Overcoming Oligarchy Disguised as Democracy

Posted on May. 11. 2020

“We are in a prison of our own minds
holding our own chains around us.
We create our oligarchs and fight
for their right to oppress us.”
¯ Heather Marsh
Binding Chaos, c. 2012


When Dinosaurs went extinct about 65 million years ago (at the end of the Cretaceous Period), after reining on Earth for about 165 million years, the other smaller mammals at last declared freedom by emerging from their hiding dens. Most prehistoric people lived in small social groups and were at first hunters and gatherers of wild fruits, roots, berries, and nuts for food. Whenever they hankered after meat, they set out to hunt animals for mainly meat including bones, and skin.
Hunting in groups for big games like mammoths required organized effort by our human ancestors for they were very towering and dangerous against primitive stone weapons. This perilous job took teamwork. Some members of the group had to provide strategies and tactics to direct the work of bringing down a large animal like a mammoth. As such, coordination of the task at hand gave rise to leadership that, in turn, established the practice of oligarchy (the rule of the few) who were stronger, braver, and more experienced of the clan or tribe than the their next of kin).
During prehistoric days, oligarchy was established tacitly without resorting to voting. Later on, tribal councils (oligarchs) were sometimes elected by the members of the tribe and at other times it had become hereditary. More often than not, the descendants of the oligarchic leaders filled the void when their parents had passed away.
Archaeologists define human existence from ancient times (prehistory) to modern days (Information Age) into three periods of Old Stone Age, Middle Stone Age, and New Stone Age (modern times). During the Old Stone Age, early humans did not know how to farm. However, all throughout the stone ages, oligarchy has been practiced until the ancient Greeks’ rise in new civilization 2,500 years ago.
The ancient Greeks were one of the first people to not only practice oligarchy (i.e, from Greek Oligarkhia), but also began to study it as a concept’
Notable among the Greek philosophers who wrote books about oligarchy, democracy, monarchy, and other political systems were the venerable Aristotle and Plato.
Presently, Ararat Home of Los Angeles, Inc. is facing a situation wherein the members have to vote on the transformation of its governance from rather democratic (rule of the many) to oligarchic (rule of the few) organizational structure to manage this growing assisted living, which is not-for-profit and much admired Armenian organization. As a member of this premier landmark institution established in 1949, I would like to share some of the issues involved in the change with my fellow members.
In my previous article, “Oligarchies: Angels or Demons of Democracy,” published in the USA Armenian Life Magazine Issue #1721, March 20-26, 2020) by Mr. Appo K. Jabarian (the Executive Publisher and Managing Editor), I presented to the reader the pros and cons of oligarchy. The disadvantages of oligarchy outweighed the efficiency of this type of governing structure.
In this article, I present a solution to overcome oligarchy as a disguised democracy.
Briefly, Robert Michels, the German sociologist, wrote a seminal book in 1911, titled Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchial Tendencis of Modern Democracy. Since then, this book has spawned innumerable discussions and studies on oligarchy. The problem perceived in Michels’ time and by many modern political scientists of today was as follows: All democratic organizations that will grow in membership eventually will become oligarchic. Thus, an organization begets oligarchy as it grows in due time. Such a phenomenon is inevitable despite the contention that democracy is in line with human rights of affording a person to vote on issues relevant to him or to her.
In spite of Michels’ respect for the integrity of democracy, his persistent argument against the sovereignty of the masses was based on the mechanical and technical impossibility of its realization was focused on “assembly”. When the members of an organization (e.g., a political party) numbered ten thousand, for example, how would it be possible to assemble such a multitude for deliberations or elections in a given place, at a stated time, and with the frequency required by the problems of party life?
Michels further argued that the exigencies of democracy dictated that power had to be delegated, because it was not physically possible for large numbers of people to meet in person and make decisions directly in a large group. As a result, oligarchy would always emerge or reassert itself as the efficient way to conduct the organization’s affairs. This inescapable shift from democracy to oligarchy constituted the “iron law of oligarchy,” which has attracted many followers of this concept in present day.
At this juncture, we would ask some important questions: what would happen if power did not need to be delegated to a few representatives? What if the membership of an organization is small and assembly is possible? More importantly, what if the means of communication were not only better than in Michels’ time, but that they were so highly advanced as to obviate the necessity for the members to gather together in any given place? In that case, the “iron law of oligarchy” (i.e., the unavoidable need to delegate power to a few representatives) would turn to be flexible, to be subject to contingency —eliminating the absolute necessity of oligarchy. It is worth noting that the “iron law of oligarchy” is not a proven law; it is nothing but a cleverly stated hypothesis.
For the sake of emphasis, let me repeat Michels’s and his adherents’ main rationale for having oligarchy as a necessity evil. In other words, we cannot have a dog without fleas. The crux of the matter is that we cannot get all of the members at the same time at one place to vote on an issue. As a result, we elect our representatives to vote for us. Hence, these representatives form an oligarchy. Unfortunately, there is no escape from that destiny of an organization that begins as democratic, ruled by the many, and ends up oligarchic, ruled by the few.
