January 19, 2013

Michels: the rusty iron law of oligarchy This post is a reading of Robert Michels' discussion of the iron law of oligarchy. Two questions underlie the reading: what is his critique of the party and what is the relation of his idea of the crowd to this critique? At this point, I only sketch some of the components of the latter idea rather than provide much of an analysis. Robert Michels' Political Parties (1911) is the classic critique of not just the revolutionary party (or the 'modern party as a fighting organization') but the party form in general. His basic claim is well known. Parties tend to oligarchy -- it's an iron law. Sometimes overlooked is the fact that Michels' argument applies to democracy (or any kind of mass or collective governance) overall: democracy, of any kind, tends to oligarchy. What might work for a small group can't be carried out by masses directly, so they have to divide the tasks, delegate, specialize, report, and assign. Because leadership is technically indispensable, democracy leads to oligarchy. The problem for socialists is that socialism, too, tends to oligarchy (Michels was a member of the SPD and then the PSI; Lenin refers to him as 'the garrulous Michels'). Even those parties one might most expect to remain in tune with and accountable to the workers, even those organizations animated by ideals of democratic participation, even those championing the cause of the proletariat ultimately take on a whole slew of oligarchical characteristics. It's a sad but true fact of modern political...
Freud: group and transference In Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, Freud concerns himself with man as a member, man in his belonging to: how is that that to which man belongs, belongs to him? We should note that the German title refers to Massenpsychologie. The English "group" could have been translated as mass or as crowd. I consider the book in some detail for several reasons: first, because of the way the group is enclosed in the individual; second, because of the link between transference and the group; third, because many of the elements of Freud's account reappear in later writers' discussions of crowds. What is crucial in this text is the primacy of the group to the individual. Group psychology--belonging, connection, will--comes first. The individual ego develops out of it in a process that is unstable and incomplete. Group psychology, Freud tells us, is concerned with the simultaneous influence of a large number of people, generally strangers, on the individual. It thus concerns man as a member of a race, nation, caste, profession, institution, or crowd organized at a particular time for a specific purpose. What's interesting to Freud is that man's insertion into a group leads to thoughts, feelings, and actions that are unexpected. He wants to understand the nature of the mental change effected by groups. I have italicized insertion into a group because in some ways Freud's account actually seems to be inverted, an account of the group's insertion into the man or, differently put, the enclosure...

Jodi Dean

Jodi Dean is a political theorist.

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