A plutocracy (Greek: πλοῦτος, ploutos, 'wealth' + κράτος, kratos, 'power') or plutarchy is a society that is ruled or controlled by people of great wealth or income. The first known use of the term in English dates from 1631. Unlike systems such as democracy, capitalism, socialism or anarchism, plutocracy is not rooted in an established political philosophy. Plutocracy is linked to the term dynastic wealth. The concept of plutocracy may be advocated by the wealthy classes of a society in an indirect or surreptitious fashion since the term itself is almost always used in a pejorative sense.
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The term plutocracy is generally used as a pejorative to describe or warn against an undesirable condition. Throughout history, political thinkers such as Winston Churchill, 19th-century French sociologist and historian Alexis de Tocqueville, 19th-century Spanish monarchist Juan Donoso Cortés and today Noam Chomsky have condemned plutocrats for ignoring their social responsibilities, using their power to serve their own purposes and thereby increasing poverty and nurturing class conflict, corrupting societies with greed and hedonism.
Historic examples of plutocracies include the Roman Empire, some city-states in Ancient Greece, the civilization of Carthage, the Italian city-states/merchant republics of Venice, Florence, pre-French Revolution Kingdom of France, Genoa, and the pre-World War II Empire of Japan (the zaibatsu). According to Noam Chomsky and Jimmy Carter, the modern day United States resembles a plutocracy, though with democratic forms. Former Chairman of the federal reserve, Paul Volcker, also believes the US is developing into a plutocracy.
One modern, formal example of a plutocracy, according to some critics, is the City of London. The City (also called the Square Mile of ancient London, corresponding to the modern financial district, an area of about 2.5 km2) has a unique electoral system for its local administration, separate from London proper. More than two-thirds of voters are not residents, but rather representatives of businesses and other bodies that occupy premises in the City, with votes distributed according to their numbers of employees. The principal justification for this arrangement is that most of the services provided by the City of London Corporation are used by the businesses in the City. In fact about 450,000 non-residents constitute the city's day-time population, far outnumbering the City's 7,000 residents.
Some modern historians, politicians, and economists argue that the United States was effectively plutocratic for at least part of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era periods between the end of the Civil War until the beginning of the Great Depression. President Theodore Roosevelt became known as the "trust-buster" for his aggressive use of United States antitrust law, through which he managed to break up such major combinations as the largest railroad and Standard Oil, the largest oil company. According to historian David Burton, "When it came to domestic political concerns TR's bête noire was the plutocracy." In his autobiographical account of taking on monopolistic corporations as president, TR recounted
…we had come to the stage where for our people what was needed was a real democracy; and of all forms of tyranny the least attractive and the most vulgar is the tyranny of mere wealth, the tyranny of a plutocracy.
The Sherman Antitrust Act had been enacted in 1890, with large industries reaching monopolistic or near-monopolistic levels of market concentration and financial capital increasingly integrating corporations, a handful of very wealthy heads of large corporations began to exert increasing influence over industry, public opinion and politics after the Civil War. Money, according to contemporary progressive and journalist Walter Weyl, was "the mortar of this edifice", with ideological differences among politicians fading and the political realm becoming "a mere branch in a still larger, integrated business. The state, which through the party formally sold favors to the large corporations, became one of their departments."
In his book The Conscience of a Liberal, in a section entitled The Politics of Plutocracy, economist Paul Krugman says plutocracy took hold because of three factors: at that time, the poorest quarter of American residents (African-Americans and non-naturalized immigrants) were ineligible to vote, the wealthy funded the campaigns of politicians they preferred, and vote buying was "feasible, easy and widespread", as were other forms of electoral fraud such as ballot-box stuffing and intimidation of the other party's voters.
The U.S. instituted progressive taxation in 1913, but according to Shamus Khan, in the 1970s, elites used their increasing political power to lower their taxes, and today successfully employ what political scientist Jeffrey Winters calls "the income defense industry" to greatly reduce their taxes.
In 1998, Bob Herbert of The New York Times referred to modern American plutocrats as "The Donor Class" (list of top donors) and defined the class, for the first time, as "a tiny group – just one-quarter of 1 percent of the population – and it is not representative of the rest of the nation. But its money buys plenty of access."
Post World War II
In modern times, the term is sometimes used pejoratively to refer to societies rooted in state-corporate capitalism or which prioritize the accumulation of wealth over other interests. According to Kevin Phillips, author and political strategist to Richard Nixon, the United States is a plutocracy in which there is a "fusion of money and government."
Chrystia Freeland, author of Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else, says that the present trend towards plutocracy occurs because the rich feel that their interests are shared by society.
You don't do this in a kind of chortling, smoking your cigar, conspiratorial thinking way. You do it by persuading yourself that what is in your own personal self-interest is in the interests of everybody else. So you persuade yourself that, actually, government services, things like spending on education, which is what created that social mobility in the first place, need to be cut so that the deficit will shrink, so that your tax bill doesn't go up. And what I really worry about is, there is so much money and so much power at the very top, and the gap between those people at the very top and everybody else is so great, that we are going to see social mobility choked off and society transformed.— Chrystia Freeland, NPR
When the Nobel-Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz wrote the 2011 Vanity Fair magazine article entitled "Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%", the title and content supported Stiglitz's claim that the United States is increasingly ruled by the wealthiest 1%. Some researchers have said the US may be drifting towards a form of oligarchy, as individual citizens have less impact than economic elites and organized interest groups upon public policy. A study conducted by political scientists Martin Gilens (Princeton University) and Benjamin Page (Northwestern University), which was released in April 2014, stated that their "analyses suggest that majorities of the American public actually have little influence over the policies our government adopts". Gilens and Page do not characterize the U. S. as an "oligarchy" or "plutocracy" per se; however, they do apply the concept of "civil oligarchy" as used by Jeffrey A. Winters with respect to the US.
In the political jargon and propaganda of Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany and the Communist International, Western democratic states were referred to as plutocracies, with the implication being that a small number of extremely wealthy individuals were controlling the countries and holding them to ransom. Plutocracy replaced democracy and capitalism as the principal fascist term for the United States and Great Britain during the Second World War. For the Nazis, the term was often a code word for "the Jews".
Reasons why plutocracy develops is complex. In a nation that is experiencing rapid economic growth, income inequality will tend to increase as the rate of return on innovation increases. In other scenarios, plutocracy may develop when a country is collapsing due to resource depletion as the elites attempt to hoard the diminishing wealth or expand debts to maintain stability, which will tend to enrich creditors and financiers.
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- National Public Radio (15 October 2012) "A Startling Gap Between Us And Them In 'Plutocrats'"
- See also the Chrystia Freeland interview for the Moyers Book Club (12 October 2012) Moyers & Company Full Show: Plutocracy Rising
- Stiglitz Joseph E. "Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%" Vanity Fair, May 2011; see also the Democracy Now! interview with Joseph Stiglitz: Assault on Social Spending, Pro-Rich Tax Cuts Turning U.S. into Nation "Of the 1 Percent, by the 1 Percent, for the 1 Percent", Democracy Now! Archive, Thursday, 7 April 2011
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