The Iron Law of Oligarchy - We Op-Ed - A Community for Political News and Civilized Debate
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We Op-Ed - A Community for Political News and Civilized Debate

ol·i·gar·chy:

1. a form of government in which all power is vested in a few persons or in a dominant class or clique; government by the few.

2. a state or organization so ruled.

3. the persons or class so ruling.


An interesting political theory I was reading about recently called "The Iron Law of Oligarchy", a term coined by German Sociologist Robert Michels in 1911 published in his book Political Parties. It asserts that all large organizations and governments, regardless of their autocratic or democratic beginnings, will inevitably end up as oligarchies and that real democracy is impossible. If real democracy does exist, it exists only temporarily.

bu·reauc·ra·cy:

1. a system of administration wherein there is a specialization of functions, objective qualifications for office, action according to the adherence to fixed rules, and a hierarchy of authority and delegated power.

In simple terms Michels asserts that because the creation of a bureaucracy is necessary to maintain a democracy and since bureaucracy creates power and power inevitably corrupts, democracy eventually becomes corrupted and transitions to oligarchy. This is essentially the basis of the "Iron Law". Contributing factors also include the passivity of the "masses" who do very little to stop the power grabbing of the elite, the tendency of leaders to act in their own self interest and the unwillingness of the group or population to question authority.

The transition period has some of the characteristics below:

1. Increasingly, officials use their expertise and power over information to influence decision making.

2. Increasingly, a career structure develops within bureaucracies and amid "the mania for promotion", deference to one's superiors soon counts for more than simple ability. Individuality and criticism are thus soon excluded and the power of those at the top increased.

3. Increasingly, those at the top of such organizations become more interested in maintaining their own powers and privileges than in promoting the causes of the organization. The organization becomes an end in itself rather than a means to an end. The policies of the organization become increasingly conservative for fear that radical actions will lead to it's destruction. The leadership dominates all decision making and appointments, dismantles any checks on it's power and, where possible, votes itself into office for life.

4. Increasingly, the ordinary members find themselves excluded from the organization, from decision making. They find rules, procedures and jargon of meetings and documents incomprehensible and react by not attending, not participating and so increasing the power of the leadership. Those at the top of the organizational structure begin to adopt an elite lifestyle and so find it difficult to even consider returning to the "shop floor". They come to believe in their own omnipotence, come to see themselves as invincible and to believe in their own propaganda that they alone know what is best for the organization or "the people".

Does any of this sound familiar?

People think that the US is a free and democratic country and it will stay that way indefinitely? Think again.

Views: 111

Comment by Justin on August 28, 2008 at 9:58pm
Hey John, thanks for posting this. Very interesting stuff. I also recommend Aldous Huxley's essay, "Brave New World Revisited". He discusses the trends of power in an increasingly crowded world. I've been meaning to post about it at some point, but it is amazingly prescient, much like this Robert Michels.
Comment by Dave Justus on August 29, 2008 at 10:08am
Typically, when speaking of an Oligarchy, it isn't just a small group of people having the power, but a small fixed group of people. An elite segment that is born to power and can pretty much guarantee that they will remain there.

Without that, your definition is pretty much just that the powerful are powerful, which while true is also pretty meaningless.

I don't think you can make a very good case that in America we have a fixed oligarchal caste. While certainly being born to wealth and power is an advantage, it isn't an overwhelming one. We can observe, for example, a major political party nominating a half black child of modest backgrount to the Presidency.
Comment by John S on August 29, 2008 at 10:33am
I agree Dave. However, I can't agree that it will stay the way you describe forever. Simply because the US does not technically meet the strict definition of an Oligarchy right now does not necessarily mean that it will not at some point in the future. Who is to say what America will be like 100 years from now. Given the changes that have taken place in the past 50 to 60 years, the trends are disturbing. But, I do think it is interesting that the half black child you speak of became wealthy before being nominated for the Presidency.
Comment by Katie on August 29, 2008 at 10:34am
I agree with Dave, if there is an oligarchy, Obama's nomination (whether or not he wins) is indicative that that setup is upsettable.

