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Issue No. 94 (August 1, 2006) -- Mark Satin, Editor

What can we learn
from the antiglobalists?

"David Korten has produced a masterpiece!"
-- Thom Hartmann, Air America talk show host

As you know, I peruse many texts in the course of writing this newsletter, hoping to find ones to tell you about that are both “radical” (addressing our fundamental problems creatively and imaginatively) and “middle” (practical and unsentimental).

Most of the time, the texts are too much “middle” and not enough “radical,” and I generally ignore them. Last week I was so disappointed by two such texts (Gene Sperling’s The Pro-Growth Progressive and Markos Moulitsas’s Crashing the Gate) that I turned instead to the hottest radical text on the market right now, David Korten’s The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community (Kumarian / Berrett-Koehler, 2006).

At the radical middle, after all, you’re supposed to listen to and learn from everyone. So I thought it would be wise to see what we could learn from a leading so-called “antiglobalist.”

Paths that crossed

Korten and I started out on opposite sides of the fence. While he was earning graduate degrees at the Stanford Business School and serving as a U.S. Air Force captain during the Vietnam War, I dropped out of a middling state university to work with SNCC in Mississippi, then served as staff director of the Toronto Anti-Draft Programme, the major group helping young Americans immigrate to Canada during the Vietnam War.

Our trajectories crossed in the 1980s. While Korten served as an (increasingly maverick) international development consultant on Southeast Asia to the Ford Foundation and U.S. AID, he also served as an Advisor to my idealistic political newsletter New Options. (We shared a mentor in Willis Harman, and I suspect Willis -- a multi-dimensional soul -- encouraged Korten’s maverick tendencies even as he encouraged me to network with established groups and ground my idealism in practical reality.)

Now Korten is one of our best-known “antiglobalists": co-author of the final declaration of the NGO forum at Rio in 1992, author of When Corporations Rule the World (1995, rev. 2001) and The Post-Corporate-World: Life After Capitalism (1999), co-founder of the People-Centered Development Forum and the Positive Futures Network, speaker at the World Social Forum, etc.

(I, meanwhile, left New Options in order to experience the “real world” of law school and corporate legal practice, and having absorbed that world’s valuable lessons am now editing this creative-centrist online newsletter.  My latest book, Radical Middle (2004), won an award from an organized section of the Establishment-oriented American Political Science Association, something I'd have righteously turned down in the 1960s - 80s.)

 “Transform the System!” books

Korten’s The Great Turning is the latest in a line of what I call “Transform the System!” books -- books that argue that the world as we’ve known it is corrupt and / or evil, and that a New World is not only possible but can be envisioned and strategized toward.

(There is also a line of “Reform the System!” books, or rather two lines, one “lite” and one Real; which is where I’d put my Radical Middle book.)

Korten’s is the first analytically and strategically complete book of the “Transform the System!” type to come along in quite some time. They seem to come in waves.

The last wave roughly coincided with the Jimmy Carter presidency and was quite spectacular, with Harman’s An Incomplete Guide to the Future (1979, orig. 1976), Theodore Roszak’s Person/Planet (1978), Hazel Henderson’s Creating Alternative Futures (1978), and several other books all carrying their own distinct transformation-now messages.

Prior waves of “Transform the System!” books (non-Marxist division) were led by Ralph Borsodi’s This Ugly Civilization (1929) and Henry George’s Progress and Poverty (1879).

Three special precursors

Three books from the Carter interregnum were especially similar to Korten’s, though he doesn’t acknowledge any of them.

Marilyn Ferguson’s The Aquarian Conspiracy (1980), an international bestseller, shared a great deal of Korten’s sensibility. Here, for example, is how she ended her book:

Our past is not our potential. . . . [W]e can liberate the future. . . . You are the conspiracy.

And here’s how Korten ends his:

[I]t is within our means to choose our future. . . . We are the ones we have been waiting for.

