlled by the wealthy.

    So what is it called when government is controlled by a small group of the wealthy? “olicracy” or “plutogarchy”?

    • Anonymous Comment says:

      “The combination of both plutocracy and oligarchy is called plutarchy.” [en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plutocracy]

    • shahid zaman says:

      when government is controlled by a small group of wealthy people,it is known as plutocratic oligarchy

    • MANTHRAX says:


      RE: So what is it called when government is controlled by a small group of the wealthy? “olicracy” or “plutogarchy”?

  2. Glen Arnodo says:

    The challenge for the labor movement is how we continue the Wisconsin “moment.” This is the first time in decades when we’ve talked to the American people in terms they can understand and galvanized them around some notion of workers’ rights. As they say in WI, “It’s about freedom.”

    • Paul says:

      Fortunately in the years since that infamous “moment”, the people of WI recognized the lie of unions – that the workers need to rise against the oppressive employer to overthrow it: the very essence of Marxism/communism. Hopefully the rest of the United States will rapidly follow suit.

      Businesses and workers have been doing just fine without unions in this country for a very long time – since corporatism gave way to competition. This is reason for unions decline.

      No longer do corporations have a stranglehold on the economy or lives of its workers. The rise of competition created a job market, where businesses need to compete for the best workers.

      Instead, it is now unions who have a stranglehold. Unions stifle competition. By attempting to hide behind “workers rights” they prevent competition for the best workers and hinder the production of quality products at lower prices.

      In the days of corporatism, unions served a role to present a unified face for the workers. In this role they achieved much good – realistic work week, fair wage, safe conditions.

      Today, that role is no longer necessary. And there is no other role that unions have or can evolve to fill.

      It is time for unions to seal their history as the “good guys” by dissolving, getting out of the way, lauding the good that was accomplished during their tenure. Before history shows what they have become – the marxist organization that desires to strangle businesses and hold them to the will of the Union (Unions are NOT their members – not any longer).
      If they do not go quietly, but continue their destructive course, history will show they killed the American economy most surely.

      • David Wallace says:

        Are you serious? So you honestly think that the gains labor unions attained by and for the American worker against corporate exploitation have completed their goals and have thus become obsolete?
        What country are you living in? If anything, the fight for labor unions is needed now more than ever because of the very real possibility of this country being totally taken over by corporations. (and it’s closer than you think)
        Anti- trust laws aren’t even being adhered to any longer.
        Corporations aren’t paying their fair share in taxes while outsourcing our jobs to other countries all in the name of profit. Corporations don’t care about America or Americans.
        This country should be ashamed of itself. It’s the richest country in the history of the world yet 1 in 5 children go to bed hungry at night either because their parents are not paid a decent living wage or simply can’t even find a job.
        Yet corporations (banks) were allowed to swindle millions of people out of their American dream homes as a result of GOP de-regulation policies! And NOT ONE PERSON was held accountable! In fact these same banks are once again making record profits!
        Right wing values are: under pay the workers, but don’t let them get subsidies from the government so they can feed their families, don’t provide them affordable health care and whenever faced with balancing the budget always cut services to the middle class and cutback on services desperately needed by the poor, homeless, disabled and senior citizens.
        Mitt Romney’s scorch and burn policy of taking over companies and dismantling them while putting thousands of workers on the streets (and then adding insult to injury his fellow GOP buddies deny these same ex-workers UI Extentions) is a prime example of right wing corporate values. (Values???)
        Money is more important than a human life in this country.
        So much so, that I refuse to call myself an American. I don’t want to be associated with a country being hi-jacked by sociopaths!

      • Sharon Mills says:

        You are crazy. I am a retired union member. My income is ridiculous compared to non union retirees. Way more. My Medicare supplement is much better as well, union negotiated. People who think like you have ruined this country.

  3. John Connolly says:

    I was fascinated to read that FDR characterized the cohort of hard-core capitalists and right-wingers who violently attacked his administration as socialist and communist-inspired as “Economic Royalists”.

