The Anatomy of Oligarchy

by Elias Blum

We all know that ‘they‘ are to blame. It’s a platitude, almost a cop-out, but its still sadly true. They make the rules for their benefit, they break the rules when it suits them.

But who are they, and to whom does this lazy shorthand of a third person plural pronoun refer?

In essence, they are the relatively small number of people with effective influence over decision making. In Britain, active policy-making and agenda-setting power is in the hands of, at most, a few hundred people: ministers, senior civil servants, senior judges, the Palace, and very highest levels of the armed forces, police and security services – together with other powerful individuals such as media barons and those with serious financial power.

These few are advised, assisted, supported – and sometimes constrained – by perhaps a few thousand more, including backbench parliamentarians, mid-level political donors, major business owners and landowners, the senior members of the public sector nomenklatura, the educational establishment, the legal establishment, the church establishment, and the staffs and clients of various lobby firms and think-tanks.

These are the ‘establishment’, the ‘deep-state’, the ‘power-block’. Some of them are born into this, some of them work their way into it. Some of them are quite rich, some are very rich, and some of them are richer than you or I can imagine. 

They are not necessarily unified or homogenous – sometimes you see infra-elite disputes, such as when a judge stands up to the government or an archbishop criticises a prime minister – but they do have a fairly large degree of interlocking social interaction and common educational backgrounds, giving them, for the most part, a broadly similar outlook on life.

From this position of power and privilege, they have a tendency to act mainly for the benefit of themselves and of people like themselves: the economic and social elite of perhaps a few hundred thousand people – the richest 1% or so of the population, who have much to gain from the perpetuation of existing state structures and economic and social inequalities, and potentially a lot to lose from real democratic change.

There is no ‘grand conspiracy’ behind all this (although there is quite a lot of macro-level corruption); it’s just how oligarchy works.

But we know that such oligarchy cannot and will not remain forever: Thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, not theirs. The first shall be last and the last shall be first. The poor shall be filled with good things and the rich sent empty away.