That ‘Iron Law’ Of Oligarchy Is Back To Haunt Us

The word “oligarchy” has finally come home.

For years, it was a term only used in connection with those big bad and sleazy Mafioso-type businessmen in Russia.

Russia had oligarchs; we didn’t. That became a big difference between the official narrative of what separated our land of the free and the home of the brave from THEM, the snakes in the shades and private planes, in the post-Soviet period.

Actually, I first heard the term oligarchy when I was studying labor history at Cornell a half a lifetime ago. We were taught about something called the “Iron Law of Oligarchy.”

It was a concept coined by Robert Michels, a friend of sociology guru, Max Weber, way back in 1911. Here’s how it was defined in that relic of another age: The Encyclopedia Britannica:

“Michels came to the conclusion that the formal organization of bureaucracies inevitably leads to oligarchy, under which organizations originally idealistic and democratic eventually come to be dominated by a small, self-serving group of people who achieved positions of power and responsibility.  This can occur in large organizations because it becomes physically impossible for everyone to get together every time a decision has to be made.”

So, oligarchies have been with us seemingly forever—it’s an “iron law,” says he–but in current usage the term references the small elite—the 1% of the 1% that dominates economic and political decision making.

Everybody on the liberal left is now discovering information spelled out in a number of studies that caught the attention of Bill Moyers and his writing colleague Michael Winship. They discuss the way governments become partial to oligarchs and insure that the rich rule.

“Inequality is what has turned Washington into a protection racket for the one percent. It buys all those goodies from government: Tax breaks. Tax havens (which allow corporations and the rich to park their money in a no-tax zone). Loopholes. Favors like carried interest. And so on. As Paul Krugman writes in his New York Review of Books essay on Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century,

“We now know both that the United States has a much more unequal distribution of income than other advanced countries and that much of this difference in outcomes can be attributed directly to government action.”

According to the AFL-CIO, “CEOs of major companies earn an average of 331 times more than their employees!” The New York Times reports America’s middle class is “no longer the world’s richest.”

Asking if democracy can “tame” plutocracy, Bob Borosage of the Campaign for America’s Future, cites another study:

“A recent exhaustive study by Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page found that elites got their way not often, but virtually all of the time  (emphasis mine!) I guess the answer to his question re the possibility of “taming” plutocrats is, in the current moment, is a thundering NO.”

Even the barons of business news admit that wealth is concentrated as almost never before, Here’s Bloomberg:

“Just today, the world’s 200 richest people made $13.9 billion. In one single day, according to Bloomberg’s Billionaires Index… This is the Fed’s “wealth effect,” … It’s a construct that the Greenspan Fed conjured up out of thin air and presented to the incredulous American people as a valid economic theory. Bernanke then promoted it to the Fed’s stated raison d’être. His theory: if we immensely enrich during years of bailouts, money-printing, and interest rate repression the richest few thousand people in the world, everyone would be happy somehow.”

Adding critical fire power to this perspective, Eric Zuesse, cites the study to appear in the Fall 2014 issue of the academic journal Perspectives on Politics, that finds that “the U.S. is no democracy, but instead an oligarchy, meaning profoundly corrupt, so that the answer to the study’s opening question, “Who governs? Who really rules?” in this country, is:

“Despite the seemingly strong empirical support in previous studies for theories of majoritarian democracy, our analyses suggest that majorities of the American public actually have little influence over the policies our government adopts…

When the preferences of economic elites and the stands of organized interest groups are controlled for, the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.

To put it short: The United States is no democracy, but actually an oligarchy.”

The underlying research for this study drew on “a unique data set that includes measures of the key variables for 1,779 policy issues.”

Much of this involves what economist Simon Johnston calls the “capture” of the state by corporate interests. He explains in a recent post:

“Before 1939, wages and profits in the financial sector in the United States amounted to less than 1% of GDP; now they stand at 7-8% of GDP. In recent decades, financial assets have expanded dramatically relative to any measure of economic activity, as life expectancy increased and the post-WWII baby boomers began to think about saving for retirement. Compared to the size of the US economy, individual banks are now much bigger than they were in the early 1990’s.”

Sounds pretty frightening—and depressing.

None of us should be shocked by these findings. Last year I did a TV documentary series, Who Rules America based, in part, on the writings of C. Wright Mills on The Power Elite years ago and the detailed research by sociologist William Domhoff who forecast these trends.

As the economy changes, so does internal politics, as Tom Lodge observes in the case of South Africa:

“the degenerative changes that are observed within the ANC … appear to reflect a global trend in which mass parties are being replaced by electoral machines that depend less and less upon militant activism” and more on transactional exchanges between the electorate and the political elite. Amid these electoral limitations, what becomes the source of agency for ordinary people to instruct change in governance?”