To reiterate, according to John's definition, power is in the hands of "a few persons or in a dominant class or clique; government by the few" in an oligarchy. Would not the better word to describe what you're talking about be aristocracy? You could make that argument for the Bushes and the Clintons of course.
Comment by Dave Justus on August 29, 2008 at 11:36am
John,

Certainly it is possible that at some point in the future America will be an oligarchy. Anything is possible, but saying that it is trending in that direction is not I think something you can factually back up. 50 years ago, in 1958, it would have been unimaginable that someone like Obama would be the Democratic nominee for President, or someone like Sarah Palin be the Republican VP nominee.

The pool that we draw our powerful from is getting bigger, not smaller. Beyond politics, I think the trend is even stronger. Media institutions are less able to monopolize information and alternate sources of news and commentary are more prevalent then ever before.

I would say that the trend is moving away from Oligarchy, not toward it.
Comment by John S on August 29, 2008 at 11:43am
Hey Katie. I don't believe I ever implied that the US is currently an oligarchy. Like I said, I also agree with Dave. However, the US does exhibit many of the characteristics of the transition period as stated by this particular theory and, according to this particular theory, that transition is inevitable. I don't believe anyone can argue that it doesn't exhibit these symptoms.
Comment by John S on August 29, 2008 at 12:19pm
Hey Dave. Some questions. Has there ever been a democracy throughout the history of the world that has not made this transition? Do you honestly believe the "we the people" are becoming more powerful? I would agree that the pool we draw our power from is getting larger. This is to be expected with increases in population. The bottom line is this. Are "we the people" becoming more powerful or less powerful? I can't see how anyone can claim the answer is more.
Comment by Dave Justus on August 29, 2008 at 12:47pm
"Has there ever been a democracy throughout the history of the world that has not made this transition?"

Historically there haven't been a lot of democracies. Certainly it is true that nothing lasts forever, but I don't know that oligarchy is the most likely outcome. A totalitarian dictorship, or outright destruction seem plausible as well. As an example, pre-Hitler Germany was a democracy that pretty much went directly to a totalitarian dictatorship. Cuba would be another example, although its pre-Castro democracy wasn't all that strong.

"Do you honestly believe the "we the people" are becoming more powerful?"

Yes. As one quick example, I have the power to easily engage in a debate with you that anyone in the world can view. 50 years ago that would have been impossible.

"I would agree that the pool we draw our power from is getting larger. This is to be expected with increases in population."

When I said larger, I wasn't refering to simply larger in numbers (more members of an established oligarchy) but more diverse. If the powerful members in our society are coming from increasingly diverse backgrounds, that is the exact opposite of an oligarchal trend.

"The bottom line is this. Are "we the people" becoming more powerful or less powerful? I can't see how anyone can claim the answer is more."

Tell that to an African-American in the 50s. Beyond that obvious example, the capabilities of individuals to accomplish things is much larger due to technoligical and social advances. This translates into political power as well.

I'll turn it around though, show me the power that the average person in the 50s or 60s had more power then they have now, or how the establishment was weaker then than it was now.

I can't imagine how anyone would look at all the capabilities we have today, how they could look at the history of our Democracy and the political machines that ran things in the past and consider we are becoming more oligarchal. It doesn't square at all with what I know of history.
Comment by John S on August 29, 2008 at 12:58pm
It is true that alternate sources of news and commentary are more prevalent then ever before. But, if this does not convert to having more political power for "we the people", then it's irrelevant. Give me an example of how this has converted to more political power. In today's political climate, knowledge is not power, money is. Furthermore, if people today are unable to monopolize information, then how did the entire country and even the Congress become convinced that Iraq had WMD and was an immediate threat to the US and needed to be invaded? Which we now know was completely false.

Also, I don't believe that simply because people are not openly racist or sexist anymore means that the power is still not being concentrated in the wealthy segments of the population. Black people and women are now allowed to be rich and powerful. This does nothing to change the political power of "we the people". It simply means the black people and women are now allowed to be "Oligarchs". Which does nothing for "we the people".

"Tell that to an African-American in the 50s. Beyond that obvious example, the capabilities of individuals to accomplish things is much larger due to technological and social advances. This translates into political power as well."

How has this translated to more political power?
Comment by Sean Elliott on August 29, 2008 at 8:47pm
The spectrum of political thought is a continuum. I imagine at some point a representative republic (of which our own governing bodies are half borne of) blends into an oligarchy. All you have to do is argue the defintion of "representatives chosen directly or indirectly" (Dictionary.com unabridged) and one could see our own system as that already. Thanks for contributing to the blurring of reality John!

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