Political Parties Democratic
This paper will be looking at Robert Michels book on political parties and determining the implications of ‘The supremacy of leaders from both democratic and revolutionary parties has to be taken into account in every historic situation present and to come… The mass will never rule except in abstracto’ on modern democracy. The first part of the paper will be looking at Robert Michels and his studies on Oligarchies and what they are, it will also discuss elite theory in relation to Mosca, Pareto and Schumpter.
The second part of the essay will look at why the mass will never rule except in abstracto and reasons why the parties in power are undemocratic and its effect on democracy. Lastly I will conclude and state what implications it has on modern democracy and how it can be resolved.
This essay will explain Robert Michel’s theory on oligarchies and elite theory in relation to Michel’s. It will explain and interpret the meaning of 'The mass will never rule except in abstracto.' Arguably, this refers to the inescapable fact that people cannot rule, except in abstract methods like: referendums, polls and all other forms of direct democracy.
This essay will also address the question: 'does the democratic ideal actually represent the masses?' It will then proceed into a discussion about whether a one or two party system exists in both the UK and US and challenge whether the electoral system is representative of the people. Falling voter turnouts implies apathy towards the political system. This presents us with the question, is our system democratic or is the democratic ideal a utopian dream?
Democracy and Politics have always had a rather paradoxical element surrounding them. The meaning behind democracy has lain in the eyes of the beholder for centuries the potential for interpretation in multifarious. The question ‘What is democracy?’ is age old and it can never be defined in a way in which everyone will accept. Democracy is often defined as “government of the people, by the people, for the people”.
This essay will attempt to unravel the meaning behind Robert Michel’s’ comment that “The supremacy of the leaders in the democratic and revolutionary parties has to be taken into account in every historic situation present and to come…The mass will never rule except in abstracto.” A number of issues are raised with this statement and it does indeed have a number of implications for modern democracy.
I will first talk about what democracy is and the idea behind the democratic ideal and introduce Robert Michel’s, I will then go on to discuss what “The mass will never rule except in abstracto” implies to the democratic ideal, furthermore I will discuss the meaning behind the idea of ‘supreme leaders’ and how this links in with oligarchies and elite theory. I will then discuss what implications this statement will have on modern democracy and the questions it forces us to confront like ‘do political parties represent the people?’ and whether we are in fact a democratic society. Lastly I will conclude and pinpoint what this essay has discovered.
Democracy is term which is used to describe a government by the people, exercised either directly by the people or through elected representatives. In democracy the common people are considered to be the primary source of political power. The idea of democracy is a topic of great controversy and has many different angles from which it is considered. The idea of democracy originated in Ancient Greece and has since evolved and bought about a great complexity and diversity from a large variety of concepts and ideas used at different periods in history.
Democracy has been discussed greatly by a number of philosophers and political theorists one of which was a man called Robert Michel’s. Michel’s was a German sociologist who wrote on the political behaviour of elites and contributed to elite theory. Michel’s explores the idea of democracy in his book “Political Parties - A sociological study of the oligarchial tendencies of modern democracy (1958)” and questions whether the mass actually do rule and whether the ideal of democracy will ever be reached. The UK presently uses an indirect form of democracy known has representative democracy, in which representatives are elected to govern on behalf of the people.
In theory politicians are therefore publicly accountable and can be removed from office, however in practice this doesn’t often prove to be the case. Michels (1958) argues that any political system eventually evolves into an oligarchy this is known as the “Iron Law of Oligarchy”. An oligarchy is a form of government where political power effectively rests with a small elite segment in society, Michels (1958) states “whether they are distinguished by wealth, family or military prowess”. Michels (1958) states:
‘The majority of human beings, in a condition of eternal tutelage, are predestined to submit to the dominion of a small minority, and must constitute the pedestal of oligarchy.’
The existence of oligarchies is particularly a problem within democratic and socialist parties. In the past socialist parties were small, decentralised, and relatively democratic. The growth of these parties and the intricacy of organisation created labour divides and leaders gradually took over decision making and the creation of policies. Michels (1958) states:
‘The mass within the party membership lack the time and inclination for full involvement with the political process, this leads to elites emerging which control the flows of information and organizational dynamics of the party.’
It is apparent that leadership is an essential element to all successful political organisations. Michel’s argues that socialist and democratic political organisations all aspire to socialism and/or democratic rule, but there organisations will become elitist and conservative. The concept of oligarchies is closely linked with Elite theory as described by Pareto, Mosca and Michels (1958). Pareto argued that all societies are dominated by elites. He also argued that this is needed as the mass are incompetent and incapable of ruling.