Fritjof Capra’s The Turning Point (completed April, 1981) shared a thesis with Korten. Here’s how Capra put it:

The rhythmic recurrences and patterns of rise and decline that seem to dominate human cultural evolution have somehow conspired to reach their points of reversal at the same time. . . . Cultural transformations of this magnitude . . . should be welcomed as the only escape from agony, collapse, or mummification. What we need [is] to prepare ourselves for the great transition we are about to enter.

And here’s Korten:

The human species is entering a period of dramatic and potentially devastating change as the result of forces of our own creation that are now largely beyond our control. It is within our means, however, to shape a positive outcome if we choose to embrace the resulting crisis as an opportunity to lift ourselves to a new level of species maturity and potential.

The Carter-era book that had the most in common with Korten’s, though -- in its systemic structure (analysis, worldview, history, economics, strategy) and in its radically decentralist perspective -- was my own book New Age Politics (Dell 1979, orig. 1976), which sold 40,000 copies in five countries and kept me on tour for nearly two years.

As a result, in this review I’m going to be able to not only assess Korten’s book, but reassess my own views from those wonderful faraway years.

Stark choice

At the heart of Korten’s book -- as you can tell from the subtitle -- is the notion that we’re facing a choice between “the sorrows of Empire” and “the joys of Earth Community.”

The choice is reiterated incessantly throughout the book. A table in an early chapter makes the two sides crystal-clear. In Empire we “love power,” in Earth Community we “love life.” In Empire life is “hostile and competitive,” in Earth Community life is “supportive and cooperative.” In Empire we “defend the rights of the self,” in Earth Community we “defend the rights of all.” And so on.

This is very similar to what I did in New Age Politics. On one side I posited six “Prison-bound” attitudes: egocentricity, the bureaucratic mentality, etc. The other side was “Prison-free”: spirituality, the cooperative mentality, etc.

The advantage to thinking this way is obvious: It’s dramatic and galvanizing. If you’re a political activist, it’s hard not to be drawn to it.

To me now, though, the disadvantages outweigh the advantages.

It is so simplistic that it crudely caricatures one’s political opponents -- and wildly exaggerates one’s own perceived goodness. How can there be dialogue (let alone mutual learning) when you think you represent “life” and those who disagree with you represent “power” or worse?  (Readers of this newsletter will recall that Mark Gerzon makes exactly that point in his Harvard Business School Press book Leading Through Conflict, reviewed HERE.)

Korten warns us not to fall into the trap of feeling our opponents are “evil enemies” or forgetting that we’re not also “victims and perpetrators” of systemic violence. But the very starkness of the choice he posits ensures that, with the best will in the world, Earth Community advocates will persist in dividing the world up into Good and Bad -- just as Korten himself does in the bulk of his text.

Another problem with the Empire / Earth Community dichotomy (as well as with my old Prison-bound / Prison-free dichotomy) is that it posits a world that’s separate from -- and qualitatively better than -- the world we actually live in.

That is not a charming fantasy but a dangerous one. First of all, it encourages alienation from the real world -- the last thing we need now, when so many principled mainstream careers that were not available to people in the 1960s and 1970s are available today (see HERE).

And second of all, the 20th century is littered with the bodies of millions of people who died resisting “holistic” ideologies that proclaimed that a New Day was coming for Humanity. Surely one lesson of that experience is that 21st century political activists should be more modest and more realistic in their claims.

Korten himself is an exponent of nonviolence. But who knows what effect his incendiary, black-and-white vision will have on less fastidious social actors.

I do not long for the ideal world of Korten’s Earth Community (or of my own Prison-Free Society, much as I loved designing it). I am sure it would not be ideal for most of us, in part because people’s priorities inevitably differ -- note Korten’s glib privileging of the “rights of all” over the “rights of the self,” an endlessly complex issue, as any good communitarian thinker can tell you; see our review of Amitai Etzioni HERE.

But though I can do without the notion of Earth Community, I would very much like to see activists and other publics buy into Isaiah Berlin’s claim that “The first public obligation is to avoid extremes of suffering.”

Moreover, I suspect that if most of us could be persuaded to adopt and act on Berlin’s admittedly “reformist” claim, then out of the process of that could come a world that might have little in common with Korten's ideal world, but would be one where people of conscience could hold their heads high.

