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.

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