[FOUNTAIN]‘The iron law of oligarchy’ holds sway

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[FOUNTAIN]‘The iron law of oligarchy’ holds sway

“It is the organization which gives birth to the dominion of the elected over the electors, of the mandatories over the mandators, of the delegates over the delegators,” said German sociologist Robert Michels. He claimed that in every society, a few leaders rule over the masses. Despite holding elections, any organization will always be under the rule of an elite group. He called elections a tool to disguise the rule of an oligarchy. He called this theory the “iron law of oligarchy” in his book “Political Parties.”
In this 1911 work, he analyzed the Social Democratic parties of Germany and Italy. These parties were progressive political forces that confronted the extreme right faction and advocated democracy and equality. But Mr. Michels contended that even their internal organizations were bureaucratic and elitist, just like conservative parties.
He said there were three elements to constituting an oligarchy. The first is the emergence of a career leader. Then the organization of his supporters would build the framework of an oligarchy. Then the thoughtless masses would go wild with enthusiasm over the leader and an oligarchy would smoothly establish itself.
Regardless of ideology, once an organization is formed an oligarchy would inevitably emerge, said Mr. Michels. Therefore, a similar phenomenon can be observed not just in political parties but also in the organizations of labor unions, churches, schools and social clubs.
In principle, the expression “iron law” is taboo in social science because no social phenomenon can be defined in one term without exception. But Mr. Michels called oligarchy an “iron law” because a few will rule the masses in any society or organization. He even called oligarchy a cruel fate of history.
Now that we are facing the National Assembly elections, Mr. Michels’s theory could be seen as ridiculing democracy. But considering the political reality, it is hard to view the law of oligarchy as wrong. After all, Mr. Michels’s theory is a long-debated subject in political science.
What would Mr. Michels say if he were here to witness Korea’s National Assembly elections? He might call them a necessary formality to maintain the rule of oligarchy. Then, what alternatives can the political parties and the candidates offer as they pledge their service to the people?


by Nahm Yoon-ho

The writer is a deputy city news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
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