In this trenchant critique of global economics, David Korten argues that capitalism's proud claims to being the engine of wealth creation, the foundation for democracy, and the embodiment of market economics are exaggerated, if not entirely unfounded. In his view, global capitalism is an outgrowth of an antiquated, mechanistic worldview that fails to take account of important social, political, and environmental factors.
Market theory, as developed by Adam Smith, was an "elegant and coherent intellectual construction," Korten observes. It rested on several basic assumptions, including the idea that buyers and sellers are too small to influence market prices, that there are no trade secrets, that sellers bear the full cost of the products they sell and pass them on in the sale price, and that investment capital remains within national borders and trade between countries is balanced.
Unfortunately, Korten says, the new globalized economy systematically undermines each of these prerequisites. Markets and capitalism are mutually exclusive forms of economic organization since free markets are self-organizing while global capitalism is centrally controlled by a relatively small number of economic players — chiefly multinational corporations. "More than half of the world's one hundred largest economies are centrally planned for the primary benefit of the wealthiest one percent of the world's people. It is a triumph of privatized central planning over markets and democracy."
Korten feels that creating a more equitable, just, and democratic society requires new metaphors and ways of thinking about economics. A more enlightened approach would be to conceive of markets in terms of healthy biological communities since ecosystems are, by nature, sustainable, diverse, regional, and self-organizing.
The Post-Corporate World is divided into four sections. The first part — the strongest and most substantive — presents a penetrating critique of the underlying premises of the globalized economy, showing how they ultimately hasten the breakdown of local community, democratic self-reliance, and the natural world. At bottom, they also foster an unhealthy public culture wedded to competition, materialistic values, and the pursuit of narrow self-interest.
In Part Two, Korten turns to science — biology and systems theory in particular — to suggest a new way of conceptualizing complex social systems. Part Three applies these concepts to economic affairs, suggesting that a healthy, post-corporate world would embrace the ideas of "mindful markets," "economic democracy," "responsible freedom," and an expanded idea of human rights. In Part Four, Korten describes a wide range of trends and initiatives which indicate that an important shift is already underway in the culture, one driven not only by public resentment toward corporations and such entities as the World Trade Organization, but also by the search for more life-affirming alternatives on the part of thoughtful corporate leaders, politicians, grassroots organization, and private citizens.
Korten concludes with a six-point agenda for change involving, among other things, an end to the legal fiction of corporate personhood, the establishment of an international agreement regulating international corporations and finance, the elimination of corporate welfare, and the return of money as a medium of exchange. "The proposed six-fold agenda," he says, "attacks the foundation of unaccountable financial and corporate power and opens the way to a radical redistribution of economic wealth and power by returning human rights to living persons."
While Korten's intent here is a good one, his practical agenda for change raises at least as many problems as it would be likely to solve. For example, his plan for regulating corporations is sketchy at best. The whole thrust of the emerging economy, as he illustrates throughout the book, is that it is organized from the bottom up rather than the top down. So the question of regulations conflicts with the very premise of the book. The issue we need to address is what kind of incentives can be put forward to bring corporations in line with a better organized and more just and democratic economy in coming years.
Korten's agenda, impractical and poorly worked out as it is, weakens what is otherwise a very compelling book, one which I would recommend to anyone concerned about the direction of the global economy. Korten admits that his proposals are likely to be fiercely resisted by the establishment. Nevertheless, he says — and here he has more than a point — "the unanimity of the present power holders should not be assumed." Cracks are now appearing in the elite consensus as more and more corporate leaders, bankers, and even economists acknowledge the economic dislocation, social instability, and ecological destruction wrought by globalization.
This review appeared in the Fall 2002 issue of Earth Island Journal
Copyright 2002 by Scott London. All rights reserved.