The Iron Law of Oligarchy

In my dissertation I make only a passing reference to the “Iron Law of Oligarchy,” an expression coined by Robert Michels, an early 20th-century sociologist and student of Max Weber, in his book Political Parties. Much like Weber, a lot of the cases and references are difficult to follow because of its age and issues of translation, but there are still some gems that are relevant to today. In particular, I find his “final considerations” to be worthy of sharing on the Wikipedia question, touching on “adminitus,” incumbancy, and evolution:

Leadership is a necessary phenomenon in every form of social life. Consequently it is not the task of science to inquire whether this phenomenon is good or evil, or predominantly one or the other. But there is great scientific value in a demonstration that every system of leadership is incompatible with the most essential postulates of democracy. We are now aware that the law of the historic necessity of oligarchy is primarily based upon a series of facts of experience.... The process which has begun in consequence of the differentiation of functions and the party is completed by a complex of qualities which the leaders acquire through their detachment from the mass. At the outset, leaders arise spontaneously; their functions are accessory and gratuitous. Soon, however, they become professional leaders, and in the second stage of development they are stable and irremovable.... (Michels 2001:240)

It follows that the explanation of the oligarchical phenomenon which thus results as partly psychological; oligarchy derives, that is to say, from the psychical transformations which the leading personalities in the parties undergo in the course of their lives.... The oligarchical structure of the building suffocates the basic democratic principle. That which is oppresses that which ought to be. (Michels 2001:240-241)

The democratic currents of history resemble successive waves. They break ever on the same shoal. They are ever renewed. This enduring spectacle is simultaneously encouraging and depressing. When democracies have gained a certain stage of development, they undergo a gradual transformation, adopting the aristocratic spirit, and in many cases also the aristocratic forms, against which at the outset they struggled so fiercely. Now new accusers arise to denounce the traitors; after an era of glorious combats and of inglorious power, they end up by fusing the old dominant classes; whereupon once more they are in their turn attacked by fresh opponents who appealed to the name of democracy. It is probable that this cruel game will continue without end. (Michels 2001:245)

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