Alas, “even” that will be no small task.

Psychological -- not economic -- classes

Marx gave us economic classes. Korten gives us psychological classes, aka a “five-stage map of the developmental pathway from the least mature to the most mature orders of human consciousness.” Here’s a thumbnail sketch:

  • Magical Consciousness: Fantasizers are “unable to recognize the consequences of [their] own actions or accept responsibility for them”
  • Imperial Consciousness: Power seekers “play up to the powerful, and exploit the oppressed”
  • Socialized Consciousness: Good citizens “play by the rules of their identity group, expect a fair reward, and comprise the swing voters.” Most of us are here
  • Cultural Consciousness: Cultural creatives “see the possibility” of creating “life-affirming societies.” Perhaps 50 million of us are here or in the category below
  • Spiritual Consciousness: Spiritual creatives are “evolutionary co-creators”

In New Age Politics I concocted a very similar psychological class structure, the “seven stages of self-development.” I identified 10 sources for my stages and Korten identifies 11 for his (three we have in common: Lawrence Kohlberg, Abraham Maslow, and Carl Rogers).

It is probably more useful to think in psychological rather than economic terms when assessing people’s political tendencies -- at least in North America -- and I continue doing so (e.g., in my Radical Middle book I distinguish among “caring,” “self-aggrandizing,” and “self-sacrificing” persons). But Korten gives his categories far more weight than they can bear, much as I did 30 years earlier.

He claims, for example, that “Those who lead an examined life grounded in a mature worldview [i.e., those of us carrying Cultural or Spiritual Consciousness] have no interest in acquiring arbitrary power.” Hello?!? Anyone who’s participated in the political movements of the last four decades will have run across many activists of the Cultural or Spiritual persuasion who are as manipulative, competitive, excluding, or power hungry as they come!

Unfortunately for scholarly elegance, there appears to be little or no real-world correspondence between so-called higher consciousness and such necessary political (and human) traits as self-awareness and human decency.

Another problem comes when Korten begins attributing political positions to the different orders of consciousness, as when he claims that “the Spiritual Consciousness rejects retributive justice [and] is focused instead on restorative justice. . . . The Imperial or Socialized Consciousness sees this as coddling.”

That is dangerous stuff. While studying criminal law, I came across several legal scholars who sincerely believe that retributive justice best serves what Korten calls “the rights of all.” What can possibly be gained by labeling their views as unworthy of Spiritual or Cultural Consciousness? And what would inevitably and deservedly be said about a political movement that allowed itself to make such claims? “Arrogant” and “bizarre” are probably two of the mildest epithets that would be uttered.

It is, in fact, highly unlikely that there is anything like a one-to-one relationship between political positions and orders of consciousness. For example, Korten has some extremely harsh things to say about the supporters of corporate globalization. But if you read certain books by some of them -- e.g., Joseph Stiglitz and Andrew Charlton’s Fair Trade for All (2005) on the left, Jagdish Bhagwati’s In Defense of Globalization (2004) at the center, or Martin Wolf’s Why Globalization Works (2004) on the right -- you can’t help but be struck by their palpable sense of compassion and caring.

It is an age-old dream of political activists to be able to short-circuit the need to respond to difficult political arguments on their own terms. But there appears to be no way around it, alas -- short of Stalin’s way.

One other problem with Korten’s orders of consciousness (as well as with my stages of self-development) is that the highest stage is labeled spiritual. Surely in the year 2006 there is nothing to gain by implying that spirituality -- however loosely defined -- is a precondition for what Korten describes as a “mature worldview.” I’ll take true maturity from people any way they can come up with it, whether it’s by Findhorn-like belief in sprites or by Bertrand Russell-like belief in pure reason.

Do we need a post-material worldview?

Korten argues throughout the book that materialism is “but one of reality’s dimensions,” that many other ways of knowing reality are available to us, and that the “mind of the mature elder is open to all the many ways of knowing.”

