Monday, July 19, 2021

Meaning of "Iron Law of Oligarchy" explained

The "Iron law of oligarchy" was formulated by the German sociologist Robert Michels in his book "Political Parties". According to this law, the formation of an oligarchy in democratically run organizations is inevitable, and is the result of technical reasons. Michels formulated this law after a study he conducted in socialist organizations and trade unions in pre- World War I Europe .


Components of the Iron Law of the Oligarchy 

The law was created for many reasons: 

Most democratic actions, like any action taken in a large human society, require organization.

Most of the population is not interested in political activity. The real workers have no power and ability to engage in political activity.

Development of a strong organization is necessary to achieve the goal of the group.

Strong organizations require strong leadership.

Organizing on a large scale requires splitting in the decision-making processes to committees, unequal division of responsibilities for the design of the process, delegation of powers, etc.

An unequal division of responsibilities leads to a concentration of power in the hands of committees and management in two main processes, which reinforce each other:

Managers acquire the skills and information necessary to improve their form of management, while non-managers develop skills and information related to the practical execution of the work. These gaps create power gaps within the organization and grow as the system becomes more complex.

A manager is responsible for the structure of the organization and therefore subordinates subordinates to him and thus creates a center of power around him.

These processes are fixed and strengthened due to two additional processes:

Subordinates develop a natural loyalty to managers for various reasons, the main of which is a lack of interest, skill or sufficient self-esteem to integrate into management.

Managers strive to preserve their power for many reasons, the main ones being the privileges that accompany management, identifying their power with the good of the organization and an abstract aspiration to increase their social power.

Michels argues that the oligarchy has its own interests that mainly concern the preservation and increase of its relative power, interests that in many cases do not correspond to the goals of the organization and the benefit of the democratic society in which the organizations operate. A major example of such an interest is the conservatism of the organization, due to which organizations tend over time to be over-conservative (sometimes at the expense of the goals of the organization).

According to Michels, the iron ruleof the oligarchy is inherent in human existence and cannot be undone, but can be reduced.


Processes for reducing the ability of oligarchies to take over 

Michels claims that there are counter-processes in the company, which must be strengthened in order to reduce this process. Michels rarely mentions what these mechanisms are. But attempts at legislation around the world and various organizational processes have shown the ability to preserve more democratic organizations.

Promoting decentralized and multi-directional communication : By promoting public communication that is not controlled by the leadership, it is possible to create a public discourse around the conduct of the leadership, and thus criticize it for positive or negative. If sanction mechanisms are also established, the public will be able to impose its opinion on the leadership. Communication that is not controlled by key factors, such as the Internet , is preferable to communication that is centrally controlled, such as television and radio . This will create a situation where everyone can express their opinion and criticize the leadership.

Legislation bypasses representatives : In states in the United States and Switzerland, it is customary to allow the public to propose laws . If these laws are passed by a majority vote, these laws are binding on the representatives. In this way the public can enforce its opinion on the oligarchy, and prevent it from being the sole legislature.

The ability to impose sanctions on the organization's leadership : Michels writes that the public is giving up its rights because of apathy . While he is required to pay to the movement mechanism, in order to sustain the movement, the public itself lacks any ability to control its leadership, or to impose a sanction on it.

Critical education of the public : Another major process is the vigilance and critique of the individual, which depends on improving the social status of individuals in society and especially their education (Michels attributes the main role of education in raising the level of education).

Degeneration of the Socialist Struggle 

Aside from the importance of the iron rule of the oligarchy for a democratic organization, Michels argues that there is another implication of his on what is known as the " socialist struggle ." According to Michels, the formation of such an oligarchy also depends on the nature of this struggle: the need for unification creates advantages for the centralized conduct of socialist organizations. In light of this, the formation of a strong oligarchy serves the struggle. This process intensifies as the oligarchy becomes more established: any opposition to it, becomes opposition to the struggle itself.


The need to expand the ranks and the need to withstand strong and hostile external forces , brings the socialist organization to moderate conduct . The organization tries to preserve its achievements by institutionalizing the existing situation, knowing that the extremes of the struggle will cause external and internal resistance, which may harm the organization. The tendency of organizations to be conservative for this reason, is closely related to the establishment of the oligarchy and the iron law of oligarchy: this oligarchy is based on the institutionalization of the existing situation and because its power is built on this situation, strives to preserve it. Every oligarchy and conservatism serve each other.


Michels expands and argues that the socialist organization creates within itself a social structure similar to the structure it criticizes: oligarchic leadership and a broad lower class, lacking involvement in government. Michels argues that it is precisely the success of the socialist struggle (on a numerical scale) that results in a real socialist change in society not taking place.