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The iron law of oligarchy

  1. Jul 15, 2009 #1
    The iron law of oligarchy is a political theory, first developed by the German syndicalist sociologist Robert Michels in his 1911 book, Political Parties. It states that all forms of organization, regardless of how democratic or autocratic they may be at the start, will eventually and inevitably develop into oligarchies. The reasons for this are the technical indispensability of leadership, the tendency of the leaders to organize themselves and to consolidate their interests; the gratitude of the led towards the leaders, and the general immobility and passivity of the masses. - from Wikipedia

    Though bleak and pessimistic, possibly apathetic, it seems very likely.

    also, check out this website (not mine, not affiliated) for interesting videos, whether agreeable or not, on current and historically-relevant topics:


    (user NXSchell on Youtube)
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  3. Jul 16, 2009 #2
    While I don't know anything about Robert Michel or his theory, I would have to disagree with the premise that "the tendency of the leaders to organize themselves and to consolidate their interests." Why does he make the assumption that leaders will not have conflicting interests? What is the mechanism by which they consolidate their conflicting interests?

    Also the empirical evidence seems to contradict his theory, according to the shift index released just recently, the US economy has become much more competitive over time, and not more oligarchical.

    I think the best theory, and a slightly more modern theory, about group organization is Mancur Olson's The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups
  4. Jul 16, 2009 #3


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    I would disagree that oligarchies should generally be characterized as having large-scale harmonious relationships WITHIN the oligarchy class.

    For example, the nobles in feudal Europe were perfectly capable of retaining their oligarchical position vs. both the monarchy and the lower classes, but it was not at all a class characterized by internal harmony.

    Quite the opposite!

    Knights fought EACH OTHER incessantly, and a better view would be that precisely BECAUSE of this internal bloodletting, none of the members of that class would be averse to utilize violence/displays of power in order to cement their oligarchical position.

    Oligarchical intra-violence/competition can be said to hone their skills of power-wielding, giving them a leverage against those classes not engaged in incessant in-fighting.
  5. Aug 22, 2009 #4
    This is actually wrong. It is not a theory because it was a description of the world he observed with the rise of the German socialist party. It did not make any predictions, nor did it describe any mechanisms by which a prediction -- perhaps the one that "all forms of organization, regardless of how democratic or autocratic they may be at the start, will eventually and inevitably develop into oligarchies."

    What Michels observed in the socialist party in Germany has to be put in historical context. It was believed by many based on Marx that a proletarian revolution by the masses would lead to communism after a series of back-and-forth upheavals between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat -- the utopian (or dystopian, depending on your political affiliation) view of a classless society.

    Michels argued against Marx because in his quasi-ethnographic description of the development of the proletarian movement in Prussia he observed quite the opposite. The movement over time dissipated. The masses became apathetic and disinvolved, leaving a core of leaders to run the organizations the movement had left behind. The leaders now set criteria for joining these organizations, including certain technical and bureaucratic skills, which made it further unlikely that the typical worker could join. They set training and career tracks for those fit to participate in the party. As the workers became more and more apathetic (or it became harder and harder for them to participate in the affairs of the party), the leaders consolidated their power more and more. Michels, however, never said that elite cleavages could not happen.

    In fact, he was so disappointed by the fact that the leaders could not agree among themselves and that the majority of the leaders of the socialist party supported WWI (after having pledged not to), and that movements seemed to dissolve into bureaucratic organizations, that he became convinced that the only way out of this rut was to have a charismatic leader lead an organization. His ill-placed bet that Mussolini represented that kind of leader who could bring social change led to Michels becoming disreputable and persona non grata in the social sciences for many years.

    Michels thinking greatly influenced Lenin, who became convinced that building a sophisticated cadre of communist leaders was key to avoid the pitfalls Michels had seen. In other words, he believed that only leaders could bring about communism! Ironic for sure, since they were fighting for a classless society.
  6. Aug 22, 2009 #5
    You are right. Michels believed the process was inevitable based on his experience in the German socialist movement.

    He never did. In fact, it was his source of dissatisfaction with the inability of leaders to act that led him to support "charismatic leaders" as the means to break through bureaucratic impasse. Michels was very aware that the socialist leaders could not agree among themselves. But they would agree if a charismatic leader could charm them into doing so.

    Michels did not have a theory so there were no hypotheses or mechanisms. More contemporary sociology tries to predict how likely movements are to emerge, how likely they are to maintain themselves, and how likely they are to die. This is called political process theory. The theory is highly rigorous, mechanistic, predictive, and dominant. Political scientists are now beginning to use it as well to explain social movement behavior.