In New Age Politics, I made the same argument, and even constructed a chart called “The Trans-Material Worldview” that identified four ways of knowing (material, spiritual, religious, and mythic).

For ambitious political authors, the appeal of such speculations is obvious: It seems to suggest that your politics rests on a genuinely new basis (and is not just a continuation of the materialism of Marxism and liberalism). But I wonder now how necessary it is, really.

True, as Korten points out, one-eyed materialists can be greedy, and traditional religious people can be too other-worldly. But so can any human being! None of the worldviews and no combination of worldviews guarantees that a person won’t be greedy or other-worldly (or depressed or dishonest or . . . ).

I now say that our leaders (and all of us) should strive to be caring and psychologically balanced. And I leave it at that.

All the ways of knowing, and all the combinations of ways, have their vices. I can remember one internationally famous “spiritual feminist” -- definitely in touch with all the ways of knowing in The Great Turning and New Age Politics -- telling me that if you don’t maintain a spiritual practice, then you can’t be a serious political thinker. Pardon me, but that seems to me to be the height of closed-mindedness rather than wisdom.

To argue that access to other ways of knowing somehow makes you a politically wiser individual -- rather than simply someone whose interests run to the esoteric -- strikes me now not only as wrong, but as dangerously arrogant.

Five thousand years of misery and oppression

Like all genuinely holistic political thinkers, Korten takes history seriously. He devotes four chapters to re-examining global history and another six to re-examining U.S. history.

Most of those chapters foreground oppression, exploitation, and injustice. As Korten puts it, “Beneath Empire’s carefully constructed myth of beneficent progress lies a dark truth of five thousand years of diminished human progress.”

I did the same thing in New Age Politics, emphasizing our victimization by patriarchal attitudes, egocentricity, racism, “monolithic institutions,” etc., and tracing those ravages back to ancient times (e.g., “the fact is that for thousands of years our egocentricity has been doing us all great harm”).

I now question the wisdom of that approach.

First of all, it is by no means clear that the world fell from grace approx. 5,000 years ago. Korten relies in part on the speculations of feminist history writers like Riane Eisler and Merlin Stone (much as I did on Elizabeth Gould Davis and Helen Diner), and their speculations have not been treated kindly by the current generation of professional historians.

It is undeniable that social classes became more pronounced and that wealth became more concentrated as society became more complex, more urban, and more sophisticated, but I’d infinitely rather be an ordinary person today than 5000 years ago, and so, I suspect, would most of the rest of us. Thus the balance should be on the positive side of the ledger.

Second of all, the point of seeing global history primarily as oppression and misery is -- obviously -- to inspire us to throw off our shackles and do better. But that approach carries grave dangers, such as inspiring rage, cynicism, or alienation in us, or a toxic combination of all three. It also “turns scholarship into a rather silly and mechanical game of praise and blame instead of a more sophisticated analytical effort to understand the world in its complexity,” says Jerry Bentley, author of the popular global history textbook Traditions and Encounters (2nd ed. 2004).

A wiser approach -- better designed to inspire constructive social change -- was articulated by the great global historian William H. McNeill when he urged historians to cultivate “a sense of individual identification with the triumphs and tribulations of humanity as a whole.”

That approach does not imply a Pollyanna-like approach to history. But it does allow for the complexity Bentley correctly insists upon. And several historians have already produced marvelous and inspiring examples of it.

Robert Wright’s Nonzero (2000, reviewed HERE) demonstrates that the human species has become increasingly cooperative over time (though that progress has hardly been smooth, as Wright makes abundantly clear!). Theodore Zeldin’s Intimate History of Humanity (1994, reviewed at the end of HERE) illuminates the gradual growth of our capacity to be truly humane to one another.

And Bentley’s own textbook conveys what he describes as the “increasing prominence of cross-cultural interaction over time” (without endorsing or treating as inevitable the worst aspects of contemporary capitalist globalization).

The granddaddy of these histories may be H.G. Wells’s Outline of History (orig. 1920), which described the painful but gradual emergence of “one collective humanity” over time.

