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Why Are They Called Oligarchs? | Insight

Russian oligarchs and American billionaires: some say there’s hardly any difference. Harry explains, “What’s in a name?”

A lot of people seem to be arguing about what “oligarch” really means. For context—if you’ve been living under a rock—one part of the West’s retaliation against Russia includes targeted sanctions against so-called oligarchs. These are fabulously wealthy individuals presumed to have some kind of special influence over Vladimir Putin and might pressure him to call off his invasion of Ukraine if their bottom line really starts to hurt.

In response, some people have asserted that America’s wealthiest occupy the same political position as these oligarchs.

Here are two nice examples, from writers at (respectively) Jacobin and The National Review:

Now, I think it would be wrong to say that there’s nothing to these arguments. It’s probably true that we use the term “oligarch” to refer to Russian moguls because it’s pejorative. At the same time, the United States also hosts gross economic inequality and a disproportionately influential wealthy.

But there are crucial differences in how the wealthiest citizens in Russia and the US are positioned in the broader political-economic order. While equating the two might be useful in political rhetoric, we shouldn’t forsake the truth for utility, if we want to really understand these situations.

To best explain the differences, it makes sense to start with Russia. In the early 1990s, the de-communizing Russian economy was undergoing an attempt at liberalization, with the introduction of private property rights and market competition. The government at the time, headed by President Boris Yeltsin, oversaw the privatization of most formerly state-run enterprises, selling them at shockingly low prices to the small handful of individuals who had capital and entrepreneurial experience. Almost overnight, these men became the first cohort of hyper-powerful post-Soviet billionaires and monopolists: the oligarchs.

Under Vladimir Putin today, however, the oligarchs occupy a less formidable position. Starting in the 2000s, Putin asserted himself (and the office of the Russian presidency) as the supreme power in the country. While the oligarchs still enjoy significant influence over the Russian economy, and while it’s still a practice of the Kremlin to essentially hand down highly lucrative enterprises to its cronies, their power has lessened considerably.

The United States, for its part, has a long and storied history of wealthy elites wielding disproportionate political power. We can see a contemporary example in the influence of the fossil fuel industry, enabled by campaign finance and a massive lobbying industry. There’s a powerful argument (which we’ve made multiple times) that the US economy is both inequitable and anti-competitive.

But still, that’s not quite the same thing as having the government quite literally hand over entire sectors of production to a few private individuals, or for it to pre-emptively decide who should enjoy the benefits of a lucrative business opportunity. It may be the case that the American state does protect the interests of the wealthy, but it’s hardly as tightly linked to its wealthiest citizens as the Russian government is to its so-called oligarchs.

Even as “our” billionaires and “their” oligarchs may be different, that hardly excuses socioeconomic inequality in the United States. It does, however, suggest that collapsing important distinctions—often for political reasons—makes it more difficult to tell fact from fiction. It may sound pedantic, but in the midst of high-stakes geopolitical tensions, it’s crucial that we get this stuff right.

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