First in a four-part series.
There is a tendency for democratic self-governing institutions to become oligarchies, specifically because elite interests within these institutions are prioritized over the needs of their members. According to researchers, such as Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, and conservative theorists, such as Robert Michels, democratic institutions primarily serve elite interests. In “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens”, (in Perspectives on Politics, September 2014 Vol. 12/No. 3, p.564-581), Gilens and Page argue that oligarchies within democratic institutions ultimately undermine their democratic goals, in which the institution is co-opted by elites. And on the other hand, conservatives like Michels (in his book Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Organizational Tendencies of Modern Democracy, 1911) argue, “It is organization which gives birth to the domination of the elected over the electors, of the mandatories over the mandators, of the delegates over the delegators. Who says organization, says oligarchy.” Thus, for Michels, democratic institutions undermine themselves precisely because they are held captive by oligarchs and elites.
So, in order to understand the Occupy Movement, and its rebellion against elite control of democratic institutions and economic organizations, it is important to examine how organizations and institutions become rigid oligarchies in the first place. In light of Michels’ “iron law of oligarchy” and Gilens’ and Page’s research on oligarchies, we urge that anarchist principles, ironically, be examined as a possible counter to oligarchic rule, that is, if democratic institutions are to be salvaged. As such, policy recommendations via anarchic social justice must be discussed in relation to meeting the needs of self-determining people and the challenges awaiting them in the twenty-first century. This is because democratic governance has been thoroughly undermined by elite domination and why the Occupy Movement erupted to demand democratic accountability, not just in governance but in economic matters as well.
Michels’ “iron law of oligarchy” refers to organizations and institutions, specifically the left-wing parties of Western Europe in the pre-World War I era, which called for egalitarian reforms through mass democracy and popular governance. Yet, as Michels observed, these same democratically minded organizations and institutions could not resist the tendency to become de facto oligarchies. In spite of their revolutionary identities and democratic structures, the labor parties of Michels’ era were dominated by tightly bound cliques with the intent of perpetuating their own interests rather than the goals of equality and self-rule. The irony, Michels noted, was that in a democratic organization like the German Social-Democratic Party (SPD) to which Michels belonged at the time, only a few people in executive positions actually held power and decision-making privileges. This phenomenon also applied to traditional conservative parties according to Michels. Nevertheless, the “leaders” of the SPD valued their own elite status and social-mobility more than any commitment to the goal of emancipating Germany’s “industrial proletariat,” from exploitation. Inevitably, the SPD’s actual policies became increasingly conservative, often siding with the imperial authorities of Wilhelmian Germany. Eventually, while SPD leaders gained constitutional legislative power and public prestige, they failed to serve the collective will of its mass membership; they were in fact dominating and directing it for their own ends. Research today by Gilens and Page only confirm what took place with Michels’ research a century ago.
Michels concluded that the day-to-day administration of any large-scale, differentiated bureaucratic organization, such as the SPD, by the rank-and-file majority was impossible. Given the “incompetence of the masses,” there was a need for full-time elite professional leadership to manage and direct others in a hierarchical, top-down manner. And the rank and file members were not necessarily opposed to this. In theory, the SPD leaders were subject to control by the rank-and-file through delegate conferences and membership voting; in reality, the elite leadership was firmly in command. The simple organizational need for a division of labor, hierarchy, and specialized leadership roles meant that control over the top functionaries from below was “purely fictitious.” Elected leaders had the experience, skills, and superior knowledge necessary for running the party and controlling all formal means of communication with its membership, including the party press. While proclaiming their devotion to the party program of social democracy, the leaders soon became part of the German political establishment. The mass membership was unable to provide an effective counterweight to this entrenched minority of self-serving party officials who were more committed to internal organizational goals and their own personal interests than to radical social change on behalf of their members. Michels believed that these inevitable oligarchic tendencies were reinforced by a mass predisposition for depending upon, and even glorifying, the party oligarchs. As Michels states, “Though it grumbles occasionally, the majority is really delighted to find persons who will take the trouble to look after its affairs. In the mass, and even in the organized mass of the labor parties, there is an immense need for direction and guidance. This need is accompanied by a genuine cult for the leaders, who are regarded as heroes.” Thus elites maneuver their way into power and the members abdicate their participation in self-governance.
The “iron law of oligarchy” was thus a product of Michels’ own personal experiences as a frustrated idealist and a disillusioned social-democrat. His Political Parties was based upon an empirical study of the SPD and a number of affiliated German trade unions. Michels observed firsthand that the ordinary members of these working-class organizations were practically excluded from any decision-making process within their organizations, either structurally of by their own indifference. Thus Michels argued that the inherent tendency of large and complex organizations – including radical or socialist political parties and labor unions – to develop a mass membership to provide any effective counterweight to a ruling clique of leaders, was doomed. Smaller, less complex organizations also manifested similar tendencies to be controlled by elites as well. Moreover, these inherent organizational tendencies were strengthened by a mass psychology of leadership dependency. This analysis made Michels increasingly skeptical regarding the possibility of democratic governance, precisely as a result of the general frustration he and others, such as Vilfredo Pareto and Gaetano Mosca, had with democratic organizations. Thus one reason why fascism and “elite theory” became increasingly popular by the twentieth century, and specifically for Michels, was because oligarchy in democratic institutions became increasingly embedded. Some have argued that Michels may have formulated an “iron law of bureaucracy,” mistakenly seeking “democracy in structures, not in interactions,” and thus ignoring the real difference between democracies and non-democracies. Nevertheless, the dissatisfaction of people today with democratic governance, co-opted by economic elites, has led to massive frustration by the public at large and thus the emergence of the Occupy Movement.
