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Oligarchy Paperback – April 18, 2011

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Editorial Reviews


"Jeffrey Winters ranges across the world and through history in this fascinating and illuminating work on an ancient, and yet surprisingly contemporary phenomenon: oligarchy. A model of comparative politics and history, this book is particularly impressive in its deft analysis of how democracy is often quite congenial for oligarchs."
-Bruce Cumings, University of Chicago, author of Dominion from Sea to Sea: Pacific Ascendancy and American Power

"It is hard to imagine anyone writing about the concept of oligarchy in the future without drawing on the rich and nuanced discussion in this book."
-William Gamson, Boston College

"This is a breath of fresh air that takes the study of politics back to the core questions of how power is constructed and defended and who rules. In this book, Jeffrey Winters argues that the concentration and protection of wealth by oligarchies is central in understanding the operation of politics throughout history. This is an intellectually ambitious work that is backed up by sophisticated theory, by command of a vast literature and some incisive empirical work. It is also highly interesting as we move through the complex manifestations of oligarchy from ancient Rome and the mediaeval city states of Europe to the dictators of contemporary Indonesia and the Philippines. And in case we think of oligarchy as a pre-modern form of politics or that oligarchs are not important if they are not in actual possession of the state, the author demonstrates how oligarchy is also at the heart of modern capitalist politics in places such as US and Singapore."
-Richard Robison, Murdoch University

"An elegant work in comparative politics, Oligarchy returns to an ancient political category to challenge our ways of thinking about political power. This book changes the conceptual and theoretical landscape for political theorists, political scientists, and everyone who thinks seriously about democracy. This is a great book, a model of scholarship and bold thinking."
-Joan C. Tronto, University of Minnesota

"Known for his serious critiques of the Suharto regime in Indonesia, Jeffrey Winters has now built on his in-depth knowledge of Suharto's manner of ruling to construct a system for categorizing oligarchies that he shows to be useful for understanding other states in Southeast Asia, but also for the United States and for governments in ancient and Renaissance times. This book should lead international business managers to new ways of thinking about politics."
-Louis T. Wells, Harvard Business School

"Jeffrey A. Winters's Oligarchy is.... ambitious in its historical range and the boldness of its argument. In a fascinating synthesis, Winters shows how seemingly disparate historical cases fit into a coherent analysis of the political struggles involving concentrated wealth."
-Paul Starr, Princeton University, The New Republic

Book Description

The common thread for oligarchs across history is that wealth defines them, empowers them, and inherently exposes them to threats. The existential motive of all oligarchs is wealth defense. These variations yield four types of oligarchy: warring, ruling, sultanistic, and civil. Cases studied in this book include the United States, ancient Athens and Rome, Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore, medieval Venice and Siena, mafia commissions in the United States and Italy, feuding Appalachian families, and early chiefs cum oligarchs dating from 2300 BCE.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 344 pages
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press (April 18, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0521182980
  • ISBN-13: 978-0521182980
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 0.8 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #564,859 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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68 of 71 people found the following review helpful By Andrew Koppelman on August 4, 2011
Format: Paperback
Jeffrey Winters's new book, Oligarchy, is a brilliant comparative study of the role of wealthy elites in politics. He argues that the protection of wealth is a central theme in politics throughout history. He draws on an enormous range of illustrations, from ancient Greece and Rome to medieval city-states to contemporary Indonesia and the Philippines. He also shows its influence in the contemporary United States, in a way that is remarkably timely.

Winters taxonomizes oligarchy, which he defines as "the politics of wealth defense by materially endowed actors," (4) into four broad types. Warring oligarchy, the most primitive form, forces each rich actor to rely on his own private force to protect his wealth. It is familiar from medieval Europe, but he shows that it also drove Appalachian feuds in the 19th and early 20th century, in which elites fought for control of mining and timber wealth. Ruling oligarchies, in which each oligarch is armed but they govern collectively through institutions marked by codes of conduct, are unstable: Mafia dons often war upon each other; Rome and the Philippines succumbed to one-person rule. Sultanistic oligarchy concentrates the means of coercion in one person, who provides property and income defense for the elite. Suharto provided this stability for years in Indonesia, but when looting by his grown children endangered this equilibrium, the wealthy class deserted him and he was driven from power. Civil oligarchy is an impersonal, institutionalized government in which the law is stronger than any individual. Here, Winters thinks, democracy can coexist with oligarchy, as it does in the United States. But even civil oligarchies will collapse if they do not satisfy the need of the rich for property protection.
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Paul Froehlich on June 29, 2013
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Does "power always follow property"? John Adams believed it did, calling it an "infallible maxim in politics."

In this era of Super PACs, it's hard to believe that any Americans are in denial about the huge political influence exercised by the wealthiest among us, or fail to recognize that extreme wealth leads to massive inequality in political influence. On most issues, billionaires have some diversity of opinion, so their donations sometimes work at cross purposes. On one issue, however, there is virtual unanimity among the extremely wealthy, namely the necessity to defend their vast wealth against redistribution and taxation.

John Winters has developed a convincing theory of oligarchy based on its long existence predating written history, and how its forms have varied through the ages. He identifies the paramount goal of the oligarch, which is to "secure, maintain, and retain his extreme wealth and power against all manner of threats." He explains why "those with the most ability to pay are also the ones most empowered to avoid doing so, and why ordinary democratic participation is an ineffective antidote."

Material power resources "are both the single most unequally distributed power resource in American society and the one most resiliently resistant to dispersion and equalization." Power does come from other sources than vast wealth, but that power tends to be more temporary and conditional, depending, for example, upon holding a particular office. Dennis Hastert used to be one of the most powerful people in America. Today the former Speaker is a lobbyist. Hastert's son won't inherit the power his father used to have.
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20 of 22 people found the following review helpful By Tom Bomadil on August 20, 2011
Format: Paperback
Provides useful distinctions between elite theories and theories of oligarchy. Demonstrates that wealth-defense is a common feature of oligarchies throughout history, regardless of culture, the manner in which wealth is obtained, or the degree to which societies have civil frameworks for property rights. Histories will be re-written with this theory as a cornerstone. It is a must-read for the interpretation of current events.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Marie Lutz on January 16, 2012
Format: Paperback
This is a scholarly work and not an easy read (some fascinating information is located in extensive footnotes). But it's very worthwhile. A major theme is that oligarchs have often ruled nations in one way or another throughout history and across all continents. Winters contends that this pattern of oligarchic rule is continuing in the US and Western Europe today. In the US, Winters believes democracy matters in some ways, but in other ways the US has been increasingly dominated by the ultra rich under both the Democrats and Republicans. He sees no easy fixes and maybe no fix at all. One aside, you can get a lot out of this book even if you don't read every word.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Donald L. Carder on November 16, 2012
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This is the most interesting book I have read in the last couple of years. It is very academic. Well documented. And a fascinating read. Essentially, Winters provides a limited and functional definition of what an oligarch is - a person with enough wealth to dedicate a significant portion of it to defending and extending their wealth - and then goes back through history to analyze how oligarchy worked in four different political and economic structures. The forth structure is oligarchy in a democracy and he asserts that, contrary to popular belief, oligarchs can function perfectly well in a democracy. This book is about power and wealth and I would recommend it to anybody interested in how and why political economies work. It has definitely altered the lens I use when reading history or trying to understand political economies.
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