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Robert Michels the one who spelled out the Iron Law of Oligarchy in the
first decade of the 20th century in Political Parties.

Iron Law of Oligarchy organizations that were originally idealistic and

democratic eventually come to be dominated by a small self-serving group of
people who achieved positions of power and responsibility.

Oligarchy a government by few, often seen as having self-seving.


In 1911 Robert Michels argued that paradoxically the socialist

parties of Europe, despite their democratic ideology and provisions for mass
participation, seemed to be dominated by their leaders just like
traditional conservative parties. Michels' conclusion was that the problem
lay in the very nature of organizations. The more liberal and democratic
modern era allowed the formation of organizations with innovative and
revolutionary goals, but as such organizations become more complex, they
became less and less democratic and revolutionary. Michels formulated the
"Iron Law of Oligarchy": "Who says organization, says oligarchy."


If bureaucracy happens, power rises. Power corrupts." Any large

organization, Michels pointed out, has to create a bureaucracy in order to
maintain its efficiency as it becomes largermany decisions have to be
made daily that cannot be made by large numbers of disorganized people.
For the organization to function effectively, centralization has to occur and
power will end up in the hands of a few. Those fewthe oligarchywill use
all means necessary to preserve and further increase their power.


The "iron law of oligarchy" states that all forms of organization,

regardless of how democratic they may be at the start, will eventually and
inevitably develop oligarchic tendencies, thus making true democracy
practically and theoretically impossible, especially in large groups and
complex organizations. According to the "iron law," democracy and large-
scale organization are incompatible.

What are the problems of Oligarchy?

If individuals are deprived of the power to make decisions that affect

their lives in many or even most of the areas that are important to
them,withdrawal into narrow ritualism (over conformity to rules) and apathy
are likely responses.

PADUA, Elaine Laurice M.

Report // Iron Law of Oligarchy

Michels's analysis appeared in 1911 in a book titled Political Parties. The

phenomenon of party oligarchy was stated thus: if internal democracy could
not be found in an organization that was avowedly democratic, it would
certainly not exist in parties, which did not claim to be democratic. This
principle was called the Iron Law of Oligarchy. The Iron Law of Oligarchy
works as follows: First, tllere is always a rather small number of persons in
the organization who actually make decisions, even if authority is vested in
the body of the membership. This is a purely functional, if decisions are left
to the vulgar masses then nothing get done. The decisions go on at great
length without getting to the necessary issues, until either people leave or
keep quite. Second, the leaders wbo have this delegated authority tend to
take on more power than the members who selected them do. Once in power
they tend to remain there for a long time and are not influenced by the
opinions from below. Reasons for this is partly functional, but more so
because of the way resources of power are distributed in an organization
The leaders are a much smaller group than the body of the organization;
therefore they have the advantage of being hetter organized. The members,
as a whole, come together infrequently if at all; but the leadership is in
constant contact with each other. The leadership tends to form a united,
behind-the-scenes, informal group, this way making it much easier for them
to make plans, carry out programs, etc. Third, the leaders gradually develop
values that are at odds with those of the members. That is to say that
peoples outlooks are determined by their social positions. For the ordinary
member, the organization is something he or she belongs to and participates
in from time to time, but it is not usually the center of his or her life The
leader's position is different; the organization is usually a full-time job, or at
least a major part of their life. Tbe leader becomes less interest in the
concerns of the rank and file or the ideology of the group, and more
concerned with staying in power. Does this conflict, dare I say corruption, of
the leaders bring them into conflict with their followers? Sometimes it does,
but Michels argues, the leadership has the upper hand in such struggles.
Unless tbe bulk of the membership is extremely upset about something,
they are very unlikely to dispose of their despot. The power of the
organization goes to those in control of the administrative resources. They
control the communications within the organization: distrihution of news,
setting the meetings, it agendas, etc. Most importantly they have legitimate
power, therefore, they can claim dissenters as "factions" and "splitters" who
represent only themselves and their own interests, there by making the
factions the organization's enemies and creating internal dissension. ""Who
says organization," stated Michels, "says oligarchy."

This process is further compounded as delegation is necessary in any

large organization, as thousandssometimes hundreds of thousandsof
members cannot make decisions via participatory democracy. This has to
date been dictated by the lack of technological means for large numbers of
people to meet and debate, and also by matters related to crowd psychology,
as Michels argued that people feel a need to be led. Delegation, however,
leads to specializationto the development of knowledge bases, skills and
resources among a leadershipwhich further alienates the leadership from
the rank and file and entrenches the leadership in office.

Bureaucratization and specialization are the driving processes behind the

Iron Law. They result in the rise of a group of professional administrators in
a hierarchical organization, which in turn leads to
the rationalization and routinization of authority and decision making, a
process described first and perhaps best by Max Weber, later by John
Kenneth Galbraith, and to a lesser and more cynical extent by the Peter

Bureaucracy by design leads to centralization of power by the leaders.

Leaders also have control over sanctions and rewards. They tend to promote
those who share their opinions, which inevitably leads to self-perpetuating
oligarchy. People achieve leadership positions because they have above-
average political skill (see charismatic authority). As they advance in their
careers, their power and prestige increases. Leaders control the information
that flows down the channels of communication, censoring what they do not
want the rank-and-file to know. Leaders will also dedicate significant
resources to persuade the rank-and-file of the rightness of their views. This
is compatible with most societies: people are taught to obey those in
positions of authority. Therefore, the rank and file show little initiative, and
wait for the leaders to exercise their judgment and issue directives to follow.
Another Explanation:

"Michels (1911) came to the conclusion that the formal organization of

bureaucracies inevitably leads to oligarchy, under which organizations
originally idealistic and democratic eventually come to be dominated by a
small, self-serving group of people who achieved positions of power and
responsibility. This can occur in large organizations because it becomes
physically impossible for everyone to get together every time a decision
has to be made. Consequently, a small group is given the responsibility of
making decisions. Michels believed that the people in this group would
become enthralled with their elite positions and more and more inclined to
make decisions that protect their power rather than represent the will of
the group they are supposed to serve. In effect Michels was saying that
bureaucracy and democracy do not mix. Despite any protestations and
promises that they would not become like all the rest, those placed in
positions of responsibility and power often come to believe that they too
are indispensable, and more knowledgeable than those they serve. As time
goes on, they become further removed from the rank and file...