VOLUME 9 (2008/2009) - ISSUE 14 (BI-YEARLY)

Robert MICHELS, the Political Parties and Social Capital

by Patrick Hunout

Patrick HUNOUT is the President and Founder of The International Scope Review and The Social Capital Foundation.

Dear readers,

We release today the 14th issue of TISR, which will also be the last. In effect, as from 2010, we intend to develop an entirely new line of publications. The spirit of TISR will remain, but the shape and focus of our publications should be different. As a matter of fact, over time, the Review developed into a fully independent organization with more various activities, and our action puts more emphasis on the much needed transformations of society and governance - with stronger links to practice. Hence, the time has now come to renew ourselves as editor as well.

In this issue, we are presenting different contributions on migrations, international relationships, intergenerational aspects and local government efficiency. My piece on a world in convulsions, in line with the TISR Model, designs the causes of the triple collapse in which the Powerï's Policy has led us: from societal to environmental and to economic collapse, with the largest economic crisis since the 1930ï's developing since August 2007.

This enormous crisis does not seem to have been viewed by the political leaders of the world as an opportunity to renew the outworn belief systems they are supporting. As Amitai Etzioni recently suggested, much of the debate over how to address the economic crisis has focused on a single word: regulation. As bad behavior by a variety of ï'financial institutions landed us in this situation, it was easy to imagine that the way to avoid future economic meltdowns would be to create, and vigorously enforce, new rules proscribing such behavior. But the truth is quite a bit more complicated.

The link between consumerism and the current economic crisis is obvious. A culture in which the urge to consume dominates the social psychology of the citizens is a culture in which people will do most anything to acquire the means to consume. It is also a culture where, reciprocally, everything will be done to urge them to purchase products they may not need and may not be able to afford. Consumerism is at the root of the massive creation of fake payment means via easy credit that led to crisis - while a mass of people were impoverished by job cuts meant to raise profits, and a new underclass meant to favor oligarchic governance was being formed. What needs to be eradicated, or at least greatly tempered, is this consumerism: the obsession with acquisition that has become the organizing principle of Western life. No need to remind that consumerism is an essential element of the larger value system of the New Leviathan.

The upshot is that regulation cannot be the linchpin of attempts to reform the economy. It is not through a strengthened alliance between consumerism and governmental bureaucracy that a real solution can be found. In reality, this alliance is perhaps the worst combination possible for our societies. All attempts to democratize governmental systems have failed, and in most Western countries, democracy today is receding to a creeping dictatorship and to repeated, although hidden, blows to the civil liberties.

The iron law of oligarchy developed by German syndicalist and sociologist Robert Michels in his book, Political Parties (1911) is still very up-to-date. It states that all forms of organization, regardless of how democratic or autocratic they may be at the start, will eventually and inevitably develop into oligarchies. Studying political parties, Michels found that, paradoxically, the socialist parties of Europe, despite their democratic ideology and provisions for mass participation, were dominated by their leaders, just like the traditional conservative parties. He concluded that the problem lays in the very nature of bureaucracies. As such organizations grow in numbers and complexity, they become less and less democratic.

Max Weber and later John Kenneth Galbraith have well analyzed the process of bureaucratization. Hierarchization, specialization and routinization lead to the development of skills and resources among leaders which separates the leadership from the rank and file and from the public. Leaders have access to, and control over, information and facilities that are not available to anyone else. They control the information that flows down the channels of communication. Employees, consumers and taxpayers cannot protest rules that are presented as impersonal and universal, when they are not discouraged by the prospective difficulty to move the bureaucracy.

In addition, leaders tend to consolidate their interests as a group. They achieve their leadership positions precisely because they have office politics skills. They have control over negative and positive sanctions to promote the behaviors that they desire, such as to grant or deny raises, assign workloads, fire, demote and promote. Most importantly, they tend to promote dependable subordinates who share their views and serve their interests, with the result that the oligarchy becomes self-perpetuating and that the formation of an average, conformist mediocrity is encouraged within the bureaucracy with the external signs of power and distinction being praised to the detriment of the effective real outcomes.

Finally, from birth, people are taught to obey those in positions of authority. Therefore they tend to look to leaders for policy directives and are generally prepared to allow leaders to exercise their judgment on most matters. Correlatively, when they are used to be led by bureaucracies, people become unable to behave in an autonomous and responsive way; the level of anomie and social deviance increases, and the call for bureaucracy becomes necessary to ensure security and stability of a vicious circle. The immobility and passivity of the masses in other words, the lack of social capital - encourages the perpetuation of oligarchy.

Finally, the development of private and state bureaucracies tends to paralyze both the economy and the efficiency of the public policies. While, as shown by the current crisis, very much in line with Galbraith's analyses, private bureaucracies tend to create the market at the risk of making the economy collapse, state bureaucracies lack the imagination and creativity to act properly, and turn the situation to their advantage while their expansion with no brake weakens gravely society.

The only sustainable solution to the challenge is, I believe, to develop a strong, vibrant and cohesive civil society that would be able to get rid both of abusive capitalists and abusive government. Empowering civil society is necessary to balance the progressive dissolution of governmental power, as well as channelize capitalism into the community spirit.

This, or course, cannot be done by decree, nor in a wild, sudden and abrupt way. It can only be achieved through a poised, reasonable and progressive process. Many measures would help achieve such empowerment, such as developing more (fully independent) civil society organizations, ending government monopoly on the public resources (government would collect the resources but not keep them entirely for itself), putting into question immigration policies (in order to strengthen social cohesion), and privatizing in a proficient way (which has not been the case in the past) a number of public services.  The general idea is to transfer a number of government responsibilities to civil society itself.

In order to avoid falling into the trap of utopia, it seems reasonable to think that such process cannot be achieved by a circle of enlightened few. Nor would it be the responsibility of the sole politicians to lead it. It is more a process in which we may actually be all forced to get involved by the massive changes of the economy and the huge budget deficits they entail, which are already shaking up surprisingly, in an almost direct way - our system of values.