Robert Michels’ Iron Law of Oligarchy

Robert Michels’ Iron Law of Oligarchy

The practical ideal of democracy is the self-management of the masses in accordance with the decision of the people`s assemblies. The sovereign masses are totally incapable of making the most necessary decisions. The impotence of direct democracy, like the power of indirect democracy, is a direct consequence of the influence of numbers. The Mass is sincerely grateful to its leaders and considers gratitude a sacred duty. As a rule, the feeling of gratitude is manifested in the constant re-election of leaders who have rendered outstanding service to the party, so that the leadership usually becomes eternal. Therefore, the frequent repetition of elections is an elementary precaution of democracy against the virus of oligarchy. The only scientific teaching that can boast of giving an effective answer to all theories, old or new, and of affirming the intrinsic necessity of the perpetual existence of the “political class” in Marxist doctrine. In his 1943 book Gemeindefreiheit als Rettung Europas, published in its second edition in 1947, Adolf Gasser formulated the following demands for a representative democracy in order to remain stable, untouched by Michels` iron law of oligarchy: Robert Michels formulated the iron law of oligarchy in the first decade of the 20th century in Political Parties, A brilliant comparative study of European socialist parties. who drew heavily on his own experiences within the German Socialist Party.

Influenced by Max Weber`s analysis of bureaucracy, as well as Vilfredo Pareto`s and Gaetano Mosca`s theories of elite rule, Michels argued that the organizational oligarchy resulted most fundamentally from the imperatives of modern organization: competent leadership, centralized authority, and division of labor within a professional bureaucracy. These organizational imperatives necessarily led to a caste of leaders whose superior knowledge, skills and status, combined with their hierarchical control over key organizational resources such as internal communications and training, would allow them to dominate the membership as a whole and domesticate divergent groups. Michels supplemented this institutional analysis of the consolidation of internal power with psychological arguments drawn from Gustave Le Bon`s theory of the masses. From this perspective, Michels particularly emphasized the idea that elite dominance also resulted from the way ordinary members desired and revered the leadership of their leaders. Michels insisted that the gulf separating elite leaders from rank-and-file members would also steer organizations toward strategic moderation, as important organizational decisions would ultimately be made more based on leaders` selfish priorities for organizational survival and stability than on members` preferences and demands. 8 Michels never defines his concept of oligarchy. For his somewhat contradictory propositions concerning the nature of the oligarchy, see Political Parties, pp. 136, 144, 145, 154, 389, 390. They must ensure that the base remains active in the organization and that leaders are not granted absolute control over centralized administration.

As long as there are open lines of communication and joint decision-making between leaders and the rank and file, an oligarchy cannot easily develop (Michels 1911). According to a 2000 paper, “To the extent that contemporary scholars ask questions about social movement organizations, they tend to reinforce Michels` claim that bureaucratized and established organizations are more conservative in their goals and tactics, even though they generally do not explicitly participate in the iron law debate.” [15] However, the study found that the iron law was malleable and that, in certain circumstances, established unions could revitalize themselves and undergo radical changes in accordance with the wishes of their members. [15] Michels pointed to several factors underlying the iron law of oligarchy. Darcy K. Leach summed it up briefly: “Bureaucracy is coming. When bureaucracy occurs, power increases. Power corrupts. [3] Every large organization, Michels argued, must create a bureaucracy to maintain its effectiveness as it grows – many decisions must be made on a daily basis that cannot be made by large numbers of disorganized people. For the organization to function effectively, centralization must take place and power will end up in the hands of a few. These few – the oligarchy – will use whatever means necessary to maintain and expand their power.

[3] In 1911, Robert Michels argued that, paradoxically, despite their democratic ideology and mass participation dispositions, European socialist parties seemed to be dominated by their leaders like traditional conservative parties. Michels` conclusion was that the problem lies in the nature of the organizations. More liberal and democratic modernity made it possible to form organizations with innovative and revolutionary goals, but as these organizations became more complex, they became less and less democratic and revolutionary. Michels formulated the “iron law of oligarchy”: “He who says organization, says oligarchy.” [3] There is a kind of tragic despair in Michels` presentation. Freedom-loving socialists are inspired to seek social innovations that avoid the fate of the oligarchy. Intellectuals of popular movements outside the socialist tradition, after reading Michels` work, are also called upon to seek mechanisms to ward off or weaken oligarchic tendencies in their organizations. The iron law of oligarchy is a political theory first developed by the German-born Italian sociologist Robert Michels in his book Political Parties published in 1911. [1] He argues that the domination of an elite or oligarchy as an “iron law” within any democratic organization is inevitable within the framework of the organization`s “tactical and technical necessities.” [1] Michels` iron law of oligarchy can in some respects be seen as a product of his personal experience as a socialist member of the German SDP. His “iron law” is based on Michels` empirical study of the German SDP and a number of affiliated unions. He concluded from his studies that, while proclaiming a “revolutionary” program and manifesto, the German SDP quickly became part of the German “establishment.” It is clear that the problems of oligarchy, bureaucratic depersonalization described by Weber, and personal alienation are all interconnected.

When individuals are deprived of the power to make decisions that affect their lives in many or even most areas that are important to them, retreating into narrow ritualism (overconforming to rules) and apathy are likely reactions. Michels showed in detail how oligarchy develops from a desire to be effective. For good reasons (division of labor), members are looking for leaders and organizers, these people specialize in various tasks, and their expertise and skills make them indispensable – they can threaten to quit if the organization seems to be about to make a bad decision. Subsequent studies by parties and trade unions, as well as by other organisations such as voluntary associations and social movements, further relativised the iron law. These studies examined a wide range of factors—such as factional competition, targeted activism, interorganizational connections, and external opportunities and constraints—that highlighted both the contingent nature of organizational power and Michels` relative neglect of the environmental context. Nach der Wende zum 21. In the nineteenth century, the organizational dynamics and dilemmas studied by Michels were often revisited, but usually from a more global perspective. In this sense, researchers have begun to study the strategic and interdemocratic implications of transnational resource flows, state-sanctioned decentralized political networks, cross-border political identities, and the Internet as an internal communication tool. The iron law of oligarchy thus remains an important axis in the analysis of the domestic politics of social associations of differentiated political regimes, transnational advocacy networks and multinational corporations, as well as the broader character of democratic politics in the age of globalized information. Titus Gregory uses Michel`s “iron law” to describe how the centralist democratic structure of the Canadian Federation of Students, composed of individual student unions, favours oligarchy.

Robert Michels (9 January 1876 † 3 May 1936) was a German sociologist.

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