Joe Costello: What 21st-Century Democracy Looks Like


Many a right-winger, and sadly, even some self-styled liberals, accuse those on the left of not loving America. Blogger and organizer Joe Costello loves America, and he loves it so much that he is willing to shout from the rooftops to wake us up to its awesome heritage and formidable potential – the potential that is being stolen away by a rapacious financial industry and its pocketed politicians.

Costello has been involved in communications, energy and political economy for three decades. He was communications director for Jerry Brown's innovative 1992 presidential campaign and was a senior adviser for Howard Dean's effort in 2004. He has compiled his riffs on our economy and political systems in new book, OF, BY, FOR: The New Politics of Money, Debt & Democracy, in which he calls for the American people to reclaim their rights and responsibilities.”

AlterNet caught up with Costello to find out more about what that means and how he envisions the quest for 21st century democracy.

Lynn Parramore. How did you come to be so fascinated by democracy and its workings?

Joe Costello: Interesting question. I have always had a very egalitarian view of people, which is very American, or archaic American maybe. Over time, I've met a lot of people in all aspects of life, including a lot of the wealthy and powerful, or those considered as bright intellects. It confirmed my view there are not great differences between people. Sure, some can run a little higher, jump a little farther. But the differences are not that great -- certainly not as great as our culture of the last three decades has pushed in order to justify the growing inequality in our society. The commonality of the human experience unites us much much greater than any differences divide.

The other thing is that I went into politics very young, Ted Kennedy's run against Carter in 1980. That was the last gasp of the New Deal coalition. Then throughout the '80s, being very involved in electoral politics, I watched that old coalition fall apart. It was freeing in the sense you could start looking what happened, how things had come to that point and gotten there in the first place. It made me think about where it might go, without a lot of fetters. I found as I looked through history, as Larry Goodwyn says in his excellent book The Populist Moment, Americans have a lot less democracy than they're led to believe, and then further as Gore Vidal says, self-government is an historical anomaly.

Finally, over the last couple decades as all the new, call it quantum or information technology evolved, I concluded that democracy, or distributed order, is in fact necessary for the stability of the system. For example, we're having important lessons regarding that with the financial system right now.

People should have power over their lives, not imposed by large centralized forces. It's a lot more interesting that way. John Lydon put it best a few years back, saying he didn't want large impersonal forces fucking up his life -- he was completely capable of that himself, thank you very much. That's a good and humorous democratic ethic.

LP: In one sentence, what do you find most disturbing about the America you see before you?

JC: The corruption and dysfunction of our politics -- and they are related.

LP: Why do you call for a “reformation” and not “revolution” in confronting the evils we face?

JC: There's a romanticism about revolution, particularly on the left. Most don't necessarily accomplish what they set to do, because by definition revolutions are ephemeral.

The other thing is that revolution --  in the case of recent history, starting with the American revolution -- was about the overthrowing and dismantling of the institutions of monarchy, which unarguably has been quite successful, spreading, as the founding generation thought it would, across the globe.

But today, we have a legacy of institutions of self-government. The problem is they became stuck in time. We don't need to overthrow them as much as reform, revitalize and evolve them. For example, I advocate people getting involved in government at the local level, because many of the changes we need will be decided there. Once people get involved there, they'll find how much power has been lost or never gained, and that whether they're in Omaha, Chicago or Birmingham, they're up against the same large nefarious impersonal national and global forces.

We need to literally re-form government.

LP: You’ve mentioned that part of our historical legacy as Americans is a long-standing challenge to corporate monopolies, dating all the way back to colonial challenges to the East India Company. Is this a place where the “left” and “right” labels disappear and we can all come together as Americans?

JC: Yes, it's an important point. In our present insolvent politics and marketing slogan political vocabulary, we become separated. What the left doesn't come to grips with is the growth of DC was not just instrumental, but a necessity in the growth of the mega-corporation, while the “right” doesn't acknowledge the growth of the mega-corporation necessitated the growth of DC.

What we all have in common is that this process has completely corrupted our politics and made us all less powerful, less equal, and less involved as citizens.

LP: You talk about comparisons between the current Wall Street dominance and the earlier Jim Crow era. How is our current challenge different from the earlier Civil Rights movement?

The ending of Jim Crow was the righting of one of the great original sins of the American experiment, the keeping of the institution of slavery in the revival of self-government for the modern era. Now the ancient experiences in self-government, Greece and Rome, also had slavery, so it's not a great a paradox as it might first appear.

We ended slavery a century in, but of course then came what was the American apartheid era under Jim Crow, in which the vast majority of the ex-slave population were politically disenfranchised by law. They were fighting to have what the rest of the population already had.

