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When Corporations Rule the World

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Our Choice: Democracy or Corporate Rule

A handful of corporations and financial institutions command an ever-greater concentration of economic and political power in an assault against markets, democracy, and life. It's a “suicide economy,” says David Korten, that destroys the very foundations of its own existence.

The bestselling 1995 edition of When Corporations Rule the World helped launch a global resistance against corporate domination. In this twentieth-anniversary edition, Korten shares insights from his personal experience as a participant in the growing movement for a New Economy. A new introduction documents the further concentration of wealth and corporate power since 1995 and explores why our institutions resolutely resist even modest reform. A new conclusion chapter outlines high-leverage opportunities for breakthrough change.

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Introduction: Capitalism and the Suicide Economy

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Perhaps the greatest threat to freedom and democracy in the world today comes from the formation of unholy alliances between government and business. This is not a new phenomenon. It used to be called fascism. . . . The outward appearances of the democratic process are observed, but the powers of the state are diverted to the benefit of private interests.

—GEORGE SOROS, international financier

None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free.

—JOHANN WOLFGANG VON GOETHE

Twenty years ago, When Corporations Rule the World sounded a global alarm: The consolidation of power in a global economy ruled by corporations poses a growing threat to markets, democracy, humans, and life itself.

Unfortunately, subsequent events affirm all but extraneous details of the analysis. Corporate power is now more concentrated and operates ever further beyond human control. Its exercise is more reckless. Its political domination is more complete. Its consequences are more devastating. And system collapse is more certain and imminent.

 

PART I: COWBOYS IN A SPACESHIP

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People who celebrate technology say it has brought us an improved standard of living, which means greater speed, greater choice, greater leisure, and greater luxury. None of these benefits informs us about human satisfaction, happiness, security, or the ability to sustain life on earth.

—JERRY MANDER

The last half of the twentieth century has been perhaps the most remarkable period in human history. Scientifically we unlocked countless secrets of matter, space, and biology. We dominated Earth with our numbers, technology, and sophisticated organization. We traveled beyond our world to the moon and reached out to the stars. A mere fifty years ago, within the lifetime of my generation, many of the things we take for granted today as essential to a good and prosperous life were unavailable, nonexistent, or even unimagined. These include the jet airplane and global commercial air travel, computers, microwave ovens, electric typewriters, photocopying machines, television, clothes dryers, air-conditioning, freeways, shopping malls, fax machines, birth-control pills, artificial organs, suburbs, and chemical pesticides—to name only a few.

 

PART II: CONTEST FOR SOVEREIGNTY

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Chartered privileges are a burden, under which the people of Britain, and other European nations, groan in misery.

—THOMAS EARLE, pamphleteer, 1823

Today’s business corporation is an artificial creation, shielding owners and managers while preserving corporate privilege and existence. Artificial or not, corporations have won more rights under law than people have—rights which government has protected with armed force.

—RICHARD L. GROSSMAN and FRANK T. ADAMS

The fact that the interests of corporations and people of wealth are closely intertwined tends to obscure the significance of the corporation as an institution in its own right. On the more positive side, the corporate charter is a social innovation that allows for the aggregation of financial resources in the service of a public purpose. On the negative side, it allows one or more individuals to leverage massive economic and political resources behind narrowly focused private agendas while protecting themselves from legal liability for the public consequences.

 

PART III: CORPORATE COLONIALISM

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The world economy has become more integrated. But to travel is not the same as to arrive. Full integration will be reached only when there is free movement of goods, services, capital and labour and when governments treat firms equally, regardless of their nationality.

—THE ECONOMIST

The men who run the global corporations are the first in history with the organization, technology, money, and ideology to make a credible try at managing the world as an integrated economic unit. . . . What they are demanding in essence is the right to transcend the nation-state, and in the process, transform it.

—RICHARD J. BARNET and RONALD E. MULLER

The past two decades have seen the most rapid and sweeping institutional transformation in human history. It is a conscious and intentional transformation in search of a new world economic order in which business has no nationality and knows no borders. It is driven by global dreams of vast corporate empires, compliant governments, a globalized consumer monoculture, and a universal ideological commitment to corporate libertarianism. To counter the economic, social, and environmental devastation being wrought nearly everywhere by the realization of this corporate colonial vision, we must learn to recognize its message and the methods of its propagation.

