Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Reassurance Ritual

The Third Wave, A. Toffler

Representative government was a stunning advance over earlier power systems [..]. [It] made possible orderly succession without hereditary dynasty. It opened feedback channels between top and bottom in society. It provided an arena in which the differences among various groups could be reconciled peacefully. Tied to majority rule and the idea of one-man/one-vote, it helped the poor and weak to squeeze benefits from the technicians of power who ran the integrational engines of society. For these reasons, the spread of representative government was, on the whole, a humanizing breakthrough in history.

Yet from the very beginning it fell far short of its promise. By no stretch of the imagination was it ever controlled by the people, however defined. Nowhere did it actually change the underlying structure of power in industrial nations—the structure of sub-elites, elites, and super-elites. Indeed, far from weakening control by the managerial elites, the formal machinery of representation became one of the key means of integration by which they maintained themselves in power.

Thus elections, quite apart from who won them, performed a powerful cultural function for the elites. To the degree that everyone had a right to vote, elections fostered the illusion of equality.

Voting provided a mass ritual of reassurance, conveying to the people the idea that choices were being made systematically, with machine-like regularity, and hence, by, implication, rationally. Elections symbolically assured citizens that they were still in command—that they could, in theory at least, diselect as well as elect leaders. In both capitalist and socialist countries, these ritual reassurances often proved more important than the actual outcomes of many elections. [..]

Integrational elites programmed the political machinery differently in each place, controlling the number of parties or manipulating voting eligibility. Yet the electoral ritual—some might say farce—was employed everywhere. The fact that Soviet and Eastern European elections routinely produced magical majorities of 99 to 100 percent suggested that the need for reassurance remained at least as strong in the centrally planned societies as in the "free world." Elections took the steam out of protests from below.

Furthermore, despite the efforts of democratic reformers and radicals, the integrational elites retained virtually permanent control of the systems of representative government.

Many theories have been advanced to explain why. Most, however, overlook the mechanical nature of the system.

If we look at Second Wave political systems with the eyes of an engineer rather than a political scientist, we suddenly are struck by a key fact that generally goes unobserved. Industrial engineers routinely distinguish between two fundamentally different classes of machine: those that function intermittently, otherwise known as "batch-processing" machines, and those that function uninterruptedly, called "continuous-flow" machines. [..] If we look at the global law factory, with its intermittent voting, we find ourselves face to face with a classical batch processor. The public is allowed to choose between candidates at stipulated times, after which the formal "democracy machine" is switched off again.

Contrast this with the continuous flow of influence from various organized interests, pressure groups, and power peddlers. Swarms of lobbyists from corporations and from government agencies, departments, and ministries testify before committees, serve on blue-ribbon panels, attend the same receptions and banquets, toast each other with cocktails in Washington or vodka in Moscow, carry information and influence back and forth, and thus affect the decision-making process on a round-the-clock basis.

The elites, in short, created a powerful continuous-flow machine to operate alongside (and often at cross purposes with) the democratic batch processor. Only when we see these two machines side by side can we begin to understand how state power was really exercised in the global law factory [..].

So long as they played the representational game, people had at best only intermittent opportunities, through voting, to feed back their approval or disapproval of the government and its actions. The technicians of power, by contrast, influenced those actions continuously.

Finally, an even more potent tool for social control was engineered into the very principle of representation. For the mere selection of some people to represent others created new members of the elite. When workers, for example, first fought for the right to organize unions, they were harassed, prosecuted for conspiracy, followed by company spies, or beaten up by police and goon squads. They were outsiders, unrepresented or inadequately represented in the system. Once unions established themselves, they gave rise to a new group of integrators—the labor establishment—whose members [were promptly absorbed] into the architecture of power [..].

Everywhere the gap widened between the representative and the represented. Representative government—what we have been taught to call democracy—was, in short, an industrial technology for assuring inequality. Representative government was pseudo-representative.

What we see, then, [..] is a civilization heavily dependent on fossil fuels, factory production, the nuclear family, the corporation, mass education, and the mass media, all based on a widening cleavage between production and consumption—and all managed by a set of elites whose task it was to integrate the whole.

In this system, representative government was the political equivalent of the factory. Indeed, it was a factory for the manufacture of collective integrational decisions. Like most factories, it was managed from above. And like most factories, it is now increasingly obsolete, a victim of the advancing Third Wave.

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