How often do we read an article or website and fly through words without really knowing their meaning? Very often. It’s a lot of work to know the exact definition of every word and assess how accurately it’s used in a particular setting. But every now and then, a word pops out at me and I realize—hey—I don’t really know what this means. So, I take the time to ferret it out.
Oligarchy. It’s a Russian thing, no? So it must be bad. Google defines ‘oligarchy’ as, “a small group of people having control of a country or institution.” The Silicon Valley elite includes no implied judgment in its phrasing. Merriam Webster, however, raises alarm: “a government in which a small group exercises control, especially for corrupt and selfish purposes.” Doesn’t that describe Russia to a T!
Searching for one definition inevitably leads to others. Call it the oligarchy variations. Aristocracy (government by noble heredity) is out of favor in a world swirling in egalitarian-speak. Kleptocracy (those in power exploit and steal) is always bad. Plutocracy (government by the wealthy) stings our populist sensibilities. Technocracy (government of technical experts) is appealing in this mechanized age, until one considers Travis Kalanick and Mark Zuckerberg’s recent incompetence. Perhaps a meritocracy (government based on ability) is the way to go, though who establishes merits’ measure? Self-appointed experts, to be sure.
We can ascribe a different slant to these descriptors, but any variation of government by the few leaves a bitter, elitist aftertaste. Unfortunately, words that describe single rule are even more repugnant: absolute monarch, autocrat, dictator, despot, tyrant.
Our spin-savvy age is tuned to terms with a distinct democratic-leaning, especially when applied to ourselves. A republic is a state in which the people and their elected representatives hold supreme power. That would be us, except perhaps for the corporate perks ensured by Citizens United. A democracy is a system of government by the whole population. Surely that’s us, except maybe for discriminatory voting restrictions.
Then there are the various ‘isms. Capitalism is about private ownership; socialism is about shared ownership; communism is about central ownership. What about fascism? Extolling the virtue of the nation-state over the individual, often along racial grounds, has no place in these United States. Except maybe at a rally in Charlottesville.
Examples that reflect every one of these terms for organizing society exist right here in the US of A, often to misleading ends. Undocumented workers, with few protections, are the collateral damage of pure capitalism. North Dakota electric cooperatives are a beloved form of pure socialism in a deep red state. There’s a vast difference between a dictionary definitions and how words are applied in practice.
I could fly to Russia to encounter oligarchy in practice. Or, I can simply take Amtrak to D.C. to witness “a government in which a small group exercises control, especially for corrupt and selfish purposes.”