"The essence of oligarchical rule is not father-to-son inheritance, but the persistence of a certain world-view and a certain way of life, imposed by the dead upon the living. ... The new aristocracy was made up for the most part of bureaucrats, scientists, technicians, trade-union organizers, publicity experts, sociologists, teachers, journalists, and professional politicians. ... There are only four ways in which a ruling group can fall from power. Either it is conquered from without, or it governs so inefficiently that the masses are stirred to revolt, or it allows a strong and discontented Middle group to come into being, or it loses its own self-confidence and willingness to govern."
The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism Emmanuel Goldstein
Now I will tell you the answer to my question. It is this. The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently. We are different from the oligarchies of the past in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites. The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just around the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. Now you begin to understand me.
O'Brien's monologue, 1984 (George Orwell)
An oligarchy is a government by a comparatively small portion of the people, not as representatives acting by authority delegated periodically, but as a class acting by inherent authority. The older idea of an aristocracy was that it is a government of nobles. And indeed, and oligarchy amounts to this; for that class of the people which permanently and inherently exercises the powers of government will soon become, if it be not originally, the nobility of the land.
But the notion of an oligarchic constitution is that the government is vested in a select number of persons who either fill by election the vacancies in their own body or succeed to their places in it by inheritance of dignity or property, by tenure of certain lands, or in respect of some personal right or qualification. The more modern term oligarchy describes the rule by a few, without respect to the older aristocratic forms, however much the new oligarchy might revel in such trappings.
The very essence of an aristocracy was that a class should exist endowed with the supreme power, while into that class admission is denied to the people at large. While admission to the oligarchy is restricted, it is not restricted by birth alone.
The oligarchical form of government in its pure state combines fewer recommendations than either of the other primary forms. It is apt to be characterized by tenacity of purpose, wisdom and experience, but it possessed of fewer checks and balances. The wisdom and experience of its component parts are the results of refined cultivation, the usual concomitants of long inherited wealth and of early and continued practice in the art of government; while the tenacity with which it pursues its policies (which, when those policies are well directed is a distinct advantage) is due to the very gradual change in the personnel of the governing class.
There are at least four defects of an oligarchic form of government, which would suffice to condemn any considerable infusion of this element in governmental affairs. These defects are as follows:
- Tendency to Aggrandizement of Nobility at Expense of the People. An oligarchic constitution is fatally defective in that sympathy with the feelings and interests of the great body of society, which is necessary to adapt a government to its intended purposes. Indeed, the selfish interests, no less than the sympathies, of the oligarchy are, apparently at least, at variance with those of the people. The latter have the right to expect protection of life, honor and property, an entire equality of rights and opportunities, and a justly balanced proportion of privileges. The nobles, on the other hand, aspire to a superiority of privileges, or rather to the exelusive enjoyment of them, disdain an equality of rights with the multitude, and are unremitting in their efforts to aggrandize their own order.
In such a government every selfish motive combines to prompt to usurpation. Little is left but the abstract love of virtue to stimulate to the discharge of duty. Government is instituted to protect the weak against the aggressions of the powerful. An oligarchy reverses the object and upholds the strong in oppressing the weak. Hence it has been remarked that the best oligarchic constitution is that in which those who have no share in legislation are so few and inconsiderable that the governing party has no interest in oppressing them; and that the more an oligarchy approaches a democracy, the better it safeguards the rights and liberties of the people, while it is the more apt to destroy them in proportion as it draws near monarchy.
- Factious Dissensions Another prominent defect of an oligarchy arises from its proneness to factious dissensions. The appetite for power is whetted by that it feeds on. The struggle for the upper place becomes vehement and perpetual. The more distinguished champions enlist a crowd of partisans on either side, whose excited passions seek only the means of indulging the ambitions of their chief, or their own, or of feeding some ancient grudge, regardless always of the common weal.
- Tendency to Self-Perpetuation It is no inconsiderable aggravation of the evils of an aristocratic constitution that it is self-perpetuating. The body of nobles who exercise the authority of the State will always end by assuming the power to fill vacancies amongst themselves, either by establishing the hereditary descent of titles of nobility or by election.
- Tendency to Tyranny - A consequence of the self-perpetuating quality, and of other peculiar features of an aristocratic government, is that its tendencies to usurpation are almost insurmountable. It has been compared to a screw in mechanics, incessantly working its way and holding fast all it gains with the utmost tenacity. And all its usurpations are for its own benefit. It has no magnanimous aspirations for the public good. Its selfishness neither hesitates nor wavers in oppressing the lower orders. The vassalage of the poor is its favorite offspring. No greater curse can be inflicted on a nation than a government entirely in the hands of an insolent, overbearing and tyrannical nobility.
One despot who employs his power to pursue his own gratification bows down the necks of his people in suffering humiliation, but there is a limit to the most frantic desires of one man; the inhabitants of his capital may groan, some eminent families of the provinces may be the victims of his tyranny. But far more fatal is it to the peace of society and the quiet enjoyment of liberty to have many despots. Their very number renders them comparatively immune from responsibility. With temptations not less, nor less numerous, than those of a monarch, the restraining influences are fatally diminished.
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