"Born of the liberating dreams of Second Wave revolutionaries, representative government was a stunning advance over earlier power systems, a technological triumph more striking in its own way than the steam engine or the airplane.
Representative government 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 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, dis-elect as well as elect leaders. In both capitalist and socialist countries, these ritual reassurances often proved more important than the 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... 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. An example of the first is the commonplace punch press. The worker brings a batch of metal plates and feeds them into the machine, one or a few at a time, to stamp them into desired shapes. When the batch is finished the machine stops until a new batch is brought. An example of the second is the oil refinery which, once started up, never stops running. Twenty-four hours a day, oil flows through its pipes and tubes and chambers.
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... 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...
In theory, the need to stand for re-election guaranteed that representatives would stay honest and would continue to speak for those they represented. Nowhere, however, did this prevent the absorption of representatives 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."