The Iron Law of Oligarchy revisited
Conventional wisdom assigns Mosca, Pareto, and Michels to the Right. However, a similar point was made by Sidney Webb, the Fabian who, together with his wife Beatrice Webb, was one of the founders of the British Labor Party. Sidney noted, [n]othing in England is done without the consent of a small intellectual yet practical class in London, not 2,000 in number." Edwardian England was both centralized and close-knit, and probably one has to assume a larger, more diffuse elite in other countries.
At all events, in a large modern society such as America the ruling elite comprises the following: 1) the bureaucratic "permanent government" in Washington DC and in the state capitals; 2) elected officials above a certain level; 3) the super-rich insofar as they take an interest in politics; 4) heads of corporations and a few union bosses; 5) heads of think tanks, foundations, and "pressure groups"; 6) fancy lawyers and jurists; 7) the upper echelons of journalism and the media; and 8) a motley crew of popular-culture figures, scientists, academics, and independent intellectuals.
With very little effort one could draw up a comprehensive roster of these A-list individuals. In this country I would estimate that they number no more than 20,000, probably less. To all intents and purposes, the rest of us simply do not count. Still, it is in the interest of the ruling elite to convince us that we do, by commending dutiful, unflagging attention to the trivia dispensed by the news media, volunteering for political canvassing, engaging in voting, and so forth. Sadly, as recent developments have shown, these are e m p t y r i t u a l s.
How can I say that voting is an empty ritual in our country? Of course it isn’t rigged as in some other places. Yet the degree to which voting matters has been gradually whittled down. It is said that, because of gerrymandering, only about fifteen congressional districts (out of 435) are competitive. Whoever one votes for among the main body of 420, the incumbent will be invariably be returned to office. During the presidential campaign I kept asking Kerry supporters how their candidate differed from president Bush in any major policy area. The most they could come up with was that he would be able to get on better with European leaders. Even if true, that would be a matter of style, not substance. A sizeable portion of the population favored early withdrawal from Iraq, yet they were only given a marginal candidate, Dennis Kucinich. Cynical though this sounds, the fix was in.
Not so long ago the Democrats constituted the party of big government, the Republicans the party of not-so-big government. No longer. Now they compete to see who can waste more money. Half a century ago sociologists identified this phenomenon as "marginal differentiation." There are differences, but tiny ones having to do more with style than anything else.
For some who retain their faith, as I do not, in the mirage of attaining Good Government through mass participation, the result is perpetual, increasing frustration. One is led down the primrose path of consummate political junkiedom, accumulating ever more baggage in the form of details of the political process--only to find oneself shut out from any meaningful participation. Dressed to the nines in Yankee-Doodle garb, one has nowhere to go. To be sure, one can toil over letters to major publications, which are occasionally actually printed. Even so, few notice them. It is easier to get onto the radio call-in shows—-where one’s ephemeral voice quickly sinks into the enveloping miasma of rant and bloviation.
It doesn’t matter whether one is liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican, the gestalt remains the same. The perfect symbol--in a way the patron saints--of this dumb show is the power-couple James Carville and Mary Matalin. These two eminentos are only ostensibly concerned with advancing the interests of their respective political parties. Their real aim is the consolidation of the Iron Law of Oligarchy, the perpetuation of the political class to which they both so fervently subscribe. Many years ago I was impressed by a stage performance of Jean Genet’s play "The Blacks" (a kind of modern version of Plato’s myth of the cave). At the end of the play one learned that the exciting conflicts displayed on stage were meaningless, for the real event was taking place off stage. There the analogy ends. Genet envisaged an off-stage revolution. What we actually have is the reverse: off-stage tyranny, with rich rewards for those who play along.
To maintain their grip, the national ruling groups communicate intercontinentally. Heaven forfend, but a powerful, well-placed bomb at the next Davos jamboree would liquidate many of them—though probably not enough to assure change. Like a prudent power couple, these superapparatchiks arrange to be in different places at different times so that some survivors will always be around to secure the fortunes of the Company. Individuals die or drop away, but the ruling elite is immortal.
As Vilfredo Pareto emphasized, the pool of the ruling elite are being constantly and continually transformed, as new members find access. Yet the absolute number of these is small. This changing configuration, shifting by minute adjustments, helps to maintain the Participatory Illusion that would-be players cherish. "If Henry Kissinger could make it to the pinnacle of power, then maybe I can too." Alas, this outcome is very unlikely.
Robert Michels aptly summarized this situation as the Iron Law of Oligarchy. This law applies to all kinds of societies, whether they be nominally democracies, monarchies, or authoritarian states. Moreover, size matters. The bigger the society is the more necessary—or at least convenient—it is that this ruling elite control matters.
In the old USSR this situation came out into the open (after a fashion) in the concept of the Nomenklatura. The term derives from a formal list (always hard to access) of privileged Party members who make all significant decisions. Oddly enough, in that respect the old Soviet Union was more transparent than the US today. As we have seen, however, the social mechanism is generally applicable-—above all to societies like our own, where regrettably its workings are obscured as much as possible.
