Bryce: Oligarchies within Democracies

JAMES BRYCE — No one can have had some years’ experience of the conduct of affairs in a legislature or an administration without observing how extremely small is the number of persons by whom the world is governed. Oxenstierna’s famous dictum, Quantula regitur mundus sapientia, finds its exemplification every day, but it is a criticism not of the flocks who follow but of the shepherds who lead. In all assemblies and groups and organized bodies of men, from a nation down to the committee of a club, direction and decisions rest in the hands of a small percentage, less and less in proportion to the larger and larger size of the body, till in a great population it becomes an infinitesimally small proportion of the whole number. This is and always has been true of all forms of government, though in different degrees. The fact is most obvious in an autocracy. The nominal autocrat, except in so far as the fear of assassination or rebellion obliges him to regard popular feeling, can be a real autocrat, exercising direct personal government, only in two cases, viz. in a small community which he can, like the Sicilian tyrant Agathocles or Chaka the Zulu king, rule directly, or in a wider area when he is, like Julius Caesar or Napoleon, a superman in intellect and energy. In all other cases his personal will plays a small part, and the vast bulk of the business is done by his Ministers, so that the important part of his function lies in selecting those who are to govern in his name, and trying, if he be capable of the duty, to see that both they and their personal entourage continue to deserve his confidence.

In a Court like that of Louis XV. the powers of the State were, subject to such directions as that voluptuary might occasionally give, divided between three or four high officials and the king’s private favourites, with the reigning mistress or her favourites. The Ministers were themselves influenced by their secretaries and favourites, but the total number of persons who guided the destinies of France, exercising, say, nineteen-twentieths of the power over national as distinguished from local affairs, may have been less than twenty. Every Monarchy becomes in practice an Oligarchy.

British India furnishes an excellent example of an enlightened, hard-working, disinterested, very small official class ruling a vast country. Taking together the Central Government and the Governments of the Provinces, the traveller who has good opportunities for observation comes to the conclusion that the ” persons who count ” — that is, those from whom all the important decisions on policy proceed — do not exceed thirty or forty, including those private secretaries who may sometimes be quite as potent factors as their better-known chiefs. Within the large oligarchy of some hundreds of the higher British officials, this inner oligarchy rules, each member of it having an actual power which is often less or greater than that legally assigned to his office, his personal intelligence and industry making the difference. To take an example on a much smaller scale, that of a country which a democracy left to be governed practically by one man, though subject to the check imposed on him by the necessity of defending his acts in Parliament, and — when the matter was exceptionally important — of persuading his Cabinet colleagues that those acts were defensible, it may be said that the persons who aided and advised the Chief Secretary, and in that way bore a part in ruling Ireland, were, on an average, less than a dozen, viz. three or four of the most experienced officials, two or three of the popular leaders, and a very few private friends on whose advice the Chief Secretary set value (1), the power of each, i.e. the share of each man in the decisions taken, being proportioned to the value which the Minister set upon that man’s opinion (2). In Germany and in Austria the determination of great issues, even the tremendous issues of war and peace which arose in July 1914 lay with seven or eight persons. In large democratic countries like England and France, and above all in the United States, the number of persons who count, swelled as it is by journalists and by the leaders of various organizations that can influence votes, is very much larger in proportion to the population, but that proportion is still infinitesimally small.

Conceive of Political Power as a Force supplied to a machine from a number of dynamos, some with a stronger, some with a weaker, current, and try to estimate the amount of that Force which proceeds from each dynamo. The force which comes from each dynamo that represents an individual man is capable of a rough evaluation, while that force which represented the mass of public opinion is not so evaluable, because it varies with the importance of the issue, which sometimes excites public opinion and sometimes fails to interest it. Whoever tries, in the case of any given decision on a political question, to estimate the amount of the force proceeding from the dynamos which represent the wills of individual men will be surprised to find how high a proportion that amount bears on the average to the whole volume, because in many cases public opinion, though recognized as the supreme arbiter, is faint or uncertain, so that in those cases decision falls to the few, and a decision little noted at the time may affect the course of the events that follow.

This is plain enough in the case of the German decision of 1914. It is less evident in a democracy, for there public opinion is more active and outspoken, and when it speaks with a clear voice, omnipotent. But such cases are exceptional. Moreover, even in democracies opinion itself is in the last analysis made by a comparatively small percentage of the nation, the party chiefs being specially powerful among these. Public opinion is in ordinary times deferential to those who hold the reins of government, leaving to them all but the most important decisions.

