The Iron Law of Oligarchy?

Shadia B. Drury

Americans tend to have a romantic view of democracy as government of the people, by the people, and for the people. They imagine that democracy is identical to freedom and self-government. They forget that democracy is primarily rule of the majority. They forget that the majority can be hoodwinked by the propaganda of demagogues, oligarchs, and theocrats to relinquish its interests and liberties.

It is time to consider a more prosaic understanding of democracy that is associated with the so-called “democratic revisionists” or “elite theorists.” As Roberto Michels maintained in his Political Parties, no society can escape the “iron law of oligarchy.” All governments involve the rule of elites—and democracy is no exception. As Joseph Schumpeter asserted in Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, democracy needs to be redefined as the rule of elites competing for power. It is not necessary that these elites represent alternative ideologies. It suffices that they provide elite competition that would undermine corruption. If a society is liberal as well as democratic, its elites will be established on the basis of merit—not heredity.

This realistic view of democracy is to be distinguished from the folksy view where the people choose representatives who proceed to carry out their will. In truth, there is no such thing as “the will of the people.” The people have conflicting and often incompatible wills. It follows that the people cannot rule. So, is democracy a fiction? No. Democracy—like any other form of government—is as good as its leading figures. Even the legendary democracy of Athens depended for its success on the leadership of Pericles. After his death, inferior leaders came to power. The democracy deteriorated; Athens lost the war with Sparta and descended into a reign of terror orchestrated by oligarchic extremists who were students of Socrates. It recovered only after a civil war and the rise of new and more honorable elites.

Even by this minimal understanding of democracy, the United States is not a democracy. The competition between elites—Republican and Democratic—is a façade. The differences between them are minute. Both parties serve the interests of their wealthy donors, not the people who elected them. It follows that the United States is an oligarchy—rule of the rich in the interest of the rich. In the wealthiest country on the planet, the country that presents itself as the liberal democratic model for the world, Philip Alston, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on extreme poverty, reported that forty million Americans live in conditions of crushing poverty. As his report reveals, American poverty is more troubling than poverty in other parts of the world because it is the direct result of government policies. Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, denounced the report as ridiculous on the grounds that the United States is the richest country in the world, but that is precisely what makes so much poverty obscene.

The “iron law of oligarchy” need not be so ironclad. There are limits to the excesses of the rule of the rich. In the history of ancient Athens, when the oligarchy became too exploitative, one of the oligarchs was inspired to rise up and create a tyranny in the name of the people—the demos. In Rome, Julius Caesar emerged as a tyrant from the class of patricians or nobles in the name of the downtrodden masses. The rise of Donald Trump in the American election of 2016 should be a warning to America’s ruling elites.

Trump presented himself as the defender of workers against the corruption and indifference of the elites. He promised to stem the tide of globalization, restore the prosperity of working men and women, increase taxes on the rich, and provide health care for all. He also promised to end the “stupid wars” in which only the children of the lower classes are dying—not the children of the elites in Congress who concoct these wars.

So, no matter how much help he got from Russia and no matter how vulgar, ignorant, and inexperienced, Trump deserved to win because he was the only candidate running against the untenable policies of the established elites—Democratic as well as Republican. These political parties have turned American democracy into a radical oligarchy.

Not surprisingly, there was trepidation in Washington that Trump would ride the beast of class warfare. But much to the delight of the oligarchs and their friends in Congress, Trump turned out to be an incompetent swindler. His talent lies in destruction of what the poor need most—health care, social security, environmental regulations, and the bargaining power of labor unions. He has allied himself with the oligarchs and the theocrats. He has convinced his supporters that their real enemy is not the economy, which is rigged against them, but the legal and illegal immigrants who supposedly take their jobs. He has convinced his supporters that their real enemy is not the theocrats bent on robbing them of personal freedom but the latté liberals.

The idea that Donald Trump is destined to be nothing more than a toxic memory followed by a return to politics as usual is a mistake. The resentment that he represents cannot be appeased without substantive reforms. His supporters are likely to find another champion who is more intelligent and honorable and is daring enough to sweep away laws that serve the interests of the plutocracy along with any other restraints on the will of the majority. The result will be a radical or populist democracy. Populism is not a right-wing or left-wing phenomenon; it is a democratic phenomenon. Yes, elites always rule, but they cannot rule indefinitely without the consent or the voluntary compliance of the governed. This is why the flip side of the iron law of oligarchy is the iron law of democracy.

Shadia B. Drury

Shadia B. Drury is professor emerita at the University of Regina in Canada. Her most recent book is The Bleak Political Implications of Socratic Religion (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).


Americans tend to have a romantic view of democracy as government of the people, by the people, and for the people. They imagine that democracy is identical to freedom and self-government. They forget that democracy is primarily rule of the majority. They forget that the majority can be hoodwinked by the propaganda of demagogues, oligarchs, …

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