Words in English come from a variety of interesting places. Let’s look at three of the words which some of us use in talking about our government: plutocracy, democracy, and oligarchy.
Understanding plutocracy begins with a Greek god: Plutus, who is the personification of material and monetary wealth. The primary responsibility of Plutus in the Greek pantheon was to distribute wealth among the mortals. The sculptures and paintings of Plutus show him carrying the horn of plenty. Plutus, however, had been blinded by Zeus, the mightiest of the gods, and therefore was prevented from rewarding the righteous with wealth or withholding wealth and riches from the wicked. Plutus was obliged to distribute valuables to all mortals regardless of their conduct.
Plutus as a child is shown in the Greek statue above.
Plutus is also lame, so he was always a little slow in arriving.
In Dante’s Divine Comedy Plutus is a wolf-like demon of wealth who guards the fourth circle of the Inferno, the circle dedicated to the Hoarders and Wasters.
Today, a plutocracy is a state in which the wealthy rule and a plutocrat is a person of wealth who governs. Based on the fact that the United States is governed by wealthy people—that is, most of the members of the House of Representatives and the Senate are wealthy—it can be considered a plutocracy. Most of the plutocrats seem to be concerned in governing in such a fashion that preserves and increases their wealth, which often involves a transfer of wealth from the poor to the wealthy. Since the mass media are owned by the wealthy, they tend to promote the idea that plutocracy somehow benefits those who are not wealthy.
The current Occupy movement is a reaction against plutocracy as it aims to make the economic structure and the power relations in society more favorable to those who are not wealthy.
Like plutocracy, the English word democracy is also based on the Greek. The Greek word “demos” means “the people” and “kratos” which means “power or authority.” Thus a democracy is a government by the people. Ideally democracy is an egalitarian form of government in which all citizens of the state are involved in enacting laws and actions.
When the Europeans began their invasion of North America, they found that most Indian nations were democracies, a form of government which baffled the invaders. The Indians----gasp!---had no aristocracy, no royalty, and all adults, including the women---gasp!---were involved in governmental decision-making. It was absolutely shocking! For the past five centuries, Europeans (a concept which includes today’s Americans) have been attempting to subvert American Indian democracy into something more understandable, such as a plutocracy or a dictatorship or a monarchy.
The Greek philosopher Plato argues that democracy was inferior to monarchy, oligarchy, and aristocracy as a form of government. According to Plato, and also according to many of today’s commentators, in a democracy only those who are good at appealing to the emotions of the masses are elected and thus they lack the expertise necessary for governing properly. In a democracy, the state is guided by very poorly worked ideas formulated by people who are experts in the manipulation of mass appeal, but not in the realities of government.
“Demos” is also used to form the word “demagogue” which originally meant “leader of the people.” The original Greek demagogues were governors drawn from the body of commoners. By the 17th century, however, demagogue took on a more negative meaning, no longer referring to a leader from the common people, but someone who gained power by irresponsibly appealing to emotions or prejudices. Some of the current Republican advertising and propaganda seems to being promoting a demagogue.
Our English word oligarchy also comes from the Greek: “oligos” means few. Thus an oligarchy is a form of government in which the power rests with a small number of people. These people are usually distinguished from commoners on the basis of wealth, royalty, family ties, education, corporate affiliation, or military control. The recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Citizens United may be seen as reinforcing American oligarchy.
Corporate oligarchy is sometimes termed corporatocracy. In this type of government, power is held by a small group within a corporation, or a group of corporations. Sometimes this power is open and obvious, such as the governmental powers given to the Hudson’s Bay Company and the East India Company to rule European colonies. At other times it is less obvious as lobbying groups exert power outside of the public view.