All organizations, regardless of their original intent will eventually evolve into oligarchies. Organizational efficiency necessitates division of labor and a hierarchical structure and a clear chain of command. This ultimately concentrates power and decision-making capacity to a few individuals or a small group.
Steel-manning the Idea
Oligarchy: A form of government where the power is concentrated into the hands of a few individuals or a small group of elites.
Inevitability of Oligarchy: Michels argues that regardless of the stated goals or principles of an organization, whether it is a political party, labor union, or any other form of social group, power tends to become concentrated in the hands of a few individuals or a small elite over time. This concentration of power is seen as an inherent tendency within organizations.
Leadership and Expertise: As organizations grow in size and complexity, they require leadership, decision-making, and coordination. This necessitates the emergence of a professional and specialized class of individuals who possess the skills, knowledge, and resources to effectively manage the organization's affairs.
Divergence from Democratic Ideals: The Iron Law of Oligarchy challenges the idealistic notion that democratic organizations can sustain true egalitarianism and participatory decision-making. Even organizations with democratic structures & aspirations eventually develop oligarchic tendencies, with power being wielded by a select few rather than being evenly distributed among all members.
Alienation and apathy of the Masses: As power becomes concentrated in the hands of the few, a gap tends to emerge between the elites and the common members of an organization. The leaders will inevitably make decisions that prioritize their own interests or pursue strategies not endorsed by the membership at large, leading to a sense of alienation and detachment among the masses. Importantly, the majority of members within organizations, including political parties, often exhibit apathy or disinterest in the decision-making process which accelerates this process.
Maintenance of Oligarchy: Several factors contribute to the persistence of oligarchy within organizations:
- The tendency of leaders to develop their own interests and ambitions
- The apathy or disinterest of the majority of members
- The practical need for delegation and specialization within complex organizations.
According to the Iron Law of Oligarchy, as organizations or political parties grow in size and complexity, they require coordination, decision-making, and leadership. Over time, a professional and specialized class of individuals emerges who effectively control and manage the organization's affairs. These individuals, referred to as the "oligarchs," possess the skills, resources, and influence necessary to maintain their power.
Michels argued that this tendency towards oligarchy is inherent in human organizations due to several factors.
- He highlighted the practical necessity of leadership and delegation in large organizations.
- Individuals with leadership qualities tend to develop their own interests and ambitions, leading to a concentration of power.
- The majority of members in organizations are often politically apathetic or indifferent, which allows the oligarchs to consolidate and maintain control.
The Iron Law of Oligarchy offers a strong challenge to the idealistic notion that democratic organizations can sustain true egalitarianism and participatory decision-making. This is even true in political parties - power inevitably becomes concentrated in the hands of a few, thus eroding the idea of representation and inclusivity. These oligarchs may make decisions that benefit their own interests, potentially leading to a divergence between the leaders and the rank-and-file members.
Straw-manning the Idea
- As with most political ideas, critics will accuse the Iron Law of Oligarchy of being an oversimplification.
- Defenders of Democracy will bristle at the concepts within the Iron Law and point out that it does not completely dismiss the value of democracy nor does it argue against democracy itself.
- Acknowledging the tendencies identified by the Iron Law can help organizations be aware of those pitfalls and avoid those tendencies, therefore it is actually useful to help preserve the democratic process.
Major Thinkers and Works
- Robert Michels
- Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy (1911)
- Vilfredo Pareto
- Gaetano Mosca
- C. Wright Mills
- "Who says organization, says oligarchy." - Robert Michels
- "The great achievement of the representative system is to have transformed the tyranny of the majority into the tyranny of the minority." - Vilfredo Pareto
- "The problem of democracy is how to maintain efficiency, while at the same time obtaining the greatest possible measure of freedom and justice for each and all." - Gaetano Mosca
- "Oligarchy is the price of universal suffrage." - C. Wright Mills