The decision of Citizens United by the Supreme Court has only fueled this burning discontent and that the Supreme Court is coopted by elite power as well.
Here are some reasons why oligarchy is deeply embedded in democratic institutions and organizations.
Reason #1: The classic liberal view of society is based on the perspective that a collection of individuals and groups is in essence a free association in which socially defined identities and roles spontaneously emerge. Throughout the course of a person’s life, one’s actions and choices are shaped by social roles and statuses. In every society, certain characteristics such as age, sex, ethnicity, appearance, division of labor, and social class, have a direct impact on the allocation of individual roles in society. These assigned roles are not a random occurrence; they are the outgrowth of deeply embedded interests and power relations which have been institutionalized. In this way status can be understood as either ascribed or achieved: ascribed, meaning it is assigned by tradition, irrespective of individual initiative; achieved, meaning it is the result of personal accomplishments and talent. This is the case since achievement is itself almost always dependent upon arbitrary and antecedent conditions of custom and class.
Reason #2: The term “organization” implies the mobilization of individuals into roles and statuses committed to the performance of some form of collective behavior. “Organization” also describes the precisely defined structures of group authority which can be found in churches, militaries, schools, corporations, political parties, agencies, and governments. While class structure as an organization is not usually defined as such, it is, nevertheless, the composite of people who differ in wealth and social prestige, who then in turn, are served in a relative fashion by the various institutions. What then connects these institutions is a “functionally integrated system” built around networks of communication, interest, power and social class, which comprise what is known as a “social system” or “social structure.” The process in which individuals become socialized into their milieu is determined for the most part by the organizational and institutional roles which they assume. These roles, generally, are not individually determined, but are shaped instead, by the very organizations and institutions in which they are co-opted. In turn, organizations are determined by their essential interests and minimal requisites of role performance. More specifically, the essential interests of organizations are manipulated by the interests of those who have the most power within the organization to control the outcome to their advantage.
Reason #3: Individuals are socialized to believe that their well-being is to avoid conflict and thus secure a place for themselves within the system based on the system’s own terms. The path to success, according to Ralf Miliband, is found in conforming to “the values, prejudices and modes of thought of the world to which entry is sought.” Those who are skeptical and even question the virtues of the given organization discover, either painfully or at great personal risk, that they must conform and adjust to minimal role demands or suffer adverse consequences. Organizational control, nevertheless, conveys attitudes of obedience disseminating among subordinates in any organizational structure within a society. The social norm then becomes the external and internal force for compliance upon the individual and the pressure to obey comes not only from the superior or elite but from the collectivity of subordinates. In this manner pressure for role fulfillment, then, can be felt vertically from the higher authority that controls the agenda of role performances, but also horizontally from similarly situated subordinates who, having internalized the organizational values of obedience, are as critical as any superior of departures in role performance. Such departures, being seen as an unwillingness to carry one’s share of the burden, is perceived as a violation of essential professional duties, a “letting down” not only of one’s superiors, but of one’s peers, be they ordinary co-workers, professional colleagues, or comrades in arms.
Reason #4: To control the essential structures of role behavior, as is the case with organizations, is to shape social consciousness in ways that rational exercises cannot do. Roles, within organizations, become habit and custom. For persons socialized into institutional roles, most alternative forms of behavior either violate their sense of propriety or escape their imagination altogether. They do not think of themselves as responding to a particular arrangement of social reality but to the only social reality there is. In this regard the absolute nature of this social arrangement is not questioned because, in the words of social theorist J. Peter Euben, “realism becomes an unargued and implicit conservatism,” and as Sanford Levinson also argues “the most subtle form of ‘political education’ is the treating of events and conditions which are in fact amenable to change as though they were natural events. This is not a question of treating what is as what ought to be but rather as what has to be.” Organizations and social institutions, nonetheless, are those massive monuments of society which capture and confine the vision of people, and an organization’s very existence becomes its own legitimating force. In economic terms it is a case of supply creating demand. The dominant organizations in the social system lend the legitimacy of substance and practice to the established norms which in turn teach and reinforce adherence to the ongoing social system. What should be recognized is that the social norms or values are not self-sustaining, self-adaptive consensual forces; they are mediated through organizations and institutions, and to the extent that organizations and institutions are instruments of power in the service of elitist interests. Thus, social norms themselves are a product of organizational interests and power relations. This is why oligarchies become imbedded in institutions and organizations and preclude democratic governance and popular control of economic resources and accountability.
Basically, a type of dictatorship emerges in which democratic rule and economic security are scuttled by oligarchic rule. But the elites, and their oligarchy, define it as “democratic.” As a result, we get Occupy.
Parts 2, 3, and 4 to follow.
Edward Martin is Professor of Public Policy and Administration, Graduate Center for Public Policy and Administration at California State University, Long Beach, and co-author of Savage State: Welfare Capitalism and Inequality..
Mateo Pimentel lives on the Mexican-US border. You can follow him on Twitter @mateo_pimentel, or read more at www.guerrillaprose.info.