Today, maybe it's just the opposite, where you have the power of Wall Street, banks and the mega-corporations codified, while the citizenry, in theory, if not practice is still politically enfranchised. The methods to change this are not dissimilar, it's about the citizenry uniting to take power away from these institutions and redistribute it. And here might be the biggest difference: It's not just about reasserting our centuries-old rights and responsibilities, but it's redefining and evolving them for a new era, for the 21st century.

So, in many ways we have to begin anew just like they did in the 18th century, which is different from dismantling Jim Crow, people claiming what was already there and available to all others.

LP: What does it mean to be a citizen in the 21st century?

JC: That's an essential question. It's amazing how little meaning the word "citizen" has today. Basically it's voting, paying taxes, and being on a jury, which are all important, but not nearly enough.

The most basic element of a being a democratic citizen is to be involved in decision-making, and this is where you see the real degeneration of American politics. Decisions for our society are overwhelmingly made in corporate boardrooms or in the halls of bureaucracies in DC. Order, that is the way things are structured, overwhelmingly imposed via the corporation or government. There's very little, politically almost none at all, of the mass of self-created associations that populated the first century of the republic and de Tocqueville so admired. We don't even have political parties at this point.

What's really so amazing about this era, all this new technology both allows and really calls for much greater participation. The creating, communication, editing, and decision-making of this gigantic tsunami of information better associates itself with the citizen, as opposed to the producer/consumer model.

So, I'd say democratizing decision-making is the first and foremost element of 21st-century political reform, which means we have to revalue many things, most importantly we have to give value to being a citizen, and just as importantly understand a citizen is defined through association.

LP: With a corrupt political system, how can citizens meaningfully engage in politics and policy-making?

JC: They need to create processes and associations outside of the established system, and then confront it. The first two steps to organizing -- and political organizing is a lost art in America -- are education and conversation. Let's start there. And don't in any way underestimate this, because without these first two steps, nothing else will be accomplished. And I think the first place to confront established politics is at the local level, city and county, understanding these are important elements of the American system in place, but needing revitalization.

LP: You speak of the next era of our economic development as the “design economy.” What does that term mean and how do we prepare for this coming stage?

JC: Since those alive today know nothing else, we underestimate what a revolutionary force industrialization has been in human history, outside of the agrarian revolution of 10,000 years ago, nothing has come close to altering the world in which we live. The industrial era overthrew political, cultural and economic institutions that had been around for millenia. At its foundation, this was a technological revolution derived from the scientific revolutions of the two preceding centuries, and based primarily on our ability to massively burn fossil fuels and steel production.

Then we had the whole new scientific revolutions of the 20th century, specifically quantum physics and the tremendous additions to knowledge of biological sciences, (which are still little understood, I should add). Of course, we got the technologies of nuclear bombs, the networked-microprocessor, and all this growing genetic manipulation. If we keep valuing things based on industrial values, well let's just say nothing much is going to last much longer.

This new technology, for lack of a better word, is “information”-based. The manipulation of information actually fits much better with the role of citizen than it does with either the role of the producer or consumer. Information creation, communication, editing, decision-making are all things for which we need to create new political, cultural, and economic values, and new institutions and processes. Instead of mass-producing and mass-consuming, we are actually creating the values of design for shaping our lives, our society. Design, like politics, isn't a product, it's a process, it's alive.

LP: You mention the watchwords of the “design economy” as the values of “participation, efficiency, elegance, and enough.” Wasn’t the focus on efficiency one of the things that got us into trouble in the previous era? I’m thinking, for example, of the technocrats who promoted ghastly inhumanity in factories in the name of this goal. Why deploy this term as a watchword for the future?

JC: Yeah, that's a problem with vocabulary, and I suppose, history. I'm not talking about a new Taylorism, where it became a science to figure out how to most effectively squeeze the last drop of blood out of labor. I'm speaking about a revaluing. Present value is based on production/consumption. It's the values of industrialism, where it's always considered best if we produce and consume more. It's also tremendously manipulative.

Efficiency in this sense, and I'd be happy to use another word, is looking at this process and saying we could all live better with less production and less consumption. The biggest and most immediate example of this is oil. The US could cut our oil use in half tomorrow, and while we would certainly live differently, it wouldn't be substantially different. We'd have to design our communities and our lives so that they are less oil-use intensive. Yet, every aspect of our economy and culture tells us to use more oil. We need to become much more energy efficient. 

Read more of Joe Costello's work at <a href="">Archein</a>.

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