The Iron Law of Oligarchy (new glossary entry)

The iron law of oligarchy is a political theory, first developed by the German sociologist Robert Michels in his 1911 book, Political Parties. It claims that rule by an elite, or oligarchy, is inevitable as an “iron law” within any democratic organization as part of the “tactical and technical necessities” of organization.

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” will inevitably grow to dominate the organization’s power structures rather than its membership. 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.


  1. B. Simard says:

    The USA has always been an oligarchy. But early on,wasn’t there genuine concern for the common good on the part of the leaders? Also there was the concept of America as an entity deserving of high regard and protection exemplified in Walt Whitman’s civil war poem “O Captain! My Captain!”.
    All that’s gone. What’s left is the ugly spectacle of elite power-grabbing and self-enrichment. The American people are now just some kind of biomass to be manipulated and controlled by their betters.

    1. johndjasper says:

      The problem is that we’ve been fed the mythology of the Founding Fathers (note how we revere just the mention of them!) since childhood and it’s difficult, maybe even dangerous, to think rationally about them. A useful tell is comparing the rhetoric used to sell the new Constitution and the Federal government to the people of the independent States with that used by the same people when the Constitution stood in their way after adoption. Suddenly the guarantee of “only expressly granted” permissions changed to “not expressly prohibited!”

      It’s safe to say that the local ruling elite saw an opportunity for a management buy out and, with leverage from the French, cut the cord from the British. The rhetoric made it sound like a great leap for mankind but, even if not completely by design, the result was really just a new form of tyranny.

      PS: I’m happy to provide references to support my position.

  2. Brian says:

    Monica, as usual after reading one of your posts I have no answers. Just questions. Is a ruling elite a step up from rule by Royal families? At least the opportunity for anyone to move into the ruling class regardless of heritage exists. Is anarchy different from tribalism? Historically tribalism is overrun by a power run by elitists.

    1. johndjasper says:

      If I may, the ruling elite apparently follows the same example as the mafia, families ruling and handing down power to their offspring. The only difference is the associated mythology – divine rule, consent of the governed – attached to government.

      You can not move into the ruling elite but, if you’re willing to sell your soul, you can become a trusted minion. Alternatively, you can tool up and replace the elite with your own family but that would be difficult especially in the information age. You’d be spotted well in advance of becoming a serious threat. (Note that I’m not speaking from personal experience 🙂 )

      1. goksrm says:

        I’ve always said the government put the mafia out of business so they could have their business. However, instead of putting them out of business, they formed a partnership (aka syndicate). The only way to end this is to elect someone who will prosecute the previous administration and retract laws and regulations that take the powers away from the states. Now I am not a lawyer, but if our Secretary of State says according to his recent commencement address that we are unable to secure our borders, is he not saying he is incapable of following the constitution to protect our borders. If he is not complying to his obligation, is he not in contempt?

        1. johndjasper says:

          Wow! On quick skim, that’s on par with Iron Mountain for eye opening / thought provoking! Will read properly next time I’m on desktop pc.

  3. johndjasper says:

    Astute observations by Michels. Did he ever realise that this is why anarchy is the only hope for freedom and peace?

    1. anarcho-monarchist says:

      He as an anarcho-syndicalist when he formulated this law.

      It’s very wishy-washy to imagine that the law doesn’t apply from an anarchic starting point as well, unless there’s some sort of “anti-state” whose sole function is to enforce an utopic anarchic ideal-communism-like state of egalitarian “hierarchylessness”.

  4. Tony says:

    Home run. Unfortunately I believe that the ruling class are fully aware of this principle. You see the same behavior in all organizations. Sadly the masses are not aware. They’re to busy paying for Obamas road trips courtesy of our tax dollars. The framers of this nation went to war with a super powers for less. we the masses need to grow some.
    Keep the fight
    I’ll stay in the race as long as you do

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