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.

References in periodicals archive ?
These four circles comply with the German fascist thinker Robert Michels's idea of the iron law of oligarchy, with various circles of power reinforcing one another and, eventually, all organizations controlled by a leadership class.
The formlessness of the mass, Robert Michels insisted in his study of Germany's Social Democratic Party, buttressed by its psychological need for leadership, leads it inevitably to eternal tutelage, content to constitute its pedestal-the iron law of oligarchy.
The iron law of oligarchy, i.e., the leader-centric oligarchy in parties, will automatically be established around the president.
Moreover, the authors incorporate concepts from some classic social science like Robert Michels' notion of the iron law of oligarchy and Joseph Schumpeter's idea of "creative destruction" as a reminder of the lasting value of older scholarship.
These are powerful ideals that may enable anarchists to overcome a seemingly insurmountable obstacle characteristic of all organizations: the 'iron law of oligarchy' famously described by Robert Michels.
According to the "iron law of oligarchy" (Robert Michels), a small group of people will eventually emerge to govern any organization or institution.
Michels famously concluded that an "iron law of oligarchy" operates over time within popular organizations.
unions were guided by an "iron law of oligarchy." By the time labor leaders make it to the top of their organization, Larrowe said, they have grown to distrust rank-and-file activism and to be fearful of dissent.
In his discussion of SDS, Ellis raises a deep analytical issue that relates to what the German sociologist Robert Michels, in his 1911 book Political Parties, called the "iron law of oligarchy." based on the experience of European socialist parties, Michels inferred that even in the most ostensibly egalitarian organizations, structural and psychological imperatives lead inevitably to division of labor, hierarchy, and a set of leadership interests distinct from the interests of the organization's nominal constituents.
So anxious is Phelan to substantiate Robert Michel's "iron law of oligarchy" through Mitchell's story, for example, that his conclusion neglects to attribute any of Mitchell's failures as a union leader to the larger economic and political forces with which the UMWA contended.
However, Hyland is here concerned with control of information by elites and Michel's iron law of oligarchy. This seems to me to be a contingent rather than a logical limit.