The members of a representative legislature in a Parliamentary country are presumably men of exceptional ability, each being a sort of leader to his own constituents : yet within every legislature power is concentrated in a few, including the six or seven strongest men among the Ministers, five or six prominent leaders of the various Opposition groups and about ten per cent, of the rest, the others practically following the lead given to them, and not merely voting but also mostly thinking and feeling with their party. In the United States House of Representatives business was for many years directed by a very few persons. After the Speaker ceased to be a dictator, it passed to a small Committee, the exigencies of business as well as the interest of the dominant party prescribing this. The selection of the persons to be nominated by the two great parties as candidates for the Presidency of the United States at their national Conventions falls in practice into the hands of a small group of politicians, so the nation may be shut up to choose between two men whom few citizens would have selected, the attempt made to ascertain the popular will by the plan of ” Presidential Primaries ” having virtually failed. In a large popular Assembly, like that of a Greek republic, with hundreds of thousands listening to the speeches of orators, there was no party control, and every citizen voted as he pleased, but the contagion of numbers was powerful, and the dominant feeling swept men off their feet. No ruling assembly ever contained so many men who had intelligence to guide their wills coupled with freedom to express their wills by a vote, as did that of Athens, but that will was the will rather of the crowd than each man’s own, and was in the last resort due to the persuasive force of the few strenuous spirits who impressed their views upon the mass. Even where the absolute equality of every voter was most complete, power inevitably drifted to the strong.

What has been said of governments and assemblies is equally true of non-legal organizations. The two great parties in the United States, counting their members by millions, have long been ruled by small cliques: and in every huge city the Organization has its Great General Staff or Ring of half a dozen wire-pullers, usually with a Boss as chief. The much less important party organizations in England are directed by two or three members of the Government and of the Opposition, with a few office-bearers of Conservative and Liberal Associations. But the most striking illustration of the law that the larger the body the fewer those who rule it is furnished by the great Labour Unions that now exist in all industrial countries. The power which the members of the Unions entrust to their delegates to Trade Congresses and the docility with which in some countries they follow whatever lead is given them by a strong will, can, as an able writer who has given special study to the subject remarks, be in those countries paralleled only by the religious veneration given to saints (3). Ferdinand Lassalle in Germany, Enrico Ferri in Italy, received a loyalty and adulation which hung upon every word. Millions of votes are controlled by perhaps a dozen leaders who have won confidence. This surrender of power by the Many to the Few is admitted by the leaders themselves, who, recognizing its abandonment of the principle of Equality, justify it by the needs of the case. A militant organization is an army which can conquer only as an army conquers, by Unity of Command. It may be said that after victory equality will return. Yes ; but so will indifference. A party is most interested and excited when it is militant, and though the leaders may not be of the same type after the battle has been won, they will be still few and powerful.

We are thus driven to ask : Is a true Democracy possible ? Has it ever existed?

If one finds everywhere the same phenomena they are evidently due to the same ubiquitous causes, causes that may be summed up as follows:

1. Organization is essential for the accomplishment of any purpose, and organization means that each must have his special function and duty, and that all who discharge their several functions must be so guided as to work together, and that this co-operation must be expressed in and secured by the direction of some few commanders whose function it is to overlook the whole field of action and issue their orders to the several sets of officers. To attempt to govern a country by the votes of masses left without control would be like attempting to manage a railroad by the votes of uninformed shareholders, or to lay the course of a sailing ship by the votes of the passengers. In a large country especially, the great and increasing complexity of government makes division, subordination, co-ordination, and the concentration of directing power more essential to efficiency than ever before.

2. The majority of citizens generally trouble themselves so little about public affairs that they willingly leave all but the most important to be dealt with by a few (4). The several kinds of interest which the average man feels in the various branches or sides of his individual life come in something like the following order :

First, the occupation by which he makes his living, which, whether he likes it or not, is a prime necessity.

Secondly, his domestic concerns, his family and relatives and friends.

Thirdly, but now only in some countries, his religious beliefs or observances.

Fourthly, his amusements and personal tastes, be they for sensual or for intellectual enjoyments.

Fifthly, his civic duty to the community.

The order of these five interests of course varies in different citizens: some men put the fourth above the second, some so neglect the first as to be a burden to others. But the one common feature is the low place which belongs to the fifth, which for more than half the citizens in certain countries scarcely exists at all. For nearly all and this will obviously be most true where women possess the suffrage, because domestic cares necessarily come first in the mind and time of most of them the fifth fills a very small place in the average citizen’s thoughts and is allowed to claim a correspondingly small fraction of his time.

