Aristocracy is a form of government in which rulership is in the hands of an "upper class" known as aristocrats. (The Greek origins of the word aristocracy imply the meaning of "rule by the best".). This inevitably means those with the power to hold wealth, and to define who shall remain in poverty and slavery.
Civics under this form is more or less completely determined by the ethical code of aristocrats, and what issues can be raised, and which not, are almost entirely a matter of the etiquette they follow. For instance, in Ancient Athens or the Confederate States of America it was not polite to challenge the institution of slavery which supported the state, as this was a direct conflict of interest with the way that aristocracy not only sustained but defined itself.
Aristocracy is usually combined with an oligarchy ("rule by the few").
Aristocracy may be headed by a monarch, in that some functions of government are administered by the monarch (usually also a member of the aristocracy) with the remainder being held by other aristocrats. Thus a balance of power was achieved that would satisfy both the aristocrats' desire to limit competition with each other, and their desire to not be subject to arbitrary power of an absolute monarchy. For example, the Magna Carta was forced on King John by barons concerned with just such powers.
Generally, this form of government evolved out of earlier feudal systems, but often it was feudal mechanisms that stood in its way — in the Magna Carta's case, for instance, John had previously made himself vassal of the Pope, in effect, forcing everyone in England into a strict hierarchy of obligations up to the Church. Thus, when the barons forced John to sign the document, the Church was forced to object and declare it void, as this was a usurpation of rights that ordinary citizens had under feudalism to appeal directly up to the Pope.
Historically, the obligations of aristocrats were to raise and equip armies, and physically lead them into battles to protect the state from any invaders — and occasionally to conqueror a neighboring state, dividing its wealth amongst themselves. By the 16th century these obligations were on the wane — the popular work Don Quixote was a satire of this situation, where the nobility had no longer obligations but retained all its privileges, wherein a noble knight sets forth to do battle for fair.
Historically, the term "aristocracy" has usually denoted a hereditary elite, but the word has been applied to non-hereditary elites as well, usually those created by commerce and especially shipping and railroads in trade_dependent societies. The terms "railroad baron" and "shipping magnate" reflect this.
American Revolutionary figure John Jay stated the basic principle of aristocracy bluntly:
- "Those who own the country, should run it"
The U.S. Upper Class
In the United States, annual incomes above $200,000 generally are earned by those considered to be wealthy. However, wealth and aristocracy are more often judged by net worth, the difference between assets and liablities. Net worths over $1 million constitute the top 2 percent of American households.
Many historical hereditary aristocracies justified their power by a belief in "rule by right of birth" or "divine right". This belief states that there is a particular caste of hereditary nobility which has the greatest right — or greatest ability — to rule, that ability being inherited through blood ties ("blue blood"). This concept enjoyed great support, at least among the nobility, in some places and time periods where rule by martial prowess and conquest gave way to longer and longer "dynasties" of inherited power. Examples of aristocratic societies in this style are Europe during the late medieval and Renaissance periods and the Japan.
A government by aristocracy is generally held to be incompatible with the notion of political egalitarianism and with democracy itself.
Nonetheless, it is clear that the concept of human rights itself has roots in agreements that were originally between aristocrats and monarchs. It is also clear that right up into the 19th century (some would say the 1960s), an aristocracy based on racism persisted even in the South Africa under apartheid. And only in the 20th century were women and those who did not own land granted the right to vote.
- Nietsche's ideas on a united Europe as an antidote to the democratic nation-state (http://roepstem.tripod.com/nietzsche)
- Julius Evola: controversial 20th century advocate for aristocracy (http://www.disinfo.com/archive/pages/dossier/id736/pg1/)