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Free Software v The Iron Law of Oligarchy

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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):

Quote:

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 :

Quote:

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?

memenode's picture
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Maybe the key is not in

Maybe the key is not in using democracy as an end to itself but the means towards a real goal which is the satisfaction of all people involved, peace of mind. Of course, this probably seems too obvious to mention, but what may make it worth mentioning is that increasingly the term "democracy" is being thrown around as a buzzword without much meaning or as a goal in itself, losing sight of why exactly is democracy being pursued in the first place.

A good example is USA today, fighting even wars in the name of democracy and freedom yet losing it more and more.

Maybe we should dare to say something like "who cares about democracy (or any *cracy or *ism for that matter) if everyone is happy". A notion of a leader or leaders (the management/administration) is not necessarily a bad idea because of efficiency and the way to prevent it from becoming a negative oligarchy (powerful enough to prevent their own disposition) is to keep enough pressure on the leaders/management/administration for them not to corrupt their leadership in a way that would adversely affect those who they preside over.

So yeah I think the answer to your last question, if I understand it correctly, is yes. Formal advocacy may sometimes be enough to keep this pressure up (because of the fear of being elected out of the leadership position), but then it has to be genuine and in some countries (like US) this is becoming questionable as well. Maybe that's why, in addition to formal democracy, we need an additional safety belt, a Plan B. When democracy fails diminishing the fear of being de-elected, something else must remain as a pressuring power.

Indeed, a bit of mistrust is always good. It is not said in vain: "Question everything." That saying implies mistrust into everything to a certain degree.

As long as there is a healthy degree of mistrust and an infrastructure which can enforce it, we'll have good leaders and happy (but fairly intelligent) followers.

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Thank you democrates for

Thank you democrates for introducing me to the Iron Law of Oligarchy, it's seems an interesting subject and has helped me in understanding ideas in the book I've just finished reading (The Revolution Betrayed - Trotsky).

But to the matter at hand. As you say if there is a disagreement within a Free Software project it's possible for the different sides to go their separate ways by forking the project. But I don't see this as a way of getting rid of the oligarchy, it merely removes one set of people from the existing oligarchy's power and puts them in a situation where a new oligarchy can grow and control them. Thus it solves nothing in the long term, it merely spawns oligarchies.

I believe using democracy as a means to settle problems within the community would be better. For the reason it gives people the possibility to challenge any oligarchy which has formed, thus possibly reducing the number of oligarchies. Although I cannot say I know how this would work within a large Free Software project such as Linux, however there is hope in looking at projects such as Debian where the project leader is democratically elected by the developers. The recent bad blood which has surrounded the kernel (the Con Kolivas affair) has been due to Linus deciding what was 'best' for the kernel in a oligarchical fashion, so democracy in this field to settle the disagreement might have saved a kernel developer from departing.

From the above I seem to believe that active democracy (as opposed to the state of apathy which often surrounds democratic elections etc. in many countries) can keep the oligarchy at bay within Free Software projects more than the ability to fork. I however do not have the answers to achieving an active democracy.

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Isn't active democracy

Isn't active democracy something that exists on digg.com and similar sites? I'm assuming it as a state in which people can continuously participate in decision making rather than only periodically at elections.

Maybe observing digg.com, but not leaving other sites like fsdaily.com, would provide hints to answers of whether active democracy in Free Software projects would work and how.

I came to this thought thinking, simply, that on the internet where pretty much all Free Software projects live, how hard should it be to develop a system of active democracy! It's not like we have some unsurmountable tangible obstacles to it, though I might be underestimating the human factor in this case, that is, perhaps the apathy that was mentioned.

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I don't really
libervisco wrote:

Isn't active democracy something that exists on digg.com and similar sites? I'm assuming it as a state in which people can continuously participate in decision making rather than only periodically at elections.

I don't really agree with this, I've become very apathetic when it comes to Digg. In it's early days there were nice variety of interesting articles, but as it grew it became more weighted to the Ubuntu (and various other 'buzzwords') I interacted less, starting a vicious circle as then there are fewer people voting for non-Ubuntu things and even less reason for me to visit...

If people like me think their 'vote' will not count they will become apathetic, and I don't see Digg solving this.

'Active' democracy as I consider it includes many different quite equally weighted passionate groups whose sum of members is roughly the sum of the population they represent, which is really the very example which broke the Iron Law of Oligarchy.

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I agree with what you say

I agree with what you say about digg, although these buzzwords are buzzwords the majority votes for, not something imposed by digg's "central government". So rather than saying, maybe, that democracy didn't work, maybe it worked and ended up showing humans, or at least that particular culture of humans, to be less than what we hoped for. Smiling

Anyway, that's why I mentioned other digg-like sites like FSDaily where buzzwords don't get that much attention and criteria seems to be a bit different.

