The Trance of Empire

David Korten implores us to replace the old control stories with new ones affirming life values of cooperation, community, and interdependence.


INTERVIEW: FROM EMPIRE TO EARTH COMMUNITY

LECTURE: THE GREAT TURNING

DAVID KORTEN: I come from conservative roots, at least as I grew up understanding the meaning of conservative, and I followed an establishment career for some 25 years. Then in the late 1980s I began to recognize the true extent to which the misdirection of many establishment institutions was taking a terrible toll on what I had grown up believing to be conservative values - things like family, community, peace, justice, and nature.

In the late 1980s, while based in the Philippines, I concluded that the leadership needed to redirect the human course would not come from within establishment institutions, but rather would depend on citizen groups working from a shared understanding of the deeper problems afflicting the species and a common vision of unrealized possibilities. At that point, I became a defector from the establishment and have since worked through public interest citizen organizations devoted to a transformational social change agenda.

IMany people refer to me as an economist because much of my writing focuses on economic issues. Although I have studied a good deal of economics, I am by training and inclination a student of psychology and behavioral systems. My early academic preparation included a BA in psychology from Stanford University and MBA and Ph.D. degrees from the Stanford Business School. In plain language, my intellectual passion is to apply my knowledge of how culture and institutional structures shape human behavior to a search for ways by which we humans can do a better job of supporting one another in achieving the higher order potentials of our nature.

My early career was devoted to setting up business schools in low-income countries - starting with Ethiopia. It was my hope at the time that creating a new class of professional business entrepreneurs would be the key to ending global poverty.

I completed my military service during the Vietnam War as a captain in the U.S. Air Force. During this time I taught civic action and psychological operations at the Special Air Warfare School, headed a study team on principles of Air Force organization in Air Force Headquarters Command, and served as military aide to the civilian head of all defense department behavior and social sciences research in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Advanced Research Projects Agency in the Pentagon.

After completing my military service, I served for five and a half years as a Visiting Associate Professor of the Harvard University Graduate School of Business where I taught in Harvard's middle management, M.B.A. and doctoral programs. I also served as the Harvard Business School advisor to the Nicaragua-based Central American Management Institute. I subsequently joined the staff of the Harvard Institute for International Development, where I headed a Ford Foundation-funded project to strengthen the organization and management of national family planning programs.

In the late 1970s, I left U.S. academia and moved to Southeast Asia, where I lived for nearly fifteen years, serving first as a Ford Foundation project specialist, and later as Asia regional advisor on development management to the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). In the latter capacity I traveled regularly between Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines. My work in Asia gained international recognition for my pioneering contribution to the development of organizational strategies by which large scale public bureaucracies can be transformed into responsive support systems dedicated to strengthening community control and management of land, water, and forestry resources.

Disillusioned by the evident inability of USAID and other large official aid donors to apply the approaches that had been proven effective by the nongovernmental Ford Foundation, I eventually made my break with the official aid system. My last five years in Asia were devoted to working with leaders of Asian nongovernmental organizations on identifying the root causes of development failure in the region and building the capacity of civil society organizations to function as strategic catalysts of national- and global-level change.

Gradually I became aware that the crisis of deepening poverty, growing inequality, environmental devastation, and social disintegration I was observing in Asia was also being experienced in nearly every country in the world - including the United States and other "developed" countries. In 1990, I joined with colleagues from around the world to found the People-Centered Development Forum as a support network for those who were seeking to challenge the dominant development paradigm. I have since served as the Forum's president and principal spokesperson. As my analysis of the global crisis deepened, my Asian colleagues suggested that I might best help them in their cause by returning to the United States to educate other Americans in the devastating negative impact on democracy, people, and the environment of U.S. economic and political policies around the world.

In 1992, Fran, my wife and life partner, and I moved to New York City. Fran transferred to the Ford Foundation's New York office to continue her work as a Ford Foundation program officer, and I began the research that led to publication of When Corporations Rule the World. Our apartment located in the heart of Manhattan just off Union Square between Madison Avenue and Wall Street proved an inspirational setting for this undertaking. In 1994, I accepted an invitation to join a gathering of global activists working on trade issues that led to the formation of the International Forum on Globalization, an alliance that assumed a major role in building global awareness of the dysfunctions of corporate-led economic globalization.

Following the launch of When Corporations Rule the World in 1995, my attention turned increasingly to a search for alternatives to the destructive patterns of global corporate rule. The beginning of 1996, I co-founded with Sarah van Gelder and other colleagues the Positive Futures Network, publishers of YES! A Journal of Positive Futures, which I have since served as board chair. In 1998 Fran and I moved to Bainbridge Island in Washington state, the home of YES! and the heartland of Ecotopia. This proved an optimal setting in which to complete the manuscript for The Post-Corporate World: Life After Capitalism, which was launched at the United Nations headquarters in March 1999.

Most of my energy has since been devoted to advancing understanding and application of positive solutions. I contributed to writing a consensus report of the International Forum on Globalization titled Alternatives to Economic Globalization published in 2002 that remains the single most comprehensive and authoritative articulation of the design for a just, democratic, just, and sustainable planetary economic system.

This same year that saw the launch of the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE) as an initiative to advance the emergence of a new economy in the United States built on a foundation of locally owned independent businesses and free from the dysfunctions of corporate rule. I helped frame the underlying rational and strategy of BALLE and now serve on the BALLE board of directors.

Follow the affiliations link for more information on my current organizational affiliations. Those interested in a more extensive reflection on the pathway of the intellectual journey that led to my current work are invited to read an interview by the University of Washington Center for Communication and Civic Engagement.