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Oligarchy vs Meritocracy vs Aristocracy

The mere growth of organization changes organizational dynamics and requires new method of governance. That creates a need for “management professionals” who devote all their time to solving organizational problems. Those people no matter how idealistic in the beginning by the weight of their position and acquired power gradually start abusing it detaching from the need of rank-and-file members. If organization survives and prosper, they later inevitably turn into organizational oligarchy. As Michels noted:

… Be the claims economic or be they political, organization appears the only means for the creation of a collective will. Organization, based as it is upon the principle of least effort, that is to say, upon the greatest possible economy of energy, is the weapon of the weak in their struggle with the strong.

The chances of success in any struggle will depend upon the degree to which this struggle is carried out upon a basis of solidarity between individuals whose interests are identical. In objecting, therefore, to the theories of the individualist anarchists that nothing could please the employers better than the dispersion and disaggregation of the forces of the workers, the socialists, the most fanatical of all ‘the partisans of the idea of organization, enunciate an argument which harmonizes well with the results of scientific study of the nature of parties.

The Iron Law of Oligarchy postulates that the process of “crystallization” of large organization bureaucracy starts spontaneously and at the end lead to uncontrolled oligarchy at the top of the organization. Such bureaucracy initially consists only of elected members, but it is later enhanced by unelected members. On the state level, the most important unelected members proved to be members of intelligence agencies.

Such members can and often do ally with the “elected oligarchy” and form a clique to protect their interests. And this often happens: for this “newly minted” elite holding the office becomes the way of making a living, which makes it likely that the leaders recognize their common interests in maintaining their positions within the organization, and develop a sense of solidarity with one another becoming, in Marxist terminology, something like a privileged class; a local aristocracy.

They are inclined to act cohesively in fending off criticisms and warding off displacement efforts by the membership. If serious challenges are not readily suppressed, the leaders may resort to co-optation of individual rank-and-file members who challenge the status quo, thus effectively hobbling lower-level resistance.

Growth of the organization alone leads to the crystallization of an oligarchy with this dynamic. It is the simplest formulation of the ‘Iron Law of Oligarchy’ and could be oversimplified to a pithy slogan:

“Who Says Organization Says Oligarchy.”

The inevitability of oligarchy in political parties, trade unions, and other “democratic” organizations impose severe limited in the realization of democratic principles with in the organization, Essentially democracy is gradually suppresses and subverted, only illusion of it is preserved (as, for example in any two-party system of governance) and serves to legitimize the ruling oligarchy.

Since the early 20th-century the Iron Law of Oligarchy thesis has been repeatedly demonstrated is as close to a social law as any feature of human society.

In essence, the elite that has a disproportional influence on the decisions made in the organization is de facto oligarchy. Once created, such an elite becomes pretty autonomous from “rank-and-file” members and is little affected by elections.

As such Iron Law of Oligarchy stands in stark opposition to pluralism and the ideal of Liberal Democracy. It suggests that “participatory democracy” is a utopian ideal, and that democracy is limited to a narrow stratum of existing oligarchy (e.g. the top 0.01% in the USA). It also stands in opposition to state autonomy theory.

At the very basic level strength (both physical and the character), intellect and cunning are three qualities which typically set leaders apart from the masses of the led. Authority — the right to lead — is always gained through some type of intra-party/intra-group competition that implicitly or explicitly tests these qualities. In small groups in the past (and in high school even today) its can be even an actual fight. The desire to dominate, and the expectation of the rewards that accompany domination, presumably are what motivate certain individuals to enter this competition and fight to win.

The suggested mechanism of self-selection of the elite has something in common with the neoliberal doctrine (which we all know now is a false social doctrine, similar to Trotskyism), which also claims that the competition for preeminence is the primary characteristic of human societies. It extrapolates the concept of alpha male in primates to human societies.

Still on the level of particular political organization, it is probably undisputable, that the possession of some characteristic highly valued in the political sphere, can, with some luck, elevate an individual to the elite status. We saw such upward mobility in the USA in the past: several US Presidents were from low middle class (for example Harry Truman, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama; in the two last cases the role of CIA in their elevation is unclear and might well be decisive).

That means that those individuals who have the most of the qualities we would like to have ourselves, the most organizational talent, can advance into elite, given persistence and luck. Or, those days,  individuals with the initial affiliation with the “Deep State” (the core of which are national intelligence agencies)

So we can assume (nepotism notwithstanding) that political elites are those who are able to discern political trends better then other and as a result are able to accumulate by various means political power. This is essentially Gaetano Mosca’s definition of the elite — a minority set off from the masses by the possession of some prized qualities.

Although leadership by elites and the moral justification for it no doubt predated written human history, the philosophical origins of the Western tradition of elitism lies with the Greeks, ironically also the creators of the first democracy. For example, Plato put forth an unabashed apology for political rule by intellectual elites.

Speaking of elites in general, rather than political elites specifically, we can point out three main characteristics of elites: exclusivity, superiority, and domination.

  • “Exclusivity” simply means separateness; they are separate and apart from the larger society. The degree of exclusivity of elites can be assessed in terms of artificial boundary maintenance, gatekeepers of the recruitment process, and symbols of exclusiveness in lifestyle, etc. 
  • Superiority. In keeping with Mosca, “superiority” denotes material, intellectual, or moral qualities or traits markedly above the level at which such qualities appear in the society.
  • Domination. Finally, “domination” means just that: elites dominate the sector of human life with which they are associated. Suzanne Keller wrote that “elites are ultimately responsible for the realization of major social goals and for the continuity of the social order.”  So they are what is called the vanguard of the society.

