Robert Michels’ Lessons for the Left

by | 9 May 2024

Tim Christiaens

Robert Michels

In the early 2010s, many people on the left proclaimed the death of state-based socialism, the political party, and any kind of organizational authority. From Occupy Wall Street to the Arab Spring, the 2011 revolts put their faith in horizontalist assemblies to advance progressive politics, but horizontalist networked solidarity proved too feeble to seriously threaten state power. In response, many activists rekindled their commitment to centrally organized party structures through left-wing populism. They surfed on the wave of electoral successes for Bernie Sanders, Syriza, Podemos, Jeremy Corbyn, and Jean-Luc Mélénchon. But also that wave has crashed unto the hard rocks of neoliberal consolidation. We end up in what Anton Jäger has dubbed ‘the age of hyperpolitics’: while there is a plenitude of public protests, widespread anger fails to congeal in stable counter-hegemonic institutions. Even today we see massive protests across the globe against the Israeli genocide of Palestinians, but these movements are not explicitly aiming for institutional consolidation. The dismantling of traditional working-class institutions has created an atomized population that can by mobilized at a heartbeat yet fails to breathe new life into progressive politics.

However, instead of giving in to left-wing melancholia, we can also look for forms of what Italian workerist Romano Alquati called ‘invisible organisation’. New institutional experiments are constantly evolving, and among them is the revival of worker-owned cooperatives. In the aftermath of the 2015 Nuits Debout protests in Paris, for example, some of the protestors founded CoopCycle, a federation of cooperative food delivery platforms that rivals Deliveroo and Getir. Data scientists developed the underlying software, which local cooperatives access for free if they abide by the cooperativist principles of the federation. Another example is the Belgian freelancers’ cooperative Smart, which has almost 40.000 members worldwide. It originally offered employment contracts to freelancers in the artistic sector to secure more stable income, but today it uses member contributions to finance forms of mutualist solidarity among coop members. The latter obtain a stable wage, social insurance, training opportunities, etc., through the coop. Protest movements genuinely create counter-institutions against the hegemonic order, but they rarely appear in the shapes we would have originally expected.

Around 100 years ago, cooperatives were considered a vital part of progressive politics. In the United States, the Knights of Labor coupled working-class struggle to the promotion of worker-owned factories. W.E.B. Du Bois staunchly defended black cooperatives as a vehicle for racial emancipation in post-slavery America. In the United Kingdom, the Labour Party was split between a Fabian faction that championed centralized nationalization of industry, and rebellious guild socialists who wanted to decentralize the state and let workers run their own factories. In Russia, Piotr Kropotkin translated his experiences with Siberian rural communes into an anarchist theory of biological evolution that favoured symbiotic cooperation over struggle and the survival of the fittest. When communists conquered Yugoslavia, they explicitly turned away from Stalin’s model of state-run industrialization in favour of direct worker self-management.

Yet over the course of the 20th century, social-democratic political parties and trade-unions moved from imagining post-capitalist economies to bargaining for better wages and working conditions within the capitalist status quo. When socialist experiments like Yugoslav worker self-management had failed by the 1990s, it seemed like capitalist individualism was the only game in town. Apart from a couple of isolated enclaves, like the Basque Mondragon, the cooperativist movement had dissipated. Social bargaining between capital and labour ranked higher on the socialist agenda than direct workplace democracy. Most social struggles focused on humanizing capitalism through incremental reforms and small-scale compromises to slow down the rampant dismantling of the welfare state.

One of the thinkers often blamed for undermining the reputation of workplace democracy and cooperative governance is Robert Michels and his so-called ‘iron law of oligarchy’. In his 1911 Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy, he argued that democratic movements are tragically fated to produce new hierarchies once they acquire power. As if guided by an iron law, democratic movements first depose ruling elites with claims of popular self-government to subsequently create new elites and concentrate power in their hands. Fear of Michels’ iron law still explains the left’s reticence for top-down authority and centralized strategism. Radical, democracy seems to conflict with the demands of leadership. Michels’ iron law is also an oft-mentioned objection to workplace democracy. Cooperatives begin with utopian promises of direct democracy and bottom-up self-management, but over time, when cooperatives become larger and more successful, they create new managerial oligarchies. Mondragon has, for example, frequently been criticized for giving too much power to managers and engineers with detrimental results for regular workers and non-member personnel. All workers nominally have equal say in Mondragon’s governance, yet realistically managers and factory engineers have a better overview than workers on the factory floor. Michels correctly stressed how particular individuals within ostensibly democratic organizations tend to acquire so much personal knowhow, social connections, and authority that they become virtually irreplaceable. Over time, a new oligarchy emerges from the democratic stirrings that birthed a cooperative.

Michels’ personal biography adds fuel to the fire of his anti-democratic reputation. As a young man, he was one of Max Weber’s most promising pupils and a member of the German socialist party. Michels even had to leave German academia because of his socialist beliefs. However, he also admired Italian aristocratic thinkers like Vilfredo Pareto and Gaetano Mosca, who both argued that stable societies need ruling elites. Ultimately, Michels joined Benito Mussolini’s fascist party in 1924 and obtained a professorship at the University of Perugia in return for his allegiance. Late in life, Michels believed that only the personal charisma of an authoritarian leader like Mussolini could break the ossified power structures of modern capitalist bureaucracies. This choice testified to a lack of political judgment that would haunt Michels’ legacy.