    How’s that for populist political rhetoric?

    From what I’ve read too, FDR’s epithet had broad resonance among average Americans. Pretty interesting when you connect the “Royalist” part to the radical republican impulse that forced the original (and oh-so-revered) Founding Fathers to add the Bill of Rights as the first 10 amendments to the Constitution.

    “Royalist” doesn’t quite have the punch it packed in the 19th and early 20th centuries when there were still plenty of syphilitic monarchies all over the map robbing nations and colonies blind. Remember the European revolutions of 1830, 1848 and the 1870′s were violently anti-royalist (and anti-clerical), as well as increasingly Proletarian.

    But, since “Royalist” does kind of describe the sneering arrogance and sense of self-entitlement among the Really Bad Guys these days, Economic Royalists might just do.

    And it would be fun to try it on for size.

    • DeeJay says:

      Right-o, old boy! jolly good point, that one
      Yes indeed, Mitten is most assuredly an Economic Royalist if ever there was one
      Another little rich boy born with a gold spoon in his mouth.
      As if he could ever hope to know what the 99% go through.
      He is a corporate raider who destroys jobs, not makes them.
      People in Mass. don’t think he’s good; they’ve had enough of him just like the folks in Texas had enough of W
      A vote for him is a vote for the elite monarchs of money & greed.
      Your kids will be lucky to get $5/hour when he & his handlers get through with the economy’s new rules.

  4. Gavin says:

    Getting back to collective bargaining – I agree with Lou on it is good to see it back in public discussion. Labor needs to keep in the view of the public. Too bad public employees were not covered and only private when NLA was formed. Basis for much of the troubles today. My limited memory labor history recalls FDR capitulated to get republican vote.

  5. In all these esoteric discussions, people should be cognizant of the implications of Robert Michels’ Iron Law of Oligarchy and the basic empirically obvious fact that most people usually don’t care if others participate on their own behalf. In essence, by their own failure to participate in institutions that control their lives, the leave it up to an oligarchy to do so.

    Usually means just that. Most of the time. During periods of intense major social dislocation major changes take place and more people participate, sometimes overthrowing the elites. Eventually things settle down and new oligarchies emerge or coopt the rebels into their ranks.

    The WHO song, We Don’t Get Fooled Again, is very instructive: “Meet the new boss; same as the old boss.”

  6. Alan K. says:

    Redundancies aside, I refer to the present government in the U.S. as a theocratic, fascistic plutocracy.


  7. Ann B says:

    Wow, two years ago people were talking about stuff I never heard of before Occupy last Sept., 2011! I can answer the question the article asks with, “Yes, I think those words plutocracy and oligarchy have become much more main stream.” I found this article by looking them up with a “vs.” in the middle when I was trying to describe how I see both candidates!

    I’m guessing “Mitten” means Romney, right? The description sure fits.

    What forward thinkers you all were back then. Good for you. Right down to “This is what democracy looks like!” I thought Occupy started that chant, but I guess unions chanted it before.

    And now the Who song makes more sense, too.

    Thank you all from the past!

  8. Jean cox says:

    Embourgeoisement is the process of migration of individuals into the bourgeoisie as a result of their own efforts or collective action, such as that taken by unions in the US and elsewhere in the 1930 through 1960s[citation needed] that established middle class status for factory workers and others that would not have been considered middle class by their employments, allowing increasing numbers of what might traditionally be classified as working-class people to assume the lifestyle and individualistic values of the so-called middle classes and hence reject commitment to collective social and economic goals. The opposite process is “proletarianization”.[citation needed]

  9. Dredd says:

    “Aristotle pioneered the use of the term as a synonym for rule by the rich,[4] for which the exact term is plutocracy.” -Wikipedia “oligarchy”

    The two constructs take different types of solutions when making them back into democracies, so the distinction is important.

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