The Crisis of Western Politics
Blog post by Joe Costello
May 8, 2006
Every civilization has myths. As others have pointed out, this is not necessarily a bad thing, in fact in certain regards healthy myths are essential. In general, myths of any civilization help provide a social cohesion and a foundation upon which to build the edifices of political economy and culture. For millennia, myths were upheld and propagated by priesthoods, sanctified in temples and cathedrals, or by emperors and kings in palaces and castles. Today, American myths are upheld by PhDs in universities, media barons in corporate towers, and politicians enthroned under faux Imperial Roman domes.
Myth making is a perpetual human activity. Healthy myths created in good faith are responsible acts for any civilization. They reach beyond contemporary knowledge and extend the known into the speculative, attempting to create a more encompassing narrative. In many cases myth and reality become entwined to such an extent they are difficult to disassociate. A civilization faces crisis when reality begins to surpass or shatter its myths. The bringing of ancient Roman and Greek reality into the medieval Christian conscience created a crisis of the established order. The intrusion of a separate reality into a civilization's myths is one of history's prime shaping forces.
Which brings us to our present dilemma. It has become increasingly clear, even to the most casual observer that Western politics has atrophied. Whether in the United States or Western Europe a certain staleness and rot has set in. On both sides of the Atlantic little difference can be discerned between established political parties. An effete impotence towards the future dominates political discourse. Voting-in the Right or voting-out the Left seems of little matter. Most recently in Germany, the so-called party alternatives combined into one limp lifeless "Grand Coalition."
A new reality encroaches on many of the myths of Western political economy. At a time when the political class has grown ever more self-congratulatory about the invincibility of its myths, they seem increasingly empty. Myths developed over the last several centuries to help define modern Western life, especially in the area of political economy, are failing. Amongst others, the doctrines of the nation state, the efficiency of representative political systems, and the industrial capital economic model of economy all seem to be running headlong into a new reality. Upon these pillars of modern Western myths are built real institutions integral to modern life, and yet the realities of the 21st century ever move violently batter their foundations.
For the past two centuries, the nation state has been a powerful myth. The myth propagated that nation states were natural entities, a natural cohesion of monolithic and harmonious cultures. In fact, the history of the nation state has been one of violently forged homogeneity. Around the nation state has been built many of the most powerful myths of modern collective identity. But today, the myths of the nation state are threatened not by its traditional enemies of older smaller cultures and separatists, instead it is now being subverted in part by global identity.
The economic forces of corporate globalization are ripping through national economies with an amazing energy, and without a national economy, there is little need for the nation state. Cheap labor, the siren call of our modern captains of industry, has made China manufacturer for the world, resulting in a gradual attrition of the living standards of a growing number of the formerly industrialized West. In the US, the former possibility of fluidity across economic strata has ossified. Industrial economic benefits such as health care and pensions are denied to an ever-increasing number. In Europe, a growing chorus sings out of one side of its mouth the praises of corporate globalization and out the other side of the need to cut wages, benefits, and other industrialized economic benefits.
Yet while Europe has begun to dismantle aspects of their national identity, nationalism has been resurgent in the United States, paradoxically as the United States has been the greatest fuel to the forge of global identity. The American empire provided the first great myths of a burgeoning global society: mega-corporate economics have become both myth and reality of the economy; American corporations provide much of a nascent global culture; the Pax Americana espouses security, though it is increasingly unstable.
In the United States, the reality and myth of empire reach heights of entangled paradox. In DC, the principles and myths of the old republic, birthed by throwing off the British empire, are used to enlist the citizenry in ill-conceived imperial expansion. Freedom, democracy, and individual rights are perjured to justify the stationing of American troops in over a hundred countries across the planet and as a cover for an imperial resource grab. While across the American nation state, the realities of empire, such as massive military spending and ever increasing government secrecy, make a mockery of any republican reality.
The myths and reality of American empire are entangled with the myths and realities of industrial economics. The American public is dangerously ignorant of how many of the natural resources used in its hyper-consumptive economy have been secured by the barrel of the gun or the threat of splitting atoms. Calculating from their small offices, the priests of industrialism never place the price of violence in their economic equations. The amount of global resources militarily secured to maintain the industrial American lifestyle is rarely raised in the political discourse. For example, it is the empire that allows the US to "inexpensively" import 60% of its oil using a quarter of the world's petroleum with only 5% of the world's population. Many of the current myths of industrial capitalism would take a severe hit in the United States if we were forced to live using just the resources available in the fifty states, thus leading to the biggest myth and reality of industrialism – that the hyper-consumptive American lifestyle is not only sustainable, it's exportable. The rest of the world can't live like us.
