Walking to work recently, I had every reason to be happy. The weather was calm and clear — a nice reprieve from the downpours we had been receiving of late. I was on my way to work in a great little community work hub, surrounded by pleasant and supportive people. My family was healthy, and the bug I’d been fighting for weeks was finally leaving my system. Yet, as I walked toward a scene straight out of National Geographic — the sun rising over snow-capped mountains that dip down to meet the peaceful waters of Howe Sound — I felt angry. I had been subtly venting this anger for weeks, through careless words and thoughtless silence. I’d begun to feel more intense at hockey — always a warning sign — and I felt my fuse shortening around those I love.
Angry at what? I thought.
A bit of introspection led me down a rabbit hole of anger: anger about the divisive battle that had taken place over a hotel development in my small town … anger about the Harper government that changed Canada in ways we have yet to fully understand … anger about the strata I live in, and the bylaws review that I had become entangled in … anger about Hitler’s march of tyranny, so eloquently described in All the Light We Cannot See … anger about the mess that capitalism has become, as described in Robert B. Reich’s book, Saving Capitalism … even anger about Lord Voldemort and Dolores Umbridge, two nasty characters from the Harry Potter series. (Yes, I was reading a few books at the time.)
It took me only a moment to recognize the common thread that held together everything I was angry about. It all boiled down to one word: Oligarchy. Here’s how Wikipedia defines the term:
Oligarchy, meaning “to rule or to command”, is a form of power structure in which power effectively rests with a small number of people.
It seems ridiculous to compare Harry Potter characters and strata bylaws to Nazi Germany. But regardless of the scope and seriousness of a particular subject, what concerns me is the linkage I see between issues both great and small: the simple fact that our world seems to be one big web of interconnected oligarchies.
Just like the power dynamics of major corporations — the back-scratching club of CEOs and Directors who over-compensate one another while taking an ever-increasing piece of the collective pie — almost every other institution within our society is controlled by small groups of people. Sometimes we elect these people, and sometimes we don’t. Even those who are elected (usually the result of savvy, highly funded Public Relations campaigns) often see themselves as all-knowing, almighty leaders, believing it is both their right and responsibility to lead with authority. Doubt is seen as weakness; listening is secondary to telling.
Managing a small software company taught me many things — about leadership, communication, ego … and control. When a long-time friend and employee told me I was “steamrolling” him, I took it to heart; after the initial shock of being called out for “talking over” him, I appreciated his candour and came to apply his feedback as a reminder whenever I feared that I was turning dialogue into monologue (I still ask myself, “Am I steamrolling?” whenever I get on a verbal roll). The company also had a wise director (a.k.a. my dad), who frequently reminded me of the importance of listening to the views of everyone within the organization. I can’t say I always heeded that message, but it was a guiding light that, more often than not, kept my ego in check and my ears open. I learned, sometimes the hard way, that decisions are best reached after input from others, not before.
I stumbled upon the term “oligarchy” when trying to understand my frustration with the strata I live in. I encountered it again while reading A Prayer for Owen Meany, during a diatribe in which the brilliant and diminutive Owen Meany called out the control structure of the private school he was attending. It dawned on me then, and has been reinforced many times since, that “oligarchy” might be the defining word of our times. Small groups of people control just about everything — governments, companies, charities, societies, sports teams, schools, stratas and more — often in very subtle ways. Oligarchies can be effective, especially if they exist within a culture of benevolence. But if they’re not …
In the most extreme cases, oligarchies lead to tyranny. In All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr masterfully weaves together multiple plot lines — the stories of very human characters — to show that there were victims on both sides of World War II; victims of an oligarchy that was allowed to grow … to fester … to multiply.
Even in the most benign cases — a neighbourhood strata complex; a kids’ hockey team; a loosely organized group of homeschoolers — oligarchies can cause dissension, division, anger. We all want to be heard, and we want to be treated fairly. When we are not, we feel the dull ache of futility … and when we fight back, the futility often grows. Resistance leads to a tightening of control, which raises the stakes and causes dissenters to either back down or to fight back with greater ferocity. It’s a vicious cycle.
Throughout history, oligarchies have often been tyrannical, relying on public obedience or oppression to exist. Aristotle pioneered the use of the term as a synonym for rule by the rich, for which another term commonly used today is plutocracy.
As I waded through Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, I was surprised by my emotional reaction to the sub-plot that took place within Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry — a power struggle that fuelled my anger more directly than the good-vs-evil backdrop that runs throughout the Harry Potter series. The leadership dynamics of the school itself — the ever-tightening grip of The Ministry, under the watch of Dolores Umbridge, and the animosity it created — felt all too familiar, and more than a little unsettling.
I have felt a dot-to-dot puzzle connecting within my head for while. The seed for my anger was planted well over a year ago, and it grew strong during the lead-up to our federal election last fall — one of the longest and ugliest elections Canada has ever faced. For me, the election was not so much about political platforms as it was about the essence of democracy; it was about stopping a runaway train that had all but done away with meaningful public consultation and open debate. Far beyond the surface issues — economics, global warming and the threat of terrorism, to name a few — the real battle was between an increasingly centralized control structure that emanated outward from the Prime Minister’s Office, and the call for a more decentralized decision-making process.
It was not entirely coincidental that on the day of that election — October 19th, 2015 — my wife and I challenged the oligarchy that runs the strata we live in with a letter to everyone in the complex. We are still sifting through the fallout from standing up to the small-scale injustices we chose not to ignore. If we have learned anything from that process, it is how strongly the status quo defends itself when challenged.
“The beatings will continue until morale improves.”
– origin unknown
The following traits are common to most — if not all — oligarchies:
- Decisions are made by a small group, then “sold and defended” to the larger population;
- Members of the “inner circle” (government cabinet, council, committee, etc.) are pressured to present a united front to others — in political-speak, they are subjected to a “party whip”;
- Information is harboured and selectively communicated;
- Input from others is minimized or eliminated;
- Resistance from dissenters is reciprocated by additional pressure — in most cases, some form of “bullying” behaviour.
Do you see these traits in your workplace, your school, your community, or in other groups that you’re associated with? Do you challenge these establishments, or allow them to operate without interference? More often than not I have done the latter, choosing peace over principle. Sometimes I ask myself: if we can’t stand up for our beliefs in small ways — if we can’t challenge the oligarchies that we have the power to challenge — then what hope do we have against the larger injustices of the world? But I also wonder: is it human nature to lay dormant until the stakes are high enough to demand action?
I think there is truth in both of these questions. By never standing up for ourselves, we allow the people who control us in subtle ways to build momentum, to gain power. But if we fight every battle as if it is the next world war, then we will lose ourselves in a vortex of negativity. We have to find ways to be assertive without being aggressive; to present peaceful resistance as early as possible once we recognize the injustice of a situation. But that’s not easy to do, even when we acknowledge problems while they are still small enough to address through peaceful means. And all too often, we don’t recognize what we’re up against until we’re far down the path of discontent.
I am optimistic. People are pushing back in ways that were unimaginable a few short years ago, fuelled in part by the explosive growth of social media. It might get worse before it gets better — those in control don’t tend to cede power without a struggle — but I see potential for a shift … from being a society of oligarchies to one that embraces the true spirit of democracy.
I don’t pretend to have the answers to all that ails us — and that’s the whole point. It’s about time that we start mining our collective wisdom, and our collective feelings, to work toward decisions that are made by the people … for the people.