In this post, I summarize the article “Oligarchy in the U.S.,” by Winters and Page (2009).
Winters and Page: Oligarchy in the USA
Winters and Page (Hereafter, WP) argue that all modern democracies, regardless of level of democracy, can be oligarchies. Oligarchy and democracy can, and do, “coexist comfortably” (731). WP ask whether the U.S. is an oligarchy.
WP want to “advance the research agenda” of the APSA Task Force on Inequality and American Democracy, and goad political scientists to “treat power… more seriously” (732).
Citing Aristotle, WP argue that wealth is the primary power resource. WP define oligarchy as a “type of political system” in which “the wealthiest citizens deploy unique and concentrated power resources to defend their unique minority interests” (731). WP argue that oligarchy is a form of extreme political and economic inequality: “Oligarchy refers broadly to extreme political inequalities that necessarily accompany extreme material inequalities” (732). Oligarchs, due to their wealth, are a powerful minority that dominates policy in modern democracy.
Wealth is “a material form of power that is distinct from all other power resources, and which can be readily deployed for political purposes” (732). (Material, as opposed to other types of) wealth is an individual power resource for three main reasons: (1) It is concentrated in the hands of the few; (2) it is easily used as a means of political influence; and (3) it implies a set of political interests: specifically, the desire to protect the wealth they have and get more of it. The core political interest is in property and income defense. Concentrated wealth is both power and a motivation to use power. WP acknowledge other sources of political power: position within government, full political citizenship, position within organizations, personal capacity to mobilize people, and access to the means of violence. In their view, wealth is the most consistent major political power source.
WP acknowledge that oligarchs do not control all political life: just the major ones concerning property and income. Oligarchs do not have to exhibit “explicit coordination or cohesion” (731). Their common interest in wealth protection is enough to bind them and coordinate their actions. This common interest also insulates the oligarchal system from radical changes resulting from circulation of elites.
How do oligarchs use wealth?
Wealth is a gateway to purchasing the means of control and furthering their political interests. They command large organizations. They hire “armies” of skilled professionals. They are “denizens of foundations, think tanks, politically connected law firms, consultancies, and lobbying organizations” (732). Oligarchs do not have to have extensive engagement in political participation to be oligarchs. They argue that oligarchs do not have to hold formal government positions to wield power: rather, “indirect influence is sufficient” (731).
Masses do not rebel against this state of affairs because of a stable “oligarch-mass” settlement. In exchange for extreme inequality, masses receive universal suffrage. The masses are divided in terms of their interests. Oligarchs operate within a — limited — pluralistic environment.
WP argue that oligarchy became a muddled concept in the hands of the classic elite theorists of Mosca, Pareto and Michels, who included resources other than wealth in their lists of what constitutes power resources for oligarchs.
How Winters and Page Measure Individual Political Power?
WP argue that there are many possible political power measures, and they encourage empirical investigation into them. Their measure of political power is based on indices of income and wealth. They note (endnote 21) that income and wealth does not necessarily have a 1:1 relationship with political power, such that twice the wealth equals twice the political power. They argue that such relationships are open for empirical investigation. Yet, in Table 1, this is exactly how they calculate “individual power index.”
“The Individual Power Index for each income fractile is a ratio, calculated as the average income for that fractile divided by the average income of the bottom 90%” (735, Table 1).
Individuals in the top 1/100 of 1% with an average income of over 25 million dollars have 882.8 times as much “individual power” as an individual in the bottom 90%. Due to this form of calculation, the bottom 90% will always have an individual power index score of 1.
WP also measure individual power based on the wealth of the Forbes 400 richest Americans and distributions based on estate tax and data from the Survey of Consumer Finances.
They do not have a threshold at which a certain level of political power (based on income or wealth) is oligarchy: “Any fixed quantitative criterion used to identify oligarchs is bound to be arbitrary… we would argue strongly against any mechanical rule” (737). Yet, they argue that in the U.S., “a definitional boundary that identifies the top tenth of 1 percent of the wealthiest households as potential oligarchs seems fairly plausible” (738).
What Oligarchs Control
Oligarchs do not control all policy. Rather, they control key policies that offer the best wealth protection.
Policy types that oligarchs exert over-influence are:
- International economic policy (important for a globalizing world)
- Monetary policy (important during economic crisis)
- Tax policy (which influences government spending and other government budgetary matters)
- Over-all redistributive impact of all government policies.
How Oligarchs Control
- Lobbying (which has got more professional and more expensive)
- Elections (campaign contributions influence who gets elected to office)
- Opinion shaping (media and more subtle ways that they do not specify)
- Constitutional rules (including the appointment of judges)
Critiques of Winters and Page
This is an interesting a provocative article. I especially appreciate their attempt to measure political power. I have some criticisms of their approach.
They do not consistently distinguish between “power” resources and “political” resources. They refer mostly to political power, but their vocabulary is not precisely deployed.
Though they reference Aristotle in their claim that wealth is the primary power resource in democracies for oligarchs, they do not explicitly reference the deep roots their ideas have in Marxism and neo-Marxism. Their thesis of why the masses accept this arrangement is very close to the Marxian theory of state compromise/class compromise. In exchange for their larger monetary and political control, the ruling class grants concessions to the proletariat, including limited political influence and limited economic redistribution.
Further, WP argue that masses are “persuaded” as a result of this settlement. In Marxian terms, the settlement leads to false consciousness (they do not use the term “consciousness”). Lacking wealth as a motivator for political action, masses are divided over their different interests. This implies that wealth is the only thing in modern democracy that can successfully bind a group together and motivate each individual to act as if they have a common interest with their fellow group members.
In their discussion of how wealth is used, they do not separate ownership from control over organizations. For example, WP states that “the wealthy often control large organizations, such as business corporations, that can act for them” (732). CEOs and boards of directors are the ones that usually control these organizations; while they are wealthy, it is not their material wealth that is used; rather, it is their position within a heavily resourced organization. This fact undermines their argument that wealth is the key political force.
A similar problem is with oligarchs relationship to think tanks, lobbying firms, and the like. While funded by the wealthy, even the non-wealthy can be influential actors within these organizations. These problems in their conceptualization are especially problematic because they operationalize political power solely on income and wealth indices.
While WP say that oligarchs do not control all political activities, their last form of control, “Over-all redistributive impact of all government policies” is vague enough to imply a much larger range of control than WP admit. “Over-all” is far too imprecise to be operationalized.
What happens to WP ‘s theory when placed in a communist regime? There, position within the state is more of a political power resource than wealth. Clearly, the “wealth is most important” argument does not work there. They do not discuss communist societies (which is understandable, if they concentrate only on putative democracies).
WP do not engage directly with the problem that oligarch influence is not directly observed. They should do more to acknowledge that, in all such similar theories, influence is inferred, not explicitly seen. This invisible hand argument has been troublesome for all elite theories. Further, while they cite Domhoff and Mills (but not Parenti, surprisingly), they do not engage directly with their very similar theories. Domhoff’s “upper class as ruling class” elite theory is substantively similar to WP’s oligarchy.
Winters, Jeffrey A. and Benjamin I. Page. 2009. “Oligarchy in the United States?” Perspectives on Politics 7(4): 731 – 751.
Copyright Joshua Dubrow 2022