LILIPOH Interviews David C. Korten
Issue: Spring 2004, Digestion - Issue #35
David Korten is the author of When Corporations Rule the World, a book that eight years after its 1996 publication reads like a biblical prophecy unfolding before our eyes. He is currently writing another book, tentatively entitled, Renewing the American Experiment.
LILIPOH: How did you come to write the book When Corporations Rule the World?
DK: I grew up in a small town in Washington State where my parents had a local business. I voted conservative in my early years and was very concerned about the communist threat to the American way of life. In my senior year at Stanford I took a course in modern revolution in which I learned that communist revolutions are often driven by the desire to escape from poverty. I decided to devote my life to ending poverty in developing countries by bringing them the management tools of modern capitalism.
I worked for 30 years in various developing countries, initially setting up business schools and later working to improve the management of public development programs in irrigation, agriculture, and health. Eventually I came to realize that the corporate-led models of development the “advanced” nations were spreading through the world were destroying the environment, eroding the social fabric, and increasing the gap between rich and poor. I decided to return to the United States and devote my attention to raising awareness of the destructive nature of our economic and military policies for ourselves and others.
LILIPOH: What is it that is so bad about corporations? Is it the corporate form itself? Or is it the people?
DK: Business enterprises in which owners and managers feel a broad sense of public responsibility for their actions are essential institutions in any free and prosperous society. The problem is with a particular form of business enterprise —the publicly traded, limited liability corporation—that is required by law and the dynamics of the financial markets to maximize short-term return to shareholders without regard to human and environmental consequences. It is an institution legally programmed to act like a psychopath, a person who has never matured beyond a totally self-centered worldview and lacks a capacity for conscience and responsible freedom. Furthermore, as we’ve seen revealed in the recent wave of corporate scandals, this institution seems to elevate to the highest positions of power and responsibility individuals who failed to advance beyond the emotional and moral maturity of young children and are thereby least prepared to use that power responsibly.
LILIPOH: So you’re suggesting that it has something to do with human maturity?
DK: Human maturity is a key. The psychological literature on human maturity shows that we come into this world as bundles of emotion unable to distinguish between our own needs and the needs of others. We are the world. The healthy path to emotional and moral maturity involves movement toward an ever-expanding and deepening multidimensional view of reality. From a world centered on me in the moment, we come to see ourselves as members of a complex and evolving global, ultimately cosmic, community. Just as our individual task is to negotiate the pathway to full individual maturity, we now face the challenge as a species of taking an intentional collective step to a new level of species maturity.
LILIPOH: Could you say more about your worldview, and how it informs what you do?
DK: I work out of the belief that all reality is a manifestation of a unitary intelligent consciousness seeking to know itself through the creative exploration of its possibilities. We humans are not the end product of this process, but rather participants in its continual unfolding toward ever greater complexity, awareness, and possibility.
LILIPOH: And this view shapes your understanding of community and economics, and so forth?
DK: Christian theologian Marcus Borg said, “Tell me your image of God and I will tell you your politics.” The image of God as a physical being in the role of a stern all-knowing and all-powerful father residing in a far place called heaven and engaged in disciplining his errant children sets up a hierarchy of control and discipline and implies that those who enjoy wealth and power on earth are thus revealed as God’s chosen. The image of God as universal spirit conveys a sense of the unity of the whole of creation, the sacred nature of all being, and of our own responsibility to and for the whole. These contrasting images lead to very different politics.
LILIPOH: Is there a link here to your connection with Nicanor Perlas’s (see p. 20 for Perlas’ Right Livelihood Award acceptance speech) work on the threefold form of society?
DK: Nicky and I first met when I was living in the Philippines and have been close friends and colleagues for many years. His observation that the power of civil society is the power of culture has been especially important to my own understanding of the path ahead. Nicky also speaks to the fact that the foundation of transformational change is a spiritual awakening.
LILIPOH: Are many people open to this message? Is it just the intelligentsia, the elite?
DK: Values surveys by Paul Ray and others reveal that the awakening is happening globally at all levels of society and is expanding at a rapid pace. For at least the past five thousand years, what we refer to as civilization has featured the dominator organizational models of Empire that inevitably divide the world into winners and losers at an enormous cost in violence, destruction, and lost potential. Our modern educational institutions reinforce this worldview and train us to play and win by its self-limiting and destructive rules. People are awakening to the fact that there are positive alternatives. The World Social Forum is right: Another World is Possible.
LILIPOH: Where does that lead us?
DK: Human culture and institutions are human creations. They are matters of choice, not destiny. It is time to make new choices that bring a 5,000 year era of Empire to a close and lift us to a new level of species maturity. It requires that we re-examine the most basic of questions regarding creation, reality, and what it means to be human.
LILIPOH: Unfortunately, we’re out of time. Thank you so much – could you close with a few examples of next steps?
DK: There are so many possibilities. As you know, I’m co-founder and board chair of the Positive Futures Network, which publishes YES! A Journal of Positive Futures. YES! is devoted to sharing the stories of people who are creating the world that can be. Your readers can find it on the web at www.yesmagazine.org. You will find a great many examples there.