I feel empowered and inspired when I put myself in Wright’s, Zeldin’s, Bentley’s, or Wells’s scenarios. I do not feel empowered or inspired when I put myself in Korten’s current or Satin’s old look-what-they’ve-done-to-our-song scenarios.

America the battleground

Korten’s re-assessment of U.S. history is also grim (the first four sub-heads are “PLUTOCRACY,” “THEOCRACY,” “GENOCIDE,” and “SLAVERY”), but evolves into a story of Good and / or exploited Guys against Bad and / or ignorant Guys. If you’ve read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States (rev. 2003), which was originally written as a corrective to the weirdly conflict-free textbooks of the 1960s and 1970s, then you’re already familiar with the general outlook (in fact, Zinn is one of Korten’s most frequently cited sources here).

Zinn’s perspective is worth absorbing. But so is Larry Scheweikart and Michael Allen’s perspective in A Patriot’s History of the United States (2004), which was written as a corrective to the various leftist assumptions that have worked their way into some textbooks over the last 20 years (e.g., many Native American tribes may have been less ecological than advertised).

In New Age Politics, I too relied primarily on left-wing U.S. historians. In fact, both Korten and I made use of one powerfully written book -- Leo Huberman’s We The People (orig. 1932) -- that was long a standard text for the radical education of workers in the U.S. Communist Party.

The advantage of presenting U.S. history as a bloody struggle between Jeffersonians and Hamiltonians, or whomever, is that you can try to persuade the reader to identify with those whose politics you feel closest to.

The disadvantage, though, is that you sacrifice complexity and empathy. And in the year 2006, a political movement that fails to privilege those two qualities is a political movement I want no part of.

For example, in Korten’s book there are several mean-spirited references to John Winthrop and the Puritans (in New Age Politics, I treated John Cotton and the Puritans in just that way). Surely it makes more sense to introduce readers to insights from Edmund Morgan’s little gem of a book The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop (2nd ed. 1999), which presents that brilliant and principled and complex man in the context of his own time and belief-system; and to insights from John Demos’s splendid book A Little Commonwealth: Family Life in Plymouth Colony (2nd ed. 2000), which emphasizes the humanity of our flawed but compelling Puritan predecessors.

Alexander Hamilton is Bad in Korten’s world. But spend half an hour with Ron Chernow’s recent biography of Hamilton in a library or bookstore and ask yourself if “Bad” even begins to convey what his story has to teach us.

All our predecessors were our brothers and sisters, from Andrew Carnegie and Henry Ford to the anonymous workers who died in union battles in the 1930s; and the better we can welcome and absorb all their gifts, the more effective we’ll be as change agents.

Change the stories!

A central theme of Korten’s book is that “those who control the stories that define the culture of a society control its politics and its economy.”

Thus, one of Korten’s central chapters is called “Prisons of the Mind,” and it purports to describe the stories our “imperial elites” tell today, in three realms:

Prosperity -- “as the rich get richer, so does everyone else”; “Global corporations are benevolent, efficient, public-spirited institutions”; etc.

Security -- “We face evil enemies who hate us for our freedoms”; “The war against evil is perpetual”; “war is the natural state of humankind”; etc.

Meaning -- “God created the world in six days,” etc.; or, alternately, “Matter is the only reality”; “life has no intrinsic meaning”; etc.

Fortunately, says Korten, those of us who support Earth Community are creating “Stories for a New Era.” Though these alternate stories are still in process, some aspects might include:

Prosperity -- “Prosperity is measured by the quality of our lives”; “Poverty is an inevitable product of an unjust system”; “There is no beneficial place in a healthy economy for predatory individuals”; etc.

Security -- “Strong families and communities . . . are the best guarantee of human security”; “crime, terrorism, and war . . . are a direct consequence of the cultures and institutions of Empire that weaken family and community”; “violence begets violence”; etc.

Meaning -- “The cosmos -- and all within it -- is an integral interconnected whole”; “The species that survive and thrive are those that learn to sustain themselves in ways that simultaneously serve the needs of the whole”; etc.

