Everything you need to know about the next Democratic Administration, and the last one, was summed up in an interview this month on MSNBC. On the Maddow show, Pete Buttigieg explained his approach to health care reform. Along the way, he accidentally explained why deep blue California leads the nation in homelessness, why the Obama Administration failed to deliver meaningful structural reforms, and why any real progress is unlikely through the electoral process.
On Maddow’s show, Buttigieg volunteered his logic for opposing Warren’s single payer health plan. According to Buttigieg, the problem with her plan is that it will “eliminate the job of every single American working at every single insurance company in the country.”
Leaving aside for a moment the relative merits of Warren’s proposal, Buttigieg has placed a finger on the most powerful obstacle to progress in any political system. Every system, no matter how broken or oppressive, creates relative winners all up and down its hierarchy. In time, people become so invested in the crumbs they receive from a broken system that they won’t release their grip on those crumbs to grab a cake. With very few exceptions, progress emerges from wars or financial disasters, not from elections.
German sociologist, Robert Michels, first described in 1911 what he called an “iron law” that democratic institutions must inevitably harden into oligarchies. His core observation wasn’t so novel. It was an obsession of the architects of our American revolution, filling volume after volume of the Federalist Papers. When Jefferson somewhat rashly explained in 1797 that “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants,” he was describing the institutional rot our founders thought was inevitable in any social system.
Michels’ described the organizational dynamics behind this tendency toward oligarchy. In order to accomplish anything once in power, a new order must embrace a degree of specialization and hierarchy. People carve out places for themselves all up and down that hierarchy, developing an attachment to the existing order stronger than their other interests. Even those relatively low in the order develop a pathetically sad stake in its preservation. Whatever policy or ideological goals may have inspired the system at its birth, the urge toward institutional survival eventually gains primacy.
Once an oligarchy has taken hold, an individual within it is faced with a choice between the ideals that benefit people like them generally (what Marxists would call “class consciousness”), or a chance to gain some tiny advancement by collusion with an established institution. Faced with this choice, people will almost always choose their own modest, relative advancement, even if it harms their interests in absolute terms, over any potential disruption of the oligarchy. That’s how the Iron Law of Oligarchy operates.
A white man earning $15/hour at an Amazon fulfillment center in Alabama, struggling to put food on the table, in danger of financial annihilation from a serious medical emergency, unable to imagine any path to a comfortable retirement or any financial security, will vote for Republicans because he’s worried about mythical immigrants who might “take his job.” His Facebook feed is chock full of stories of black crime in Chicago and welfare freeloaders.
His political twin is a sergeant in the North Korean army who perhaps enjoys an extra weekly ration of rice compared to a lowly private. That sergeant will lay down his life to protect that system from being replaced with something freer, happier, and more prosperous in which his relative advantage over those lower down the hierarchy would be lost.
Buttigieg’s comments about insurance company employees explains how the Iron Law of Oligarchy works to preserve concentrations of power. We can’t have nice things, because we’d first have to let go of a few of the things we already have. As Marx once said, you have nothing to lose but your chains. But what if I have premium chains, ordered in a custom color, featuring a comfort coating and embossed with the logo of my favorite college football team?
These oligarchies are not, in fact, either unstoppable or unbreakable, but they are very persistent. Under conditions of vibrant political competition with independent law enforcement, with a population strengthened by high levels of education and broad prosperity, these oligarchies struggle to harden into place. However, in any human system insulated for a time from competition, free flow of information, or from the regenerating influence of failure and creative destruction, the Iron Law of Oligarchy takes hold. Any system that loses its capacity to adapt will develop horrifying rot.
Why would a sexual assault victim like Kellyanne Conway agree to work for a predator, helping him harass and intimidate prey like herself? It’s a simple calculus. How much do I have to gain personally from cooperating with the machine against my own larger class or identity interests? It’s the Iron Law at work, and it operates equally across the political spectrum.
Why do Democrats in Illinois, who are supposedly attached to a “progressive” political cause, refuse to confront their very conservative leader, Mike Madigan, whose corruption is openly acknowledged? They do it because each of them is gaining some dribbles of milk from that cow. Democrats in Illinois are more concerned with preserving what they have than with delivering the “progress” they tout on their campaign websites.
Visit Nancy Pelosi’s Congressional District, ostensibly one of the politically progressive corners of America, to witness this the Iron Law of Oligarchy operate at peak cruelty. Drive past small, dumpy homes worth deep seven-figures, dotted with heartwarming “Hate Has No Home Here” window signs. Those homes belong to voters who manufactured the nation’s most appalling homelessness crisis in order to earn a slightly higher return on their housing investment.
It’s easy to spot the foolishness of political opponents who place their relative advantage over the greater good. Our own compromises with an established oligarchy are invisible, obscured by the logic of pragmatism. Don’t ever ask “why do people vote against their interests” without addressing that question to “progressive” California homeowners.
Biden and Buttigieg are politicians of a type common across both parties. They offer a veneer of “change” without the uncomfortable risks that accompany real progress. Everyone gets to keep their crumbs, with perhaps a shiny bonus morsel thrown in, while the steady concentration of power and wealth continues unabated.
Genuine progress almost never emerges from a process as biased toward stability as an election. That doesn’t mean progress can’t be achieved through peaceful political agitation, it just means that would be a rare historical anomaly. Real structural progress emerges from catastrophes. Those catastrophes are occasionally financial disasters, but in most cases, progress comes from wars.
War is disruptive and unpredictable, destroying accumulations of wealth in ways that no other force ever does. Though almost all real social progress emerges in the wake of war, few wars produce social progress. Most are merely exercises in destruction, after which the old order reasserts itself. War opens a window for change because, in order to survive a war, people are forced to concentrate political power relatively few hands with little oversight. Mostly this leads to abuse, but in some cases that combination of emergency and hyper-concentrated power grants a political innovator enough leverage to fix a few broken processes.
Between crises, a civilization generally plods along, experiencing ever growing concentrations of power and a gradual sclerosis of political institutions. However, on rare occasions a less dangerous threat can be enough to inspire some reforms.
Americans in the 1960’s delivered overwhelming political power to a Democratic Party determined to unwind Jim Crow, fight poverty, liberate women, and roll back a dangerous tide of environmental pollution. They carried out these reforms under pressure from a global Communist threat, but they did it without a war (Vietnam deserves an asterisk). Their efforts stuttered, halted, and were largely rolled back over the decades that followed because that threat wasn’t enough to cement progress against an entrenched elite. But their efforts still produced some meaningful gains. Progress through electoral politics is possible, but it is rare and fragile, and still usually depends on some external threat for its impetus.
Progress is essential to our survival. Political systems that fail to evolve to meet emerging demands will break, in one manner or another, and be replaced. Though democracy was supposed to create the flexibility necessary for a system to evolve, a voting public almost never embraces change until inaction has spawned a disaster. Figures like Biden and Buttigieg, who dominate the ranks of both parties, symbolize our aversion to the risks of change, even when change is our last hope.