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2020 elections

Is Bloomberg an Oligarch? We Asked an Oligarchy Expert

Bloomberg hates being called an oligarch. So we tried to figure out if the term actually fits the $60 billion man.

by Clio Chang
Feb 25 2020, 7:45pm

Collage by Hunter French | Image via Getty

Michael Bloomberg hates being called an oligarch. Yet seemingly every day, someone calls him an oligarch. On Monday, Bloomberg’s team tweeted a bunch of sick photos of people spray painting things like “oligarch” at his campaign office in Ohio and taping little signs that say “eat the rich” at the one in Flint, Michigan.

Bloomberg’s campaign manager called this “derogatory language” and “an act of hate,” which, honestly, is exactly something an oligarch would say.

The question remains: Is Bloomberg an oligarch? What is an oligarch? Am I an oligarch? To set the record straight, VICE reached out to an oligarch expert, Matt Simonton, and asked if he thought it was derogatory or fair to call Bloomberg an oligarch. Simonton is a professor at Arizona State University, expert in ancient Greek oligarchies, and author of the book, Classical Greek Oligarchy: A Political History.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Do you think Mike Bloomberg is an oligarch?

Yes, absolutely I think he is one.

There's oligarchy and democracy. These are Greek terms. Originally when these terms developed in the fifth century BC in Greece, you had the rule of few, which is the oligarchy, and democracy, which is the power of the people.

Everybody knew that [when] you said the rule of the few, what you meant was the rule of the wealthy. Democracy versus oligarchy always meant the rule of the working people versus the rule of the rich people.

What pushes Bloomberg from just being a rich guy to being an oligarch?

With Bloomberg, it’s not just that he uses his immense wealth to get into the political process and buy limitless airtime. You could call that in and of itself oligarchic. [But] what really makes him oligarchic is that he seems to have a vision of politics in which rich people deserve more political power.

There was an interview with him in which he said, “Oh, let’s look at a democracy like Singapore’s.” First of all, Singapore isn’t a democracy, it’s a one-party state, a semi-dictatorship, so it’s interesting that he thinks of that kind of regime as a democracy in the first place.

It seems the specific thing he admires in the Singapore system is to run for political office, you can’t just be anybody. You have to have some kind of qualification. You have to have run a business or have a PhD. There are big differences between ancient and modern oligarchy and democracy, but one of the things that connects them is the belief on the part of oligarchs that political candidates have to be qualified somehow by what is, in the end, a de facto property requirement.

The spirit of democracy is that the people should be able to choose whomever they want as their leader. Oligarchs in ancient Greece and Michael Bloomberg both seem to believe it should only be a limited pool from which you can draw.

What are some oligarchic parallels you see between historical oligarchy and Bloomberg?

In the ancient world, it was characteristic of oligarchs and oligarchies that as long as they weren’t subjected to any scrutiny, they could pretty much do whatever they wanted. But the second you put them before a public audience that had any ability to question them, they often turned out to have feet of clay [ie, character flaws]. That dynamic seemed to be on display at the Democratic debate, where by one poll Bloomberg lost something like 20 net favorability points just from appearing on the screen.

What do you think of Bloomberg’s campaign saying that people who call him an oligarch are employing “ hateful rhetoric ”?

I think it’s absurd. I saw one take that said that calling him an oligarch was an attempt to “orientalize” him, the comparison being Russian oligarchs. As I’ve been trying to say, it’s a perfectly traditional word that developed in Greece and has been used for thousands of years. Based on ancient and modern definitions, it absolutely seems to apply in the most objective way that I can imagine. He admires property requirements for office, and so did ancient oligarchs. He uses his immense wealth to buy into the political system, and so did ancient oligarchs. The comparison is completely apt.

Does he remind you of any historical oligarchs you’ve studied?

I'd say Bloomberg is a lot like an anonymous author we call “The Old Oligarch,” who wrote a pamphlet in favor of oligarchy in the later fifth century BC. He lived under the Athenian democracy but was definitely not a fan of it.

He says at one point, “If you're going for law and order [a euphemism for oligarchy], the first thing you'll see is the cleverest people passing legislation. Then the sophisticated people will chastise the poor and take counsel themselves on behalf of the political community and not allow crazy people to participate in politics.”

Who else in American politics right now would you consider an oligarch?

This is a tough question because there is a sense in which America is possibly an oligarchy or sliding into oligarchy already, and some political scientists are arguing this. In that case, anybody who participates in the system is an oligarch, if they’re holding power in an oligarchic regime. But that’s to take an extreme view. There are people who are exacerbating oligarchic tendencies and Bloomberg is one. Really any of the billionaires in the race—Tom Steyer, Howard Schultz [ Editor’s note: Schultz suspended his presidential campaign last June]. I think the impulse that I’ve made a billion dollars, I’ve never done anything politically competent in my life but I deserve to be president is an oligarchic attitude.

Trump is a funny case because he claims to be populist but he belongs in there. He’s the weird case of an oligarchic demagogue. Bloomberg seems to show contempt for working people, and Trump would have us believe that he stands up for them and is their voice in these sorts of things. He has a different style from Bloomberg. But substantially I don’t know how much of a big difference there is.

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