A very important news item went relatively unreported for the most part last month, as a new study currently being submitted for publication by professors Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page suggests that the United States is now a democracy in name only, and is in effect an oligarchy.
What is an oligarchy, you might ask? Where a true democracy has the people choose their government and its attendant policies by voting, in an oligarchy a very small group of individuals have absolute sway over what the government does. What this means exactly is that the democratic institutions that the country is based on no longer really need to pay attention to the majority of their constituents; only the wishes of a wealthy elite really matter now.
“Where a true democracy has the people choose their government and its attendant policies by voting, in an oligarchy a very small group of individuals have absolute sway over what the government does.”
With this in mind, in an attempt to prepare you for the future, here’s a look at some intriguing oligarchies from pop culture.
The Player of Games: In Iain M. Banks’ fantastic 1988 novel The Player of Games, the Empire of Azad is a strange counterpoint to the libertarian-anarchic ideals of his main focus, the human-machine melding known as The Culture. The Empire is based entirely upon one’s adeptness at playing a very complicated board/card game called Azad. Every few years, the Empire essentially stops functioning for a while, as the great game is played by every member of society. Upon leaving the game, your status in the Empire is adjusted based on how well you play; if you’re very, very good, you even get to be the Emperor. As oligarchies go, the Empire of Azad is technically a meritocracy, as someone who is generally talented in the ways of the game can assume high office and standing. In practice, though, the power is kept from average people by high-ranked players and their game colleges, as well as the dirty tricks brought to the table by the current emperor and their cronies.
Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri: This fantastic turn-based strategy computer game, released in 1999, is an extension of the bigger Sid Meier franchise/life ruining addiction Civilization II. The game starts as a group of settlers from Earth are separated upon reaching Alpha Centauri, the star system closest to our own. The leaders of the separated groups form their own colonies, resulting in ideologically-opposed factions battling for control of the new planet. While the idea of important people from a colony ship making themselves super powerful on a new planet isn’t entirely original (another great example comes from the book Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny, where the senior officers aboard ship use their tech access to turn themselves into Hindu gods), the degree to which the Alpha Centauri leaders persuade their populations is as extreme as it gets. The Human Hive, true to its name, has an underclass of powerless, faceless drones while the industrialists at Morgan Industries have a corporate bureaucracy for a government. Added to this is the very detailed tech tree, which allows the player to genetically modify their citizens, augment them with robot parts and psionics, or merge them with the strange life forms found on the planet.
The Hunger Games: The colossal, million-selling book and movie franchise spawned by the imagination of Suzanne Collins features one of the most recognizable oligarchies in pop culture: the debauched citizens of the Capitol. As a yearly reminder to the impoverished Districts under their control, the Capitol holds an annual spectator sport known as the Hunger Games, where Tributes fight for their lives and the bellies of their fellows. In the later stories, the plucky badass Katniss Everdeen falls in with a group of rebels who have designs on knocking over the leadership of the Capitol, specifically the corrupt leadership of President Snow. Young adult books often use the idea of a small number of people controlling the world as an excellent problem for the heroes to come up against. The factions of the Divergent series by Veronica Roth could fit this mould, as do the secret society of wizards who operate under our Muggle noses in the Harry Potter books.
“The most disturbing aspect of [the Metal Gear Solid] oligarchy, apart from their reliance upon proxy wars and walking nuclear missile silos, is the secretive nature of their rule, which plays on decades of real-life conspiracy theories.”
Metal Gear: There’s not enough space on this website for me to condense down the ridiculously dense and convoluted storyline of this popular stealth action video game series which dates back to the 1980s, (the video below does it much better than I ever could), but the arcane mythology provided by the games does have a recognizable oligarchy at the centre of it. At the end of Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, the player finds out that a group of wealthy industrialists from the U.S., Russia, and China formed a group known as the Wisemen’s Committee after World War I to influence world affairs from behind the scenes in an attempt to stop conflicts from growing into world wars. The group, which later went on to be known variously as the Philosophers and the Patriots, eventually tired of the pacifism game and soon began using vast amounts of wealth to develop private armies and back-channel political connections, with the result being the war-torn world presented by the Metal Gear games. The most disturbing aspect of this oligarchy, apart from their reliance upon proxy wars and walking nuclear missile silos, is the secretive nature of their rule, which plays on decades of real-life conspiracy theories.
Are there any other fictional oligarchies I missed? Let me know in the comments section below.