12.04.27, Winters, Oligarchy

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Peter C. Meilaender

The Medieval Review 12.04.27

Winters, Jeffrey A.. Oligarchy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Pp. xx, 323. ISBN: 978-1-107-00258-0.
ISBN: 978-0-521-18298-0.

Reviewed by:
Peter C. Meilaender
Houghton College

Jeffrey Winters has written an extremely impressive study of oligarchy, grounded in a clear theoretical analysis of its material foundations and illustrated by a diverse range of case studies. The book may be of limited interest to readers of this list, because its use of specifically medieval examples is modest--a ten-page discussion of "warring oligarchies in medieval Europe" (50-59), and an only slightly longer treatment of the "Italian city-states of Venice and Siena" (121-33). Among the other examples are more extended discussions of oligarchical power in classical Athens and Rome. Nevertheless, the book deserves to find a wide readership among those with broad interests in political science, political history, and political economy. Winters offers a helpful typology of oligarchic forms, and his argument raises provocative questions about the persistence of oligarchical influence within democratic polities characterized by the rule of law.

Central to Winters's analysis of oligarchy is its distinction from other forms of elite rule. Democratic theorists have debated the problem of elite rule for many decades. Yet as Winters points out, pluralists have persuasively argued that although elites may dominate democratic processes (as they do all complex organizations), this need not constitute a form of anti-democratic subjection, because elites do not form a monolithic group. They are cross-cutting, with opposing interests across a range of issues, so that their influence does not represent rule by a single set of "elite interests."

But oligarchs do pose a problem. These extremely wealthy individuals-- Winters is typically describing only a very small segment of society, one-tenth of one percentage of the population or less--may have cross- cutting interests on many issues, but they share one crucial material interest in common: they are all concerned with the defense of their great wealth against threats from society at large, other oligarchs, or the state. They thus pursue political strategies of wealth and income defense. These strategies vary according to the dominant threats at any given point in time, and therefore the forms of oligarchic rule also vary. Yet the conflict provoked by extreme material stratification and the need of oligarchs to supply wealth defense in one form or another remain constant.

In emphasizing oligarchy's material basis in property, Winters returns to Aristotle's foundational analysis. Aristotle lists oligarchy among the unjust forms of government, those in which the rulers govern for the sake of their own, private interest, rather than for the public good. He initially distinguishes oligarchy from other unjust regimes on the basis of the number of those who rule: whereas tyranny is the unjust rule of one, and democracy that of the many, in oligarchy the few rule in their own interest. Yet as Winters points out, Aristotle immediately ceases to discuss oligarchy in terms of the number of those comprising its ruling class. Instead, he defines it as the rule of the wealthy. This characteristic guides the rest of his discussion, and indeed the conflict between rich and poor proves to be the central political dilemma that Aristotle believes cities must solve. The best regime possible in most actual cities, therefore, is "polity" or "constitutional government," which balances the claims of rich and poor so as to prevent either class from dominating the other.

Contemporary discussions of elite dominance in general, therefore, fail to capture what is truly distinctive about oligarchy: its material basis in wealth defense. In this sense, they are less perceptive than Aristotle was. Nevertheless, Winters's argument does depart from Aristotle's. Winters emphasizes that oligarchy, understood as the effort to defend property, is in principle compatible with a range of regime types: "oligarchy is a material project, not a method of rule or a system of government" (281; see also 39). For Aristotle, by contrast, oligarchy, like other regimes, is specifically about who (and whose conception of justice) rules in a city. In this sense, Aristotle has a more distinctively political conception of oligarchy than does Winters.

Winters highlights several key variables shaping the particular forms that oligarchy can take. In particular, he argues that oligarchs may or may not be directly involved in supplying the coercion that defends their property; they may exercise their influence in a fragmented, individualistic fashion, or they may do so collectively; and they may be what he calls either "wild" or "tamed," which refers to whether they successfully resort to self-help in their pursuit of wealth defense, or whether such efforts have been subordinated to political institutions or the rule of law. On the basis of these variables, Winters constructs a typology of four different ideal types of oligarchy: warring, ruling, sultanistic, and civil. He elaborates upon each of these in a separate chapter, explaining its distinctive characteristics and illustrating it with examples.