    Another field in economics, sociology and psychology named organization theory and behavior deals with the internal workings of organizations. The best macro-theories are probably sociological, while the best micro-theories are probably psychological. Economist theories are a bit too simplistic because they rely on unrealistic assumptions to model human behavior and are too functionalist (if something exists, it's because it makes organizations efficient; not a very testable proposition). There are so many different perspectives in this field that it would take a long time to explain them. But you can look it up on Wikipedia.

    Of course, there is widespread recognition in the social sciences today that Michels' explanation was overly simplistic.

    Michels was NOT talking about economic oligarchy at the macro-level. He was talking about organizational oligarchy. Be careful not to confuse the two. However, there is a debate in political science and sociology (and some economists, like the late Kenneth Galbraith and Joseph Schumpeter) about the relationship between economic oligarchy and democracy. The idea is that when you have a large number of competing interest groups, you are more likely to have a democratic system where the groups need to compromise to regulate the economy. There is an assumption that these interest groups are organized and seek to monopolize the economy, which led to Schumpeter's famous assertion that capitalism and socialism result in the same consequences -- a monopoly of power, or something along those lines. The idea there is that capitalism is a system of survival of the fittest. If everyone competes with everyone, and in the end, you end up with one large firm controlling economic activity, that is no different than having the government control all economic activity. In either case, you have a monopoly of power and economy, which brings innovation to a halt. Very interesting stuff. People like W. Brian Arthur have extended this thinking with chaos theory to say that you want to operate at the edge of chaos -- where the government's role is to stimulate variation and prevent monopolization.

    I would disagree on "best" and "modern." It is not the "best" theory because it cannot account for social relations or psychological motives for collective action. It is an economic theory that assumes people will only participate if they are induced (receiving some form of payment) to do so. Otherwise, collective action does not happen. But this purportedly "economically rational" behavior does not happen in most movements. People tend to join movements because their friends invite them, because they are dissatisfied with the way things are, because they sense opportunities for upward mobility, etc. [As an aside, did you know most revolutions happen because of rising aspirations? i.e., the poor cannot mobilize because they have to worry about getting enough to eat. The rich don't mobilize because they are content with the system. It is only the middle class that organizes revolutions when their standards of living begin to improve because, probably, they want to sit at the table with the rich.] Economists stretch their theory to account for things like solidarity -- if I feel solidarity with you and participate for that reason, that is an inducement. The problem is that, if everything is an inducement, what does the theory explain? You need to be able to predict, e.g., these inducements will lead to participation; these won't; etc.

    The theory is definitely not modern. Olson came up with it in the 1970's. Economists continue to work in the framework, but political process theorists have definitely become the dominant scholars of social movements. Their detailed historical accounts of movements have cast doubts on economic theories. The current debate lies on whether psychological or social factors are more important in movement emergence, as well as what role do elites play in movement development (e.g., one prediction is that elites who exercise too much force to crack down on a movement strengthen it by enabling the movement to get media coverage -- awareness -- and widespread sympathy).
  7. Aug 22, 2009 #6
    Yep, in fact, one prediction of social movement theorists (or political process scholars) is that elite cleavages (or disagreements among elites) create opportunities for movements to mobilize and possibly succeed in replacing the status quo.
  8. Aug 23, 2009 #7


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    In that case, the theorists are flatly wrong in their predictions.

    There is not the slightest reason to believe that bloody, internal and perennial squabbles within the nobility generate opportunities for the peasants to take control.

    In fact, we know they never did.
  9. Aug 23, 2009 #8
    They say create opportunities to mobilize. This neither means that they will mobilize nor does it mean that they will win, if they do so.

    The next question is one of resource mobilization. Can the disenfranchised group mobilize resources against the divided elite? Can they form the right coalitions needed to garner these resources?

    The ability to mobilize resources requires pre-existing networks or organizations of people and things ready to be mobilized. Here is where the peasants were often doomed to failure. They didn't have them.

    This is why political process scholars have been successful at demonstrating that most revolutions occur from the middle class. The poor, hungry masses generally never have the type of organizational capabilities to mobilize.
  10. Aug 23, 2009 #9


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    "opportunities to mobilize"

    This is a vague term bordering on meaninglessness:
    Why shouldn't a monolithic oligarchy be less of an "opportunity to mobilize" than a non-monolithic one? After all, if the oligarchy is precisely defined, it is easier to identify who the "enemy" is.

