News & Politics

How We Can Overcome Oligarchy Disguised as Democracy

As many countries show, technology can bring decision making closer to the voters.

Hacker using laptop. Lots of digits on the computer screen.
Photo Credit: scyther5

He who says organization, says oligarchy.So wrote German sociologist Robert Michels during the formation of Europe’s big tent ‘people’s parties’ a century ago. According to Michels—a committed realist, as we shall see—even the most radical and progressive of these new parties would eventually succumb to what he termed ‘the iron law of oligarchy’.

Such a state of affairs was, in Michels’ view, not attributable to the people in those parties being evil or uncommitted to their cause, but was inherent in the very structure of the new ‘democratic’ political system. In a world of competitive elections, where radical, progressive movements had to overcome opposition from well-resourced establishment elites in order to win power, they would be forced to adopt an internal organization that was both efficient and hierarchical. In the interests of creating a party machine capable of delivering victory at the polls, power would need to be delegated to specific people within the party, and anyone who held power, even for a short time, could be able to consolidate their position and grow that power base. Marginal as that power might be in the beginning, it would grow, and in time the people’s movements would become bureaucratic top-down behemoths, mirroring the very aristocracy they sought to supplant.

Michels was so thoroughly convinced of democratic socialism’s ultimate doom, as wrought through the iron law of oligarchy, that he ultimately saved himself the suspense of waiting for it to happen and threw in his lot with Mussolini’s fascists, breathing his last in Rome before WWII.

When I first began studying democracy, I had never heard of Robert Michels, but I soon noticed that something very similar to the iron law of oligarchy was at work in most Western nations, and it wasn’t just within parties anymore. Consolidated political power, oligarchy, in other words, had spread throughout the entire society. The formula was simple: where elections play the most important role in ascertaining who holds power, candidates and parties spend money to win them, then they use that power to pass laws that generate more money for themselves and their allies. The more money they bring in while in power, the better the chances that they will be able to win re-election, and the cycle continues. Wealth = power and power = wealth. Over time both are concentrated in ever fewer hands, and rather than being a democracy of equal participation and public debate, electoral politics becomes an oligarchy where only the strongest survive. Michels viewed this oligarchy as inevitable.

“The most formidable argument against the sovereignty of the masses,” he wrote in his seminal work Political Parties in 1911, “is, however, derived from the mechanical and technical impossibility of its realization…assembly would become altogether impossible if the members numbered ten thousand. Even if we imagined the means of communication to become much better than those which now exist, how would it be possible to assemble such a multitude in a given place, at a stated time, and with the frequency demanded by the exigencies of party life?”

In other words, in a world where power had to be delegated, because it was not phsyically possible for large numbers of people to meet in person and make decisions directly en masse, oligarchy would always reassert itself.

But what would happen if power didn’t need to be delegated?

What if the means of communication were not only ‘much better’ than in Michels’ time, but so advanced as to fundamentally negate the need to ‘assemble in any given place’?

In that case, the iron law of oligarchy would suddenly be a lot less iron.

And that’s exactly what has happened.

The Early 21st Century: Powershift to Diasaggregated Democracy

In the age of the Internet, the need to delegate power to both party apparatchiks and elected representatives who journey to a specific place to debate laws face-to-face has evaporated in the space of a few years. We already bank, date, get our news, share photos and shop online. Online polls have become the everyday fare of journalism and last year millions of people used the internet to debate the colour of a dress. To conduct politics – up to now a cumbersome and expensive exercise in logistics – online, too, is a pretty small step.

So small, in fact, that some people are already doing it.

The online possibilities for political participation that are already in use fall into three broad categories:

  • applications that replicate traditional practices online
  • applications that allow voters to hold representatives accountable between elections, and
  • applications that allow voters a direct say on immediate issues.

Replicating Traditional ‘Democracy’ Online

Where the English-speaking world wallows in expensive, scandal-ridden voting machines, smaller nations are pioneering the way on mobile voting. Take tiny Estonia. The Baltic state has allowed internet voting for a decade. More than one-third of Estonians used a combination of personal cards, PINs and question identifiers to vote online in the 2015 national election. Switzerland is fast catching up, with e-voting in place in several cantons and plans in the works to allow anyone out-of-country to vote in the nation’s many referenda over the net.

While it certainly saves the hassle of getting to a polling station during working hours, just casting ballots over the internet doesn’t do much to counter the iron law of oligarchy. Still, it’s encouraging to note how many people have been willing to take up the possibility of voting online, and that despite worries about the security of online voting systems operating under a secret ballot, thus far, no real evidence of hacking has been found (which is more than can be said for traditional elections).

