We can learn a lot from the classics. Aristotle’s Politics addressed not merely the content of the laws, even more, the question of who rules. Among the self-governing city states of Ancient Greece, Aristotle observed three main forms of government: the rule of one, the rule of the few, and the rule of the many. Even into the modern era, this classification holds true.
For each broad type, there was a good and bad version: monarchy or dictatorship for the one, aristocracy or oligarchy for the few, and republican government or democracy for the rule of the many. The chief distinguishing feature of each good form from its degenerate form was whether the rulers were concerned with the common good or with self-aggrandizement.
Aristotle thought each type of rule had its virtues, and that the appropriateness of a particular form depended on the social structure of the society over whom it would govern. Aristotle ultimately concluded that the best government incorporates all three aspects, the so-called “mixed regime.” Perhaps unsurprising considering its durability and success, the U.S. Constitution has these features, as represented by a quasi-monarchical president, along with an upper and lower legislative chamber reflecting aristocracy and democratic principles, respectively.
As time has gone on, the well-balanced structure of the Constitution has been both misunderstood and neglected. Politicians and activists started to make a fetish of democracy and labeled our system such, removing elements like indirect election of senators in order to more perfectly manifest democratic principles.
The description of the United States as a democracy—lately invoked solemnly by the ruling class as Our Democracy™—became more prominent and assertive, even as the country became less democratic economically and culturally. This change happened by degrees. In the industrial age, the robber barons emerged, only to be supplanted by the newly minted billionaires from the realms of technology and finance in recent decades.
An interregnum of relatively low inequality in the middle of the 20th century did not last.
The Iron Law of Oligarchy
This is all consistent with what Italian political theorist Robert Michels called the “iron law of oligarchy.” He showed how ostensibly democratic institutions—whether countries or clubs—end up being ruled by a few. In politics, even when majority voting is a formal part of the system, there are a great many ways to manipulate the outcomes, whether through traditional methods like advertising, bribes, and propaganda, or, as more recently employed, vote “harvesting” alongside lethargic efforts to police voting fraud.
While the iron law of oligarchy seems to prevail everywhere, a system and a government can be more or less concerned with the common good, public opinion, basic fairness, and the consent of the governed. Even dictatorships and monarchies can learn they have gone too far through peasant uprisings.
Today, in the supposed apotheosis of democratic self-government, everything is becoming “top-down.” This ranges from elite-favored causes like transgenderism or draconian global warming policies, which will mean mass impoverishment of common people. In all of these particulars, popular opinion is distorted by oligarch-controlled traditional media and the use of secret algorithms and censorship to manipulate the inherently more-democratic space of social media.
To the extent there is a political debate, it is one between elite coalitions. This is why the George Floyd unrest, far from being spontaneous, featured large amounts of corporate money and tacit (and sometimes explicit) approval from the powerful. In the summer of 2020, the nonviolent protesters, rough-looking rioters, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), and the Silicon Valley elite were all on the same page.
Champions of the People?
The dominant parts of the ruling class are concentrated, with billionaires throwing around their weight and money to get their way. Their side has Mark Zuckerberg, Tom Steyer, and George Soros, while we have Elon Musk, Peter Theil, and, of course, Donald Trump.
Because of their immense wealth, the distinct views of the super-rich end up being more influential than they would otherwise be through their own efforts or the powerful PACs they control. Republican donors like Sheldon Adelson and Paul Singer supported same sex marriage, for example, and this has since become a non-issue for the GOP, even though opposition was once popular with voters. Liberal Mark Zuckerberg had a substantial influence on the 2020 election, paying $350 million to have his volunteers man election offices through the nonprofit vehicle, Center for Tech and Civic Life.
Even when billionaire oligarchs appear to be on our side, they have so little in common with the experience and struggles of regular people, that there will always be some gap between their concerns and the issues affecting the majority. Remember Trump talking about the “small” loan he received from his dad of $1 million?
