“Political Parties,” published by the German political theorist Roberto Michels in 1911, is a relatively obscure book. But in this book, Michels offers a concept that has increasing relevance today, the “Iron Law of Oligarchy.” This law is summed up reasonably well in its Wikipedia entry:
“According to Michels all organizations eventually come to be run by a ‘leadership class’, who often function as paid administrators, executives, spokespersons, political strategists, organizers, etc. for the organization. Far from being ‘servants of the masses’, Michels argues this ‘leadership class,’ rather than the organization’s membership, will inevitably grow to dominate the organization’s power structures. By controlling who has access to information, those in power can centralize their power successfully, often with little accountability, due to the apathy, indifference and non-participation most rank-and-file members have in relation to their organization’s decision-making processes. Michels argues that democratic attempts to hold leadership positions accountable are prone to fail, since with power comes the ability to reward loyalty, the ability to control information about the organization, and the ability to control what procedures the organization follows when making decisions. All of these mechanisms can be used to strongly influence the outcome of any decisions made ‘democratically’ by members. Michels stated that the official goal of representative democracy of eliminating elite rule was impossible, that representative democracy is a façade legitimizing the rule of a particular elite, and that elite rule, which he refers to as oligarchy, is inevitable.”
When Michels came up with this, the technological tools that enabled the powerful to control information were newspapers and radio. The bureaucracies that constituted the “leadership class” were also limited by the technologies available 100 years ago.
Today, two corporations, Google and Facebook, control over half the news and information being viewed by Americans. Our government bureaucracies have the ability to monitor every credit transaction, every email, all online activity. By tracking our phones and the GPS systems in our cars, they know where we go. With facial recognition software and ubiquitous cameras, they can find us even without our phones or our cars. Soon, if not already, they will be able to follow us with drones and micro-drones. Before long, they’ll even be able to disable us or arrest us using robotic devices.
If Michels is right, that the increasing capacities of bureaucratic organizations makes rule by elites inevitable, than the challenges that poses to 21st century democracies dwarf those of 100 years ago. And in this context, the union takeover of our government bureaucracies becomes all the more ominous. Because it underscores the one of the most unrecognized and under-reported scandals of our time: Government unions are not protecting us from oligarchy. They are enforcing it.
It is risky to assert that the communications and information revolution guarantees the advance of freedom and liberty. It’s even risky to assert that these advances guarantee the advance of democracy. Because the sophistication of these new technologies are matched not only by their ability to monitor every American, but by their ability to manipulate. The oligarchs have the wealth, the bureaucrats have the power. Which means that for the most part, their propagandists write the words, and their programmers write the algorithms.
As a consequence, many of the questions we should be asking are largely off the table. Should we slow down immigration and allow our culture time to assimilate recent arrivals? Should we slap tariffs on products that are dumped into our market? Should we assert family values and the virtues of Western Civilization? Should we break up big banks, enforce the “Volcker Rule,” and eliminate the carried interest loophole? Should we stop engaging in endless wars of “nation building” and focus instead on strategic and technological superiority, which would cost less and deliver long term security? Should we develop all forms of clean energy, and redirect our environmental priorities to preserving global fisheries and wildlife? Should we force schools to be accountable and compete for students by offering choices?
No. No. No. No. No. No. And No. Why? Because these policies are not profitable to oligarchs, whose investments are global and whose monopolies benefit from an over-regulated market where emerging small innovators can’t compete. These policies are also anathema to the bureaucracy, because they would elevate the quality of life for the average American – which would mean less unionized government. The more social fragmentation, the more government. The more dependency and poverty, the more government. The more war, the more government.The more rules and restrictions, the more government. The more ignorance, the more government.
The iron law of oligarchy is alive and well in 21st century America, with a twist or two. The corrupt elitist coalition that has undermined American liberties – and is just getting started – is comprised of oligarchs and government unions. One may argue that America has always been an oligarchy. But the rise of high technology and unionized government may spell the difference between a benevolent oligarchy, if there is such a thing, and an authoritarian one.
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Ed Ring is the president of the California Policy Center.