Monday, June 25, 2012

Church politics, national politics, and the problem of elites

I don't spend much time over here on the nuts and bolts of the politics of the Episcopal Church--I mean the under the hood stuff. For one thing, I'm not Episcopalian like my fellow bloggers, and for another, you can follow much more informed discussions over at the Lead, among other sites.

But as we move into another General Convention season, it looks like there's going to be some conflict between those with institutional power, and those who work within the institution but with less power. We see the same sort of thing elsewhere...for example, in the attempts of a cadre within the Church of England to oppose marriage equality and women bishops with underhanded machinations. And we see it in the entrenched politics of Wall Street and their conflict with the 99%. This is intrinsic to institutions, no matter how well intended or ostensibly meritocratic.

And so I wanted to share this article with you, on Why Elites Fail. (Do click through and read the whole thing).
Michels’s grim conclusion was that it was impossible for any party, no matter its belief system, to bring about democracy in practice. Oligarchy was inevitable. For any kind of institution with a democratic base to consolidate the legitimacy it needs to exist, it must have an organization that delegates tasks. The rank and file will not have the time, energy, wherewithal or inclination to participate in the many, often minute decisions necessary to keep the institution functioning. In fact, effectiveness, Michels argues convincingly, requires that these tasks be delegated to a small group of people with enough power to make decisions of consequence for the entire membership. Over time, this bureaucracy becomes a kind of permanent, full-time cadre of leadership. “Without wishing it,” Michels says, there grows up a great “gulf which divides the leaders from the masses.” The leaders now control the tools with which to manipulate the opinion of the masses and subvert the organization’s democratic process. “Thus the leaders, who were at first no more than the executive organs of the collective, will soon emancipate themselves from the mass and become independent of its control.”

All this flows inexorably from the nature of organization itself, Michels concludes, and he calls it “The Iron Law of Oligarchy”: “It is organization which gives birth to the dominion of the elected over the electors, of the mandataries over the mandators, of the delegates over the delegators. Who says organization says oligarchy.”

1 comment:

Counterlight said...

Chris Hayes' book is getting rave reviews. I'll have to pick it up and read it sometime.

Hannah Arendt makes a similar argument that the totalitarian tendency is not particular to any one ideology over another, but is in the very nature of ideology itself.