The idea that “the mass will never rule except in abstracto has a number of different meanings and explanations surrounding it. However one must assume that it does in fact link in with Robert Michel’s ideas of elite theory and the mass not being intelligent enough to rule themselves. The term ‘abstracto’ implies that the mass will never rule in anyway except through direct rule i.e. abstract forms. These would include referendums, polls, and through voting. It used to be the case in ancient Greece when all civilians took turns to be in positions of power so all viewpoints and minority opinion could be represented, this concept was crucial to the idea of democracy.
Robert Michels comment is reflective upon the reality of democracy today and how far we have drifted from the purist perspective which was crucial to societal needs back then. This closely relates to the system of modern democracy we have today in both the west and the rest of the world. Elections and the government are both ruled by upper middle class men who have in the UK been educated at Oxford or Cambridge and in the case of the US, presidential candidates who have backers with ‘deep pockets’ to ensure a good campaign and victory.
This coincides with elite theory and oligarchies; it also closely follows Robert Michel’s theory of organization and the process in which societies take to actually become oligarchial. The decline in voter turnout, the mounting feeling of alienation through the nation, apathy to the political system and increase in social movements demonstrate the need for change. At the moment the UK has an indirect form of democracy known as representative democracy, in which representatives are elected to govern on behalf of the voters. Theoretically the leader is bound by the ‘will of the mass’, politicians can therefore be removed and are publicly accountable.
This is also true in the case of the US and we can see politicians which have been removed and held publicly accountable for e.g. Richard Nixon (1974) with the Watergate scandal and more recently Bill Clinton (2001). In 1998, as a result of allegations that he had lied during grand jury testimony regarding his testimony during the Paula Jones civil deposition, Clinton was the second U.S. president to be impeached by the House of Representatives. The perjury charge arose from Clinton's testimony about his relationship to Monica Lewinsky during a sexual harassment lawsuit (later dismissed, appealed and settled for $850,000) brought by former Arkansas-state employee Paula Jones.
The obstruction charge was based on his actions during the subsequent investigation of that testimony. However in practice we have learned for various reasons the leaders enjoy a high level of independence. This was seen with President Nixon who was removed but not prosecuted and the Senate later voted to acquit Clinton on both charges. This leads us into the discussion of oligarchies and elite theory.
Robert Michel’s book Political Parties is a contribution to mainstream elitist thought. The teachings of Robert Michel have according to May (1965) ‘created a constructive account of the compatibility of organisation and democracy’. Michels (1958) states ‘that a system in which leaders possess the means to ignore there followers will are an undemocratic system.’ Elites are a ruling group which are distinct from economic relations and are comprised of separate ruling minorities in society.
Pareto (1963) states ‘elites were not based on individual qualities but on functions of organisations over a certain size.’ Decisions in elite groups can only be made by a small number of people, and these, attempt to become self perpetuating. Gibson and Anderson (1985) in there article argue that there are two types of elite ‘Foxes’ which have ‘instincts in combination’ ideas and imagination and ‘Lions’ which have ‘persistence of aggregates’ which provide order and stability. Mosca (1939) stated that in all societies two classes of people emerge, those who rule and those who are ruled.
The first class are always less numerous, perform all political functions, monopolise power and reap all the benefits that power brings. The ruling elite are always those whose natural aptitudes best suit them for leadership which coincides with Gibson and Anderson (1985) descriptions of elites as ‘Foxes’ and ‘Lions’. This begs the question, are elite rule and democracy compatible. Bachrach (1969) believes that the traditional view of the elite- mass relationship has been reversed.
By this it is common man not the elite who is chiefly suspect in endangering democracy. However Sartori (1957) believes that the key to the survival of democracy rests in the hands of the ruling elite, whose power is based upon recognised superiority. Bachrach (1969) believes the modern defence to elitism is “the best interests of a free people of civilisation itself, depends upon the ability of the gifted to command the deference of many for the well being of all”.
However being realists both Mosca and Pareto were exceptions in this regard holding that governing elites ruled primarily in there own interests. All elite theorists are founded on two basic assumptions. Firstly that the masses are inherently incompetent, and secondly, they are at best pliable and inert or at worst, aroused unruly creatures possessing an insatiable proclivity to undermine both culture and liberty. This brings us to the idea of ‘supreme leaders’.
The suggestion of the concept of supreme leaders and the supremacy of leaders in historic situations and ones to come tie in again with the formations of oligarchies and elite rule. The idea behind the ‘supremacy of leaders’ are the powers which leaders wielded both in the past and which they will have in the future.
