“I will seize any opportunity I can find to work with Congress to strengthen the middle class, improve their prospects, improve their security, but where Congress is unwilling to act, I will take whatever administrative steps that I can in order to do right by the American people.”
You have to wonder if one of Mussolini’s favorite economists, Robert Michels, was right:
The iron law of oligarchy is a political theory, first developed by the German syndicalist, sociologist and fascist, Robert Michels in his 1911 book, Political Parties.
It claims that rule by an elite, or “oligarchy“, is inevitable as an “iron law” within any democratic organization as part of the “tactical and technical necessities” of organization. Michels used anecdotes from political parties and trade unions, who supported democratic reforms to build his argument in 1911. Michels particularly addressed the application of this law to representative democracy, and stated: “It is organization which gives birth to the dominion of the elected over the electors, of the mandataries over the mandators, of the delegates over the delegators. Who says organization, says oligarchy.”
In 1911, Michels argued that, paradoxically, the socialist parties of Europe, despite their democratic ideology and provisions for mass participation, seemed to be dominated by their leaders, just like traditional conservative parties. Michels’ conclusion was that the problem lay in the very nature of organizations. The more liberal and democratic modern era allowed the formation of organizations with innovative and revolutionary goals, but as such organizations become more complex, they became less and less democratic and revolutionary. Michels formulated the “Iron Law of Oligarchy”: “Who says organization, says oligarchy.”
- Organizing into large groups make actions of the group based on individual decisions too inefficient and therefore equal to no decision and no action.
- Groups must make decisions to survive and will select individuals to make decisions by proxy for the group in an effort to correct the inefficiency.
- Then bureaucracy happens.
- When bureaucracy happens, power is centralized and increases.
- Power corrupts and the worst get on top.
Michels stated that the official goal of representative democracy of eliminating elite rule was impossible and that representative democracy is a façade legitimizing the rule of a particular elite, and that elite rule is inevitable. He went on to state that:
“Historical evolution mocks all the prophylactic measures that have been adopted for the prevention of oligarchy.”
Are there truly no measures to stop oligarchy? This is one thing that Marx counted on to keep the bourgeois and the proletariat in constant tension – but paradoxically there is no better example of this Iron Law than a government organized in communist fashion. History records that oligarchy is synonymous with any form of collectivism – whether it be socialism, Marxism or communism.
It seems that there are “prophylactic” measures that are available.
The governments and organizations that are successful in resisting this tendency seem to be relegated to those with the most decentralized structures, not the most. The United States government was designed to avoid this very thing with the checks and balances that were built in the three branches of government. In America, this “iron law” seems only to apply when one branch seeks to usurp power over the others and when the federal government takes power that rightly belongs to the states.
Our government was designed as a “bottom up” power structure with the power resting in the hands of the individual citizen, not in the hands of a small group of “elites”…or an imperial president.
There is a significant example of how this Iron Law can be broken. Written by Seymour Martin Lipset, Martin Trow and James S. Coleman and published in 1956, Union Democracy: The Internal Politics of the International Typographical Union, analyses how the ITU organized as an international union and successfully avoided the pitfalls of centralization and oligarchical control.
One of the best known exceptions to the iron law of oligarchy was the now defunct International Typographical Union, described by Seymour Martin Lipset in his 1956 book, Union Democracy.
Lipset suggests a number of factors that existed in the ITU that are allegedly responsible for countering this tendency toward bureaucratic oligarchy. The first and perhaps most important has to do with the way the union was founded. Unlike many other unions (e.g., the CIO’s United Steel Workers of America, USWA, and numerous other craft unions) which were organized from the top down, the ITU had a number of large, strong, local unions who valued their autonomy, which existed long before the international was formed. This local autonomy was strengthened by the economy of the printing industry which operated in largely local and regional markets, with little competition from other geographical areas. Large locals continued to jealously guard this autonomy against encroachments by international officers. Second, the existence of factions helped place a check on the oligarchic tendencies that existed at the national headquarters. Leaders that are unchecked tend to develop larger salaries and more sumptuous lifestyles, making them unwilling to go back to their previous jobs. But with a powerful out faction ready to expose profligacy, no leaders dared take overly generous personal remuneration. These two factors were compelling in the ITU case.
How did they do it?
Bottom up. Power in the hands of the local units. The locals have the right and power to override the national.
Sounds a lot like our constitutional organization and the Tenth Amendment, doesn’t it?