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Iron Law of Oligarchy

The concept of the “Iron Law of Oligarchy” was first introduced in Robert Michels’ 1915 study of political parties and refers to the tendency over time of these organizations to be run by a small cadre of leaders, even if an organization intended to run as a democracy.  Michels argues that democracy is nearly impossible to maintain within an organization, because as an organization grows larger, representative democracy becomes difficult as large groups eventually will be unable to fit into a single room and make decisions quickly.  As a result, leaders will emerge to ease the decision-making process.  These leaders may initially be replaceable, but as leaders become specialized and obtain technical knowledge of an organization, they become more difficult to replace. Michels suggests the tendency to equate specialized knowledge with authority further compounds the issue, widening the gap between the leaders from those being led; a void that formal education also can widen. Thus, an oligarchy of leaders becomes entrenched, as fewer people hold the expertise and the standing needed to break the narrow circle of leadership.   The “iron” part of this law comes from Michels’ declaration that this tendency toward oligarchization is nearly universal across social structures and the cycle is unlikely to ever be broken.  The best one can do is to keep the oligarchical tendencies in check.

The iron law of oligarchy is useful for understanding the emergence and persistence of leaders within religious structures, but also may be useful for Michels’ suggestion that the best defense against oligarchization is to keep these tendencies from become too widespread.  Social movements are one way to provide a check on these systems and, as religious organizations have been central to many social movements,  this concept may help to explain the motivation for and consequences of some religious or religiously involved social movements.

References

Michels, Robert. 1962 [1915]. Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy. New York: Dover.

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