8.14. The Iron Law of Oligarchy

Organizations that start out democratic often become undemocratic over time.

Organizing people is hard.

People have different opinions about what to do. People are flaky and unreliable. People may even think they should be in charge, instead of you.

What this means, in practice, is whenever people try to come together to accomplish something, there’s a lot of pressure to streamline the process.

There needs to be a way of resolving debates, appointing leaders, and making it so the group can act quickly, collectively, and effectively.

It’s that pressure to get things done and act efficiently that leads a lot of organizations to embrace unfair or undemocratic processes.

This tendency is so pronounced that one of the first modern sociologists, Robert Michels, called it the “iron law of oligarchy.”

He argued that no matter how democratic a group may seem when it’s first formed, eventually it’ll reach a size and complexity that makes truly democratic participation impossible. And when that happens, a small “leadership class” within the larger group will claim the power for themselves, and start running it like an oligarchy.

It’s not really a law, of course.

But it is a temptation inherent to any institution, organization, movement, or collection of people trying to get something done.

There does need to be some legitimate, systematic way of dealing with all the messy, complicated work that comes with organizing people.

But what often happens, in practice, is minority voices and opinions are silenced, rather than given a fair hearing.

What often happens, in practice, is the business of the group—which used to be worked out openly and publicly—becomes increasingly worked out by a small, exclusive group of people behind closed doors.

What often happens, in practice, is it becomes apparent that nothing can get accomplished—or even put on the agenda—unless it has the approval of an influential leader plugged into these behind-the-scenes deliberations, that shape so much of what the group ends up doing.

Those elites might present themselves as faithful servants carrying out the will of the people. But in reality, they’re making enormously consequential decisions about the direction of the group, and using their privileged position to get their way.

Michels believed the corruption of democratic movements was inevitable.

In fact, he was so skeptical of democracies that he ended up moving to Italy and joining Benito Mussolini’s Fascist party.

Let’s just say I have a more optimistic view.

This process of corruption isn’t inevitable. But it’s awfully tempting, because of the challenges of organizing people. And more often than not…it’s what ends up happening.

The key to preventing it, in my opinion, is to be aware of this tendency, and actively resist it.

It requires the rank-and-file of the group to be aware that their leaders may well try to pull this scam on them—and refuse to let them get away with it.

It also depends on the people who do become leaders being aware that they themselves susceptible to falling into this trap—and refusing to let themselves cook up a bunch of flimsy justifications for it.

Leaders do a lot of valuable work. But they need to be held accountable. And they can’t be allowed to sacrifice fairness or due process, in the name of efficiency.

 

This is the 138th in a series of over 150 videos about how to create real, lasting social change. Click here for a list of all titles, videos, and transcripts.

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