“Oligarch” is a much abused term, depending on who is using it and for what purpose. Although today it has acquired a negative connotation (and rightly so in some cases), oligarch is basically a neutral term, like “monarch.”
The first thing to remember is: Not all super rich people are oligarchs, and not all oligarchs are super rich people. But some of the super rich become oligarchs, and some (probably many) oligarchs become super rich.
The characters in the long-running US TV series “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” in the ’80s and ’90s were definitely not oligarchs, but simply individuals who amassed great wealth and lived in ostentatious luxury. The super wealthy families in the book and recent blockbuster “Crazy Rich Asians” don’t fall under this category, either. These people, mostly legitimate businessmen, simply got rich through inheritance or hard work. They may be called tycoons, taipans, moguls or captains of industry, but definitely not oligarchs. The same is also true in our country.
The super rich make up a minuscule 1 percent of our population, while about 90 percent of our countrymen account for the virtually subsistence level income groups (class D and E). My late friend, comedian and author Gary Lising, acknowledged this large group by titling one of his joke books “Lifestyles of the Poor and Unknown,” underscoring the chasm between the opulent few and the deprived many.
This ever-growing divide, a global phenomenon, is one of the major reasons for the rise of populist and autocratic leaders today. It is also our underprivileged countrymen who have mostly enabled the perpetuation of our country’s brand of oligarchy.
But let us first agree on Google’s most basic definition of “oligarchy.” It is derived from two Greek words, oligos (a few) and arkho (to rule). It means the rule of the minority over the majority. Thus, an oligarch is a person who is part of a small group holding power in a state. The term does not necessarily imply wealth. (Wealth-driven oligarchies are called plutocracies.)
Today, a number of countries are ruled by formal or de facto oligarchies, most of which have some semblance of democratic institutions, such as periodic elections, legislative assemblies and judiciaries.
But these countries are effectively controlled by a small sector of their respective societies. Prominent examples, with their type of oligarchy I have coined, are: China, which has only one official political party, the Communist Party of China, from which all the state’s power emanates (single-party oligarchy); Russia, which is virtually controlled by business oligarchs (who accumulated wealth by acquiring state resources after the dissolution of the Soviet Union) in partnership with the government (business-cum-state oligarchy); Saudi Arabia, which is run by members of the different branches and successive generations of the royal family (hereditary oligarchy); North Korea, which is a curious mix of hereditary dictatorship backed by a strong military core (military oligarchy); and Iran, which is controlled by its religious leaders (clerical oligarchy).
What about our country?
When Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in 1972, he was the first Philippine president who announced he would get rid of the oligarchs. By this he meant “old rich” families, some of which were also in politics but were not aligned with him. The problem was, he soon replaced them with his own “cronies” who then became the new breed of “oligarchs,” by his own definition.
But like him, they fled the country when he was overthrown by People Power in 1986. Later, some of them returned and managed to rehabilitate themselves and get reassimilated in Philippine society, known only as former Marcos cronies.
Very recently, President Duterte resurrected the term “oligarchy” in a speech before the military. He claimed that he had succeeded in dismantling the present oligarchy which controlled the Philippine economy, without resorting to martial law, implying he had done one better than Marcos.
Many people found this sweeping statement difficult to comprehend. Who were these oligarchs that were “dismantled”? If he was referring to the family who owned ABS-CBN (whose franchise renewal was denied), it was a stretch to believe they had controlled our country’s economy. And as far as people can see, the country’s big business tycoons and taipans are still doing business and presumably prospering.
To be fair, one can hardly describe them as running the country. In fact, they make sure they stay in the good graces of those who run the country. Otherwise they could easily go the way of ABS-CBN.
In truth, the ones who come closest to being the true oligarchs are the political families who have perennially lorded it over certain regions, provinces, cities and towns of the Philippines.
This is our homegrown brand of what I call “fragmented oligarchy” (or alternatively, “localized oligarchy”). Several family members simultaneously or sequentially hold elective positions in their respective turfs. The father, the wife, a son, a daughter could be the governor, the congressman, the mayor or some other official at any one time. They could also trade places or put in a trusted lieutenant when their term limits are up. Sometimes, two longstanding rival families compete for dominance from election to election.
Because most of our people are poor, many of whom are “informal settlers,” these so-called family dynasties perpetuate themselves through various forms of patronage, perks, benefits and name recall, especially during elections. National candidates woo them to win in their areas, resulting in temporary symbiotic alliances. Even if their chosen national aspirants lose, they usually manage to remain in control in their bailiwicks, and they outlast successive administrations.
No one can say that their virtually indefinite “musical chairs” tenures in the available elective positions are unjustifiable, because they do get the vote. But hardly any equally or better qualified outsider ever gets to win.
This is our unique, homegrown brand of oligarchy, not the so-called oligarchy of big business. In these times, big businessmen are very careful not to run afoul of the powers that be, lest they be banished into oblivion. —CONTRIBUTED