IRON LAW OF OLIGARCHY
"Civil Service is a self-perpetuating oligarchy, and what better system is
there? - The Iron Law of Oligarchy".
Writers, such as Zulma Riley, Keith Riley, Mathew Marquess, and Robert Michels,
believe that any political system eventually evolves into an oligarchy. This theory is
called the "iron law of oligarchy". According to them, modern Democracy should be considered as elected Oligarchy.
In these systems, actual differences between viable political rivals are small, the
oligarchic elite impose strict limits on what constitutes an 'acceptable' and
'respectable' political position, and politicians' careers depend heavily on unelected
economic and media elites.
Iron Law of Oligarchy was first defined by German
sociologist Robert Michels (1876-1936). Iron Law of Oligarchy
refers to the inherent tendency of all complex organizations, including radical or
socialist political parties and labour unions, to develop a ruling clique of leaders with
interests in the organization itself rather than in its official aims.
These leaders, Michels argued, came to desire leadership and its status and
rewards more than any commitment to goals.
Inevitably, their influence was conservative, seeking to preserve and enhance the
organization and not to endanger it by any radical action.
Michels based his argument on the simple observation that day-to-day running of a
complex organization by its mass membership was impossible.
Therefore, professional full-time leadership and direction was required. In theory
the leaders of the organization were subject to control by the mass membership, through
delegate conferences and membership voting, but, in reality, the leaders were in the
They possessed the experience and expertise in running the organization, they came
to control the means of communication within the organization and they monopolized the
public status of representing the organization.
It became difficult for the mass membership to provide any effective counterweight
to this professional, entrenched, leadership, the Iron Law of Oligarchy
Michels also argued that these inherent organizational tendencies were
strengthened by a mass psychology of leadership dependency, he felt that people had a
basic psychological need to be led.
Iron Law of Oligarchy: In every organized activity, no matter the sphere, a small
number will become the oligarchial leaders and the others will follow.
American politics is essentially a family affair, as are most oligarchies. When the father
of the Constitution, James Madison, was asked how on earth we would be able to get any
business done in Congress when the country contained a hundred million people whose
representatives would number half a thousand, Madison said: "Never fear. The iron law
of oligarchy always obtains."
Oligarchy is a society or social system ruled by
a few people. As societies or organizations become large it is thought that political
power becomes concentrated in the hand of a few individuals.
Oligarchy is a form of government where power rests with a small elite segment of
society distinguished by royalty, wealth, family, military influence or occult spiritual
hegemony. City-states from Ancient Greece were oligarchies.
The word oligarchy is from the Greek words for "few" (olígos) and
"rule" (arkhe). Aristotle used the term as a synonym for rule by the rich.
Oligarchies are tyrannical as they are completely reliant on public servitude to exist.
States controlled by politically powerful families whose children are heavily conditioned
and mentored to be heirs of the power of the oligarchy.
Oligarchy is not always a rule by wealthy people, for which the term is plutocracy.as oligarchs can simply be a privileged group.
Oligarchies can bring about change forcing monarchs or dictators to share power.
Oligarchy means "the rule of the few" and monarchy
means "the rule of the one".
Such power-sharing from one person to a larger group of persons happened when English
nobles got together in 1215 to force King John of England to sign the Magna Carta, a
recognition of failure of oligarchy (the nobility).
Magna Carta was revised many times (1216, 1217, and 1225), guaranteeing greater rights to
greater numbers of people, thus setting the stage for English constitutional monarchy.
Oligarchy can also be compared with Aristocracy. In an aristocracy, a small group of
wealthy or socially prominent citizens control the government. Members of this high social
class claim to be, or are considered by others to be, superior to the other people because
of family ties, social rank, wealth, or religious affiliation. The word
"aristocracy" comes from the Greek term meaning rule by the best. Many
aristocrats have inherited titles of nobility such as duke or baron.
- Latin American nations have functioned as oligarchies, where a small European elite
dominate the economy, politics, and society.
