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Iron Law Of Oligarchy

  The élite theorist Roberto Michels formulated the ‘iron law of oligarchy’ in his book Political Parties (1911). In simple terms, he asserted that ‘who says organization, says oligarchy’. Michels argued that all political parties, including those which profess democratic values, become the instruments of their leaders who eventually become a self-interested and self-satisfied oligarchy.

Michels\' arguments were primarily derived from his study of the German Social Democratic Party at the turn of this century. Using ideas from the then fashionable ‘crowd psychology’, he claimed that any mass of citizens is psychologically incapable of complex decisions. Masses need leaders who can stir them out of apathy, and once organized they continue to defer to their leaders. Moreover, the large size and complex tasks of mass political parties create the need for leaders with expertise who enjoy stable tenure of office, but this organizational logic further increases oligarchic tendencies. Finally, Michels thought that it was in the nature of things for élites to advance their own interests and power at the expense of those of their followers. His personal pessimism about the prospects for democracy hastened his intellectual evolution towards fascism.

Critics of the ‘iron law of oligarchy’ make three key observations. First, Michels\' law is a truism if it merely says that leaders are different from the led and that key decisions are normally made by minorities. Second, Michels does not establish that there is no countervailing ‘iron law of democracy’, whereby leaders who stray from the wishes of the led are overthrown by revolts from below. He simply neglects the possibility that party leaders are kept in check by their activists and the possibility that rivals will displace them if they betray the cause. Third, Michels\' arguments are time-bound. An ‘iron law of emulation’ did operate in early 20th-century Europe, where socialist parties had to mimic the centralized authoritarian state to which they were opposed. However, it does not follow that all political parties have to display unremediable oligarchic traits in all political systems. BO\'L



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