The Defence of Property


Jeffrey Winters’ Oligarchy is quite a stunning book. It is a simultaneously bold and timid attempt at a theory of oligarchy as the ‘politics of wealth defence’. Winters begins with oligarchs, who are defined as extremely wealthy individuals at the top echelon of the wealth ladder of a highly stratified society. The core interest of the oligarchs lies in the defence of their property. The great wealth of these individuals compels them to seek ways to defend it. Threats of confiscation may come from above — by the state, from below — by the poor masses and the ‘mass affluent,’ and horizontally — from other oligarchs. An account of the historical strategies that oligarchs have used to try to deal with these threats constitutes a virtual natural history of oligarchy. The typology used by Winters illustrates both the boldness and the timidity of his formulation.

The enforcement of property claims has always required the deployment of coercion. The most important issue is whether oligarchs are armed or disarmed. In warring oligarchies, the oligarchs are themselves fully armed or mobilize militias to secure their property claims themselves. Since they are armed at the individual level, cooperation is difficult and the balance of power frequently breaks down, resulting in warfare between oligarchs. In a ruling oligarchy, the oligarchs rule collectively and must be at least partially disarmed. The disarmament of the oligarchs creates the thorny problem of bids to control of the state apparatus by enterprising oligarchs and using it against others.

Oligarchs may be more or less completely disarmed, in which case they may be tamed or untamed. They are tamed in a sultanistic oligarchy when they submit to the rule of a dominant oligarch who monopolizes control over the apparatus of the state, or in a civil oligarchy where they submit to the rule of law in exchange for an impartial juridical guarantee of the defence of their property. Wild oligarchies occur when the oligarchs are disarmed and untamed, and the rule of law is weak. Under such conditions, oligarchs have to mobilize nonmilitarily against threats in all directions of which the most threatening are those emanating horizontally. Oligarchs compete to control the state to secure their interests against their rivals. They also cooperate to contain threats from above and below. According to Winters, a state is to be called a ‘democracy’ whenever the formal apparatus of a democracy exists with or without the rule of law. A democracy can either be a civil oligarchy or a wild oligarchy depending on the existence of the rule of law. An oligarchy with the rule of law that is not a democracy is said to be legal authoritarian. The United States is in this formulation a democratic civil oligarchy, whereas Singapore is legal authoritarian.

The term oligarchy should be reserved for the ‘rule of the rich’ not just the ‘politics of wealth defense’. To be sure, the politics of wealth defense is critical to the oligarchs, they also seek to control the policies of the state. Indeed, a cursory glance at the political economy of the United States shows that it is far from clear whether it is a real democracy. It is certainly a civil oligarchy since no oligarchs can challenge the juridical-bureaucratic state, which in return impartially adjudicates and enforces property rights. However, oligarchs mobilize in order to influence legislation and regulations of the modern bureaucratic state itself. They may be more or less successful. The large-scale political mobilization by oligarchs motivated by their significant material interests is certainly an important part of any acceptable ‘theory’ of oligarchy. Moreover, one cannot sacrifice this notion and only study the ‘politics of income defence,’ no matter how powerful a tool such a formulation provides.

A form of oligarchy that is neglected in the book is wild oligarchies. These polities have weak or nonexistent rule of law and more or less disarmed oligarchs who are untamed. Indeed, a glance at the table of contents exposes this immediately: 1. The Material Foundations of Oligarchy. 2. Warring Oligarchies. 3. Ruling Oligarchies. 4. Sultanistic Oligarchies. 5. Civil Oligarchies. 6. Conclusion.

One way to reformulate Winters’ theory is to focus more sharply on the most important threats faced by oligarchs. The key question to ask is how do oligarchs compete with each other? What is the mechanism for dealing with the pervasive horizontal threats? A better typology immediately becomes evident when one focuses narrowly on how disputes between oligarchs are settled. When oligarchs are fully armed this boils down to a balance of power and we have warring oligarchies (Sicily, Medieval Europe). When the mechanism is personal appeals to an autocrat who personally controls the coercive apparatus of the state, we have a sultanistic oligarchy (Russia, Indonesia under Suharto, Egypt under Mubarak, Syria under Assad).

When competition between oligarchs takes places in the market, and oligarchs accept arbitration by an impartial juridico-bureaucratic state to settle their quarrels, we have a civil oligarchy (United States, Western Europe, Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong). When horizontal disputes are settled collectively by a ‘senate’ of oligarchs we have a ruling oligarchy (Athens, Rome, Genoa, Venice, Mafia Cupola).

Mafia Cupola

Lastly, the competition between oligarchs may take place overwhelmingly through non-coercive mobilization in a clientistic setting where the bureaucratic apparatus of the state has been throughly subverted – who has more influence? who has the bigger fish on speed dial? – we have wild oligarchies (India, Indonesia after Suharto, most of the Third World). This, perhaps most important, form goes untreated by Winters.

What is immediate is that civil oligarchy is the natural form for the core of the world economy, while wild oligarchy is the natural form for the periphery. Indeed, I would go so far as to claim that capitalism in the sense of Braudel is a specific form of oligarchy. Namely, these are merchant oligarchies as opposed to landed oligarchies. The transition from feudalism to capitalism can then be formulated as the transition from the landed form to the merchant form. Again, Winters does not make this distinction.

[This is an evolving piece. I’ll put up more thoughts as I continue to digest this work. Stay tuned.]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s