“Who Says Organization says Oligarchy”

I’m pretty stoked for Chris Hayes new book Twilight of Elites. The Nation published an excerpt. You really ought to read the whole article and also buy the book but I found this segment on a 20th Century political theorist named Robert Michels particularly interesting, especially in the context of the United States two major political parties being unquestionable proxies for monied interests:

Michels’s grim conclusion was that it was impossible for any party, no matter its belief system, to bring about democracy in practice. Oligarchy was inevitable. For any kind of institution with a democratic base to consolidate the legitimacy it needs to exist, it must have an organization that delegates tasks. The rank and file will not have the time, energy, wherewithal or inclination to participate in the many, often minute decisions necessary to keep the institution functioning. In fact, effectiveness, Michels argues convincingly, requires that these tasks be delegated to a small group of people with enough power to make decisions of consequence for the entire membership. Over time, this bureaucracy becomes a kind of permanent, full-time cadre of leadership. “Without wishing it,” Michels says, there grows up a great “gulf which divides the leaders from the masses.” The leaders now control the tools with which to manipulate the opinion of the masses and subvert the organization’s democratic process. “Thus the leaders, who were at first no more than the executive organs of the collective, will soon emancipate themselves from the mass and become independent of its control.”

All this flows inexorably from the nature of organization itself, Michels concludes, and he calls it “The Iron Law of Oligarchy”: “It is organization which gives birth to the dominion of the elected over the electors, of the mandataries over the mandators, of the delegates over the delegators. Who says organization says oligarchy.”

The capture of power across sectors rivals the Gilded Age, which in turn inspired Teddy Roosevelt’s earlier twentieth century trust-busting. I wonder if we’ll see anything like that in the next few years. My gut says no. I think everyday people will have to be pushed to the limit until they push back against rising inequality in money and power.

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