Of oligarchs and plutocrats

A look at the two much-used terms for the rich and powerful.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Sen. Bernie Sanders (l.) stated that domestic spending cuts were 'what oligarchy and plutocracy look like.'

"Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me," we children used to sing-song on the playground.

But that hasn't stopped the news media from fixing on some set terms to describe key actors in the unfolding crisis in Ukraine and Crimea. The "businessmen" in the inner circles of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the ousted Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, are referred to as "oligarchs."

An oligarch is part of an oligarchy, a system of "government by the few." This term came into English around 1570, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, from French, but it's rooted in Greek. The front end of the word is from oligos, meaning "few." That arch element, meaning "rule," is familiar from other words in English such as monarch or hierarchy.

There's an implication of wealth, and in a system where great public wealth was suddenly "available" for privatization (e.g., the Soviet Union as it was dissolving), oligarchs could be counted on to figure out how to enrich themselves, and many certainly did.

But the essence of oligarchy is the fewness of those at the top, not their wealth. Indeed, Forbes, a publication that knows about such things, reported recently with some apparent astonishment on Dmitry Firtash, a Ukrainian businessman associated with Ukrainian former President Viktor Yushchenko. Though widely described as a "billionaire," Mr. Firtash, detained in Vienna last month at the request of the FBI, turns out to be, according to Forbes, more like a mere half-billionaire.

Poor fellow.

While we're visiting oligarch, we might want to drop in on a related term that lives nearby. Plutocrat is another Greek-derived term suggesting a combination of wealth and power. It ought to be a useful synonym for oligarch, as the disheartening coverage from Crimea continues. But the two terms seem to show up in very different political contexts.

Plutocracy has been used in English since the middle of the 17th century to refer to the rule or power of the wealthy. Plutocrat is a back-formation to refer to the individual rich people exercising power. Pluto comes from a Greek word for "wealth," rooted in the idea of an overflowing abundance.

Children are never taught in school that plutocracy is the system they're growing up in. It's a term that's used pejoratively, about others.

Malcolm Turnbull, Australian communications minister, has had to explain that Rupert Murdoch was not the person he had in mind with his recent unscripted public remark about a "demented plutocrat" who was in the news business. (He meant some other demented plutocrat, evidently.)

Back in 1917, Theodore Roosevelt said that anything that tends to government by a plutocracy is "un-American." The other day, a couple of politically conservative billionaire activists drew fire from a Daily Beast commentator as "angry plutocrats." Another opinion writer, in the Herald of Everett, Wash., blasted as "liberal plutocrats" another couple of billionaire brothers who reportedly aspire to be the "Koch brothers of the left," serving Democratic interests as the Kochs serve Republicans.

It took Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent, to roll both terms into one sentence. It happened a couple of years ago when he railed against domestic spending cuts: "This is not what democracy looks like. This is what oligarchy and plutocracy look like."

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