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The Post-Corporate World
Life After Capitalism
by David C. Korten
Table of Contents
Part I: A Deadly Tale
Part II: Life's Story
Part III: Envisioning a Post-Corporate World
Part IV: Coming Home to Life
|Table of Contents
Prologue: A Story for the Third Millennium [Excerpt]
In the 1980s capitalism triumphed over communism. In the 1990s it triumphed over democracy and the market economy. For those of us who grew up believing that capitalism is the foundation of democracy and market freedom, it has been a rude awakening to realize that under capitalism, democracy is for sale to the highest bidder and the market is centrally planned by global mega-corporations larger than most states.
Part I: A Deadly Tale
In the epic Greek poem the Odyssey, Circe warns Odysseus about the dangers that lie ahead on his journey home from Troy.
First thou shalt arrive where the enchanter Sirens dwell, they who seduce men. The imprudent man who draws near them never returns, for the Sirens, lying in the flower-strewn fields, will charm him with sweet song; but around them the bodies of their victims lie in heaps. Therefore pass these Sirens by, and stop your men's ears with wax that none of them may hear; but if you like you can listen yourself, for you may get the men to bind you as you stand upright on a crosspiece halfway up the mast. If you beg and pray the men to unloose you, then they must bind you faster.Overcome by desire, but having heeded Circe's instructions, Odyssues's life is saved only by the ropes that bind him to his ship.
Greek mythology goes on to tell us that Orpheus later vanquished the Sirens--not through physical force or restraint, but with a more beautiful and compelling song. He was sailing with Jason and the Argonauts on their quest for the Golden Fleece. When their ship passed by the infamous island, the Sirens sang their deadly song. Butes, son of Zelion, fell under their spell, leapt overboard, and was lost. Before the others could join him, however, Orpheus tuned his lyre and began to sing so divinely that their attention was turned to Orpheus. Vanquished by that song, the Sirens lost their power and turned to stone.
Two competing songs. One a call to death in the disguise of an alluring promise. The other a call to life. Although centuries old, it is an allegory for our times. Only in our case, the Sirens are not strange creatures of the sea but familiar institutions of the world of money, while Orpheus' song comes from life itself.
The theory of the market economy traces back to the Scottish economist Adam Smith (1723-1790) and the publication of Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations in 1776. Considered by many to be the most influential economics book ever written, it articulates the powerful and wonderfully democratic ideal of a self-organizing economy that creates an equitable and socially optimal allocation of a society's productive resources through the interaction of small buyers and sellers making decisions based on their individual needs and interests.
Market theory, as articulated by Smith and those who subsequently elaborated on his ideas, developed into an elegant and coherent intellectual construction grounded in carefully articulated assumptions regarding the conditions under which such self-organizing processes would indeed lead to socially optimal outcomes. For example:
- Buyers and sellers must be too small to influence the market price.
- Complete information must be available to all participants and there are no trade secrets.
- Sellers must bear the full cost of the products they sell and pass them on in the sale price.
- Investment capital must remain within national borders and trade between countries must be balanced.
- Savings must invested in the creation of productive capital.
There is, however, a critical problem, as international financier George Soros has observed: "Economic theory is an axiomatic system: as long as the basic assumptions hold, the conclusions follow. But when we examine the assumptions closely, we find that they do not apply to the real world." Herein lies the catch: the conditions of what we currently call a capitalist economy directly contradict the assumptions of market theory in every instance.
In Greek mythology a king named Midas ruled over the people of Phrygia, an ancient country in Asia Minor. In return for a favor, the god Dionysus offered to grant Midas a wish. Midas asked that all he touched might turn to gold. His wish was granted, but when his touch turned his food, drink, and even his beloved daughter to gold he realized that his assumed blessing was in fact a curse. He now had gold without limit, but at the price of life--both his own and those he loved.
It's a story for our time with a profound, but still neglected message. Trading life for money is a bad bargain, for it is life, and life alone, that gives money its value. Forgetful of life and obsessed with the pursuit of money, we have invited the Midas curse upon ourselves and our children for generations to come, establishing a human relationship to the planet that has reversed the creative and productive processes of billions of years of evolution.
Though the origins of economic exploitation predate capitalism and the invention of the corporation by several thousands of years, capitalism and its institutions have greatly accelerated the process in the last century. Indeed, designed to be blind to all but financial values and shareholder interests, capitalism's primary agent, the public-for-profit corporation, has proven to be ideally suited to amassing the financial, political, and technical resources that are now destroying evolution's product with deadly efficiency.
Part II: Life's Story
As I reflect on such wonders as the incredible inventions of the bacteria that terra-formed the planet and learned to live within their natural limits I come to wonder--not whether bacteria have a capacity for intelligent collective action--but whether we humans have yet achieved a comparable capacity.
The challenge before us is to reverse our present backward course and recreate ourselves as contributors to the advancement of life's epic journey. It starts with choosing life as our guiding metaphor and continues with a deepening of our understanding of life's ways in search of insights into our unrealized species possibilities.
Chapter 6. Embracing Life's Wisdom [Excerpt]>
Through a largely non-consensual process we have created an economic system with characteristics that most resemble those of a cancerous tumor. The challenge before us is to create an economic system more conducive to our long-term survival and healthy function.
One approach is to mimic the characteristics of a healthy ecosystem. As we shall see in the chapters that follow, such a system would look rather much like a proper market economy with an overlay of an ethical culture and a framework of sensible rules established by a democratic government. Nothing radical. Nothing unfamiliar. Just the practice of basic values to which most of us already claim allegiance.