- South African form of oligarchy was based on race where a small percentage ruled
the vast native population.
- Meiji Restoration rulers from Japan's westernization era were considered an
oligarchy in the late 19th and early 20th century.
- Communist states have been seen as oligarchies, being ruled by a class with special
privileges. Russia has been labeled an oligarchy because of the power of certain
individuals, the oligarchs (often former Nomenklatura), who gained great wealth after the
fall of Communism.
- Capitalism as a social system is sometimes considered an oligarchy as in capitalist
society, economic, cultural and political power rests in the hands of the capitalist
United States political system is has an oligarchic structure. Third party
candidates stand little chance of election to national office, due to the enormous
monetary capital needed to purchase advertising time and to make other key connections in
order to gain sufficient attention from the electorate. Large donors support national
political races in the hope of compensation in return for funding the winners' campaigns,
as in the current situation and societies most commonly recognized as oligarchies. A kind
of a return to aristocratic rule, in which the common people have little control over
their political fate.
"Oligarchic democracy" is a concept attributed to Ancient Rome and the United
States. Marxist Ellen Meiksins Wood writes, that it "conveys a truth about U.S.
politics every bit as telling as its application to ancient Rome. It is no accident that
the Founding Fathers of the U.S. Republic looked to Roman models for inspiration in making
the Federalist case, adopting Roman names as pseudonyms and conceiving of themselves as
latterday Catos, forming a natural aristocracy of republican virtue. (Americans today
still have a representative body called the Senate, and their republic is still watched
over by the Roman eagle, albeit in its American form.) Faced with the distasteful specter
of democracy, they sought ways to redefine that unpalatable concept to accommodate
aristocratic rule, producing a hybrid, "representative democracy," which was
clearly meant to achieve an effect similar to the ancient Roman idea of the "mixed
constitution," in fact, an "oligarchic 'democracy."'
Parties by Robert Michels
In the many arguments I've had over the merits of collective action, I have found few
arguments as useful as Michels' "iron Law of Oligarchy", stating that even the
most egalitarian organizations wind up having their decisions made by a select few at the
top. Morever, institutional reforms will not help, since this tendency is inherent to
complex orginization. Surveying the intensification of power across a host of socialist
parties and publications, Michels provides much empirical evidence. Too much, at times, as
after about 200 pages of stories about leadership groups developing in socialist
orginizations, the book starts to drag a little bit. It is all worth it, however, as the
"iron law of oligarchy" is one of the most fascinating arguments you'll ever
find in a book about politics. Seymour Martin Lipset's introductory comments provide
interesting background info. - Reviewer: "zacharym87".
Michels was a member of a socialist movement who wondered if one could ever have what
today is called participatory democracy. The result is this wonderful book, in which
Michels discovers the "Iron Law of Oligarchy", that even in the most egalatarian
movements, elites will call most of the shots. Michels goes further than many elite
theorists who simply claim that this has always been so: he claims that elite management
is inherent to complex organizations. Whether you agree or disagree, you must read this
man and debate his ideas! - Reviewer: Kenneth Eugene Wagner
Breaking the iron law of oligarchy: union revitalization in the American labor
movement. Voss, Kim and Sherman, Rachel - The American Journal of Sociology [AJS], 106(2),
303 - 49.
ABSTRACT: This article addresses the question of how social movement organizations are
able to break out of bureaucratic conservatism. In-depth interviews with union organizers
and other data are used to identify the sources of radical transformation in labor
organizations by comparing local unions that have substantially altered their goals and
tactics with those that have changed little. This analysis highlights three factors: the
occurrence of a political crisis in the local leading to new leadership, the presence of
leaders with activist experience outside the labor movement who interpret the decline of
labor's power as a mandate to change, and the influence of the international union in
favor of innovation. The article concludes by drawing out the theoretical implications of
the finding that bureaucratic conservatism can sometimes be overcome in mature social