iron law of oligarchy


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iron law of oligarchy

the tendency for political organizations (POLITICAL PARTIES and TRADES UNIONS) to become oligarchic, however much they may seek internal democracy ‘He who says organization, says oligarchy’, said MICHELS, who first formulated this law in his book Political Parties in 1911. Michels’ suggestion was that once parties move beyond the fluid participatory structures which often accompany their formation, they inevitably become more bureaucratic and more centrally controlled, falling under the domination of a professional leadership. In this process the original goals of the organization may also be replaced by more narrowly instrumental goals including a concern for the maintenance of the organization (see also GOAL DISPLACEMENT). Three sets of factors were identified by Michels as central in this process:
  1. ‘technical factors’, i.e. the need to maintain an effective fighting machine, but when this happens the machine develops its own vested interests, and is able to control agenda and communications, manage internal opposition; etc.
  2. ‘psychological characteristics of leaders’, i.e. that they may be gifted orators, relish the psychic rewards of leadership, come to share the motivations and interests of a wider political elite, and thus tend to cling to power at all costs;
  3. ‘psychological characteristics of the mass’, i.e. that the rank and file members of political organizations tend to be apathetic, are willing to be led, are readily swayed by mass oratory, and venerate the leadership.

Critics of Michels’ ‘iron law’ point out that the tendency to oligarchy in political organizations is highly variable. For example, it may be a feature of trade unions more than of political parties. The extent of oligarchy is also affected by the characteristics of the membership and by the constitutional context in which the organizations in question operate (e.g. see LIPSET, 1960, and MacKenzie, 1963). Nevertheless, Michels’ work has exerted a strong influence on the study of political parties and trade union democracy. See also ÉLITE THEORY.