Part III: Envisioning a Post-Corporate World
Chapter 7. Responsible Freedom [Excerpt]
As we awaken to life and embark on the path to a post-corporate world, we come to face-to-face with one of the most fundamental of life's lessons: we gain true freedom only as we accept responsibility for using it with mindfulness of the needs of the whole. In the living world it is the cancerous cell that seeks freedom without responsibility, and its freedom is ultimately self-limiting. Freedom, whether in economic or political life, comes only with mindful responsibility.
Those who live in awareness have an inner freedom that transcends the limitations of their institutional setting. Their capacity to act with a critical consciousness renders them largely immune to the manipulations of propaganda, advertising, and the material incentives of money-world institutions. They have an inner freedom difficult for even the most tyrannical institution to suppress. They thereby acquire the power to change that which is not right with the world.
Chapter 8. Mindful Markets [Excerpt]
The market is a sophisticated, but somewhat fragile mechanism for organizing economic life so that each individual contributes to the whole while meeting their own needs with maximum freedom in the exercise of responsible choice. The healthy market thus encourages diversity, individual initiative and creativity, and productive effort. It can maintain these qualities, however, only so long as its participants honor the market's essential conditions and their ethical obligations to one another. Thus the health of the market economy depends on the mindfulness of its participants.
Property rights continue to have a rightful moral legitimacy when used to secure the right of each individual as a stakeholder in the assets on which they depend to produce a reasonable living for themselves and their families. They lack moral legitimacy, however, when used by those who have more than they need to exclude others from access to a basic means of living or to absolve themselves of responsibility for equitably sharing and stewarding the resources that are the common heritage of all who were born to life on this planet. Life after capitalism depends on a fundamental rethinking and restructuring of ownership rights to move toward stakeholder ownership and human-scale enterprises.
There seems to be an ironclad relationship. The greater the rights of corporations, the less the rights of persons to live fully and well with freedom, responsibility, and dignity. To restore human rights and dignity we must establish clearly the principle that human rights reside solely in living persons.
Part IV: Coming Home to Life
Although the culture of materialism has been created by the most sophisticated and highly paid propagandists, it is at its core a falsified, manufactured, and non-consensual culture. If material acquisition was truly the dominant value of the human species, then surely capitalism would find it unnecessary to spend $450 billion a year to propagate it throughout the world. Nor would so many of the advertising messages and images that promote these desires be designed to appeal to our longing for acceptance, love, and contact with nature. Successful as capitalism has been in creating a mass consumer culture, the fact remains that its values are largely alien to our basic nature.
Our longing for life is finding new expression in a deep world wide culture shift unprecedented in human history in its speed, magnitude, and implications. A number of important values surveys provide compelling evidence that contrary to outward appearances, the modernist culture that underpins the spread of global capitalism is actually in deep trouble.
Usually the story starts with a modest initiative by persons with none of the evident attributes we associate with heroic figures. Most fail. Nearly all are soon forgotten. Yet when we choose to look, we can see the numbers of those that are winning victories large and small growing to the tens of thousands. We see as well the formation of alliances, at first tentative, always shifting, creating new patterns, occupying new spaces, adding new strength, becoming more coherent. They become as dancers engaged in a grand and joyful dance in which the creative improvisation of each one adds energy and vitality to the growing, evolving, renewing coherence of the whole.
The individual stories are many and varied. In this chapter I want to share a few of my favorites to add reality and substance to larger brush strokes of the rest of the book, starting with a simple story from Seattle, Washington of two ordinary fellows of modest means who scored a political victory over the establishment with sense of humor, determination, and a plywood sign.
Perhaps the solution to our present collective predicament remains illusive for the very reason that it is so obvious and familiar. We are not being called to step off the edge of some cliff into a dark and vast unknown. Our experience of what lies ahead may prove more like a returning home after a long trip that has opened our eyes to new possibilities in the deeply familiar. That which in our more mindful moments we really want, we can have, if we but muster the will to make healthful choices for ourselves and our societies that bond us with life's creative regenerative processes. In this chapter we will review some of those important choices.
Our task is no longer one of creating counter cultures, engaging in political protest, and pursuing economic alternatives. To create a just, sustainable, and compassionate post-corporate world we must face up to the need to create a new core culture, a new political center, and a new economic mainstream. Such a bold agenda requires millions of people with widely varied expertise working at many levels of society--personal and household, community, national, and global. It requires breaking the bonds of individual isolation that leave us feeling marginalized when, in fact, we may represent the new majority. There are thousands of useful tasks to be undertaken. The following are illustrative of the possibilities.
To participate in these densely interconnected communication networks of people who care deeply for the places where they live and the future of all life--is to experience a new way of being and relating that is at once grounded in every person and every place, yet transcends both individuals and geography. The many physical and cyberspace forums in which we gather serve us as learning centers in which we hone our capacities for mindful choice and participation in highly democratic processes as we reflect, think, share, and deepen our sense of the creative possibilities that lie ahead. We learn as we participate, growing in confidence in our ability to function as part of a conscious self-organizing, life-serving planetary whole. Having lived a quarter of my life in Asia, I find special meaning in what I experience as a melding of the Western emphasis on the individual and the Eastern emphasis on the collective as we rediscover life's profound wisdom that the power of the individual depends on the health and integrity of the whole as the potentials of the whole depend on the individual's exercise of the creative initiative that flows from mindful freedom.
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