It is important to remember that Michels and his modern-day followers do not have the illusion that oligarchy is a hybrid democracy or that it is superior to democracy, the rule of the many. The problem is that we are stuck with the elephant in the room: The assembly of a large number of people for voting on every single issue is unrealistic and that the future of any organization will end in oligarchy. In other words, democracy is great, but it is doomed to become oligarchic in due time.
This rational is akin to the thinking of those Armenians who consider it hopeless to expect or dream of getting back our lands somehow or someway because they are occupied by a strong and determined Turkey that would not even give up an inch of our Western Armenia. Therefore, we should forget about reparation of our ancestral lands and be happy living in our adopted foreign countries. There is something basically wrong in this logic. We’ve never thought we would get Artsakh, but we found a way to succeed. Right? So, bear with me.
Although Michaels’ time is gone by, power hungry individuals with knowledge and experience opt to lead the organization with a small group of people with like values, goals, and objectives. Out of controlling the organization, they would usually become despots and wield power for personal gains. Therefore, they speak of the infallibility of the “iron law of oligarchy” for their own benefit.
Here is a workable solution: we no longer live in Robert Michaels’ times. Humanity has already graduated from the Old and Middle Ages. The Internet has ushered in the Information Age by revolutionizing communications. We do not have to gather in one place, at one time to vote on an issue. Ararat Home can send to members a notice by mail about an election and ask the recipients to do the following (hypothetically): 1. Respond by May 31, 2020; include here Ararat Home’s Internet address (e.g., AraratHome@????.com) 2. Your voting ID is xxxxxx 3. In case you prefer to fill out a paper ballot, call 1-800 xxxxxx 4. If we do not hear from you online or by telephone by May 21, 2020, we shall send you a paper ballot by mail.
As you well now, voting via the Internet has become a commonplace practice in our 21st-century life. We should bear in mind that if Ararat Home’s membership is small, then assembling in one large hall to vote on issues would be feasible and economical method to pursue. So, why change from democratic governance to an oligarchic one, unless we have a hidden agenda?!
As a member of Ararat Home, here is my take on this issue. Research evidence from numerous psychological studies indicates that power corrupts leaders and creates despots. As Lord Acton once wrote to Bishop Creighton in 1887 that the same moral standards should be applied to all men, be they political or religious leaders, especially when: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men…”. Those members of oligarchy can make decisions in the dark; while in democracy, decisions are rather made in the open, transparent way. Why not make a concerted effort to continue conducting business democratically since it is the best form of governing an organization from human rights perspectives? Why should we get involved with oligarchy which is questioned and denigrated by so many experts on government studies?
As we are all concerned members of the Ararat Home of Los Angeles, we need to make responsible decisions about the form of government in which either all power is vested in a few persons or in a dominant clique as is done in an oligarchy Or we should uphold democracy, the government system by the people especially the supreme power is vested in the rule of the majority which seldom goes corrupt. We should not be blindfolded into believing that democracy should be sacrificed for the sake of the camouflaged, ephemeral efficiency of oligarchy.
I agree with you all the way. It is true that the world needs a new system of governance. As we are waiting for a long overdue breakthrough of a novel idea for a political system that protects human rights and dignity, a system that overcomes the opaque authority of oligarchy, a system that promotes the common good, a system that is efficient until then democracy overshadows all other types of government systems in the world.
In spite of the complexity of democracy, all people in society or in a group will benefit from it without being “chained” by the dominance of a self-selected, self-perpetuating, and self-serving traditional ruling class through oligarchy —disguised as democracy. Your vote will either make us swim the presently shark-infested waters surrounding the Ararat Home governance, or sink by relinquishing the rights to decide the fate of the Armenian Diaspora’s landmark institution known as the Ararat Home of Los Angeles.
Please don’t let oligarchs chain your freedom, don’t let them deprive you of the fundamental human rights to vote your choices directly without going through the mercy of whimsical, self-centered oligarchs.
If Aristotle were to come to California today, he would say the same thing about oligarchy. Aristotle used the word oligarkhia to refer to the rule of the few when it was exercised not by the best men but by bad ones unjustly. In this sense, oligarchy is a “debased” form of aristocracy (as the government by the few in which power is vested in the best individuals). These types of elites tend to exercise power in the interests of their own class.
Many scholars have condemned oligarchy like the plague over the years and others had to accept it as a necessity evil. It seems most people regard oligarchy as a betrayal of democracy.
In this case, betrayal of democracy will be costly. You and I, we want people to work for the common good, not just hustling to satisfy their own interests and gains.
Please evaluate your voting options carefully —I have no ax to grind except that I do not wish Ararat Home to be at the mercy of oligarchs, depriving you and me the right to decide its fate democratically on important issues on its journey toward remaining successful without being hijacked by a few individuals entrenched in their safe clannish positions to advance their own interests. I am certain that you won’t disappoint yourself or the other members of the Ararat Home by voting a resounding NO!

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