3. Even those citizens who do take some interest in the welfare of their community are prevented, some by indolence, some by a sense of their want of knowledge, from studying political questions. Those who think, those who quickly turn thought into action, inevitably guide the rest.

The ” common will ” to which Rousseau attributes rule, must have begun as the will of two or three, and spread outwards from them (5).

4. Inequality of Natural Capacity. Comparatively few men have the talent or possess the knowledge needed for thinking steadily on political questions ; and of those so qualified, many are heedless or lazy, and leave politics alone, because they care so much more for other things that they confine themselves to delivering their vote at elections. Thus leadership naturally passes to the men of energy and boldness, especially if they possess also the power of persuasive speech. They become the Ruling Few. This sort of oligarchy is the natural and inevitable form of government. In a curious little collection of songs written to be sung by citizens during the First French Revolution there is a sort of hymn to Equality which begins, ” O sweet and holy Equality, enfant chéri de la Nature.” But however sweet the child, Nature is not its parent. Monarchy was natural in some states of society: oligarchy in others, but the direct rule of all citizens equally and alike never has existed or can exist. The propensity to obey is at least as strong as the sense of independence, and much more generally diffused (6).

As these things are of course familiar to any one who has either read a little history or seen a little of practical politics in any assembly down to a parish meeting, how then did the apostles of democracy come to talk as they did ? Where is the Will of the People? (7) What becomes of the rule of the people by the people?

These enthusiasts were not the mere victims of illusions, but as they lived in times of revolt against the misgovernment of monarchies and oligarchies, governments of the Few who selfishly pursued their own class interests, they leapt to the conclusion that tihe one thing needful for good government was to place it in the hands of the Many, and that the Many, i.e. the whole mass of the citizens, would take the same interest in using it for the good of all as the oligarchs had taken in using it for their own class. They saw the people roused as they had not been roused since the religious conflicts of the sixteenth century, to take an eager interest in public affairs, and assumed that this interest would continue when the excitement had died down; and being themselves ardent politicians, they attributed to the mass a zeal like that which they felt themselves. The lapse of years has given us a fuller knowledge. It is time to face the facts and be done with fantasies. As Bishop Butler long ago observed: Things are what they are, and not some other things, and they assuredly are not what we like to believe them to be. The proportion of citizens who take a lively and constant interest in politics is so small, and likely to remain so small, that the direction of affairs inevitably passes to a few. The framers of institutions must recognize this fact, and see that their institutions correspond with the facts.

In one thing, however, the sanguine enthusiasts of whom I have spoken were entirely right. They saw that the chief fault of the bad governments they sought to overthrow lay in their being conducted for the benefit of a class. The aim and spirit were selfish : a government could be made to serve the people only by giving the people the right to prescribe the aims it should pursue. This was done by the overthrow of the oligarchs : and this is one great service democracy has rendered and is still trying, with more or less success, to render. It will have to go on trying, for Nature is always tending to throw Power into the hands of the Few, and the Few always tend by a like natural process to solidify into a Class, as the vapours rising from the earth gather into clouds. Fortunately the Class also, by a like process, is always tending to dissolve. The old Oligarchies of the Sword lasted longest, because in rude feudal times they had seized and anchored themselves to the land. The more recent Oligarchies of the Purse are less stable, because new men are always pressing in, and movable paper wealth may soon pass away from the descendants of those who acquired it. The Oligarchy of Intellect is still more fluid: talent easily enters it, and talent is not transmissible like the shares in a railroad. Philosophers who disliked the oligarchies of rank and feared the plutocracies that succeeded them have dreamed of an aristocracy of Intellect as the best kind of government, but though they knew that a State needs uprightness and public spirit as well as intellect in its rulers, they never succeeded in showing how the possessors of these qualities are to be found and chosen, and they forgot that to both sets of qualities there must be added another which only experience tests, that is, Strength, the power to move and control the minds and wills of men. ” The Kingdom of Heaven is taken by violence, and the violent take it by force.”

Thus Free Government cannot but be, and has in reality always been, an Oligarchy within a Democracy. But it is Oligarchy not in the historical sense of the Rule of a Class, but rather in the original sense of the word, the rule of Few instead of Many individuals, to wit, those few whom neither birth nor wealth nor race distinguishes from the rest, but only Nature in having given to them qualities or opportunities she has denied to others.