The powers that leaders held were extremely totalitarian in the past due to the belief that the mass are incapable of ruling however, the level of powers which party leaders wielded slowly decreased as time went on. It was assumed that if parties were truly democratic especially in the case of the UK the Conservative and Labour party, that the leaders of the party in parliament would hold them selves responsible to the ‘members of the party’ i.e. those who belong to the mass organisation, however the historical research made into these two parties show that this is not the case. McKenzie (1955) states;
‘Therefore many observers find themselves driven to cynical or pessimistic conclusions about the nature of intra-party democracy. Some conclude with Robert Michel’s that an “iron law” inevitably prevents members of a nominally democratic political organization from controlling its leaders’.
When the ruling party is in office, i.e. the labour party, the chain of responsibility lies with the cabinet, to parliament and then to the electorate. It cannot be from cabinet to parliamentary party to annual party conference and then to the mass membership of the party organisation. The mass organisation does not have an important influence on the activities and policies of the parliamentary party which it sustains.
Its influence tends to be greater when the parliamentary party is out of office. In the past the conservative party had a rigid idea in the powers which a prime minister should have. Conservative literature since the premiership of Lord Salisbury (1890- 1894) has stated that the leader should have sole responsibility for almost all party activity. The leader would not have to submit him self for periodic re- election, nor is he required to report his work to the party in parliament or national union. Lastly whether the conservatives are in power or not the leader may choose his ministerial colleagues and shadow cabinet.
These rules began to reflect a totalitarian government not a democratic system, as the powers granted to a conservative leader were dictorial. The formal description of powers which the conservatives provided gives a grossly misleading interpretation of the divisions of powers within a parliamentary party, however it also shows the lengths to which people in power will go to, to retain there supremacy. In the early years of the 20th century a reading of party literature would suggest that the conservative and labour party had completely different forms of organisation.
The conservative party appeared to lay all power in the hands of the party ‘leader’, whereas the labour party appeared to have no ‘leader’ at all. The conservative party declared that there mass organisation was no more than a ‘handmaid’ to the party in parliament, where Labour insisted that the annual conference of the mass organisation exerted ultimate control over the parliamentary labour party as well as the party outside parliament.
Fifty years on both these parties still present the same description of its internal organisation, but the description is highly misleading as the distribution of power within these two parties is remarkably similar. The leader of the conservative party is nothing like the all powerful figure which its literature suggests. The leader would exercise great authority so long as he retains the confidence of his followers. The moment he loses there confidence his authority will collapse immediately.
This happened at a surprising frequency in the modern history of the party. Of the party’s seven leaders since Disraeli, three (Balfour, Austen Chamberlain and Neville Chamberlain) were in effect, destroyed following a revolt from there followers. The fourth Stanley Baldwin had to fight tremendously to regain there confidence and retain his position of authority. The labour party also follows the same guidelines when they are in power.
This shows us that the level of power which leaders possessed deteriorated rapidly in the early 20th century due to backlash from the mass. However the levels of power still exercised by leaders are still high and the amount of control they have over decisions which affect the mass allow them to remain in there position of authority. The connection between leaders in the past and leaders more recently is still education and wealth, and the need for military prowess has almost disappeared completely.
The struggle between those in power and those who want to succeed them constitutes an ongoing threat to the freedom of speech and thought as we can now see with the introduction of ID cards, and more recently the French governments ban on religious clothing and jewellery in schools. This is seen in all democratic organisations so far. Those who already hold the power of the party in their hands, make no attempt to conceal their natural need to control as strictly as possible the freedom of speech of those of there colleagues from whom they differ. This in turn means those in office are great believers in discipline and subordination, they also believe that these qualities are imperative to the very existence of the party. Michels (1958) states;
‘They go so far as to exercise a censorship over any of their colleagues whom they suspect of rebellious inclinations, forcing them to abandon independent journals, and to publish all their articles in the official organs controlled by the leaders of the majority in the party.’
In the current UK system of politics this type of behaviour can be seen by the party whip system and more recently the Hutton inquiry into the dossier in Iraq questioning whether or not Iraq did in fact have weapons of mass destruction. In all inquiries and around this particular subject by in large the government were seen to be very secretive about the subject, and anyone who disagreed with the government about going to war in Iraq was not seen in the public eye.
The mass will never rule except in abstracto.Therefore the question we have to discuss is not whether the ideal of democracy is realisable but rather to what point and to what degree we can be a democratic society. In the problem that we have just stated we recognize the fundamental problem of politics as a science. Whoever fails to perceive this must, as Sombart (1957) says, “either be so blind and fanatical as not to see that the democratic current daily makes undeniable advance, or else must be so inexperienced and devoid of critical faculty as to be unable to understand that all order and all civilization must exhibit aristocratic features”.
