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Political Science: The Iron Law of Oligarchy


Discuss about the Political Science for The Iron Law of Oligarchy.



IS Robert Michels "Iron Law of Oligarchy" Too Pessimistic? 

In 1915, Robert Michels, a German Sociologist has developed a political theory named “The Iron law of oligarchy”. The term oligarchy refers to small group of people such as trade union or political party having a control on an organization or country. The essay will detail the political theory and perform a critical analysis of the law to answer the question- is Robert Michels’ "Iron law of oligarchy" too pessimistic? In this context, the essay will discuss the elite rule in the society and its impact.  A thorough literature review will be performed to support the essay with facts. Based on the discussion, the essay will draw a conclusion.

As per Tolbert (2013) the iron law states that all forms of the organization eventually establish oligarchy irrespective of its democratic or autocratic nature. Michel believed that oligarchy is established due to conditions such as large size of organization, leader’s tendency to organize themselves and consolidate their interests, technical indispensability of leadership and the general immobility and passivity of the masses (Welser 2015). With the growth of an organization, the participation of the members in decision-making increasingly becomes difficult and slow process. It becomes difficult to assemble all the members of the organization at the time of decision-making. Hence, it demands delegation of responsibility. In such situation, the power increasingly inheres in the leadership as they develop the sense of solidarity and it limits the democratic control of the members (Shaw and Hill 2014). It is a very likely situation in every organization although it appears pessimistic, bleak and apathetic.

Michels justified the iron law stating that in large organizations the leaders tends to fend off criticisms. They try to ward off displacement efforts by the membership to maintain their positions (Hill 2013). It is the chance of survival of an organization, which determines the leader has continued position (Voss 2015). Therefore, Michels believed that it is highly likely that leaders guide the organization in conservative direction to minimize the possibilities of social sanctioning or disbanding of the organization (Welser 2015). (Martin 2015) comments that it is the evolutionary developments in organizations, which gave rise to Michels’ pessimistic conclusion, “He who says organization, says oligarchy”.

According to Shaw and Hill (2014), the iron law suggested that organizations can ensure that the file and rank members remain active, to prevent the leaders from acquiring an absolute control of a centralized administration. It is necessary to address this cohesive action of leaders else, it will lead to cooptation of individual rank-and-file members. To prevent oligarchies the organizations may follow strategies such as open communication, avoiding ritualism, transparent decision-making system and over-conformity to rules provided it turns too pessimistic (Bressanelli 2014).

Tolbert (2013) believes that the Iron law of oligarchy is devastating and pessimistic as it undermines both liberal-democratic and Marxist theories – “the viability of democracy as direct rule of people”. Marxists were justified in their view, that democracy is impossible without the greater economic equality. However, it is a fact that economically egalitarian society cannot stop the generation of elites in any society (Welser 2015). For example, the USSR oligarchy was present and sustained throughout the USSR history. The USA established the ‘two party rule’ to appear less brutal and pessimistic but efficiently sustained the rule of oligarchy (Martin 2015). The US policies of promoting democracy are based on the economic and imperial interests as stated by (Shaw and Hill 2014). It is evident in the regime changes related to “geopolitical and economic energy security considerations” to manipulate the people (Bressanelli 2014). These changes mark the friendly version of national oligarchy coming to power. Such changes focus less on democracy and more on the defense of population interests (Bainbridge 2013). Therefore, the iron laws of Michels appear too pessimistic as the large-scale organization appears to be completely incompatible with democracy.

Recently, there is an emergence of global elite and is represented by financial oligarchy exhibited by international organization such as World Bank (Tolbert 2013). Thus, the iron law of oligarchy is no more restricted to state borders rather operate on a transnational level. It is the outcome of large international organizations, which is concentrating top echelons of elites of G7 countries (Martin 2015). According to Bressanelli (2014) financial oligarchy, betrays the interests of people in home country. It is the tax layer and is parasitic in nature. It helps bank in collecting significant amount of taxpayer subsidies. Thus, the financial elite is a sophisticated version of the law of oligarchy (Voss 2015). This financial elite help establish the financial moguls their own virtual nation. It gives this super rich citizens power to buy houses and maintain assets outside their home country at the international taxpayers' expense. They enjoy being above law unless they commit crime against another super citizen (Shaw and Hill 2014). Consequently, there is a wide gap between rich and the non-rich and its consequences are prominent since several years.

It is an iron law that democracy leads to oligarchy, as leadership is technically indispensable. At an organizational level, it is too likely but is bleak and apathetic. The financial oligarchy is compromising the needs and interest of natives. Ordinary people live in home country while the superrich elements pursue self-interests by contributing less to the economic growth. The pessimistic and brutal nature of global elite is giving rise to income disparities. The gap between the rich and the non-rich will keep growing as the superrich citizens continue to rob people with divisive social issues and crises. Greed is good to some extent but overwhelming corruption of power leads to cynical amorality. The problem is not with the leadership but with the leaders who are detached from needs of masses. Economic equality is essential for equal growth opportunities of people and development of country. Conclusively, the law of oligarchy is too pessimistic. Therefore, the essay clearly depicts that Robert Michels "iron law of oligarchy" is too pessimistic.


Bainbridge, W.S., 2013. The Iron Law. Journal For Virtual Worlds Research,6(3).

Bressanelli, E., 2014. Necessary deepening? How political groups in the European Parliament adapt to enlargement. Journal of European Public Policy, 21(5), pp.776-792.

Hill, B.M., 2013. Essays on volunteer mobilization in peer production(Doctoral dissertation, Massachusetts Institute of Technology).

Martin, E.J., 2015. Oligarchy, Anarchy, and Social Justice. Contemporary Justice Review, 18(1), pp.55-67.

Shaw, A. and Hill, B.M., 2014. Laboratories of oligarchy? How the iron law extends to peer production. Journal of Communication, 64(2), pp.215-238.

Tolbert, P.S., 2013. Iron Law of Oligarchy. The Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Social and Political Movements.

Voss, K., 2015. Same as It Ever Was? New Labor, the CIO Organizing Model, and the Future of American Unions. Politics & Society, p.0032329215584787.

Welser, H.T., 2015. Breaking the Iron Law of Oligarchy: Computational Institutions, Organizational Fidelity, and Distributed Social Control. In Roles, Trust, and Reputation in Social Media Knowledge Markets (pp. 121-144). Springer International Publishing.

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