The Rising Challenge of Corporate Control of Our Lives

Five Signs of the Coming Revolution

Join the revolution! Café Utne is hosting discussions with several of the visionary authors who contributed essays to Imagine. For a full schedule, go to The Salon


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The year is 2050. America has come a long way during the 21st Century. When I turned on the morning news today, there was a report on the latest Social Health Index followed by a panel discussion of local, national, and global initiatives intended to improve the indicators and how people can get involved. Yesterday, a similar report covered the Living Planet Index.

It now seems incredible that 50 years ago, this airtime was devoted to reporting on the day’s stock market performance. The social fabric and the planetary life support systems were collapsing–but all the media seemed focused on was corporate profits and stock prices. Of course, those were the days when most of America’s media were controlled by four massive corporate conglomerates: General Electric (NBC), Time Warner (CNN), Disney (ABC), and Westinghouse (CBS).

Seattle 1999–when protesters shut down a meeting of the World Trade Organization–was a turning point. People still refer to it. People were waking up to the fact that the more rights and freedoms corporations have, the fewer rights and freedoms real people have. Following the protests in Seattle, more and more people took to the streets in protest. Eventually, the corporate elites found that they could meet only behind police barricades. This turned the abstraction of an elite-ruled corporate police state into a powerful visual image. Public pressures built to the point that the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the WTO were all dismantled, Third World debts were canceled, and rule-making responsibility for the global economy was assigned to the United Nations.

The real breakthrough for the United States was a radical campaign finance reform bill–the result of possibly the most dramatic citizen protest ever held. Two million people descended on Washington, D.C., surrounded the Capitol, and refused to leave until Congress passed a sweeping campaign reform bill that prohibited individual political contributions larger than $100, barred corporate political involvement of any kind, provided public funding for election campaigns, and required media using the public airwaves to provide free broadcast time for all qualified candidates. This set the stage for a string of legislative victories ending corporate welfare, revoking special corporate rights and privileges, breaking up concentrations of corporate power, guaranteeing every person the right to a means of livelihood, giving workers control over their pension funds, and implementing reforms to help workers obtain ownership stakes in the organizations on which their livelihoods depend. Labor unions began to organize worker and community buyouts, in part with workers’ pension funds.

At the same time, a deep cultural shift was taking place. Voluntary simplicity was in; conspicuous consumption was out. People realized that advertisers were manipulating their values and self-images so that they would feel compelled to devote their energies to earning money in order to buy expensive merchandise that gave them no real satisfaction. It is as if society acquired a collective immunity to advertising. Many people turned off their televisions and became more mindful consumers, buying only what they really needed, seeking good value, and giving preference to goods and services provided by local, independent businesses. Now, most people find that they need to work only 20 to 25 hours a week to meet their financial needs. The rest of the time, they devote themselves to things that give them real satisfaction, such as gardening, family, and community service.

As people recognized that most advertising is socially pernicious, they passed legislation to place strict limits on the advertising expenditures that corporations are allowed to deduct as business expenses. The pollution of both private and public spaces with advertising has largely been eliminated.

Nearly all businesses are now human scale, which in practical terms means that they have no more than 500 workers each, and nearly all are owned by persons who have an immediate nonfinancial stake in them–employees, customers, suppliers, or members of the communities in which the businesses are located. The giant corporations that sparked Seattle 1999 have gone the way of the dinosaurs and smallpox.

America’s economy has been fundamentally transformed in the past 50 years. In the end, what we have created looks remarkably like a classical market economy of small buyers and small sellers. We call our version a mindful market economy, because we recognize the importance of mindfulness in all our economic choices–from the choice of our own employment to the nature of our production processes to the products we produce and buy–mindfulness not only of our own needs but also of the impact of our choices on society and the planet.

David C. Korten is the author of The Post-Corporate World: Life After Capitalism and When Corporations Rule the World. He is a co-founder and chairman of the board of the Positive Futures Network, publishers of Yes! A Journal of Positive Futures, and the founder and president of the People-Centered Development Forum.

All essays reprinted from Imagine: What America Could Be in the 21st Century, edited by Marianne Williamson. Permission granted by Rodale, Emmaus, PA 18098. Available wherever books are sold or directly from the publisher by calling 800/848-4735 or visiting www.rodalestore.com

Join the revolution! Throughout November and December Cafe Utne will host discussions with several of the visionary authors who contributed essays to Imagine. For a full schedule, go to The Salon

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