Suzanne Keller also pointed out that while there is a ruling class, at least in industrial societies, it is far from homogenous like Marxists assume. Industrial societies are so differentiated, and there are so many areas of human activity, that no one particular social group can dominate every aspect. So the different parts of the “elite”, different factions, exist is this own social “pockets”, which might overlap. There is also a hierarchy within the elites, with the political and financial elites (a.k.a. financial oligarchy) being at the top of the pecking order. Especially under neoliberalism, which, in a way, was the counter-revolution of the financial elite — a successful attempt of restoration of the power that financial elite has had before the New Deal.

Of course, with highly compartmentalized life typical for modern societies and advances in technology,  the new “sub-elites” are formed in in places that either  did not exist before, or were not that important. For example: military industrial complex now represent a formidable political force (as President Eisenhower warned in his farewell address to the nation) , as are some other “strategically placed” strata of elites (Silicon Valley billionaires from Google, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, CISCO and similar tech giants; Hollywood and media elite; etc) that dominate different areas of life in modern societies and delegate their members into the upper level of elite hierarchy. 

A political elite is, by definition, a group that dominates/control the political life of a society (and that means the society as a whole), which at least in the past (degeneration of elite is a real problem with gerontocracy) was superior in political skills (keeping in mind that the types of skills valuable for politics vary and can include duplicity and murderousness as well as rhetorical skill and persuasiveness).

According to the iron law of oligarchy they are by-and-large insulated from everyday contact with the larger society (including their electorate; as in “The Moor has done his duty, the Moor can go”) and are unaccountable to voters.  Moreover, the political elite policies are always pro-elite, not so much pro-people. Imperial ambitions of the USA political elite in this area is a pretty convincing example. Only due to them Pentagon gets over trillion dollar annual budget and there are talks about cutting Social Security to feed military industrial complex better.

The process of “crystallization” of “Nomenklatura” in large organizations, parties and government agencies (such as the State Department, CIA, etc) is an objective self-reinforcing process. It inevitably starts even within the most democratically oriented leadership of the political organizations. As the party grows, members very soon become divided into an elite (or more correctly a set of elites, or party oligarchs, with their own set of distinctive and private interests) and the rank-and-file members, whose labour and resources are exploited by the elite. 

In nearly all models of advanced industrial society, education is the principal mechanism by which individuals are sorted into such classes; in a way educational institutions serve to “license” human capital (if we use this neoliberal term) and convert it to “cultural currency.” But is the late phase of neoliberalism that we experience in the USA this process is broken and universities became mainly a tool for reproduction of existing neoliberal elite: mediocre children of the elite has disproportionally higher chances to get to the top educational institutions than gifted children of common people.


The organizational characteristics that promote oligarchy are reinforced by certain characteristics of both leaders and members of organizations. People achieve leadership positions precisely because they have political talent; they are adept at getting their way, suppressing the opponents (and opposition in general)  and persuading others of the correctness of their views.

Once they hold high office, their power and prestige is further increased and “lock-in” quickly happens. Leaders have access to, and control over, information and facilities that are not available to the rank-and-file. They control the information that flows down in the channels of communication. Leaders are also strongly motivated to persuade the organization of the rightness of their views, and they use all of their skills, power and authority to do so.

By design of any complex organization as a hierarchical structure, and the rank-and-file members are less informed (and often are less educated) than their “superiors.” Finally, from birth, people are taught to obey those in positions of authority. Therefore, the rank-and-file members tend to look to leaders for policy directives and are generally prepared to allow leaders to exercise their judgment on most matters even to the detriment of their own interests.

Leaders also control and have the ability to apply very powerful negative and positive sanctions to promote the behavior of rank-and-file members that they desire. Classic example is patriotic fervor during wars even if the war in clearly has offensive nor defensive character like it was the case with the Vietnam and later with Iraq was. In both cases the society as deceived by the mass media (which works exclusively for the oligarchy) and forced to support the course of action the elite wanted.  

The leaders have the power to control communication, grant or deny raises, assign workloads, fire, demote and the most gratifying of all sanctions — the power to promote. There is no  doubt that they tend to promote junior officials who share their opinions and can be counted on for being loyal. The net result is that the oligarchy becomes more and more entrenched and self-perpetuating.

Whether they maintain primary residences in New York or Hong Kong, Moscow or Mumbai, today’s this transnational oligarchy is increasingly looking like a virtual “super nation”. Those “Supercitizens” are by-and-large above law,  unless the crime is committed against another supercitizen.

Also within a single country we are now seeing not a single economy, but rather two fundamentally different and separate types of economy. This growing gap between the rich and non-rich has been evident for years. In a 2005 report to investors, for instance, three analysts at Citigroup advised that “the World is dividing into two blocs—the Plutonomy and the rest”:

In a plutonomy there is no such animal as “the U.S. consumer” or “the UK consumer”, or indeed the “Russian consumer”. There are rich consumers, few in number, but disproportionate in the gigantic slice of income and consumption they take. There are the rest, the “non-rich”, the multitudinous many, but only accounting for surprisingly small bites of the national pie.

Unlike previous oligarchies, members of the global elite stick to a globalist perspective and do not contribute to the economic growth of their home countries. They are becoming a transnational community of peers who have more in common with one another than with their countrymen. Ordinary people live in a globalized plutocracy, in which the super-rich display acute indifference to the interest of “natives”, and openly pursue narrow self-interest with callous indifference to anyone outside their own rarefied economic kingdom.



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