Oligarchies Research Paper Starter


This article presents an overview of oligarchy and its inception. From a historical perspective, Robert Michels's work is introduced and his definition of the "iron law of oligarchy" presents insight into ways organizations are governed and power is distributed. Michels first concluded his analysis of oligarchy in terms of the German Social Democratic Party, but this article will further explore and overview the concept in terms of specific organizations and leadership within other organizations. Applications are made that present an oligarchical framework in terms of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the British Communist Party, and women in the professional fields. Issues are explored that review definitional impacts and the impact of formal authority as opposed to informal authority. A conclusion is given that indicates the need for further research into the nature and impact of oligarchy on different organizations and structures.

Keywords Bureaucracy; Leaders; Michels’s Law of Oligarchy; Oligarchies; Rank-and-File Members

Social Interaction in Groups


Robert Michels (1915), Vilfredo Pareto (1935), and Max Weber (1946) are considered the sociological forefathers of the study of organizational structures and organizational change. These theorists proposed a number of hypotheses, theories, and laws concerning organizational structures and change. While many organizational researchers emphasized either inconsistencies or ideological systems of belief by analyzing actual organizational behavior and change, Robert Michels (1915) identified organizational inconsistencies when he analyzed and interpreted organizational phenomenon within the German Social Democratic Party. He stated: "Whoever says organization, says oligarchy” (Michels, 1962, p. 365).

Michels (1915) indicated that all organizations regardless of governing procedures or philosophical underpinnings will eventually transform to oligarchy, which is defined as "an organization that is controlled by an elite group consisting of a few members, “and the organizational tendency towards oligarchy is known as the "iron law of oligarchy." Moreover, Michels further indicated that oligarchy occurs in democratic organizations after a process of separation of leadership from the masses or those governed. While leaders may arise spontaneously, their functions are superfluous and ornamental; however, as leaders become more professional, they become "stable and irremovable" (p. 393-409; 417-418). Furthermore, Michels envisioned "organic necessity" as a resulting tendency that is present in all large organizations. The tendency within large organizations toward oligarchy is due to both the large size and an elaborate division of labor that requires centralization and regulation in order for effective action to occur (p. 421). Michels (1915) also indicated that leaders have a tendency to organize themselves and consolidate their interests and for the masses to develop a sense of gratitude towards leaders and results in the manifestation of apathy, immobility, passivity, and immaturity among the masses. Moreover, the apathetic masses develop an "incurable incompetence for the solutions of the diverse problems which present themselves for solution, because the mass per se is amorphous, and therefore, needs divisions of labor, specialization, and guidance" (p. 421). Apathy among impassive rank-and-file members of an organization further perpetuates the organization's tendency toward oligarchy.

Despite the fact that Michels was "a dedicated socialist at the time," he "concluded that in modern society, socialism and democracy were both structurally impossible-that the very principle of organization made oligarchy the inevitable result or any organized collective endeavor" (Leach, 2005, p. 312). Moreover, Michels (1962) created his famous "iron law of oligarchy." This law indicates that regardless of democratic ideologies and forms, organizations almost always evolve toward rule by an established elite. Subsequent research (Brulle, 2000; Hall, 1999; Scheuch, 1993) suggested that Michels’s model may be broadly applicable to a multitude of voluntary organizations.

According to Michels's "iron law," three basic claims can be made. First, bureaucracy occurs in large-scale organizations, because, as an organization develops, it requires more efficient administration, resulting in the creation of a formal hierarchy and division of labor. Second, as an organization becomes more bureaucratic, power expands. The structure of a rational-bureaucratic organization concentrates power within the organization's professional leaders, granting them a monopoly on skills, knowledge, and resources. Once this leadership, or "power elite," consolidates its power, it will seek to maintain its power, even if it must deviate from the organization's interests or employ undemocratic means to do so (Leach, 2005, p. 313).

Michels (1962) further indicated that leadership positions in voluntary organizations are prestigious and the combination of prestige and remuneration make leadership attractive. Based on the fact that leadership is time consuming and may require high levels of expertise and experience, leaders with experience become irreplaceable. As a result decision making must be made quickly, which disables the democratic process and creates an atmosphere of apathy, because organization members may lack the skills, knowledge, and time to participate in the democratic process. Therefore, members abdicate participation in democratic leadership in favor of oligarchical leaders (Markham, Walters, & Bonjean, 2001, p. 106).

M. E. Olson (1968) identified and interpreted major points made by Michels and stated the following:

  • Centralized coordination and regulation in organizations can be attributed to the large size and division of labor in organizations.
  • A few elite leaders make speedy and efficient decisions for the collective population.
  • As incumbent leaders develop special skills and experience in running an organization, they become essential to the maintenance of the organization and other members of the organization are then unable to deprive them of power.
  • As leaders within an organization develop a network of personal influence, they develop the formalized right to higher ranking positions in office, which increases the leader's power.
  • As leaders in organizations acquire control of organizational finances, communications, evaluative procedures, leaders then can utilize all of these practices to their advantage.
  • Leaders can thwart or absorb challengers, because they tend have higher degrees of unity with other leaders.
  • Most "rank-and-file" members of organizations tend to be passive and apathetic regarding problems of the organization and willingly leave problems of leadership to individuals willing to assume them (Olson, 1968, p. 310).

Overall, it has been argued by many theorists that oligarchies or oligarchical tendencies exist in various organizations and other organized groups. In order to understand ways organizations or organized groups are impacted by oligarchy, a short review of literature is necessary. Finally, organizations or groups will be surveyed and include the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), the British Communist Party, and women in professional fields.


The Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW)

Within the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), evidence of oligarchy exists in three ways. First, the leadership and rank-and-file members are divided into two groups. These two groups are the drinkers or social members of the organizations and the leaders or "working members" of the organization. Between these two groups, evidence suggested that more respect was given to the "leadership group" or "working members." The working members generally hold positions of authority in the organization and are actively involved in work at the local, state, and national level. From a military perspective, many working members held non-commissioned officer ranks The respect given by the social group to the working group is not reciprocal, and in fact, research has shown that the relationship between the leadership group and the drinking group was met with contempt and hostility, because the "old boozers" were seen as impeding the growth and operation of the organization. In fact, drinking members were described as inarticulate, ill-informed, or were not at ease socially. They were only concerned with local club activity and during interviews quickly referred researchers to leaders who might answer in-depth questions regarding organizational structures, business, and decision making. Based on these observations, researchers indicated that the phenomenon revealed during their case study demonstrated that Michels's observations regarding leadership in large organizations appeared to have validity (Fox & Arquitt, 1981, p. 207- 208).

Second, within the leadership ranks of the VFW, leadership positions were passed around. Examples of this phenomenon were indicated when several working members presently holding leadership positions introduced other members to researchers by saying, "You need to meet Jim. He's the next post commander after Sam does his time." Despite the fact that the organizational constitution outlined a democratic procedure for guaranteeing every member the right to hold office, both social members and working members could identify the next person to hold positions of leadership within the VFW. Moreover, potential leaders within the organization could maintain control of leadership by staying in the inner circle of other leaders. One post commander indicated,

Certainly everyone has the same rights within the organization, but,…many people don't care. If we want to grow...

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