In a warring oligarchy, oligarchs remain personally armed and directly engaged in providing the coercion that defends their wealth. They do so in a fragmented and individualistic manner. This is the phenomenon that we still refer to as warlordism. Winters offers examples of warring oligarchy from different historical periods: warlord- chieftains in prehistoric Denmark or pre-colonial Peru; the growth of warlordism among emerging feudal oligarchs after the collapse of the Roman Empire; or, in one of the book's less expected and more entertaining illustrations, the Appalachian feuds in nineteenth- century America, such as that between the Hatfields and the McCoys. In all of these cases, "the oligarchs involved are directly armed and personally engaged in the violence and coercion of wealth defense, they have an unusually high degree of involvement in rule over the community...and they pursue their objectives of wealth defense in a manner that is highly fragmented as opposed to collective- institutionalized" (65).

Ruling oligarchies, by contrast, display a "higher degree of cooperation among oligarchs" (66). Here the oligarchs join together in order to provide wealth defense and reduce the risks they face from each other. Typically this occurs when "collective rule is institutionalized in a governing body populated almost exclusively by oligarchs" (66) and displaying a frequent rotation among office- holders, so that no single oligarch can consolidate power and dominate the entire group. Significant variation within this type arises from the extent to which oligarchs disarm and outsource the task of coercion, as opposed to remaining personally armed and untamed. The latter situation is obviously much less stable. The Italian and American mafia commissions provide examples of unstable ruling oligarchies whose members remain armed and personally engaged in wealth defense.

Winters offers longer discussions of more stable ruling oligarchies that achieve greater institutionalization because their members accept greater disarmament: Athens and Rome in the classical world, Venice and Siena in the medieval period. The treatment of Athens in particular is significant. Here Winters introduces the "material power index," an interesting tool, relied upon also in subsequent chapters, to measure the economic stratification within a society by comparing the position of its wealthiest members to that of its most numerous median member. He also introduces one of the book's most important arguments, namely, that there is no necessary incompatibility between oligarchy and procedural democracy. Indeed, Winters offers a concise and striking formulation to suggest that the emergence of democracy is only possible when oligarchs feel assured that their wealth is secure: "No protections, no democracy" (73).

In sultanistic oligarchies, a single oligarch exercises rule in a direct and personal fashion. Other oligarchs disarm to a significant degree either because they are overpowered or because they are assured that the one sultanistic ruler can effectively provide them with wealth defense. The stability of the regime depends upon the extent to which the sultanistic ruler succeeds in providing such defense, as well as on the extent to which other oligarchs disarm and remain disarmed. As case studies, Winters offers a long discussion of Indonesia under Suharto (about which he has written extensively in the past) and a somewhat shorter one of the Philippines under Marcos. The treatment of Indonesia provides one of two very interesting analyses of transition from one form of oligarchy to another. Earlier Winters had described the transformation in Rome from a ruling oligarchy under the Republic to a sultanistic oligarchy under Augustus. In discussing Indonesia, he argues persuasively that the collapse of a sultanistic oligarchy under Suharto has not simply led to procedural democracy--a half-truth that makes it difficult to understand to understand the persistent lawlessness among oligarchs there. Rather, behind the forms of a democratic transition, "Indonesia has moved decisively in the direction of a ruling oligarchy as... oligarchs have increasingly captured and dominated the open democratic process," using "their material power resources for wealth and property defense in a political economy overflowing with threats and uncertainties" (192). Democracy has forced Indonesia's oligarchs, tamed under the sultanistic rule of Suharto, to revert to wild, untamed behavior.

Civil oligarchies--the fourth and final type described by Winters--are different from all the other varieties in that they do not appear across historical periods, but rather emerge only with the creation of the modern state. Winters describes their appearance as "the single most important transformation in the history of oligarchy" (208). In civil oligarchies, oligarchs disarm fully, cease to rule directly, and hand over the task of wealth defense to an impersonal, bureaucratic state, in which "strong and impersonal systems of law dominate oligarchs rather than oligarchs dominating (or being) the law" (208). This does not mean that oligarchs abandon the pursuit of their material interests. Rather, that pursuit simply takes different forms. In a civil oligarchy, the chief threat to oligarchic wealth no longer arises below, from the mass of citizens, or laterally, from other oligarchs. Instead, the chief threat comes from the state itself in the form of taxation. Thus, with their property rights legally recognized and protected by the state, oligarchs turn their attention from wealth defense as such to the defense of the income earned from their wealth and to avoiding the state's confiscatory mechanisms. For this purpose they employ a massive "Income Defense Industry," consisting of "armies of professionals--lawyers, accountants, lobbyists, wealth management agencies--who have highly specialized knowledge and can navigate a complex system of taxation and regulations, generating a range of tax 'products,' 'instruments,' and 'advice' that enable oligarchs to keep scores of billions in income annually that would otherwise have to be surrendered to the Treasury" (213).