There are a number of different types of leadership and democracies which have begun to develop in the 20th century which all, demonstrate diverse characteristics however they all have one thing in common, they all claim to be democratic when neither demonstrate the exact features that would in fact make it a democracy.
The implications of Robert Michel’s statement have the prospect of having serious negative repercussions on modern democracy and produce a lot of questions for us to answer. Does our ‘democratic’ system represent the will of the people? Is a two party system truly democratic? Can the democratic ideal actually be reached and the most vital Do political Parties actually represent the masses?
There are many arguments into whether or not our system is truly democratic and represents the will of the people. Direct democracy is the purest form of democracy, but is so rare both in theory and in practice that there is little to be gained by discussing it in non-anarchist circles.
Representative democracy in the UK boils down to the fact that every four years the electorate is invited to choose a person to represent them in Parliament. Most voters believe that they are choosing the next Prime Minister (PM). This is not the case. The power of the vote in the UK is limited to the constituency, and in normal political circumstances only the vote in marginal constituencies has a chance of changing the status quo.
The Prime Minister is chosen by his or her political party as leader of the party. If the voters give that party more MPs than the others, the leader becomes Prime Minister, and proceeds to appoint a Cabinet. Even here power is slipping away from the Cabinet, into the hands of the PM and a few appointed advisers, who seemingly hold 99% of the effective decision making power.
Parliament, which is supposed to represent the will of the people, can inhibit, obstruct and criticise the Government's plans, but has negligible power to initiate legislation. The unelected House of Lords can further delay and obstruct legislation, but in the end, sovereign power rests with the PM, and the degree of power held by the PM is increasing all the time, as the office of PM becomes more similar to the US presidential model - without the checks and balances to power built into the US system.
The office of PM is already three steps removed from the "sovereign power of the people". If, as is usually the case, the governing party collected 40% of the vote cast, and there was, say, a 60% turnout, the government was chosen by only 24% of the electorate. Worse still, the UK's First Past the Post (FPTP) system means that the effective vote that actually makes a difference to the outcome of the election is usually restricted to the floating voters in a few marginal constituencies.
This is because in FPTP, the electoral outcome in "safe seats" is predetermined in all but the rare occasions when there is a landslide change of support between the dominant parties. The general election in safe seats in normal circumstances is little more than an expensive opinion poll. Some voters are aware of this fact, since the turnout in the 2001 UK general election was inversely proportional to the majority.
The larger the majority, (and hence the less the chance of a change of MP), the greater the proportion of the electorate that did not vote. Elections are not won or lost in safe seats, but in the marginal. The typical number of voters in key marginal who determine the political colour of the next Government has been calculated at 66,000 - about 0.16% of the full electorate (Parliamental Statistics, 2001)
During elections, there is an enormous amount of disagreements about the differences in policy that were on offer, but the fundamental assumptions of major political parties are identical. New Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrats are all agreed that the need of businesses to make profit is paramount. The Green party's proposition in basic terms is that economics must be harmonised with ecology.
This means that they are effectively written out of the political process. The Prime Minister is obliged to keep half an eye on the mood of the electorate, but that is not by any means his sole consideration. Civil service, media, business and Europe all overshadow the needs and wishes of voters. The influence of the Civil Service has been famously satirized by the evergreen TV satire Yes Minister. It is also encapsulated by the old adage "No matter who you vote for, the Government always gets in".
There is a real tension between the professional civil service who advise and implement elected ministers and the ministers themselves. Their influence shows in the fact that when the colour of the government changes it is often obvious that the new opposition criticises the government for doing exactly what they would have done do if they had been in power. One of the best examples of the way perceptions change in office is the need for a Freedom of Information Act.
Opposition parties of either hue routinely call for freedom of information because their work is continually hampered and frustrated by their inability to access information held by the civil service. Yet as soon as they are in office, they either lose, or seriously water down their proposals, bowing to the wishes of the civil service. Government officials are protected by the system of Ministerial responsibility.
If a government department fouls up, the officials who made the mistake may be rebuked or moved sideways, but it is the minister who loses his job. To have a system where mistakes can be made with impunity is a recipe for inefficiency and stagnation - or worse.
The media are the second non-democratic influence on the PM. Before his election, Tony Blair famously flew half way across the world to meet with Rupert Murdoch. Having convinced Murdoch that a Blair government would be friendly to the aims of free market capitalism, he was granted the support of the Murdoch press and broadcast media, which undoubtedly helped to secure Blair's huge majority. It is fashionable to talk down the influence of the media on voting patterns, but any objective study of the matter must conclude that journalism has a major influence on public opinion, irrespective of the low esteem in which the profession is held.
