Debating the Classical Model: Robert Michels
Liso Rulashe (782176)
Nonhlanhla Nene (1497001)
Thandiwe Maluleke (1481027)
Organisations, Movements and Change (SOCL 2017)
09 August 2018
Is the “iron law of oligarchy” really an iron law, or can organisation function democratically?
Democracy is the choice to elect our own leaders and heads of states. Every country or organisation has a small group of people who serve as leaders or executive members. These influential individuals and not the members of the organisation will unavoidably grow to dictate the organisation and its power structures. This essay will discuss the iron law of oligarchy as political theory that is also applicable in any form of organisation and also discuss if this theory is indeed an iron law or organisations can function democratically. In this essay we have drawn ideals from Michels since he is the one who coined the term, iron law of oligarchy. We have also discussed some imperative points by Voss and Sherman to discover whether or not the iron law of oligarchy truly is an iron law or it can be broken.
Michels developed the iron law of oligarchy as political theory. An iron law is a regulation or controlling principle that is impossible to prevent (Oxford, 2010) and oligarchy refers to a small group of people having control of a country or organisation (Oxford, 2010). Speaking from what he experienced from politically aware assemblages and trade unions determined to function democratically, asserting his disagreement in 1911, Robert Michels stated “he who says organisation says oligarchy.” According to Michels (1959) the iron law of oligarchy is a theory which suggests that all multifarious administrations irrespective of how self-governing they are when they commence, progressively develop into oligarchies. The iron law of oligarchy it is the trend of a formal organization to be controlled by a small, self-perpetuated elites. Robert Michels (1911) witnessed that “since no sufficiently large and complex organisations can function purely as a direct democracy, power within an organisation will always be delegated to individuals within that group, elected or otherwise. All organisations come to be run by a leadership class who often function as paid administrators, executives, spokespersons, political strategists and organisers for the organisation far from being servants of the masses.”
According to Michels (1959) the state is merely the executive committee of the ruling class. This is because the state as led by the ANC ruling party in South Africa as an organisation has policies and laws that favour capitalism over a socialist agenda, and the Executive within this party are the elites. Going back to the iron law of oligarchy, the state ruled by the ANC produced elites, who are democratically put into power by the masses, however when these individuals get into power democracy is no longer something visible to the masses. To support the fact that it has become the oligarchy, South African scholars have argued that the current state during the struggle against apartheid advanced a socialist agenda with the masses, but now that they are in power they have adopted a capitalist system that has vested too much power on a few individuals making them an elite group (Hudson, 1986). This goes back to the point raised by Michels (1959) where he said that even if the majority seize power from the bourgeoisie, it is permanently incapable of self-government as within it will develop a new strong organised minority which raises itself to the rank of a governing class. By monitoring who has admission to organisational statistics, facts and figures, those in power can centralise their power successfully often with little accountability because indifference and apathy.
The state can turn from being the representative of the masses to an oligarchical organisation which often makes the executives members more powerful than the masses known as the citizens. For instance, the news around president Cyril Ramaphosa working for the state with the state as a shareholder and a board member in Lonmnin shows that power can put one in a position where there is a conflict of interest. It was reported that he, together with the state and the Lonmin board members permitted police officers to subvert the protest by the mine workers of Marikina. This implies that regardless of how democratic the state might claim to be, it eventually became an oligarchy. It is always about the hierarchical bureaucratic system which allows them to make final decisions that protect the interests of certain individuals belonging to the oligarchy. When workers protested, the state through deployment of the police as it purported the protestors as criminals than citizens fighting for their right (Alexander, 2013). In this way the government intervened to protect the oligarchy. Based on these facts, it appears as though Robert Michels was right to state that it seems impossible for the organisation to function democratically.
As Michels (1959) outlined, “organisations leaders do not operate as representatives of the servants, democratic attempts to hold leadership positions accountable are prone to fail since with power comes the ability to reward loyalty, the ability to control information about the organisation and the ability to control what procedures the organisation follows when making decisions.” The former president Jacob Zuma changed the cabinet in 2017 several times without consulting executive members known as the top six within the ANC (Hunter, 2017) shows the iron law of oligarchy as an iron law. This shows the power the president has on deciding who forms part of his elite team (oligarchical team). The former president Jacob Zuma forgetting that he was in the presidency position to serve the citizens of South Africa with the Guptas are allegedly accused of misuse of the state funds and corruption (my news24, 2016). This is another example of the organisation not being democratic as the power is only held by a small group of the elites who are known as oligarchies, these are self-serving individuals.
As Michels (1959) indicated, the organisation gives rise to the creation of a new ambitious aristocracy. However it should also be noted that the iron law of oligarchy can be broken. Kim Voss and Rachel Sherman (2000) state that “Bureaucratic conservatism can sometimes be overcome in mature social movements.” Negative environmental shifts can lead to the breaking of the iron law of oligarchy. For instance in a Trade Union, when the masses are fed-up with the administration they can revolt and cease power from the current leadership and give it to a new form of leadership mandated by them. This will make it easier for the masses to monitor the leadership and ensure that it does not become an oligarchy because the iron law of oligarchy finds its strength in the non-participation of members which then confines them (members) from decision making processes within their own organisation. A revolution can break oligarchy as an iron law, as Karl Marx and Engels stated, “all power would have to be taken by the people through any means they know how. According to Kim Voss and Rachel Sherman (2000) actors who offer new interpretations of organizational goals and strategies are another tool that can break the iron law of oligarchy and ensure that democracy triumphs. These actors will bring new interpretation of organisational goals, this will lead to a restructuring within the executive. Through this process power will be taken from the elite who are currently dominating the organisation and given to a different people who will prioritise the organisation and its members rather than self. In such a situation democracy will be evident in the organisations because through a conference or a mass meeting the multitudes in the organisation will get a platform to voice their suggestion on how these goals can be achieved.
In conclusion, since the efficient functioning of an organisation requires the concentration of real power and authority in the hands of a very few people, the problem of the oligarchy of a small class who exercise immense authority within the organisation exists within any bureaucracy whatever its ideology. Even though according to this theory (the iron law of oligarchy) the endorsed objective of representative democracy, the eradication of the elite rule was impossible that representative democracy is a facia which legitimises the rule of a particular elite and that elite rule which he refers to as oligarchy is inevitable. It should also be noted that it is organisation which gives birth to the dominion of the elected over the electors, the delegates over the delegators. Now the answer to whether the iron law of oligarchy can be broken making an organisation to be democratic or it can’t lies in the organisation and its constituents. It is dependent on how they ensure that the design of a bureaucracy is not hierarchal organised with enormous power vested in the higher offices to maintain impersonality and efficiency where lower offices are severely constrained in their authority, being restricted to interpreting rules and precedents.
Alexander, P., 2013. Marikana, turning point in South African history. Review of African Political Economy, 40(138), pp.605-619.
Enca, 2013. Documentary film The Marikana Massacre: Through the Lens
Hudson, P. 1986. ‘The Freedom Charter and the Theory of National Democratic Revolution’ in Transformation Vol. 1, p. 6-30.
Hunter, Q.2017. Zuma stuns the Top six with Cabinet edict. Sunday Times, 22 Oct 2017
Michels, R. 1959. “Democracy and the Iron Law of Oligarchy”, in Michels, R. Political Parties. New York: Dover.
My news24, 2016. ANC a party for chosen elite. 2 April 2016 09:45
Oxford Dictionary of English, (2010), 2nd edition: Oxford University Press
Voss, K. and Sherman, R. 2000. “Breaking the Iron Law of Oligarchy: Union revitalization in the American labor movement”, American Journal of Sociology, 106 (2).