Does this reality mean that individuals such as ourselves (who do not belong to the ruling elite) can expect to have no influence at all over policy decisions? On the whole that is just what it does mean, though there are some marginal exceptions. If they are wise, elite members in good standing will occasionally consult friends who stand outside the magic circle. However, if these seemingly consultative players seek, as a result, to implement a policy that goes counter to the collective wishes of their comrades, they will be instantly overruled. If it is something that the group has already decided to undertake, the advice of the kibitzer is superfluous. At the end of the day, then, the actual influence the outsiders can bring to bear through this channel is minimal.
It is said that non-elite individuals can make a difference by joining together to form pressure groups. In union there is strength. Even here, though, the influence of non-elitists is slight. The officers of pressure groups are usually themselves members of the elite, whose bidding they are more likely to do than that of their members. Let me give an example. Like millions of other older Americans I belong to the AARP. I opposed their position on prescription drugs, while I support them on preserving social security. In neither case does it matter, for the AARP honchos will do what they wish, not what other people, members of the organization or I may happen to want.
In democratic countries pressure groups often act to shift public opinion. As in the case of the Loving decision (which put an end to unreasonable bans on interracial marriage) the Roe (which ended bans on abortion), it takes time for these changes to set in. We may be witnessing such a sea change in the matter of gay marriages. Ever prudent, the elites realize that it is not prudent to get very far ahead of the consensus opinion on such matters. This mechanism serves, generally though not always, as a check on elite arbitrariness.
Occasionally there are popular upheavals, as in the massive opposition to the Vietnam War. Yet when it came to deposing president Nixon, that change was deftly managed by a few key players among the elite, who had made sure that one of their more pliable colleagues, the dimwitted Gerald Ford, would take the place of his disgraced predecessor. The king is dead, long live the king!
I do in fact see a glimmer of hope in the rise of the blogosphere. A few of the bloggers are very widely read and quoted. Most though are not. The Iron Law of Oligarchy, it seems, governs even the blogosphere. But at least the blogs hasten the process of the circulation of elites. Andrew Sullivan is in; William Safire is out. Fresh faces may mean better policies. Or so we may hope.
At all events, the Bloggernaut is rolling down the pike, for better or worse. The legacy media are right in its path. Pressed also by cable, the old-line TV news services of ABC, CBS, and NBC are on the ropes, losing both viewers and credibility. Seemingly impregnable, the fortress-like New York Times, the ostensibly infallible oracle of bien-pensant liberals everywhere, has been losing altitude, after a scandal forced the insufferable Howell Raines out. Recently, the Times did the unthinkable: it appointed an ombudsman, whose columns appear on Sundays in The Week in Review. Some years back the New York Times began to blur the distinction between the editorial and the news pages; now it is paying the price. After its orgy of sanctimonious Bill Moyers programs (since ceased), PBS now has its back to the wall. Maybe it shouldn’t, but that is what is happening. Whistle blowers are everywhere on the 'Net. As someone who has suffered from the attentions of these folks, I must say that the process of vetting, though not pleasant, is a necessary one.
Until recently it has seemed that the more "news" we citizens absorbed, the more we became aware of our powerlessness. It has not always been that way. When a quick look at the newspaper and half an hour of CBS evening news sufficed, we didn’t much notice our exclusion from decision-making. But now, for those who succumb to the temptation, there are hours and hours of the stuff. We consume it relentlessly, like an obese person with a bottomless bag of chocolate-chip cookies.
The news-making machine is a vast from-to enterprise. They churn the stuff out; we absorb it-—not infrequently in frustration and anger. One of the purposes of this essay is to analyze the source of that growing anger. Perhaps the participatory dimensions of the Internet will relieve the situation. At least it makes bloggers like me happy that some folks (rather than one’s long-suffering significant other, that audience of one) is paying attention to our rants. Yet as I say, the outcome is uncertain. In the past the elites have proven most adroit at one thing—-preserving their hegemony.
In closing, two objections to the above sketch may be noted. First, the analysis seems unduly pessimistic. I would rather say that it is realistic. Besides, it is possible to imagine societies much worse than the managed one we have now. Examples are the kleptocracies that dominate much of the Third World and the anarchy of Somalia. Pareto would have agreed with Churchill that elitist democracy is the worst system in the world—except for every other. Still, it makes sense to go about the world with our eyes open.
The second objection is that mine is a conspiracy theory. Along these lines, there have been attempts to pinpoint the loci of the elite conspiracy—the Club of Rome, the trilateral commission, and the Bohemian Grove clique. My theory is unlike any of these, for it posits a set of arrangements that are looser and pretty much out in the open, if one will simply look to see. There is no need to leave the living room. Watching C-Span on a regular basis shows the ruling-elite folks doing what they do best, talking to each other. One can observe this spectacle, but is not allowed to have any influence.
In this short piece I have presented an ideal type only. What would be needed to put flesh on these bones would be a series of case studies. One might begin with certain think tanks, such as the Council on Foreign Relations and the Rand Corporation. Doubtless such studies exist; the task would be to correlate them.