Monday, September 26, 2011

Roberto Michels on oligarchy in political parties--very relevant to today

Michels' classic book "Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy" is available for free via Google Books Here, and I would highly recommend it to people trying to figure out how the current Republican Party populism works....and how folks who put lots and lots of faith in Obama and then were disappointed were convinced to do it.

Michels' book is sociology, and it looks at how political party leaders co-opt organizations, disempower the membership, and aggrandize themselves while all the while speaking in the rhetoric of populism. My post below about Andrew Jackson and the Jacksonian Democracy drew on Michels' thought quite a bit.

Unfortunately, the man himself came to a rather unfortunate end, ideologically speaking. He appears to have been so convinced of the 'iron law of oligarchy', that it was inevitable that parties and other organizations would be co-opted by elites, that he figured the only way to create positive change with = a mass organization work was to accept the tendency and use it, for 'positive' goals of course. In other words, he believed that the idea of a strong, charismatic, leader could be something that wasn't bad if the leader was on the right side of things. Consequently, Michels became a strong supporter of Mussolini and a member of the Fascist party in Italy, a stance that he maintained until he passed away. Mussolini was someone who he obviously felt was on the 'right side' of things.

However, "Political Parties" is not an apology for Fascism. It was written in 1911, before the strands that would later become the Fascist movement had coalesced, and is more of a pessimistic look at organizational life than anything else. Highly recommended.

*I should add, though it might go without saying, that I don't share Michels' pessimism about the potential for Democracy

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