There is a reason that Aristotle, Edmund Burke, Sir Henry Maine, and others all recognized the importance of a large middle class for any system of popular government; the interest of this class tends to conform to the broader public interest, whereas the very poor and the very rich each in different ways seek special privileges, special treatment, and ultimately some factional advantage.
Moreover, the oligarch class’ interest in social issues generally—whether gay marriage, “racial justice,” or “election integrity”—functions to distract from any inquiries into the conditions and policies which allowed them to amass their wealth, ill-gotten or otherwise.
This is the reason the Democrats closed ranks against Bernie Sanders. The Democrats’ recent focus on “diversity, equity, and inclusion” means that there is little risk to their donors or their large reservoir of support among the managerial class, even as the country as a whole becomes less economically mobile and more Third World by the day. This is why little was done to increase regulation over the Wall Street casino during the Obama years, even after investment banks nearly blew up the economy and took massive government funding from the Troubled Assets Relief Program in 2008.
The political power and influence of a Musk or Trump, while superficially encouraging, is really a symptom of a flawed, poorly structured political system. Specifically, their influence is the symptom of an oligarchic system, in which a handful of billionaires have disproportionate influence, while crowding out and discouraging any efforts at grassroots reform or organizing. So much for government “of, for, and by” the people. Self-government is supposed to be an “aristocracy of talent.” And among human talents there are other marks of excellence and qualification beyond mere money, such as brains, courage, patriotism, honesty, and public spiritedness. If there is always some unavoidable element of oligarchy in a democratic system, it does not need to be as narrow and exclusively financial as it is at the moment. This is a sign of a society in decline.
As Sir John Glubb wrote in his excellent essay, “The Fate of Empires,”
Gradually, and almost imperceptibly, the Age of Affluence silences the voice of duty. The object of the young and the ambitious is no longer fame, honour or service, but cash. Education undergoes the same gradual transformation. No longer do schools aim at producing brave patriots ready to serve their country. Parents and students alike seek the educational qualifications which will command the highest salaries.
Oligarchy and the Overproduction of Elites
Perhaps inevitable, America’s decline into oligarchy might be stable—or at least in some kind of equipoise—but for the problem that others have called the “overproduction of elites.” Life has fully realized Thomas Friedman’s dream: a knowledge economy, where the knowledge workers’ status is buttressed by credentialist gatekeeping of jobs in government and business. In practice, as more and more college graduates have emerged, there are comparatively fewer places in the system, with many graduates deeply in debt, underemployed, unable to buy a home or start a family, and resentful of their lot in life.
Others, the quintessential rule-followers and the ambitious, find that their dreams of becoming a doctor or engineer or lawyer do not come with the riches, social prestige, and influence they were promised in the brochures. State college is not Harvard. And comparatively few of the Harvard grads become the judges, senators, astronauts, millionaires, or whatever it was they and their parents expected.
This is all to say that even as the population is getting larger, the “club” is always getting smaller. As the avenues to power and influence for people of talent are more closed off, the democratization of college, coupled with persistent American mythology about meritocracy and democracy, means that more and more people feel that they should have some say in society, even as they have less influence and wealth than expected. This is bad news, fueling resentment among a bright and energetic (and thus dangerous) group of failed aspirants to the elite.
All the sanctimonious talk of Our Democracy™ and contradictory talk about the evils of populism are the instinctual responses of an oligarchic elite, whose legitimacy, ability to deliver stability and prosperity, and competence are all in rapid decline. Structural failures and widespread crises are also the specter haunting the World Economic Forum and its plans for a Great Reset. They seem, as I have written elsewhere, to be trying to prepare all of us for their continued power, even as they try to get us comfortable with widespread privation. It’s risky.
Restoring popular and democratic government first requires a true reset, one that increases the size, security, and prosperity of the middle class, the true bedrock of all forms of popular government. But this appears unlikely, because such changes in politics, business, and education, would require the kind of historical perspective and public spiritedness, of which an advanced stage oligarchic system is incapable.