TCS Daily

The Iron Law of Oligarchy, Revisited

By Lee Harris - September 15, 2005 12:00 AM

Those who are earnestly trying to promote the ideal of democracy throughout the world would be well-advised to ponder the work of a German sociologist whose most important book is no longer read, and who, perhaps for that very reason, is deserving of our attention.

The sociologist's name was Robert Michels and the book that is no longer read was published in 1911 under the title On the Sociology of Political Parties in Modern Democracies -- the English translation of which was shortened to Political Parties. The central thesis of Michels' book was summed up by the author in the following words:

        "The fundamental sociological law of political parties (the term 'political' being 
        here used in its most comprehensive sense) may be formulated in the following 
        terms: 'It is organization which gives birth to the domination of the elected 
        over the electors, of the mandataries over the mandators, of the delegates 
        over the delegators. Who says organization, says oligarchy.'"

Michels' thesis is sometimes known as the iron law of oligarchy. It was originally used as an attack on those socialists who believed that they could achieve true democracy by simply throwing out the current evil elite and replacing them with a government of the People. Not so, argued Michels, since any new government, precisely insofar as it was a government, would have to be organized; that is to say, there would have to be a chain of command, one that started at the top, and that passed orders down to those at the bottom. But what else was such an organization than an oligarchy?

In less than a decade after the publication of Michels' work, the Soviet Revolution amply proved the relevance of his thesis. Though the revolution had been carried out in the name of the workers, the workers themselves had virtually no role in the actual day-to-day decision-making of the government apparatus. Instead, the actual governance of the "new" society was once more in the hands of a tiny elite, namely the Politburo of the Communist Party. The supposedly transitional role of the dictatorship of the proletariat was quickly transformed into the permanent rule of a self-perpetuating clique.

From the perspective of Michels' analysis, this "betrayal" of the promise of socialist democracy had nothing to do with the personal iniquity or wickedness of the men who ended up as the ruling elite. On the contrary, the outcome was inevitable, given the overriding exigencies of governmental and economic organization. True, the Soviet oligarchs may have been personally more vicious and ruthless than other oligarchs in history -- but the return to oligarchy was unavoidable if the new regime was to be effectively and efficiently organized.

Conservatives who were looking for a way of debunking the utopian promise of socialism found considerable ammunition in Michels' thesis, but many liberals were disturbed by its wider implications. If oligarchy is inseparable from any form of political/social/economic organization, then, to the extent that any society is organized, it will be, in essence, if not in name, an oligarchy. Hold all the free and fair elections you want; write the best constitution you can; educate the voters and make them turn out in droves to vote -- do all these things and yet, when all the hoopla is over, the day-to-day operation of governance will be carried on by only a handful of people.

There are several reason for the inevitability of oligarchic rule.

First, the vast majority of human beings in any society must devote the overwhelming portion of their available energy to looking after their own immediate survival, as well as the survival of their family or their associates.

Second, the day-to-day operation of any government, beyond a certain degree of sophistication, tends to revolve around the boring and tedious details of public administration. How many people want to devote good parts of their free time -- assuming that they have any -- to discussion about whether there should be a stoplight on a busy intersection on the other side of town that they have not been to, and are likely never to go to?

Third, those few who are in charge of the administration of a government tend to develop routines and procedures that are so intricate and convoluted than no one who has not spent many years mastering them can hope to make any headway against them -- the phenomenon commonly known as red-tape.

Fourth, those in power will tend to co-opt into power those with whom they share a common bond. For example, they may hire their relatives or their school chums or members of their own club. Even so called meritocracies are subject to the same oligarchic pressure, since merit is invariably defined as whatever virtue happens to be most conspicuously possessed by the ruling elite.

As stated above, Michels' arguments were originally designed to debunk the myth that socialism could provide a genuine democracy, but the same arguments can be used to debunk the idea that democracy can be assured by purely formal devices such as the writing of a constitution or the holding of free and fair elections.

If Robert Michels is right, then the modern liberal vision of a worldwide democratic revolution becomes merely another pipe dream, and one that is every bit as naïve and dangerous as the pipe dream of those socialists who genuinely believed that they were working to bring about Heaven on Earth through the overthrow of the capitalist system. From this perspective, the wisest and most sensible course to chart for those who are interested in improving the lot of the human race is not to push for sweeping democratic reforms, but to fight against corruption, cronyism, and nepotism among the governing elite -- in short, to reform them, rather than replace them.

Yet this is far more easily said than done. For how can such a reformation of the group character of an elite be brought about?

There is only one way by which this has been achieved historically, namely by the arrival on the scene of a religion that has been able to instill a universal ethical code into both the rulers and the ruled -- a code that exempts no one from the duty of acting honestly and impartially. Indeed, the closest any society can ever come to achieving the democratic spirit is through the dissemination of a religion that establishes one ethical law that is universally binding on both those at the top and those at the bottom of the social pyramid -- an ethical law that prohibits the high and the mighty no less than the lowly and humble from committing certain crimes and taking certain liberties.

Does such a religion guarantee that the governing elite will not abuse its position? The answer is obviously, No. Yet a fragile reed is better than no reed at all; and to see the truth of this you need only to look at those societies in which the ruling elite had its own peculiar ethical standards, like the warrior aristocracies of the Greeks, the Arab conquerors, or the Japanese samurai. In these cases, the standard adopted by the few was diametrically opposed to the standard imposed upon the many. The few did as they pleased, living off the many who did as they were told. Even Aristotle argued that the suffering of the many was simply a precondition for the freedom of the few.

Herein lies the enormous political value of those few religions that have imposed the same universal standard of ethical conduct on all men in all positions and of whatever background or ethnic variety. By virtue of insisting on ethical conformity to the same rules, a sense of a common humanity was created between those who had hitherto looked upon each other virtually as separate species.

Yet this sense of a common humanity achieved by an ethical code is always subject to erosion by a natural human desire to elevate ourselves to a position of higher status than those of our fellows. St. Francis of Assisi gave up everything, but his successors quickly followed the path of least resistance and began to acquire prestige, status, and even entourages. Yet a religious code, once it has become established as an ideal, remains a powerful force, even when it is being dishonored daily by those who give it lip service. Out of such a neglected ideal springs the desire to take this ideal seriously again -- to reform the community that once lived by this ideal, but that has subsequently followed the way of all flesh. Perhaps that is why religious reformations have far more often permitted genuine human progress than have political revolutions. An oligarchy that reforms itself is preferable to an oligarchy that has merely deposed the oligarchy that previously held power. It was a great religious revival that swept away slavery in the nineteenth century, just as it was a series of great political revolutions that resurrected it in the twentieth.

There is no quick fix to the human condition. The panacea of universal democratic reform cannot change the nature of things any more than the dream of a socialist utopia. If we are to change reality for the better, we must first be prepared to see it at its worst. And here, oddly enough, is where politics inevitably becomes delusional, and only religion manages to get it right. Politics selects a certain group and explains why they should rule over others; religion looks at us all and says that none of us can be trusted with power. The doctrine of original sin is the best prophylactic against the pretensions of any ruling class, and it is precisely those groups that have stressed this doctrine the most that have freed themselves from the tyranny of their betters.

Lee Harris is author of Civilization and Its Enemies.


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