Organizations Crystallize Into Hierarchies. Then Oligarchies?

A considerable literature exists around the problem of defining the boundaries of the political elite, how it is composed within a given society (C. Wright Mills classic The Power Elite was written in 1956), drawing the line between the elite and sub-elites, as well as social mobility issues.

Stopping Oligarchy Forming In Radical Organizations

Because the elite continued existence is linked to the survival of the organizations, leaders of initially radical organizations with time tend to adopt more conservative, conciliatory positions in order to minimize chances of suppression of the organization by the state (digitalcommons.ilr.cornell.edu).  For example, the leaders of large gangs try to establish links with law enforcement and bribe politicians to ensure their survival.

This is the second important effect observed in the context of the “Iron Law of Oligarchy”: not only hieratical structure spontaneously emerges, the elite itself gradually, with time became more moderate and more corrupt.

Britannica article of the subject states:

Michels insisted that the chasm separating elite leaders from rank-and-file members would also steer organizations toward strategic moderation, as key organizational decisions would ultimately be taken more in accordance with leaders’ self-serving priorities of organizational survival and stability than with members’ preferences and demands.

As it became entranced in power, the elite or any large organization has things to lose and thus avoid excessive risks, especially risks that put in danger the existence of the organization. No matter how radical the organization initially is with time it becomes less radical.

This trend was reflected in the old European saying “Social democrat who became a minister is not a social-democratic minister”. The same sad trend, up to and including the total betrayal of the interests of rank-and-file members, is observable in the US trade union movement.

Still, the most drastic example is the complete betrayal of the rank-and-file members was the betrayal of the “Communist ideals” by the USSR Nomenklatura: members of the Politburo, KGB brass, administrative and academic elite of the USSR. In 70 years they went from radical left wing neo-theocratic sect into a bunch of corrupt neoliberals (essentially turncoats) ready to fleece the country and sell its industry, natural resources and infrastructure for pennies on the dollar to Western countries as long as at least one penny ends in their own pocket.

Many leaders of Young Communist League seamlessly turned into gangster-style capitalists in no time (Khodorkovsky). The level of corruption of academics was also very notable and no less staggering (Arbatov, Berezovsky, etc). The USSR academic elite even provided its share of gangster-style capitalists (Berezovsky). Russia’s cathedral was ready and waiting to rejoin the world stage.


Iron Law of Oligarchy as a powerful argument against the possibility of “permanent stability” in Human Societies

“Iron Law of Oligarchy” represents a powerful argument against possibility of “permanent stability” in human societies. As Minsky told us “stability is destabilizing” and that observation looks even more pertinent in view of the existence of the “Iron Law of Oligarchy“. As the elite which got power degrades and becomes more corrupt, newcomers want to displace it. But due to entrenchment of the existing elite (which, of course, tried to make their rule permanent and practices nepotism) such a “regime change” often is possible only by violent means. That’s why the institutionalized mechanisms for the “rotation of elite” are so important. 

Every solidly constructed organization, whether it be a democratic state, a political party, or a league of proletarians for the resistance of economic oppression, presents a soil eminently favorable for the differentiation of organs and of functions. The more extended and the more ramified the official apparatus of the organization, the greater the number of its members, the fuller its treasury, and the more widely circulated its press, the less efficient becomes the direct control exercised by the rank and file, and the more is this control replaced by the increasing power of committees.

Into all parties there insinuates itself that indirect electoral system which in public life the democratic parties fight against with all possible vigor. Yet in party life the influence of this system must be more disastrous than in the far more extensive life of the state. Even in the party congresses, which represent the party-life seven times sifted, we find that it becomes more and more general to refer all important questions to committees which debate in camera.

At the same time any revolution, at the end, is just a change on the top layer of elite. Which means that they seldom achieve stated goals, especially if such goals include equality and social justice. The fundamental distinction between the elite and rank-and-file members is always preserved and, paradoxically, often enhanced.

The Elite (“Organized Minority”) Always Outwit Rank-and-file Members (“Disorganized Majority”)

The key here is that elite (oligarchy) in any complex organization always holds the lion share of political power and that this power is independent of any democratic elections, or revolutions.

There is a hierarchy within the elites too: it is composed of the “top guns” and the sub-elites. and this there is an internal struggle within the elite (see Russiagate  and Ukrainegate). It also can take the violent forms (JFK assassination by CIA brass; Yeltsin shelling of Russian Parliament, Ukrainian Euromaidan, etc.) 

Robert Michels observations were based on the fact that the socialist parties of Europe, despite their democratic ideology and provisions for mass participation, were completely and irrevocably dominated by their leaders (often with the elements of the “cult of personality”), just like the traditional conservative parties:

It is indisputable that the oligarchical and bureaucratic tendency of party organization is a matter of technical and practical necessity. It is the inevitable product of the very principle of organization.

For technical and administrative reasons, no less than for tactical reasons, a strong organization needs an equally strong leadership.

To represent, in this sense, comes to mean that the purely individual desire masquerades and is accepted as the will of the mass. In certain isolated cases, where the questions involved are extremely simple, and where the delegated authority is of brief duration, representation is possible. But permanent representation will always be tantamount to the exercise of dominion by the representatives over the represented.

Louis XIV understood the art of government as having few princes either before or since, and this was the case above all in the first half of his reign, when his spirit was still young and fresh. In his memoirs of the year 1666, he lays down for every branch of the administration, and more especially for the conduct of military affairs, the following essential rules: “que les resolutions doivent etre promptes, la discipline exact, les commandements absolus, I’obeissance ponctuelle.” The essentials thus enumerated by Lous (promptness of decision, unity of command, and strictness of discipline) are equally applicable, mutaiis mutandis, to the various aggregates of modern political life, for these are in a perpetual condition of latent warfare.

The modern party is a fighting organization in the political sense of the term, and must as such conform to the laws of tactics.

Now the first article of these laws is facility of mobilization. Ferdinand Lassalle, the founder of a revolutionary labour party, recognized this long ago, contending that the dictatorship which existed in fact in the society over which he presided was as thoroughly justified in theory as it was indispensable in practice. The rank and file, he said, must follow their chief blindly, and the whole organization must be like a hammer in the hands of its president.

In the daily struggle, nothing but a certain degree of Caesarism will ensure the rapid transmission and the precise execution of orders. The Dutch socialist Van Kol frankly declares that true democracy cannot be installed until the fight is over.

The elite can be quite hostile to the society (or organization) at large and behave more like an occupation force than the “best representatives”.