These stories are quite familiar to me. The imperial outlook is similar to the “Prison-bound” outlook I condemned in New Age Politics, and the New Era outlook is similar to the “Prison-free” and “biolithic” outlook I happily anticipated there.

I can still sense the appeal of New Era type stories: they promise that the bad old society can disappear and that an infinitely more benign society can take its place. Who but a grinch would deny us that promise?

The problem, though, as I see it today, is that the imperial story is a bizarre caricature. I’ve known an amazing variety of people over the last 20 years, including many from the business, legal, and political Establishments, yet I’ve known very few that thought in anything like those laughably rigid ways.

And the New Era story is not nearly as inspiring as its advocates suppose. Some of its aspects are ambiguous Pablum; others are half-truths that most genuinely mature people would rush to qualify.

It seems to me that the old American story is evolving rapidly in a benign direction (thanks in part to the efforts of millions of “insider” change agents), and that activists would be best advised to tug that story in ways we want it to go.

I’m not sure it makes much strategic sense to posit a brand new story and start saying to people, “Hey! Stop being the bamboozled idiots you are and start being the good people we want you to be!”

And I know it makes no political sense. Readers of this newsletter may remember Don Beck’s Spiral Dynamics developmental sequence, described HERE, which teaches that people and societies go through stages of development, and that stages can’t be skipped without endangering all prior progress.

Evolution is the word.

Radical decentralization

At the heart of Korten’s political and economic vision is radical decentralization, or what he calls “local living economies.”

“Our governance processes would be radically democratic,” he writes. There would be “open deliberation and consensus building in community forums, the free flow of information through independent media, and the decision making of an open political process.”

Our economies would be locally based. “Communities are most economically secure and most in control of their own economic priorities when most of their basic needs are met by local businesses that employ local labor and use local resources to meet the needs of local residents for employment, goods, and services. . . .

“We would grow more of our food on local family farms. . . . We would produce much of our energy locally from wind and solar sources. . . . With family life, work life, and community life more geographically proximate and people in more regular and natural contact, our lives would be less fragmented and more coherent, the bonds of community denser, stronger, and more trusting.”

A chart contrasts the ghastly “Global imperial economy” to noble “Local living economies.”

In New Age Politics, I took a similar tack. I defined localization as “decentralization with a positive focus” and devoted a whole chapter to singing its praises (“Localization: Celebration of Diversity”).

Today I see that vision as inadequate to the world we live in. Culturally, politically, and economically, the world is becoming One. We are “all connected now,” as Walter Truett Anderson puts it in his wonderful book of that same title (2001, reviewed HERE about two-thirds of the way down under the sub-head “Connectedness matters”); and arguably the most pressing task we have before us now is to participate in that cultural, political, and economic integration and help make it mutually beneficial and humane.

To me, that does not mean waiting until nations and economies have become radically decentralist or otherwise politically correct. It means reaching out NOW, imperfect as we Americans are (and as imperfect as all others are), and learning as we go.

There is also the matter of what people want. Although it is important for us to care about the communities we live in, I detect very little desire among people to return to a sort of 1820s, community-centric lifestyle.

The trend seems to be in the opposite direction: toward living in many places over the course of one’s lifetime, toward identifying less with one’s neighbors and more with one’s interest groups (much hastened by the Internet) and occupational peers (much hastened by regional and national conferences), etc.

I think it is important for activists to respect people’s fundamental life choices, and not try to browbeat them into becoming the sorts of people one might prefer them to be.

And I certainly don’t want the folks who have time to incessantly attend community meetings to play a larger part in community life than they already do. There are approx. 510,000 elected officials in the U.S. today -- that sounds like democracy to me -- and if they’re making inadequate decisions we should come together to replace them, not pour our energies into trying to make elaborate end-runs around them.

“Corporate-free economies”

Korten bears a special animus toward corporations -- ultimately he’d like to see “corporate-free economies that mimic healthy ecosystems.” He would eliminate the “limited liability” corporations now enjoy, for owners (i.e., stockholders) and managers alike, effectively bringing many of them to a quick end.