    Nor is there any reason why a squabbling elite should be perceived as less weak than a compact elite.

    Perceived weakness, IMO, has a lot more to do with ineffective, hesitant execution of subjugation measures than with the temporary utilization of violence directed laterally, rather than vertically, as in the subjugation measure proper.

    In fact, by being awed, frightened by-standers of bloody clashes WITHIN the elite, the displayed willingness of elite members to utilize violence may be a stronger deterrent for rebellion than if the elite is seen as a compact group governing through "hallowed custom" and other non-violent subjugation techniques.
  11. Aug 23, 2009 #10
    It seems that you are interested in learning more about the dominant approach to studying social movements, and more generally, political mobilization. I recommend you check the classic text in the field. As with most scientific fields, the wikipedia entries for political process theory and social movements are weak, so I would not go by that, though this one gives you a good enough overview of some of the theories in the field.
  12. Aug 24, 2009 #11


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    Not really.

    From what you have told me, it sounds like nonsense.
  13. Aug 24, 2009 #12
    Your dismissiveness is surprising, particularly since you are asking about the subject, which one could interpret as your not knowing a lot about it and being interested in learning more.

    It's too bad that you judge this to be "nonsense" without even reading about the theory, its assumptions, its predictions, its findings, and its specific applications.

    All I was giving you was a taste of the theory, not the entire theory. That's what the other resources are for.
    Last edited: Aug 24, 2009
  14. Aug 24, 2009 #13
    The idea is that there is an opportunity structure that can be characterized mathematically. Usually, opportunities for mobilization don't exist unless certain economic, political, demographic, or social factors make them possible.

    For example, a large migration of African Americans from the South to the North enabled them to acquire resources, build communities and organizations, etc. that were later used to mobilize against the South. But it was 40 years or so before the opportunity window for mobilization emerged, which was a split within the Democratic Party about race and the desire of the Democratic Party to secure northern, urban African American votes.

    Depends on how you define the term "opportunity." If everything is an opportunity, then the term becomes meaningless. There needs to be a clear test that distinguishes opportunities from non opportunities for the theory to hold.

    That's exactly the prediction. When a monolithic oligarchy breaks down into competing interest groups, a "mobilization opportunity" is born -- for the research findings suggest that in such situations some of the elite will align themselves with previously powerless groups in an attempt to vanquish their competitors. A lot of this evidence comes from empirical research about what happened in the former communist block.

    Michels proposed the iron law of oligarchy. Political process theorists do not need to define the term oligarchy unless they use it to do research on political mobilization.

    All the empirical findings of political process theory seem to suggest so, so the burden as a scientist is on you to come up with an explanation and specific empirical cases where this is NOT the case.

    There is some research on this. I don't know the whole literature on this particular subject. But I can say that regimes who exercise an incommensurate amount of force against the challenge facing it become more unstable than those who do otherwise. There is a large literature on this subject as well in social movement theory.

    Well, that's a good hypothesis. Maybe you should test it?
  15. Aug 24, 2009 #14


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  16. Sep 16, 2009 #15


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    Happens all the time, most notably the squabbles between world powers England and France allowed the N. American colonies to 'mobilize' and form the United States.
  17. Sep 16, 2009 #16


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    Those weren't squabbles within the nobility, though. And the Amercian colonists were not peasants, they were by-and-large a non-noble bourgeois, which rose to power during the Enlightenment.

    Basically the old feudal-aristocratic class, based on the privilege of land ownership, was replaced by a bourgeois-capitalist class, based on ownership of industry. Not because there was a major division among the nobility at that time, but because of economics. The wealth of the nobility dwindled as that of the merchant-bourgeois class increased. It was only a matter of time before they started demanding commensurate political power.
  18. Sep 17, 2009 #17


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    Back to the OP: law of oligarchy. The nobility/peasants particulars were added by arildno; Michaels theory, as detailed by changeseeker is not so narrowly constrained. It applies generally to leaders and followers in a group.

    I hope every discussion on sociology doesn't have to immediately spiral off to the peasants and the nobels, at least since the Monty Python sketch. :tongue2:
  19. Sep 19, 2009 #18


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    Since Michael's theory is FLAT OUT WRONG, precisely due to the nobility/peasant example, the nobility/peasant example is highly relevant.

    A theory's worth is measured by its performance on critical test cases, not by the examples that inspired the formation of the theory, and hence, tend to confirm that theory.
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