Business is the third non-democratic influence on government. Major political parties are obliged to spend millions on advertising campaigns during elections. This money cannot be met by jumble sales, but comes instead from large donations from business. Blair's political hymen was quickly ruptured by the Eccleston affair, when his government's principled and rational intention to stop tobacco advertising was delayed at the wishes of a major donor to the Labour Party.
Examples of this kind of influence can be repeated ad nauseam. The comparative powerlessness of the democratic vote is underlined by the fact that all major political parties are funded in the same way - so although voters have the option of voting for the Green Party, which receives no donations from industry, their wishes will not be represented in Parliament, since the UK electoral and broadcast system effectively excludes that group from UK politics, notwithstanding their slow advance at the local authority and European level. Canada has begun to address this problem. In Manitoba it is illegal for political parties to receive donations from business.
The European Union (EU) is the fourth constraint on the freedom of the British PM to enact the will of the UK electorate. The European Parliament is an elected body, but it has less power, if that is possible, than the House of Commons. European policy is framed by appointed bureaucrats of the European Commission, and by the Council of Ministers who have at best a distant relationship to the electorate initiate European policy. The European Parliament's powers to initiate policy are negligible, and there power to amend policy is minimal.
The implications of Robert Michel’s comment that ‘the supremacy of leaders in both political and revolutionary parties has to be taken into account for every historic situation present and to come…The mass will never rule except in abstracto’ on modern democracy is great as it gives the impression that we are never going to have a democratic system and the elite will always govern our society.
Evidence of this has been seen from the past and present with prime ministers often being old Etonians and graduates from Oxford and Cambridge universities. The effects of media, businesses, those who are already in power and more recently the joining of the European Union have a lot to do with those who are elected and inability of the Prime Minister to enforce the will of the people.
The un-proportional electoral system of First Past the Post also doesn’t represent the views of the electorate. This alongside falling voter turnout and disillusionment with the political process in general shows that the mass is being increasingly ignored and not much is being done about it. It is clear therefore from this analysis of the current state of affairs in the UK that our political system falls far short of the target of real democracy. The UK is perhaps generally worse than other countries that describe themselves as "democratic", particularly in its lack of proportional representation, which transmits the will of the people more accurately than the UK electoral system.
With increasingly falling voter turnout it begs the question into whether or not succeeding governments will have the sufficient support from the population to continue governing. Governments will have to involve voters more in decision making and the way Britain is run. Democracy is therefore not an accurate term to use for any of the "western democracies". The prevailing system should be better described as "Plutocracy" or "Monetocracy". The implications of Robert Michel’s comment are great for modern democracies and if the voice of the people continues to go unheard there will be serious repercussions for the government.
Cook, P.J, 1971. Robert Michels Political Parties in perspective. The Journal of Politics, [Online]. 33 (3), pp 773-776.
Available at: http://www.jstor.org/ (JSTOR scholarly archives) [accessed July 2007]
Michels, R, 1958. Political Parties: A sociological study of the oligarchial tendencies of modern democracies. Glencoe, Illinois: The Free Press,
Bachrach, P, 1969. The theory of democratic elitism: a critique. London: The University of London Press.
May, J.D, 1965. Democracy, Organisation, Michels. American Political Science Review, [Online] 59 (2), pp 417-429
Available at: http://www.jstor.org/ (JSTOR scholarly archives) [accessed July 2007]
Pareto, V, 1963. The mind and society: A treatise on general sociology. New York: Dover Publications.
Gibson, A & Anderson, M, 1985. The political implications of elite and mass tolerance. Political behaviour [Online] 7 (2), pp 118-146
Available at: http://www.jstor.org/ (JSTOR scholarly archives) [accessed June 2007]
McKenzie, R.T, 1955 Power in British political parties. The British Journal of Sociology. [Online] 6 (2), pp 123-132
Available at: http://www.jstor.org/ (JSTOR scholarly archives) [accessed Aug 2007]
Livingston, A & Kahn, H.D eds., 1939 The Ruling Class. New York: McGraw Hill
Sartori, G, 1957. Parties and Party Systems: A Framework for Analysis Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Mackie, G, 2003. Democracy defended. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Hands, G, 1971. Roberto Michels and the study of political parties. The British Journal of Political Science. [Online] 1 (2) pp 155- 172
Available at: http://www.jstor.org/ (JSTOR scholarly archives) [accessed Aug 2007]
Leeke, M, 2001. UK Elections Statistics. House of Commons Research Paper.
[Online] 3 (59)
Available at: http://www.parliament.uk/commons/lib/research/rp2003/rp03-059.pdf [accessed Sept 2007)