Although he describes corporate malfeasance in rich detail, and outdoes Marx by arguing that corporations were cleverly foisted on an unknowing public by political and economic elites, Korten doesn’t mention any of the advantages of the corporate structure (e.g., it’s an easy and efficient way for individuals to pool capital) or any of the benefits corporations have brought us (e.g., affordable goods, rapid productivity growth, astonishing technologies).

My old book New Age Politics took an equally one-sided view of the corporation.

One problem I have with this now is that envisioning a world of “corporate-free economies” is a non-starter. While it's tempting to hurl thunderbolts at the world, activists need to speak to the world as it is and to people as they are. Otherwise they’re just teaching alienation.

Another problem I have is that -- precisely because corporations are such powerful engines for good and harm (not to mention remarkable human creations) -- I’d rather we devoted our intelligence and energies to improving them, rather than to taking them down and ultimately eliminating them.

Many good people are trying to improve them. But Korten doesn’t discuss the work of the extraordinary management consultants that are trying to teach corporations to operate more humanely now, even those that are inarguably on the so-called Culturally or Spiritually Conscious wavelength such as Dan Goleman, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Marc Sarkady, Jim Collins, Peter Schwartz, and Jay Ogilvy. Nor does he discuss any of the laws now being proposed by business and legal scholars that would induce corporations to move away from their obsession with the short-term bottom line.

He does suggest in passing that public policy should favor “patient investment over speculative trading.” But he doesn’t elaborate. His heart isn’t in reform. He is about Transformation.

Multi-stage strategy

How to begin changing this nation in the direction of “local living economies”? Korten proposes a four-stage strategy, and describes it as “a process of ‘walking away from the king,’ because it centers not on confronting the authority of the king, but on walking away -- withdrawing the legitimacy and the life energy on which the king’s power depends.”

The four stages, sequential but (in practice) simultaneous, are

  • changing consciousness
  • resisting the “institutions and agendas of Empire,” sometimes via civil disobedience
  • forming and connecting “communities of congruence,” from specially created local study groups to holistic health clinics to spiritually-oriented churches
  • building a “majoritarian political base,” i.e. “taking the culture of Earth Community mainstream through the many formal and informal communications channels beyond corporate control”

I proposed a remarkably similar schema in New Age Politics. I urged that we “withdraw our consent from the Prison within us [and] from our monolithic institutions,” and I suggested the following four parallel stages:

  • “breaking out of the Prison” of our consciousness
  • “group work” -- working through small self-created groups, alternative institutions, environmental and human rights groups, etc.
  • “nonviolent action”
  • “electoral politics” (but only as one small “part of the way” to the new society)

These schemas can be helpful. For example, they can give the reader a holistic overview of everything activists are doing or should be doing.

They can also be misleading, though. They almost inevitably overstate the power of the forces you’re hoping to build, since many people and groups that appear to fit into the stages above will not in fact share your goals.

Another problem with Korten’s (and my) stages is that they encourage distance from the established, mainstream institutions of contemporary American life. They’re building blocks for a fundamentally oppositional political movement at a time when all fundamentalisms should be called into question.

In the year 2006, I don’t think the degree of separation called for by the withdrawal-of-legitimacy theory and the stages above is either healthy or useful. I think it’s a recipe for alienation (not that it won’t lead to some memorable fun and games).

There is an obvious (albeit “merely” evolutionary) alternative.

If the religious right can spawn the Christian Coalition, surely the forces of Cultural and Spiritual Consciousness -- arguably just as numerically large -- could spawn an equally straightforward, equally pragmatic, and equally effective political organization.

It might have to compromise with the System every way it turned. But it might have as much effect on the System as the Christian Coalition; and that would be a Godsend.

Conservative-liberal alliance?

Given Korten’s fierce positing of “Empire” vs. “Earth Community,” his far-left take on global and U.S. history, his radical decentralism, his hostility to the corporate form (not just corporate behavior), and his skittishness about working through mainstream institutions, you wouldn’t think he’d have many allies.

