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iron law of oligarchy


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A theory of trade unions and socialist political parties formulated by the sociologist, Robert Michels, in the early years of the twentieth century. It expresses a deeply pessimistic viewpoint that progressive social movements inevitably become undemocratic and dominated by a conservative élite. The theory has had most influence on the analysis of trade unions and is associated with the view that unions are controlled by an unaccountable bureaucracy. Critics of the theory believe that it exaggerates the extent of leader control of unions and argue that the trend towards oligarchy is reversible. [See goal displacement and union bureaucracy.]


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