In his 1911 book entitled Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchic Tendencies of Modern Democracies, sociologist Robert Michels first introduced the concept of Iron Law of Oligarchy. Michels posits the view that democracy is incompatible with a large scale social organization like a society. To him, a large social organization, even with the trappings of, or staunchest commitment to, democracy, will end up in oligarchy due to certain factors, chiefly bureaucracy and specialization: democracy is just a façade to legitimize the interest of a ruling oligarchy. Michels speaks of not just a law, but an “iron” law, which means that society cannot escape from the tentacles of oligarchy; stated otherwise, it is impossible to resist oligarchy.
Oligarchy is defined as a power structure in which power is placed on a small number of persons, who are defined by nobility, wealth, political, religious and other defining characteristics. An oligarchy is usually characterized by control of one family and transfer of power from one generation to the next. In our society, oligarchy is sharply defined by the control of the political elite based on wealth. Since wealth directly translates to power and political control, the political elite perpetuates itself throughout the country by means of political dynasties.
These political dynasties represent and dominate the elite state of our country that can even be best characterized as a plutocracy which is a society characterized by the control of a few people based on great wealth and income. To my mind, these political dynasties are the practical and actual manifestation of Michel’s Iron Law of Oligarchy in the sense that these political dynasties prove the impossibility of democracy in a very large scale Philippine society with more than 100 population and a very wide wealth disparity.
This concept of an Iron Law of Oligarchy is very illuminating when we look at our own political system which is largely patterned after the United States government. We became a colony of the United States, and naturally at the dawn of independence, the US democratic system became a constitutional prescription. But modern scholars have begun to criticize the US government as displaying the tendencies of an oligarchy confirming Michel’s inexorable law.
Michel’s Iron Law of Oligarchy casts a long shadow on democracy itself which found prominent expression when the 13 North American colonies threw out the yoke of British colonialism and renounced the British King by installing their President. It is this same type of political system that is extant in our country, and as a model of republican democracy in the modern world, it cannot escape the scathing critique of Michel in his Iron Law of Oligarchy.
If Michel’s Iron Law of Oligarchy is viewed as a law of nature just like the law of gravity, or as a man-made law that commands obedience as a norm of conduct, then oligarchy renders the impossibility of democracy. There can be no democracy because of the Iron Law that oligarchy will always prevail. As we have been experiencing, democracy, as we know it today, is just a political delusion for the so-called “rule by the people.” Michels sees society as always being ruled by an elite oligarchy, and views the “incompetent masses” as incapable of political participation.
Based on Michel’s concept, what we have been having is a sham democracy. Although people vote in periodic elections touted to be a central feature of electoral democracy, it is just a façade, because it is just used to legitimize oligarchic rule. There is in reality no representative or participatory democracy. What we have been suffering to endure is the perennial spectacle of political dynasties perpetuating their material control our political life.
Oligarchy has long been implied in our 1987 Constitution when it expressly mentions “political dynasties” that it seeks to abolish. But it does not seek such abolition by its text. Instead, it requires a law from Congress for such an abolition. For the longest time, Congress has not made such law, allowing political dynasties to thrive in an oligarchy. This same oligarchy represented by political dynasties is incompatible with democracy itself.
In the Iron Law of Oligarchy, this oligarchy makes democracy impossible. Our very own Constitution, that is supposed to be democratic just like the US Constitution, acknowledged this impossibility when it saw the constitutional necessity of abolishing “political dynasties.” The mention of “political dynasties” in the Constitution attests to the existence of an oligarchy that needs extirpation. Since there is an oligarchy extant in the constitutional text and operating with an unrelenting viciousness in our society, democracy is impossible for us, under the Iron Law of Oligarchy.
The impossibility of democracy with oligarchy is bad enough; in our case, it is even worse, because oligarchy is itself self-evident in the text of the Constitution. The proof of oligarchy negating the possibility of democracy in our society is present in that political document itself, which is not the case of the US Constitution. Stated otherwise, the impossibility of democracy is proven by the Constitution itself that recognizes the presence of oligarchy thru political dynasties in our very midst.
The abject failure of Congress, which is the bulwark of oligarchy through the political dynasties that wield power, is compelling evidence that democracy is impossible in our country. The oligarchy that we have refuses to abolish itself through Congress that it controls through its political dynasties, rendering it continually impossible for democracy in our country.
We are just wallowing in our romantic delusions of democracy. If ever we still entertain the slightest hope of the possibility of democracy, political dynasties must be abolished, just like the monarchy or feudalism or serfdom before in Europe. If we may still be able to disprove Michel’s Iron Law of Oligarchy, then we need at least to resort to political reform of a fundamental nature: abolish political dynasties to prevent oligarchy. – Rappler.com
Jude Josue L. Sabio is the lawyer of self-confessed Davao Death Squad hitman Edgar Matobato. He filed a mass murder complaint against President Rodrigo Duterte before the International Criminal Court in The Hague, The Netherlands, in May 2017.