Oligarchy means rule of the few, but in what sense? In one sense all governments, indeed, all organizations are oligarchies. The basic hierarchical pyramid keeps reasserting itself, regardless of all attempts to avoid it. Most famously, this is taken to mean that true democracy is impossible on any large scale. It is simply not possible for multitude to take part in every decision and run the day-to-day operations of any organization of any size. Power has to be delegated to make operation functional (or bearable), and the people to whom power is delegated form an elite. Less emphasized, this also means that true one-man rule is impossible on any large scale. There is simply more to be done than any one individual can handle, so the dictator, too, will have to delegate and create an elite with its own interests. The term oligarchy has been applied to countries ranging from the U.S. and present-day Europe -- formally democratic, but increasingly run for the benefit of the 1% -- to Communist countries -- formally dictatorial, but largely run by the Communist Party.
But this is not what I mean when referring to Ancient Greece. In Ancient Greece (and Rome) I will use the term to mean a formal oligarchy -- a system in which the citizens practice democratic self-government, but citizens are a minority of the population and the majority of non-citizens is excluded. (When I remember, I will refer to this form of government as a "formal oligarchy.") Formal oligarchies of this type are rare in modern times. Still, I can offer some analogies.
The U.S. has many illegal immigrants within our borders, who have no rights as citizens. In some communities they make up a non-trivial portion of the population but are disenfranchised. They do have human and contractual rights, but are often afraid to assert them for fear of deportation. We have at other times admitted braceros from Mexico as temporary workers. The number of non-citizens in the US is necessarily limited because we have birthright citizenship -- children of illegal or temporary immigrants born here are citizens by law. Many booming European and Asian countries have admitted guest workers without birthright citizenship. In some cases (as I understand it), offspring of guest workers remain in the host countries where they were born, knowing no other country, but excluded from citizenship or the prospect of citizenship, possessing human and contractual rights, but permanently disenfranchised and excluded from the rights of citizenship. But in all cases, these guest workers are a minority.
|South Africa's tribal homelands|
The best candidate for a formal oligarchy these days is Israel, with a democratic government among its Jews and a small number of Arab citizens descended from Arabs who lived in Israel when independence was declared. A large number of Arabs live on the West Bank as an occupied population under Israeli military control. While there continues to be talk of giving independence to the West Bank, creeping annexation is well underway and will presumably arrive at some point. Once it does, there is the question of what to do with the inhabitants. To grant them citizenship is to have a large bloc of non-Jewish citizens undermining Israel's Jewish identity. To deny them citizenship is to have a large disenfranchised population. At present, they will still be a minority, albeit a large one, but the specter of minority rule in Israel is very real.
As the foregoing makes clear, not only is formal oligarchy rare these days, but it is generally based on race or ethnicity and, because of our sensitivity on the subject, formal oligarchy tends to be less acceptable these days than outright dictatorship. It also raises an interesting question. How large a share of the population can a country exclude and still be considered a democracy? At what point does a country excluding a growing share of the population count as a failure of democracy? This was a very live question in Ancient Greece as democratic and oligarchic factions vied for power. All favored a system in which citizens made up a minority of the population; all favored some degree of democratic self-government among the citizen body. The difference was relative, not absolute. But it was great. At what point does the transition toward oligarchy count as a failure of democracy and at what point is it a mere narrowing of democracy?
That issue has echoes through modern times. In the US South following the Civil War, there was a strong movement to disenfranchise black people. But no one questioned the need to protect democracy among white people. Only in South Carolina did this mean excluding a majority from government, but in all the South it meant excluding a large minority? Does this count as a failure of democracy and a move to oligarchy? What if Israel annexes the West Bank, but Arabs remain a large minority? Will Israel be a democracy or an oligarchy? What about nativist parties in Europe today, that favor democracy but want to exclude immigrants?
And, granting that all Greek city-states, including ones defined as democracies, were actual oligarchies, how does one define relative degrees of democracy and oligarchy?