Tuesday, May 15, 2007


On a bright, sunny day during the campaign, I caught a ride with the future mayor back to campaign headquarters, better known as The Doublewide. I said to him, "I've been thinking about these insiders we keep talking about" -- a big part of our campaign platform was against The Insiders -- "and it occurred to me that a lot of these people were reformists 30 years ago."

At this, Mark kind of laughed and nodded his head.

"So do you ever wonder if we'll wind up the same way?" I asked.

Mark immediately said no, claiming he's "too old" to fall into such pitfalls. "Besides, that's why I have you," he added. "To keep me from (messing) up."

But, he admitted, there is this thing known as "The Iron Law of Oligarchy." It's an old political science theory, advanced by a man named Robert Michels in the early 20thn Century. Michels studied labor movements in Europe in the 19th Century and he found that they invariably lost their democratic and populist spirits and were taken over by exclusive groups of insiders. They inevitably became oligarchies.

When I pressed Mark a little bit on his optimism and resolve, he admitted, "I'm as human as anyone." But, he said, "I have a lot of faith in democracy."

I went ahead and ordered Michels' Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy. I cracked it a couple of weeks ago. It's kind of bleak. From the introduction, by Seymour Martin Lipset:
It is organization which gives birth to the domination of the elected over the electors, of the mandataries over the mandators, of the delgates over the delegators. Who says organization says oligarchy.

These words, first published in 1911, sum up Michels' famous "iron law of oligarchy." In Political Parties, Robert Michels, then a young German sociologist, laid down what has come to be the major argument against Rousseau's concept of direct popular democracy which underlay much of the traditional democratic and socialist theory. For Michels argued that the malfunctioning of existing democracy, in particular the domination by the leadership over the society and popular organizations, was not primarily a phenomenon which resulted from a low-level of social and economic development, inadequate education, or capitalist control of the opinion-forming media and other power resources, but rather was characteristic of any complex social system. Oligarchy, the control of a society or organization by those at the top, is an intrinsic part of bureaucracy or large-scale organization. Modern man, according to him, is faced with an unresolvable dilemma: he cannot have large institutions such as naton states, trade unions, political parties, or churches, without turning over effective power to the few who are at the summit of these institutions.

A pretty high hurdle.

But then, it'd also make for a wicked good debate card.

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