Written by Rosa Tressell and Dr. Leon Tressell exclusively for SouthFront;
This is the second part of a series prepared on the topic. The first part can be found here. The series includes four parts.
The word Oligarch, meaning rule of the few, came from the Ancient Greek civilisations that rose up in the millennia following the collapse of the mighty Egyptian Empire. The later period was named the Archaic and Classical periods which saw the emergence of Greek city states like Sparta which was founded about the 10th century BCE. Greece was the birthplace of Western philosophy and included the thinkers Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. In the works of Plato’s Republic, we can see the focus given to questions of political governments.
Sparta was ruled, unusually at this time, by a group of 28 powerful men plus two kings. This group of thirty was called the council of elders, or gerousia, and they drafted resolutions that were put to the vote of an assembly of “free” men. A board of five overseers, or ephors, chosen from the “free” men, was used to counterbalance the council. These elected ephors were charged with maintaining law, even if that meant charging an Oligarch. Spartan citizens themselves spent their time hunting, fighting and politicking. The lower orders, the workers, were excluded from government. It was their regular uprisings that seriously undermined Sparta’s fighting capacity. The Oligarchy is also a reason for Sparta’s reputation as a conservative city state slow to make decisions. They can be contrasted to their main rival Athens, who were at this time experimenting with democracy.
In 411 BCE after a 100 years of democracy there was a revolution in Athens. This eventually resulted in a Spartan victory over Athens and the imposition of rule by the “Thirty Tyrants”. Numerous atrocities were committed by this Oligarchy. They were overthrown some ten years later. Socrates, who taught some of the Oligarchs, was sentenced to death. An irony as Socrates believed that his teachings were available, freely, to everyone. His successor, Plato, developed a philosophy that fit the aristocratic outlook on the world. Their desire to turn their back on reality and deny the turbulence all around them. A philosophy that down played change in favour of stability. Later in Greek civilisation philosophy was to give way to the more popular astrology.
One of the main factors that undermined both the Spartan Oligarchy and the Athenian democracy was the growth of slavery. The same factors can be also be detected in Ancient Rome. Following Roman victories in the Carthaginian Wars there were vast tracts of land that required distributing. The Gracchus Brothers, Tiberius and Gaius, both high ranking nobles, began to argue for the civilisation of Rome’s Italian allies, and against slavery. In 133 BCE they proposed a series of far reaching land reforms aimed at creating independent farmers with citizenship rights and responsibilities. However, they met with fierce resistance by the patricians, or wealthy aristocrats.
The aristocrats saw the land reforms as an attack on their powers and so therefore on the Republic. Gracchus took their bill directly to the people, which further outraged the Senators. On the day of the vote, the rich landowners simply had the voting urns removed. The Gracchus brothers were persuaded to bring the matter before the Senate, but by this point the Oligarchs, about 2,000 wealthy families, had matters sewn up. Rome was now split between the Senate and the Popular Assembly.
The ruling Oligarchy, fearful of losing wealth and influence, accused Tiberius Gracchus of wanting to be a tyrant. Whilst publicly adopting a defensive stance to protect the Republic, they incited violence to bring down the tyrants. In 132 BCE Tiberius sought to be re-elected as tribune bust was set upon and killed by a group of Senators. Supporters of Tiberius were also hunted down and killed. However, this did not bring an end to the dispute. Gaius was then elected Tribune in 124 BCE and continued agitating for land reform. The Oligarchy was forced to buy peace with bribes. To pay for this they taxed the Italian countryside, which only resulted in an exodus to the cities, where more dispossessed added their voices to demands for change.
In both Sparta and the Roman Republic the Oligarchys were undermined by the dispossessed. It is an essential feature that Oligarchs siphon off wealth into their own pockets, leaving less for everyone else. They then use this power to keep the balance of forces in society stable and ripe for picking. The growth of cheap slave labour achieved by military victories benefited only the wealthy landowners. It only created the complete immiseration of the peasants and workers. Following the defeat of the Gracchus Brothers and their land reforms, Rome turned into a society where slavery was marginal to one supported by vast armies of slaves.
The world centre for oligarchism and monetarism from about 1100 to 1700 was the Venetian Republic. Unlike many of the Italian feudal city-states, Venice was dominated by Oligarchs from its inception as a trading and mercantile port. It was ruled by the Council of Ten, an all-powerful and secret body. It was also a strong state that publicly owned the ships which were then leased to the merchants and traders. The Oligarchs worked both to crush any commune sympathies and to prevent any Doge, or Duke, who would make themselves a tyrant/dictator.
In 1355 the oligarchy imposed their collective will over Doge Marin Faliero who was charged with attempting to overthrow the constitution in favour of the type of autonomy favoured by other Italian states at that time. In marshaling the support of the common people against the Venetian aristocrats he was accused of wanting to become a dictator. He was deposed and beheaded. The Oligarchs were keen to impress that the Doge was never above their law.
1527 there were about 2,700 patricians entitled to vote in the Grand Council. Many were so poor that they made their living from selling their vote. A feature of Oligarchy is that many deals are struck and compromises made. Many of these discussions took place at the Doge’s Palace. This type of intrigue and diplomacy became a way of life for the Oligarchs. The Doge meanwhile was subject to the same type of strict restrictions that those who were not Oligarchs faced. The average age of the Doge was around 70 as the Oligarchs feared the creation of strong dynasties that would challenge their collective rule. This did give the Venetian regime a certain old man feel, bordering on senility at times, and reinforcing a conservative outlook.
During the 1600s the wealthy Venetian bankers were backing and transferring their assets to the nascent British Empire. In addition they spread their ideas, as can be seen by the popularity of Paolo Sapri, the founder of modern empiricism, materialism and determinism. You can trace Sapri’s influence, and his successor, Antonio Conti in the works of Hobbes, Locke, Newton and later Bentham. Utilitarianism, a form of moral and ethnic arithmetic, became the centerpiece of the British Empire’s ideology. The trick, once again, of the Oligarchs was to present their own good as synonymous with the good for the maximum.
In 1705 a pamphlet of doggerel poetry was published that became the most talked about philosophical poem ever. Called the Fable of the Bees, Bernard Mandeville, put forward the idea that private vices such as greed and vanity result in publicly beneficial results. He focused his attention on self-interested passions:
“The desire to create a purely virtuous society was based on a vain UTOPIA seated in the Brain: fancying that a nation can, with virtues like honesty, attain great wealth and success, when in fact it is the desire to improve one’s material condition in acts of self-indulgence that lies at the heart of economic productivity (The Fable, Vol. I, pg. 36).
In Great Britain a profound respect emerged for money. Money for money’s sake too. The growth of the British Empire was largely driven by this pursuit, with the British East India Trading Company leading the charge, funded by the new financiers of the City of London. The monarchy was no longer one of absolute rule and Parliament represented the wealthiest people in the country exclusively. There has been a long history in Britain over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries of movements to extend Parliamentary democracy. However, even today politics and governance is still dominated by an elite group with privileged backgrounds and selective education.
The singular pursuit of money enshrines an Oligarchical outlook on the world. Adopting the idea that improving ones own material condition will result in benefits for wider society justifies the selfish pursuit of wealth. It has been enshrined in the twentieth century as the American Way. This was given a huge boost by the huge post-war boom that saw unprecedented improvements for the mass of people in their living standards. However, through a booming middle class and a leaning to democracy from the outset, there was a lessening of Oligarchical influence in politics. However, Oligarchs in America have always been present, think of Forbes 400 and the Bostonian’s of Henry James. This is unsurprising given the close Anglo-American relations that existed.