 

PART IV: A ROGUE FINANCIAL SYSTEM

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In this new market . . . billions can flow in or out of an economy in seconds. So powerful has this force of money become that some observers now see the hot-money set becoming a sort of shadow world government—one that is irretrievably eroding the concept of the sovereign powers of a nation state.

BUSINESS WEEK

Each day, half a million to a million people arise as dawn reaches their part of the world, turn on their computers, and leave the real world of people, things, and nature to immerse themselves in playing the world’s most lucrative computer game: the money game.1 Online, they enter a cyberspace fantasy world constructed of numbers that represent money and complex rules by which the money can be converted into a seemingly infinite variety of forms, each with its own distinctive risks and reproductive qualities. Through their interactions, the players engage in competitive transactions aimed at acquiring the money that other players hold. Players can also pyramid the amount of money in play by borrowing from one another and bidding up prices. They can also purchase a great variety of exotic financial instruments that allow them to leverage their own funds without actually borrowing. It is played like a game. But the consequences are real.

 

PART V: NO PLACE FOR PEOPLE

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Freer markets and freer trade in the new global economic system are what will ultimately put an end to slow growth and high unemployment in the industrial world. . . . that’s what the new economic order is all about.

BUSINESS WEEK

The recent quantum leap in the ability of transnational corporations to relocate their facilities around the world in effect makes all workers, communities and countries competitors for these corporations’ favor. The consequence is a “race to the bottom” in which wages and social conditions tend to fall to the level of the most desperate.

—JEREMY BRECHER

While competition is being weakened at the core, it is intensifying among smaller businesses, workers, and localities at the periphery as they become pitted against one another in a desperate struggle for survival. What the corporate libertarians call “becoming more globally competitive” is for communities and smaller businesses more accurately described as a race to the bottom.

 

PART VI: TO RECLAIM OUR POWER

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By deliberately changing the internal image of reality, people can change the world.

—WILLIS HARMAN

I believe that the world has moved closer to oneness and more people see each other as one with the other. . . . It is possible to have new thoughts and new common values for humans and all other forms of life.

—WANGARI MAATHAI,
coordinator, Kenya Green Belt Movement

No sane person seeks a world divided between billions of people living in absolute deprivation and a tiny elite guarding their wealth and luxury behind fortress walls. No one rejoices at the prospect of life in a world of collapsing social and ecological systems. Yet we continue to place human civilization and even our species’ survival at risk mainly to allow a few million people to accumulate money beyond any conceivable need. We continue to go boldly where no one wants to go.

Many are awakening to the reality that economic globalization has come at an intolerable price. In the name of modernity we create dysfunctional societies that breed pathological behavior—violence, extreme competitiveness, suicide, drug abuse, greed, and environmental degradation—at every hand. Such behavior is the inevitable consequence of a society’s failure to meet the needs of its members for social bonding, trust, affection, and shared sacred meaning.1 Yet the madness of pursuing policies that deepen economic, social, and environmental dysfunction is not inevitable. The idea that we are caught in the grip of irresistible historical forces and inherent, irreversible human imperfections to which we must adapt is pure fabrication. Corporate globalization is advanced by the conscious choices of those who view the world through the lens of corporate interest. Human alternatives do exist, and those who view the world through the lens of a healthy society have both the right and the power to choose them.

 

Conclusion: A Living Economy for Living Earth

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When the last tree is cut, the last fish is caught, and the last river is polluted; when to breathe the air is sickening, you will realize, too late, that wealth is not in bank accounts and that you can’t eat money.

—ALANIS OBOMSAWIN of the Abenaki tribe

Once an emergent phenomenon has appeared, it can’t be changed by working backwards, by changing the local parts that gave birth to it. You can only change an emergent phenomenon by creating a countervailing force of greater strength

—MARGARET J. WHEATLEY

Between impossibility and possibility, there is a door, the door of hope. And the possibility of history’s transformation lies through that door.

—JIM WALLIS, The Soul of Politics

Twenty years ago, the title When Corporations Rule the World evoked for many people a question: Do corporations rule the world? Events of the past twenty years have erased all trace of doubt. Indeed, they do. And the consequences are dire.

 

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