The Iron Law of Oligarchy describes the role of elites to control organizations. Typically, this idea is translated to democratic governance but Michels restricted his original work to political parties. Indeed, his work is truly limited to just socialist parties. But this is the irony Michels recognized within socialist politics. Despite their emphasis on the common man, he saw there was a divide between the intellectual elite and their membership.
Michels understood political parties not simply as organizations but as institutions. Institutions establish a context that define relationships. Michels recognized a distinction between the political leaders and the membership in socialist parties. The leaders were generally intellectuals while the membership consisted of the working-class or proletariat. Despite the power of the members to select their leaders, the leaders maintained firm control over the organization. Michels felt organizations naturally develop an oligarchical class who control the organization. Socialism championed the rights of the proletariat to govern, but the iron law of oligarchy implied the success of socialism simply replaced one set of oligarchs with another.
Michels wrote his book in 1911. The translation I read was from 1915. It included an additional chapter due to the implications of the Great War on the ways political parties behaved. But his iron law of oligarchy almost perfectly predicts the rise of authoritarianism after the Russian Revolution. Communism did not bring about the dictatorship of the proletariat. Rather it brought about a new political oligarchy. Michels never mentions Lenin. He mentions Russia just twelve times over four hundred pages. In a few years, it would become impossible to write about socialist political parties without focusing on Russian politics.
The problem in the Iron Law of Oligarchy is the unidirectional nature of relationships it portrays. The leadership depends on the membership for their election. But the membership relies on the leadership for their knowledge, experience and devotion to the cause. Michels sympathizes with the intellectual elites as underpaid and overworked. It reads as though he has heard the complaints of the leaders in informal settings. He naturally assumes that the membership needs its leaders more than the leaders needs its members. This is an inverted sense of reality. The leader’s sense of identity relies on people to follow him. But an established organization can persist over multiple leadership changes.
The Iron Law of Oligarchy is based on a fundamental misinterpretation of organizational leadership. It helps to have worked in management to understand organizations. Academics have described the workplace as an authoritarian environment where a manager gives workers orders. And there is a sense of hierarchy, but this overstates the influence of the manager. Leaders work to balance the goals of the organization with the expectations of their team. An employee has expectations of their employer. Some are based on pay and work conditions but there is also an expectation of how their employer will treat other employees. They expect a degree of competence to lead the group. And most even welcome a degree of discipline just to keep the team focused.
In a free society people leave organizations when the leaders fail to lead. Poor employers struggle to keep employees. Of course, organizations can survive poor leadership. Employers can pay higher salaries or offer paths for advancement. Charities have a mission which may transcend a poor leader. But there is a natural tension in every organization where the leader is challenged to meet expectations. Ultimately, organizations grow as they incorporate people into their cause. Businesses grow as they add customers and employees. Economists get lost in the profit maximizing role of corporations but the sociologist recognizes it is fundamentally an organization composed of people who interact with one another based on defined relationships. The growth of any business is first and foremost a sociological phenomenon rather than an economic one.
Of course, politics is different. There are clear winners and losers. Moreover, their decisions have the force of the state. But politicians have surprisingly little influence on public policy. They are paranoid about how others will perceive their decisions in office. Elected officials are wary of how their votes will become interpreted by their base, swing voters and key constituencies. Garett Jones has argued politicians become increasingly responsive as elections approach. But this assumption has become overstated in recent years. The recent impeachment trial of Donald Trump demonstrated how politicians are afraid to challenge their constituencies even after recent elections. Indeed, politicians who plan to retire are afraid to challenge their constituents out of fear of their reputation.
The true power of a leader hinges on their own replaceability. Robert Michels emphasizes how leaders of socialist parties are regarded as irreplaceable for their knowledge, experience and dedication to the cause. But leaders are replaceable. Businesses deal with leadership transitions frequently. Some managers are exceptional. But others are simply run of the mill and are easily replaced from within the organization. Robert Michels, of course, overvalues leadership. Some organizations recognize the leader or manager is less important than those they manage. Professional sports typically pay the players more than their coaches. Other companies might pay their creative talent more than their executives. Industrial companies may value the input of an experienced welder more than the production manager. Irreplaceability is not restricted to leadership. It is found in different parts of organizations where a person’s influence takes on a greater significance than their title might indicate.
It fascinates me how academics turn organizations into abstractions. Leaders have an intimate relationship with those who follow them. Michels’ oligarchical interpretation misidentifies the insecurities of the leader who strives to meet the expectations of those who follow them. Their position depends on their ability to command respect. In a true oligarchy, they have resources to force their will upon others. But even this power is not unlimited because their resources depend on the participation of others. Every great leader recognizes their behavior is often defined by the expectations of those they are supposed to lead.
jmk, carmel, indiana, firstname.lastname@example.org
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