What, then, becomes of Democracy? What remains to the Many? Three rights and functions; and they are the vital strength of free government. Though the people cannot choose and guide the Means administration employs, they can prescribe the Ends : and so although government may not be By the People, it may be For the People. The people declare the End of government to be the welfare of the whole community and not of any specially favoured section. They commit the Means for attaining that end to the citizens whom they select for the purpose. They watch those selected citizens to make sure that they do not misuse the authority entrusted to them. Popular powers, however, though they determine the character and scope of government, are in practice more frequently Negative or Deterrent than Positive. The people can more readily reject a course proposed to them than themselves suggest a better course. They can say, ” We dislike this : we will not have it ” on many an occasion when they cannot say what else they wish to have, i.e. in what form such general benefits as they desire ought to be given.

Of these three functions the most important and most difficult is that of choosing leaders, for though it seems simple to say that government must pursue the common good, the power to discern and decide in any given case what is that good, and what Means best conduce thereto, needs a wisdom and an unselfishness possessed by few. Since the people can seldom do this for themselves, their leaders must do it for them, and be held responsible for the consequences.

A nation is tested and judged by the quality of those it chooses and supports as its leaders; and by their capacity it stands or falls.

To realize how much power does rest and must by a law of nature always rest with the few who guide the fortunes of any community, be it great or small, is to indicate the supreme importance of the choice which a free nation is called to make. The larger the nation the more difficult the choice, because opportunities for personal knowledge are slighter. And the choice is also more momentous, because the greater the body and the more numerous the various sections it contains, the more essential is it that strong leaders should be trusted with the powers needed to hold it together.

*James Bryce (1838-1922), Modern Democracies. New York: MacMillan, 1921 (Vol. 2: Chapter LXXV)
James Bryce (1st Viscount Bryce; 1838-1922), britannico, docente universitario, giurista, storico e politico di cultura liberale, nel 1921 pubblicò Modern democracies (ed. Macmillan, in due volumi; prima trad. in francese: Paris, Payot, 1924; in italiano: Milano, Hoepli, 1930), un po’ la summa dei suoi sessant’anni di esperienze dirette, riflessioni e studi comparativi, sincronici e diacronici. Parlamentare dal 1885 al 1907, fu poi nel periodo 1907-1913 Ambasciatore negli USA. Sebbene non sempre la cosa sia evidente ed esplicita nella saggistica politica, l’opera di Bryce ha tuttavia molto influito anche su numerosi studiosi di politica del secondo Novecento (un esempio tra molti può essere considerato Giovanni Sartori, 1924-2017). effe

  1. Parliament governed Ireland in the sense that its wishes, or what were conjectured as likely to be its wishes, could not be defied, and that where legislation was needed, its consent to that legislation must be obtained, but the majority that gave general support to the Cabinet was usually so disposed to vote as the Cabinet wished that an extremely wide field was left open for the volition of the Irish Government and this volition was the work of the responsible Minister and the handful whom he thought it worth while to consult.[]
  2. The less the Chief Secretary happens to know of Ireland before he is sent there, the smaller will usually be the number of those whom he consults and the greater their influence on decisions. The view stated in the text is based on the experience I acquired when, many years ago, responsible for the government of Ireland.[]
  3. The views stated in the text which I had reached by other paths are confirmed by an able writer who has given special study to the subject, R. Michels, in his book entitled Political Parties, pp. 68-74. I may add that his description of the Socialist parties in Germany is well worth reading. He remarks that the Socialist leaders come mostly (as did Marx) from the bourgeoise, and are often idealists, led by their convictions, not by ambition, though of course they, like all leaders, come to love power, and maintaining an intellectual standard equal to that of German politicians generally. Some have been very striking figures.[]
  4. As to the small minorities by which important questions are decided at votings on Socialist or Labour affairs, see Michiels, pp. 55-58, op. cit.[]
  5. ousseau wrote in the Contrat Social: ” A prendre le terme dans la rigueur de l’acception il n’a jamais existé de veritable democratie, et il n’en existera jamais. Il est centre l’ordre naturel que le grand nombre gouverne et que le petit soit gouverné.”[]
  6. Proudhon observed : ” L’espece humaine veut être gouverné, elle le sera. J’ai honte de mon espèce.” Quoted by Michels, p. 421.[]
  7. The phrase ” Will of the People ” seems to involve two fallacies, or rather perhaps two implications which induce fallacies, and they spring from the habit of conceiving of the People as One. The first is that the Will of the Majority is apt to be thought of as if it were the Will of All. The second is that as it comes from many it is thought of as issuing alike and equally from many, whereas in fact it originates in few and is accepted by many.[]

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