But according to him, you’d be wrong. Just as I thought New Age Politics was expressing the sentiments of an emergent “third force” in American history, so Korten is convinced that The Great Turning is expressing “the emergent outlines of a largely unrecognized consensus” that could take shape in the form of a new “conservative-liberal alliance.”

“A politics of mature citizenship,” Korten writes, “properly honors both the conservative values of freedom and individual responsibility and the liberal values of equity and justice for all. It brings together a conservative concern for community and heritage with a liberal concern for inclusiveness,” etc., etc.

You have to admire the spirit behind those words. The problem is that there’s no logical connection between them and support for Korten’s vision. You can feel that important conservative and liberal values are being trampled upon in this society without being even the least bit attracted to the political, historical, and economic ideas in Korten’s book.

If a “conservative-liberal alliance” ever does come about, I suspect it will be in response to a politician or organization that proposes pragmatic, creative, and affordable solutions to our most pressing problems.  But that's not this book's department.

From Alienation to American Community

When I began this review, I said I wanted to discover what we at the radical middle could gain from Korten’s book. And I hope I’ve conveyed that along with my critique.

The Great Turning is visionary, bold, and provocative. Social scientist Charles Murray (discussed HERE) would call it a “thought experiment,” and if you’ve never thought deeply about the kind of world you want, by all means obtain this book and go along for the ride.

Some of the rhetoric genuinely inspires, as in this last-page passage:

Rather than give in to despair in this often frightening time, let us rejoice in the privilege of being alive at a moment of creative opportunity unprecedented in the human experience.

It reminds me of a passage from my own last page of text in New Age Politics:

Beyond hope and despair, then, there is something absolutely essential to do, and that is to live. To live with simplicity and intensity, gentleness and generosity, so that the idea of a freely self-developing humanity does not die.

The trouble, though, is that Korten’s current eloquence and rhetoric (ditto my old eloquence and rhetoric) does not contribute to solving the pressing political problems we face now. It contributes, instead, to a vision of society that’s so removed from what most Americans actually want (and that’s so remote from actual fulfillment) that to those who buy into it, the effect may be to alienate or further alienate them from the actually-existing culture and institutions of American life.

I have some sympathy for 29-year-old Mark. He wrote the first version of New Age Politics at the tail end of the Vietnam War, as a war resister in Canada, and with few mainstream institutions open to the innovative new energies he felt were aching to burst forth. Thoughts of a totally transformed “Prison-free,” “biolithic” society kept him warm at night, and kept many other trapped souls warm at night, as you can tell from the response to the book.

I am less readily sympathetic to my now 69-year-old former New Options Advisory Board member, David Korten. American society has never been so open to innovative new energies as it is right now. Mainstream institutions (including corporations and the professions) not only need innovative new energies but are actively seeking them.

Although Korten chooses not to even raise this issue, all the ideas he presents in The Great Turning were present in the activist community 30 years ago, as witness not only my book but Ferguson's book and Capra's book and the many similar books of that era (and the many groups that drew on them!).  Why did those ideas not spread further than they did back then?  Was it really because of the strength of "Empire"?  Or was it because Americans do not respond readily to a hyper-idealistic political movement that sets itself above and apart?

It seems to me that this is exactly the wrong time to preach alienation from mainstream culture and institutions. Good and caring people should be contributing to that culture, moving into those institutions; not resignedly, but with all our creativity and strength.

To paraphrase Korten’s last line (quoted toward the beginning of this review): Then we’ll be the people that this whole world is waiting for.



Korten’s book has a web page HERE. In addition, Korten’s ideas and Korten-like ideas can be found on a regular basis in YES! Magazine.



I must add that on p. 223 of Korten’s book there is a footnote referencing David Ray Griffin’s notorious book The New Pearl Harbor, which elaborately suggests that 9/11 was an inside job, and which has become a favorite text for anti-Semites around the world.  Surely Korten knows this.

The information Korten uses from Griffin's book does not pertain directly to Griffin's 9/11 fantasies, but Korten could have obtained the same or similar information from other sources.


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