The United States and the world need to think outside our established economic myths. The economic questions for the 21st century begin with not how to keep valuing the gross production of more stuff, but how do we get the greatest value out of information, with an understanding that the true economic value of information is gained through design. Paying lip service to the idea of information economies, we have deluded ourselves in the US by dismantling our industrial infrastructure and shipping it over seas to gain cheap labor and no environmental rules, while at the same time intensifying our hyper-consumer culture. We have left the myths and realities of new information based economy enslaved to industrialism and have not yet begun to gain the intrinsic value of an information economy.
In an information-rich, post-industrial economy, value will be equated with the use of less natural resources and less energy. Thus from an American perspective, a design society, opposed to an industrial society, creates more desirable living standards by using less natural resources and energy. However, our measures of GDP and general industrial wealth do not take this, literally, into account. Design will offer the greatest value from the micro design of a processor to the macro-design of community. The most important functions and institutions of post-industrial economy will be knowledge creation and design. In a design economy markets will need to play an important role in education and communication of information. This means our markets must get much smarter, the idea of manipulating people with 30-second ads must be thrown into the dustbin. Markets need to be expanded to not simply the mechanism to transfer goods, but for the communication and discussion of information.
The greatest difference between a design economy and industrial economy is that value must be given not to simple mass production and gross consumption, but also to the opposite, how to produce less and consume qualitatively. For example, a designed energy economy values how to use the least amount of energy in a micro-chip or the most energy efficient way to house and transport 10 million people in an urban area.
The question of design and the increasing value of information not only beg a reforming of our economics, but also a reforming of our politics. Two hundred years ago the West began a dramatic transformation from monarchy to democratic representative government processes and institutions. Now we must transform our representative processes and institutions into participatory democratic processes and institutions.
The history and institutions of republican government in the United States over the past half century have been turned on their head. Year after year, political and government power has been increasingly centralized in DC. From a young age, citizens are now taught the history of Washington, but little about the history of their state and local governments, and even less about the rest of the world. Local election turnouts used to be higher than national, but today our entire politics revolves around the presidency, while the Federal government has become a tragic configuration of power, corruption, and inertia.
Washington DC is a woefully ineffective way to process and communicate information, and we are incredulously asked to believe that 535 people can represent 300 million. In a system that increasingly demands greater communication, discussion, and decisions on ever greater amounts of information our federal system is collapsing. Inertia and corruption dominate. In Europe, similar dissatisfaction with centralizing power has recently materialized with recent votes on the EU constitution, the citizenry saying no to post-national centralization, representation, and bureaucrats.
Participatory political economy is in its adolescence, it can best be seen on the Internet where its political voice is immature and strident, as it lashes out at the old order that seeks to contain it. Participatory democracy demands ever more openness at a time when our old government structures seek to place ever greater secrecy on its affairs and across our economy mega-corporations seek to fence an open evolving information commons with copyright and patent laws. In our anachronistic copyright and patent laws the new design economy and our old politics most vibrantly clash. The First Amendment slams into the concept of property and privacy, while the ever-greater need for openness makes a mockery of government secrecy.
Participatory democracy demands the revaluing of citizen life. The notion that a citizen's life begins and ends with voting is ludicrous. Now more than ever education and discussion are needed. We must value the role of the citizen as we value our role as economic actors--the two are converging. The architecture of a participatory politics is not that of representative politics. The latter is centralized and hierarchical, while the former will be distributed, a horizontal network, that will have global connections and local vetoes.
Myths are necessity for any civilization. They help provide cohesion, allowing humankind to gain the benefits of civilization. History is filled with cultures and civilizations where reality has exploded old myths and both a new reality and new myths are born. These are always crisis points in history, a crisis that is magnified by how stubbornly the power structure and societal elite cling to the old myths, because they are the foundation of their power.
We are quickly coming to the realization that many of our myths are insufficient, no longer adding to our understanding of reality. We see a developing global reality exploding national myths, the reality of a finite planet intersecting with possibilities of infinite information creation, and the modern era's once revolutionary representative governments insufficient to the developing necessity of participation. There will be two responses, the first will be reactionary. It will say we do not believe strong enough in our myths and we must continue to adhere to them, but that will only bring destruction. The second response looks to help the future by engaging reality and helping create new healthy myths.