A Story for the Third Millenium

The Siren's Song

excerpted from the book

The Post-Corporate World

Life After Capitalism

by David Korten

Kumarian Press, 1999, paper


In the 1980s capitalism triumphed over communism. In the l990s it triumphed over democracy. "
David Korten, The Post-Corporate World

Our relentless pursuit of economic growth is accelerating the breakdown of the planet's life support systems, intensifying resource competition, widening the gap between rich and poor, and undermining the values and relationships of family and community. The growing concentration of power in global corporations and financial institutions is stripping governments-democratic and otherwise-of their ability to set economic, social, and environmental priorities in the larger common interest.

Driven by a single-minded dedication to generating ever greater profits for the benefit of their investors, global corporations and financial institutions have turned their economic power into political power. They now dominate the decision processes of governments and are rewriting the rules of world commerce through international trade and investment agreements to allow themselves to expand their profits without regard to the social and environmental consequences borne by the larger society. Continuing with business as usual will almost certainly lead to economic, social, and environmental collapse.

To a considerable extent the problem originates with the United States. Its representatives are the primary marketeers of the false promises of consumerism and the foremost advocates of the market deregulation, free trade, and privatization policies that are advancing the global consolidation of corporate power and the corresponding corruption of democratic institutions.

Resolving the crisis depends on civil societies, mobilizing to reclaim the power that corporations and global financial markets have usurped. Our best hope for the future lies with locally owned and managed economies that rely predominantly on local resources to meet the livelihood needs of their members in ways that maintain a balance with the earth. Such a shift in institutional structures and priorities may open the way to eliminating deprivation and extreme inequality from the human experience, instituting true citizen democracy, and releasing presently unrealized potential for individual and collective growth and creativity.

Curing the capitalist cancer to restore democracy, the market, and our human rights and freedoms will require virtually eliminating the institution of the limited-liability for-profit public corporation as we know it to create a post-corporate world through actions such as the following:

* End the legal fiction that corporations are entitled to the rights of persons and exclude corporations from political participation;

* Implement serious political campaign reform to reduce the influence of money on politics;

* Eliminate corporate welfare by eliminating direct subsidies and recovering other externalized costs through fees and taxes;

* Implement mechanisms to regulate international corporations and finance; and

* Use fiscal and regulatory policy to make financial speculation unprofitable and to give an economic advantage to human-scale, stakeholder-owned enterprises.


The Sirens' Song

Jim Hoagland
Economic self-interest has always been central to the organization of societies and the advancement of individuals. But the defining characteristic of the postmodern political era is the absolute domination of money as the organizing principle of human and international relations. Some days there seems to be nothing else.

The Rise of Money and Materialism

Until some 150 years ago, the worldview of rational materialism was confined to the intellectual elites of Western science and academia. It remained at odds with the spiritual teachings of the religious establishment and the values of the popular culture. In the beginning, the advantage lay with the church, which reached deeply into the daily lives of ordinary people through an active institutional establishment with local congregations and controlled the rituals surrounding birth, marriage, and death.

The institutions and ideas of science were more distant and less persuasive. Similarly, money and the attention it tends to direct to more instrumental and materialistic values played a relatively incidental role in the economic affairs of those who owned the tools of their production, produced for their own needs, and engaged in barter with their neighbors.

Under such conditions money functioned in the role of servant for most people, a facilitator of those limited aspects of the community's life that involved exchanges outside of the household and beyond the traditional norms of reciprocity and barter.

Step-by-step, however, as money came to be an increasingly defining force in political and economic affairs, the ideas and values of rational materialism also grew in acceptance, eventually finding a central place in the popular consciousness. The shift came about through the convergence of a number of forces. Among the earliest was the rise of mercantilism, which reached its high point in the period from 1600 to 1700 and brought great power to those princes and merchants who successfully accumulated vast quantities of gold and other precious metals.

Mercantilism has been defined as "a system of government intervention to promote national prosperity and increase the power of the state . . . to bring more money into the treasury of the king, which would enable him to build fleets, equip armies, and make his government feared and respected throughout the world." The doctrine of bullionism, the idea that the prosperity of a nation is determined by the quantity of gold and silver contained within its borders, was central in mercantilist theory. This belief drove a great quest for gold and silver through both conquest and trade on the theory that the more of these metals a country holds, "the more money the government can collect in taxes, and the richer and more powerful the state will become."

When viewed objectively, it seems illogical that a country becomes prosperous and powerful in proportion to the quantities of particular metals it has locked away in great vaults. Yet Spain's power and prosperity at the time were well known and they seemed to be the result of a vast flow of precious metals pouring into its coffers from its American colonies. Thus the idea became established among persons of ambition that great power comes to those skilled in accumulating large quantities of the coin of the realm. This in turn led to the rise in power and prestige of those in the economics profession, who claimed knowledge of the ways of money and the arts of its accumulation-and who became carriers of the Hobbesian moral philosophy. As the use of money spread, so too did the moral philosophy of materialism.

Money has such obvious benefits over barter for enabling trade that the expansion of its use was entirely natural. Yet the greater the extent to which human transactions are mediated by money, the greater the power of those who create and allocate these privileged numbers. This fact was not lost on the empire builders who colonized the lands of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Finding it difficult to control and extract the economic surplus from people whose economic relations were defined by tribal and kinship ties rather than by money, the colonizers quite consciously set about creating dependence on money.

Their method was to impose taxes that could be paid only with money that they issued and controlled. That simple requirement forced the colonized to sell their labor and produce to the colonizers on whatever terms the colonizers chose to set. The village heads had to collect the taxes, thus undermining their legitimacy. The men of the village had to seek cash income on the estates of the colonizers, breaking down family and community ties, substituting market relations for affective ties, and increasing the dependence on those who controlled the creation and allocation of money.

Colonialism is an apt metaphor for our current situation. We have all become the colonized in a modern society in which virtually every transaction for food, shelter, transportation, child care, and security in old age is mediated by money. With time, the institutions of money have come to hold the power of life and death over virtually everyone. The power and prestige of money and of the economics profession has risen in tandem.

The spread of secular public education and the study of science during the late 1800s and early l900s also strengthened rational materialism's hold. It provided an outreach capability for the scientific worldview and made it a more significant competitor in the popular consciousness with the religious worldview. Furthermore, science's increasingly visible accomplishments-radio, television, air and space travel, and the computer, for example-brought prestige, stature, and credibility to science and, by association, the values of rational materialism.

The increasing power and prestige of the large corporation driven by the logic of finance was yet another contributor to rational materialism's rise to prominence. As corporations provided each new technological wonder to the masses, their names became synonymous with progress and prosperity. Less visibly, they came to have substantial influence over research funding, ownership of intellectual property, and the choice of which technologies would be advanced and which would not. Thus in ways both subtle and overt, they shaped the decisions that were reconstructing society. Would our cities be built around sidewalks, bicycle paths, and mass transit aimed at facilitating the flow of people, or around systems of flyovers and turnpikes to facilitate the flow of automobiles? Would we give priority to nuclear energy that leaves the earth burdened with deadly radioactive materials for thousands of years to come, or to environmentally friendly solar energy? Would our food be produced by small farms using organic methods that enhance the soil, or by global agribusiness corporations that use chemical and energy-intensive methods to subdue the soil and its natural processes? In each case, it seems the institutions of money stacked the deck in favor of those choices that used the technologies they controlled and made the largest contribution to their power and profit. The more power that corporations acquired, the more our lives seemed to depend on their money and technology-and the less they seemed to depend on the living earth.

The Post-Corporate World

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