Winters gives two examples of such civil oligarchies: the United States and Singapore. The juxtaposition of these two very different cases powerfully drives home one of Winters's main points, noted earlier: that "there is no inherent conflict between democracy and oligarchy" (281). As he puts it, "civil oligarchies are indifferent to democracy. They neither require it to function nor are they seriously threatened by its existence.... [T]here are many possible combinations of property defense regimes, the rule of law, forms of oligarchy, and democracy" (210). Winters's very interesting analysis of the United States details how oligarchs successfully pursue an array of strategies to shelter income from taxation and increase the spread between their official tax rates and what they actually pay. In the process, they actually achieve regressivity at the very top of the tax code, shifting the burden of taxation downward from the super-rich to the merely affluent, who are wealthy enough to fund the state but not to purchase the specialized services of the Income Defense Industry. Singapore, by contrast, demonstrates that one can achieve "the material rule of law without the political rule of law" (266)--that is, an impartial legal system can function extremely well for the protection of property right and private wealth without extending the same protection to political rights or dissent.

I hope this description gives some sense of the remarkable richness and breadth of this impressive book. Winters's elaboration of Aristotle's fundamental insights into oligarchy--especially of the potential for combining forms of oligarchic and democratic rule-- proves its usefulness through its application to such a wide range of cases. And although Winters himself focuses on providing a theoretical framework for analysis, not on evaluating the justice of various arrangements or offering recommendations for political practice, his account nevertheless confronts any reflective reader with challenging questions. Let me close by indicating three of them.

First, it seems to me that Winters's extension of Aristotle ironically leads us to reconsider the wisdom of that great anti-Aristotelian, Thomas Hobbes. Because the prospect of a war of all against all is so terrible, Hobbes argues that government's chief task is to impose peace upon its subjects. In Leviathan, he takes special aim at crushing the ambitions of troublesome nobles, the remains of a feudal aristocracy. In Winters's terms, he seeks to tame the warring oligarchs. While taming oligarchs may be a less inspiring task than, say, achieving distributive justice, Winters, like Hobbes, reminds us of its difficulty, its historical rarity, and its value to the victims of warlordism. As he notes on his concluding page, "to those enduring the economic and political burdens of living among wild oligarchs, [taming those oligarchs] is an achievement that can improve the absolute welfare of average citizens, even if the relative gap between them and the oligarchs widens rather than narrows" (285).

Second, it is impossible to read Winters's account without asking the deeper question of distributive justice itself. Winters is very persuasive in showing the extreme difficulty, perhaps impossibility, of creating and sustaining mechanisms that redistribute wealth in a substantial manner away from the extremely rich. How should we respond to this fact? In particular, one need not be a radical egalitarian to be troubled by a system that imposes progressively heavier burdens upon wealthier citizens--until it reaches the very top of the pyramid, where the most wealthy of all can use that wealth to deflect their "fair share" of the burdens onto those who are less well-to-do than they.

Finally, although Winters himself does not nod in this direction, his argument is also important with respect to what has been one of the principal international challenges of the past decade, the problem of building democratic institutions. This challenge has been highlighted by the difficulties of reconstructing Iraq and Afghanistan, although it is by no means restricted to those cases. But Winters helps us understand more deeply the difficulties in creating a functioning rule of law, to say nothing of truly participatory institutions. For his argument implies that creating democratic institutions is only feasible in tandem with significant concessions to those whose powerful material interests such institutions might threaten--the very people, of course, whose injustices the institutions may be intended to correct.

In all of these ways, Winters provides much food for thought. His exemplary analysis deserves to be widely read by all those interested in the relationships between political power, economic wealth, and justice, in the present as well as the past.

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Author Biography

Peter C. Meilaender

Houghton College