What indeed? It behooves us to lobby our media to start reporting on the world as it is, not what it was, when today’s senior editors grew up, believing in the myths of American pluralism.  And, now,  disregarding who really has, and wields, power.

Knock, Knock!

News Dissector Danny Schechter blogs at, and edits His latest book is When South Africa Called, We Answered, How Solidarity Helped Topple Apartheid. (2014). Comments to

14 Comments on "That ‘Iron Law’ Of Oligarchy Is Back To Haunt Us"

  1. Liam_McGonagle | Apr 25, 2014 at 10:44 am |

    Actual democracy isn’t procedurally feasible. Capitalist oligarchy ensures the most stable balance of power; government is vested in the most virtuous and enterprising classes, and in theory, anyone is capable of joining that class given enough pluck and ability.

    • That is the justification given by oligarchs and their media lackeys.

      • Liam_McGonagle | Apr 25, 2014 at 12:45 pm |

        I think history is proving them correct.

        I would prefer democracy, but it depends on the polity having a strong sense of self-interest well understood. That migh have been feasible for small agricultural communities of like-minded people on the edge of the known world in 1600, but those days are over.

        We gave it a good try, but realistically democracy is a pipe dream.

        • AManCalledDa-da | Apr 25, 2014 at 1:49 pm |

          The Cabal likes it when you give up.

          • Liam_McGonagle | Apr 25, 2014 at 1:53 pm |

            I think they like it better when you fight back. Gives them an opportunity to make an example of you to the others. Gibbets have never really gone out of style, they just come up with new designs.

          • S&M



            Slave / Master?

  2. BuzzCoastin | Apr 25, 2014 at 12:47 pm |

    I HEARTILY ACCEPT the motto, — “That government is best which governs least”; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe, — “That government is best which governs not at all”; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.
    Thoreau, On Civil Disobedience

    • Liam_McGonagle | Apr 25, 2014 at 12:54 pm |

      Well, there are elected governments and unelected governments. Only two things are inevitable: death and taxes. Whether they openly call it a “tax” or deceptively call it a “transaction processing fee” is a matter of empty semantics.

    • dafuq we do while so many have their heads in the sand or in other dark places?

  3. Liam_McGonagle | Apr 25, 2014 at 1:40 pm |

    Well, “virtue” is a disappointingly arbitrary concept.

    You’re probably thinking of some vaguely altruistic notion of “virtue” ultimately derived from the foundational doctrines of Early Christianity. That is my preferred variety as well.

    But historically, “virtue” just means the commonly accepted set of preferred values that gives society its order. The early Romans thought of “virtue” in a way closer to the social Darwinian concept that underlies modern Capitalism–“virtue” is the ability to pound the sh*t out of your enemies and extract rents from them by physical violence. Etymologically “virtue” is based upon an Indo European root meaning both “male” and “violence”.

    I suspect we may agree about the “creative disruption” of Capitalism. People would like us to consider it as an economic, not political system, but in actual practice it is both.

    Unchecked, anyone with access to power will seek rents rather than productivity. That always happens, without exception. Sooner or later wealth concentrates to the point where an oligarchy forcibly re-orders laws to destroy any potential competition. Absent a true countervailing political force, Capitalism eventually destroys competition. Hence all the #@#!% failure to get anything done about “net neutrality” right now.

    Anyhow, it probably doesn’t really matter. Nothing lasts forever, and this pipe dream of Capitalist democracy we’ve cultivated for the last couple hundred years has run its course. Time for violent chaos again.

    • Anarchy Pony | Apr 25, 2014 at 1:50 pm |

      Essentially I agree. And on a totally unrelated note, now I must go drink…

    • DrDavidKelly | Apr 27, 2014 at 1:04 am |

      Me too. It’s a little like Windows … it seemed really good but then we found it had all these problems built right into the OS. With capitalism we got the formation of monopolies, oligarchies (as mentioned here), the endless growth paradigm which flies right in the face of a finite earth … to mention but a few. Post-capitalism is necessary and inevitable. It seems like it will be a violent affair too because the 1% don’t want to give it up plus they got a lot of firepower. On the other hand we got the numbers.

  4. James Page | Apr 25, 2014 at 9:37 pm |

    The question is given the apparently overwhelming evidence presented in this article which simply underscores the opinion of countless scholars, investigators and historians et al, is it at all possible to create a viable democracy based on the social experiment known as the Unite States of America? Put another way, what’s the point if the conclusions of these studies consistently point to the same thing over and again? Leaving aside certain spiritual conclusions concerning reasons why things are the way they are socially and culturally, is humanity even capable of a sustained and true authentic democratic approach? Otherwise why continue to tell us the conclusions of the studies which point to the corruption and the degenerative transformation?

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