Holding Representatives Accountable Between Elections

Another common trend in using technology to aid democracy is to facilitate direct contact between constituents and representatives online. Although anyone can, technically, write a letter to their representative, resources dictate that most mail is generated by coordinated interest groups rather than individuals acting on their own initiative. Online applications cut across this by lowering the barriers for the average person to participate and making the level of support a measure truly enjoys more transparent.

These solutions allow voters to tell their representatives how they would like them to vote on issues between elections in a way that is immediately visible to all other users. Not only do you know the views you submitted to a representative on how you would like them to vote – you know what other constituents told them, too. What ‘the people’ want is online in black and white, making it a lot harder for representatives to tap-dance around issues and heed the contrary preferences of financial sponsors or personal connections.

Swedish party Demoex was already using this kind of technology in 2002. The torch has recently been taken up by IserveU in Canada with a representative already on Yellowknife city council, while Placeavote is working on bringing this style of tight representative accountability to the US.

Because citizen preferences are visible to anyone using the online application, representatives cannot hide behind ambiguities on what their constituents want. Any discrepancy between constituent preferences and representative votes become a matter of public record, putting representatives between a rock and a hard place, with public opinion on one side, special interest sponsors on the other and nowhere to hide – exactly where they should be.

Giving People a Direct Say

The most radical way that technology will change democracy, however, is in allowing people to make decisions directly online. New political movements, like the German Pirate Party and Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement in Italy already allow members to decide the content of legislative proposals online. It’s a small step to expand that debate to the public in general, something that tools like Loomio in New Zealand and DemocracyOS in Argentina facilitate. Loomio is used by community groups around the world, as well as by Wellington City Council to allow direct citizen decision-making on proposals, while DemocracyOS was put in gear by Tunisians in debating their new constitution (Tunisian civil society would later win a Nobel Peace Prize for managing to construct a workable constitution that avoided national meltdown.)

Similar platforms that allow a direct, binding vote on budgeting matters have found traction in European municipalities.

Participatory budgeting, as it is known, first took off in Porto Alegre, Brazil in the late 1980s. Used offline, the practice nonetheless attracted a wide following, allowing citizens to decide where the discretionary part of the city’s budget was spent. Under participatory budgeting, education and sanitation improved and the idea quickly caught on from New York to China. In 2014, Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo brought the process online allowing Parisians to apportion 5% of the city hall investment budget by casting votes for specific projects over the web. With the city’s residents arguing for everything from better recycling facilities to using the money for a tax refund, 40 000 votes were cast in 2014, a number which increased to over 66 000 in 2015. While Paris may be in the lead here, it isn’t alone: online participatory budgeting is in development for local authorities in Germany and England, as well.

Decentralization: The Death Knell of Oligarchy

The internet itself is a decentralized network. There are hubs, there are nodes, but generally information flows from one end to the other without a hierarchical up-and-down structure. Just like communication in an offline community, really. The traditional, hierarchical model of politics was imposed on that natural information flow, not because it was the best way of getting things done, but because, at the time, it was the only way to govern large nations.

That has fundamentally changed.

It’s now possible to use technology to mirror offline human political experience in a much more natural, organic manner.

Not only is that a nice thing, it has enormous repercussions for the balance of political power in our societies.

Where citizens decide directly and representative responsiveness is immediately transparent, the scope for corruption and bribery is dramatically reduced, meaning that special interest groups no longer have free rein to pressure representatives between elections. Rather then having power reside with a few individuals with only periodic ‘interruptions’ for election, power is dispersed among citizens in a framework that is simultaneously both looser and easier to control, offering more freedom, but less scope for abuse. Where citizens do not need to band into parties for the sake of winning election, because they can vote directly on issues between elections, hierarchical, top-down organization in political movements loses its appeal.

The necessity of delegation that existed in Michels’ time and which generated the iron law of oligarchy is simply no longer there – a lucky turn of events, considering how far political and economic inequality has progressed in past decades. Thanks to an internet that effortlessly disaggregates power, we no longer need to say ‘organization and oligarchy’ but can finally – if we put our backs into it – look forward to decentralization and democracy.

Roslyn Fuller is a research associate at Waterford Institute of Technology. She has lectured in International Law at Trinity College, Dublin and National University of Ireland, Maynooth, and is the legal correspondent for Russia Today.

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