Broadly speaking, an oligarchy is a form of government characterized by the rule of a few persons or families. More specifically, the term was used by Greek philosopher Aristotle in contrast to aristocracy, which was another term to describe rule by a privileged few. However, to Aristotle, an aristocracy signified rule by the best members of society, while an oligarchy was characterized by the rule of the few for corrupt and unjust purposes.

Although the term has, generally, fallen out of favor, oligarchy is sometimes used to describe a government or society in which rulers are selected from a small class of elites. These elites exercise power on behalf of their class rather than for the greater good. German-born, Italian sociologist Robert Michels coined the phrase “iron law of oligarchy,” which holds that there is an inevitable tendency of organizations to become less democratic and more oligarchic over time.

In modern times, “oligarchy” is a term generally applied to China and Iran. China describes itself as a communist “people’s republic,” but leadership of the country has been maintained by a select few for several decades. Members of the oligarchy have included those who were part of the Communist Party and the revolution in 1949, as well as those who came into wealth and power since the opening of China to the global market in the 1980s (often descendants of the early revolutionaries). This system has helped the wealthy and powerful maintain their control, while providing relatively little power or freedom to most citizens.

Iran has been characterized as a theocracy and a clerical oligarchy. Clerics control much of the power structure. In Iran, a Supreme Leader is at the top of the power hierarchy. He (since the position’s creation in 1979, there have only been two Supreme Leaders, both of them men) runs the country in conjunction with some 2,000 clerical field operatives. Eighty-six clerics form an Assembly of Experts who meet once a year for a week and choose the Supreme Leader. Iran also has a president, but the executive is subordinate to the Supreme Leader.

In addition, there is a Council of Guardians, which consists of six clerics and six parliamentary appointees. The Council has to approve bills passed by Parliament, and also has influence over who can be elected to political office (Parliament and the Assembly of Experts).


At times, other nations refer to Iran as an oligarchy, a derogatory term for governments ruled by a few individuals. The nation is led by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (shown here in Mashhad in May 2007) largely in coordination with 2,000 clerics.


elite group of people based on wealth or social status.


clergy member


person or group of people who support communism, a type of economy where all property, including land, factories and companies, is held by the government.


having to do with a government led by its citizens, who vote for policies and/or representatives.


insulting or mean.


form of government characterized by rule by the few


a professional who studies sociology.

study of human social behavior and its origins, development, organizations, and institutions.

form of government in which a religious institution holds power