Free Software v The Iron Law of Oligarchy
I've just started thinking about The Iron Law of Oligarchy in relation to the effectiveness of free software projects and enterprises and would be interested to hear other views (not just on the things that jumped out for me):
The "iron law of oligarchy" states that all forms of organization, regardless of how democratic or autocratic they may be at the start, will eventually and inevitably develop oligarchic tendencies, thus making true democracy practically and theoretically impossible, especially in large groups and complex organizations. The relative structural fluidity in a small-scale democracy succumbs to social viscosity in a large-scale organization. According to the "iron law," democracy and large-scale organization are incompatible.
Sounds pretty final there, but the wikipedia article also mentions an exception, the International Typographical Union on which a case study was carried out :
Lipset, Trow and Coleman largely agree with Michels that there are oligarchical bureaucratic tendencies in all organizations. They point to several factors that made ITU different from most other unions - and organizations - and thus able to defy the iron law.
They noted that unlike most of such organizations, ITU was founded by a group of local unions valuing their autonomy. The existence of factions within the democratic structure (elections) of the union prevented leaders from becoming too corrupt, as each faction was always willing to expose the misdoings of another.
They also point out that similarity between background of members (most of them coming from middle class) further encouraged democratic decision making processes (Goldfield 1998).
One of the conclusions of Lipset, Trow and Coleman research was that behaviour of individuals could be related to the qualities of local environments (groups) and their leaders.(Lipset 1988)
Hmmm. We can co-operate democratically and avoid oligarchy, so long as we mistrust each other - maybe that should be called "The Ironic Law of Democracy".
Free software projects run by volunteers defy easy categorisation, are any two alike I wonder. There are strong elements of meritocracy and consensus building, with democracy mostly a last resort after consensus fails and rightly so for technical decisions. But does oligarchy creep into some projects as part of the management role?
Democracy is most valuable where government is tied to the land and its laws, but in cyberspace new jurisdictions can be created at a whim with new modes of behaviour. If enough project members lose faith in a manager, they can fork off with a new leader to hack and co-operate their own way.
I think this diversity is healthy and the freedom is necessary, but at the same time, I wonder is it always the best answer when a lot of time has been invested by project members and (potential)users perceive risk. If formal democracy is used periodically to fill management roles, can this make projects more effective and less likely to become polarised and suffer cataclysmic forks?