Political Parties has subsequently become a rarely read classic of political sociology. The ‘iron law of oligarchy’ has taken on a life of its own and Michels’ fascist reputation has squarely put the book in the camp of authoritarian pessimism and anti-democratic ideology. However, it was written more than 10 years before Michels’ conversion to fascism and just 4 years after he had left the SPD. At the time, Michels accused the SPD of being too concerned with winning parliamentary seats rather than mass politics. These are not the marks of an authoritarian, dictator-loving theorist who wants to pre-emptively dismiss all democracy.

On first reading, Political Parties’ message is pessimistic for popular democracy. Michels opening salvo highlights the importance of organization as a “weapon of the weak against the strong” (p. 61). If the oppressed ever wish to depose ruling elites and install popular democracy, they will have to organize in large-scale social movements. Spontaneous or horizontalist gatherings at Zucotti Park or the campuses of today’s US universities will not suffice. However, this same necessity also signals democracy’s future downfall: while collective organization “overcomes that disorganization of forces which would be favourable to the adversary, [it] brings other dangers in its train” (p. 62). The masses ultimately lack the time, energy and expertise to meaningfully contribute to the everyday management of their organizations, while their representatives amass resources and influences. This problem haunts the democratic movement to this day: how to encourage sustainable member participation in democratic institutions?

However, these pessimistic observations did not waver Michels’ faith in workplace and economic democracy in general. To the contrary, the political theorist affirms that, despite all its shortcomings, democracy is still worth pursuing despite all setbacks. “It would be an error to abandon the desperate enterprise of endeavouring to discover a social order which will render possible the complete realization of the idea of popular sovereignty” (pp. 367-368). The project of democracy is, for Michels, not a useless aspiration to be discarded on the dunghill of history, but a perpetual struggle that must continuously criticize and reinvent itself. It generates an enduring tension between democratic aspirations and undemocratic realities that stirs the masses and pressures elites. As a matter of fact, Michels explicitly singles out worker-owned cooperatives as the best learning school for democratic self-management (p. 162). While he admits that worker cooperatives are liable to the same oligarchical pressures as other institutions, he also stresses that a shared professional knowledge basis grants most workers sufficient knowledge about the cooperative to meaningfully engage in its management. Moreover, worker cooperatives provide an arena for competing visions of running a firm. Workers can criticize each other’s proposals with at least a pretence to equality, whereas capitalist firms enforce managerial domination by default. The germs of genuine liberation from workplace domination lie in worker cooperatives.

Michels does not present the iron law of oligarchy as a one-way street from democracy to domination. It rather represents just one tendency in a struggle between hierarchical and democratic pressures within organizations. Nominally democratic institutions are torn between de facto oligarchical tendencies and the democratic philosophies that inspire them and continuously put factually undemocratic conditions into question. Cooperatives’ democratic aspirations acts as a constant reminder of self-criticism, and discontented members can use these promises as a resource to hold individuals in positions of power accountable. Every time leaders concentrate power in their own hands, others protest to redemocratize the cooperative’s inner workings. As the book’s conclusion, Michels writes,

when democracies have gained a certain stage of development, they undergo a gradual transformation adopting the aristocratic spirit, and in many cases also the aristocratic forms, against which at the outset they struggled so fiercely. Now new accusers arise to denounce the traitors; after an era of glorious combats and of inglorious power, they end by fusing with the old dominant class; whereupon once more they are in their turn attacked by fresh opponents who appeal to the name of democracy. It is probably that this cruel game will continue without end. (p. 371)

Democratic ventures tend to degenerate, but pressures from below also counteract this degenerative push. Cooperatives offer institutional form to these pressures. They nurture an iron will of democracy against the iron law of oligarchy.

This reading of Michels is also supported by evidence from worker cooperatives today. In a systematic review of democratic enterprises, Christine Unterrainer and colleagues note that barely 9.5% of definitively degenerate into hierarchical companies. By contrast, 63.5% resist degeneration or regenerate after degenerative phases, while 27% display mixed outcomes on the spectrum between democratization and oligarchization. Real-life cooperatives do not demonstrate a one-way street toward centralized managerial overreach, but a two-way balancing act between competing pressures. A back-and-forth rhythm between centripetal and centrifugal forces marks cooperatives’ position along a sliding scale between oligarchy and democracy. Some institutional mechanisms help cooperatives to counterbalance oligarchical tendencies. Wage caps push back against economic inequality between managers and workers, job rotation ensures everyone acquires knowhow and influence within the organization, and effective channels for opposition from below keeps managers accountable to other members.

These mechanisms build toward an agonistic philosophy of workplace democracy. ‘Agon’ derives from the ancient Greek word for ‘struggle’, ‘game’, or ‘competition’, meaning that agonistically organized workplaces use internal conflicts as a motor for further progress. In contrast to the explicit hierarchy of workplace despotism under capitalism, worker cooperatives can institutionalize dissensus and democratic renewal within their own operations. By explicitly pitting a struggle between leaders and their base, agonistic cooperatives reinforce democratic pressures on managerial elites. This is the main lesson cooperatives – and all democratic movements – can learn from Robert Michels today: the best way to ensure long-term advances in democratic self-management is to consciously play the cruel game of democracy and oligarchy without end. If both horizontalist social movements and vertically organized populist parties no longer serve as models for left-wing politics, agonistic workplace democracy offers a fresh start.

Tim Christiaens is assistant professor of philosophy at Tilburg University (Netherlands). He works on the impact of digital technologies on work with, among others, a published book called ‘Digital Working Lives’ (2022) on worker autonomy and platform work.

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