Still, yeah, the active democracy with different groups might end up most favorable.

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libervisco wrote: Maybe the
libervisco wrote:

Maybe the key is not in using democracy as an end to itself but the means towards a real goal which is the satisfaction of all people involved, peace of mind. Of course, this probably seems too obvious to mention, but what may make it worth mentioning is that increasingly the term "democracy" is being thrown around as a buzzword without much meaning or as a goal in itself, losing sight of why exactly is democracy being pursued in the first place.

Fair point. While I think we could do with more democracy in a lot of areas, I've moderated my position on how much democracy is wise.

I like the idea of Swiss democracy where people can elect representatives periodically, but also gather signatures and if enough are on a petition they can trigger a local vote or national referendum on any topic (aka Direct Democracy). Has it broken the Iron Law of oligarchy? I don't know, I'm not aware of a case study into any political class there. But it came about centuries ago as a way to unite the warring cantons, so at least historically it met some of the conditions that made the ITU a success (before technology did away with most typography jobs).

Here's a downside though. It seems power is so devolved in Switzerland that some extreme communities have been able to establish themselves. In certain areas you will find fascist whites only. Since locals get to vote on whether a newcomer can buy property or become a local citizen, they have an unhealthy mechanism allowing certain birds of a feather to flock together and enforce "racial purity" or whatever they like. At the very least a national law is needed to ensure people filtering is only allowed on the basis of established problems, so you can vote against a convicted paedophile buying a house beside the local school, but you can't vote against a person putting down roots because you don't like the colour of their skin or what not.

It seems the 'tyranny of the majority' is a better bet than the 'extremism of a minority' for fundamental rights. IE the larger the group the more likely common values will be fair to all. The challenge is the balance between group legislation and local/individual freedom. At the global level if everyone had a say on global policy would we get a better set of fundamental rights and fair trade? I'd guess yes, it's not hard to get something fairer than the current system.

libervisco wrote:

So rather than saying, maybe, that democracy didn't work, maybe it worked and ended up showing humans, or at least that particular culture of humans, to be less than what we hoped for.

Yep, we can't have a perfect society made out of flawed humans who have freedom. "The poor will always be with us" has remained true so far because "the greedy will always be with us", and we haven't organised to mitigate their dominance.

dylunio wrote:

I believe using democracy as a means to settle problems within the community would be better. For the reason it gives people the possibility to challenge any oligarchy which has formed, thus possibly reducing the number of oligarchies. Although I cannot say I know how this would work within a large Free Software project such as Linux, however there is hope in looking at projects such as Debian where the project leader is democratically elected by the developers. The recent bad blood which has surrounded the kernel (the Con Kolivas affair) has been due to Linus deciding what was 'best' for the kernel in a oligarchical fashion, so democracy in this field to settle the disagreement might have saved a kernel developer from departing.

The GNU/Linux scheduler row was interesting. Linus says that one of the reasons the other guys solution was chosen was that he had a proven track record in staying around to support it - that's a tad disingenuous since Con didn't walk away exasperated until after that decision was taken. Anyway, if enough developers thought Linus had become a liability, what could they do about it? Fork would seem to be the only answer if that key position is not elected and he refused to resign in the face of a majority petition. That process would be hugely damaging to free software, giving enemies the ammunition for intensified FUD.

For any project the users are stakeholders. They don't usually get a formal vote, but feedback and downloads generally give adequate expression, and where services are sold the contract is there. Developers usually have the power. but while forking of small projects is a palatable option, large projects are more challenging.

We all know user confidence in adopting free software goes beyond the technical merits of a given release to support. Documentation, customisation, patching, and continuous improvement. The market is way beyond hobbyist and continuing to mature. When some services are paid for and others are not, and if thereby some contributors get paid and others do not, bad blood brews.

It's a thorn most hackers prefer to avoid grasping, but there is an opportunity to advance things if it's faced up to. Would it make any difference whether a corporate oligarchy decides who gets paid and who doesn't, or can democracy play a role in offering a more acceptable solution?

I think it's well worth watching and learning from the projects based on democracy, like Debian as mentioned. The fair playing field may well offer more resilience in establishing a smooth mechanism to "pass the reigns" and ensure that all roles are filled and rewards accrued based on merit. The arrival of Mark Shuttleworth with a chequebook presented a serious challenge. Debian seems to remain relentless despite the earthquake, I wonder if it were an oligarchy where only the oligarchs cashed in would it still be there.

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