The Difference Between a Plutocracy & Aristocracy

Mar 25, 2022 | Aristocracy, Noble Titles, Royal Titles

Historically, the aristocracy has often been regarded as the realm of powerful nobles and the wealthy classes. So, it can be common to wonder exactly what official power the aristocracy hold within society, and what role their wealth plays in their status. 

For example, what’s the difference between an aristocracy and a plutocracy, which is a system of governance much more related to wealth, yet less complex than the nobility in terms of lineage, honour and virtue?

Here are some clarifications on the different social systems, to demonstrate how they are different as well as what they have in common.  

What is an Aristocracy? 

In its original sense and the strictest terms, an aristocracy is a social structure where the nobles and aristocrats hold the power within society. 

The King of France, Louis XIV receives the future King of Poland, Augustus III in Fontainebleau

Louis de Silvestre, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In reality, this can take many forms. For example, the aristocracy may literally hold the power of governance over lower social groups, as with the feudal lords who governed the local peasant folk and villagers during medieval times.

It may also be a less official (but no less impactful) social agreement, such as the unspoken yet powerful social mores of who and what the aristocracy permit within their circles. 

An example of this is the power that certain social invitations can bestow upon those who are invited, versus those who are excluded. These powers of influence may seem trivial, (often they can be as simple as an invitation to afternoon tea), yet they signify social acceptance or social exclusion, which can have far-reaching effects within the highest social circles and all the influence they bestow. 

What is a Plutocracy? 

A common definition of a plutocracy is ‘a society that is governed by the wealthiest of its members’. 

In the simplest terms, plutocracy means that those with the wealth and riches hold the power. Again this can be an official state of affairs, i.e. those in power are elected to (or tolerated in) positions of governance purely as a result of their wealth. An example from history would be that of a wealthy dictator, who uses their vast riches and resources to assume control of a region or population. When their wealth allows them to maintain power, control and influence over a society, this is an example of a plutocracy. 

A common hallmark of a plutocracy is that of a group of wealthy individuals who collectively maintain control over a social group using their financial advantages. 

In a similar way to an aristocracy, a plutocracy can vary in its official status, i.e. whether the wealth dictates which leaders will be granted certain positions of power, or an unofficial state of affairs, where individuals take advantage of their wealth to attain power. 

What’s the Difference Between an Aristocracy & a Plutocracy? 

These two social systems – an aristocracy and a plutocracy – do have a number of features in common, and on occasion, they may appear identical to casual observers. Yet, on closer examination, there are a number of subtle yet significant distinctions that differentiate the aristocrats from the plutocrats. 

  • Nobility

In a system of aristocracy, the power is related to (or granted to) a person relative to their social status or noble heritage. For example, if a favourite subject was granted a Dukedom, that rank would often come with certain rights and privileges that could translate to power within society. Particularly during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, those within the noble ranks would have access to the monarchy and seats of government that were simply unavailable to non-nobles. 

By contrast, in a plutocracy, the access to power is not related to social rank or a noble title, or even to heritage or noble birth. An aristocratic title or an ancient and esteemed family history have little if any impact within a plutocracy. While a noble background wouldn’t necessarily exclude someone from plutocratic power, and it may even assist in subtle ways, yet it is not the overriding factor that holds sway – that being financial might and access to resources. 

  • Wealth

The story of the aristocracies over the ages are invariably tales of rising fortunes and falls from grace. The finances of nobles are notoriously variable, and a common stereotype of the noble classes is the impoverished aristocrat, i.e. those of noble birth and blue bloodlines who find themselves financially stretched. 

Often this was a result of the expensive lifestyles required to maintain a social rank, especially in close royal circles. Other times it may be related to the costs of maintaining vast stately homes or country estates. This phenomenon was exacerbated with the introduction of inheritance taxes, which meant that many nobles inheriting large estates were saddled with phenomenal tax bills. 

In short, being of noble birth and belonging to the aristocracy was by no means any guarantee of wealth and riches. 

In contrast, the rank and power of a plutocrat are defined solely by their wealth. While it’s possible to be a penniless noble, it is impossible to be a penniless plutocrat. By definition, without wealth, a position of power within a plutocracy is simply not an option. 

  • Virtue

There is a third aspect that may help to distinguish between plutocracy and an aristocracy and that is the aspect of virtue and noble values. 

The original aristocracy emerged as a result of certain individuals rising within society, proving themselves in terms of bravery, courage, honour, altruism and devoted service, whether to a monarch or a community. 

These values may not always have been a feature of every member of every aristocracy, yet there is a strong ethos of honour and integrity within the evolution of the noble classes throughout the ages.  

This thread of virtue and altruism are not widely regarded as inherent features of a plutocracy. Whilst wealth and integrity are certainly not mutually exclusive, it is undeniably the case that many unscrupulous individuals can attain great wealth which they can then translate into power and influence. A plutocracy admits its leaders based solely on the results of their wealth-building achievements, regardless of their methods and means. 

In summary, the difference between an aristocracy and a plutocracy is in the criteria for its members and leaders. To hold power within an aristocracy requires noble status, social influence within the higher echelons of society and/or the right lineage and family background. Virtues of honour and altruism are also a factor. Whereas the positions of power and methods of influence within a plutocracy are based purely on levels of financial wealth.

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