But plutocracy flourishes in another, more insidious sense – as an idea, the unspoken assumption that wealth deserves respect, honor, influence and power. That’s deeply engrained in our culture, and it provides force and cover for the more strictly political sense of plutocracy.
Since ploutokratia ise a Greek word, I wanted to see what Greek political thinkers had to say about it. To the best of my knowledge, the word is used only once in classical Greek. Socrates used the word, according to Xenophon who presents him as discussing the difference between kingship (basileia) and despotism (tyrannis), then turning to aristocracy, contrasting it to plutocracy and democracy:
... where the officials are chosen among those who fulfil the requirements of the laws, the constitution is an aristocracy: where status (timemata) is the qualification for office, you have a plutocracy: where all are eligible, a democracy.
Xenophon Memorabilia 4.6.12 tr. Marchant, modified
So, in Socrates’ view it’s all about eligibility for office. That’s a very narrow understanding of plutocracy, but it’s more than one finds in Plato, Aristotle and other political philosophers or historians.
Why is plutocracy so rarely discussed in antiquity? A suggestion: plutocracy, of all the principal forms of governance is the queen of the masquerade ball. It’s a genius at disguising itself, making it appear as aristocracy in some settings, and as populism – demagogia – in others. It’s often hard to make out the plutocratic side of Greek politicians. They were loud-mouths (aazones) proclaiming their devotion to the ordinary citizen, yet making sure that a city’s policies never seriously challenged the structures that gave wealth its influence and prerogative. Cleon is the perfect, but not the only, ancient example. Trump has Greek forbearers.
Populism, along with nativism, racism and attacks on intellectuals and other “elitists,” are good disguises for plutocracy. Discussions of Athenian politics often described such tendencies as “radical” or “extreme” democracy. If something goes wrong, its easy then to blame “democracy,” rather than look under the surface at the power of wealth to get its way.
Students need to learn how to identify plutocracy and the fallacies behind its rhetorical appeal that is correct, liberal education has a new section in its job description= – unmasking plutocracy and challenging the ides that gives ii its appeal and power - -that wealth is a measure of personal worth and a mark of fitness to rule. Distance over soqce and time may help students and others put plutocratic tendencies in perspective. Where is Cleon when we need him?