why is oligarchy everywhere?

The first governments were kingships. … . But when many persons equal in merit arose, no longer enduring the pre-eminence of one, they desired to have a commonwealth, and set up a constitution. The ruling class soon deteriorated and enriched themselves out of the public treasury; riches became the path to honor, and so oligarchies naturally grew up. These passed into tyrannies and tyrannies into democracies; for love of gain in the ruling classes was always tending to diminish their number, and so to strengthen the masses, who in the end set upon their masters and established democracies. — Aristotle, Politics III

Recent headlines suggest that the Aristotelian cycle is happening globally–with the very important difference that Aristotle believed oligarchies turned into democracies, but the reverse seems to be happening now. For instance:

Why would this be happening? Mainly, it’s because we aren’t fighting back effectively; and I am optimistic that sooner or later we will. But in doing so, we’ll have to address the underlying currents that seem to cause democracies to drift into oligarchies unless we act.

First, consider the argument of Thomas Picketty’s Capital in the 21st Century, which–to be clear–I have not yet read. His point is that almost always, the return to capital has been greater than the economic growth rate. That means that the people who possess capital get progressively richer than everyone else, and their children get even richer than them. The period 1913-ca. 2010 was anomalous because growth exceeded the return to capital, meaning that people with wealth got richer, but their societies got richer still. That is also a period when democracy and socialism (between them) covered most of the global north. One might assume that market democracies boosted growth and lowered the returns to capital, and that would imply that they can do so again. But it’s also possible that the returns to capital were lower than growth for external reasons (technological change; war), which is why democracies survived. If the latter explanation is true, we are in trouble, because returns to capital again exceed growth and are expected to do so for decades to come.

Second, there’s the disturbing thesis of Matthew A. Crenson and Benjamin Ginsberg, Downsizing Democracy: How America Sidelined its Citizens and Privatized the Public. In my version of their argument: starting in the 1600s, certain nation-states allowed the mass public to have power. As a result, these states were able to mobilize their people to fight wars and to lend money to finance wars. In turn, the states that had the biggest armies either dominated everyone else or forced the others to imitate them. The exceptions were terrifying tyrannies that conscripted their men and seized their wealth, but they turned out to be fragile. By a kind of Darwinian process, the nation-states that were democracies prevailed; they were “fittest.” But then technologies of death became more sophisticated. Wealthy nations no longer needed lots of soldiers. They could win wars with a few well-equipped professionals. They only needed a small proportion of their people to finance these 21st century militaries. As a result, the Darwinian pressure to expand democracy is now gone.

Again, I am not proposing an inevitable drift to oligarchy. These are simply tendencies that we must confront.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.