2. Defection

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As part of the New Economy 2.0 series 


By David Korten

Many people are intrigued by the story of my defection from my establishment roots to become a rebel voice challenging the legitimacy of the institutions I once served. It is the story of a lifelong journey filled with uncommonly rich and varied collection of experiences. Here are some highlights:

I grew up in a conservative small town where I learned to value family, community and nature. I was raised to believe in the special character of America as a middle-class democracy, free from the extremes of wealth and poverty that supposedly characterized the world’s less advanced nations. In my childhood, my dad, a local retail merchant, taught me if your primary business purpose is not to serve your customers and community, then you have no business being in business.

My Stanford Business School education taught me to look for the big picture. My doctoral dissertation research on cultural change in Ethiopia and its impact on modern organizations taught me the power of culture in shaping collective behavior.

From my experience as an Air Force captain on the faculty of the Special Air Warfare School and as a military aide in the Office of the Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War, I learned how the world’s most powerful military was thwarted by the self-organizing networks of an ill-equipped peasant army motivated by a vision of independence and self-rule. That experience helped me later recognize the potential of a committed citizenry to likewise thwart the seemingly invincible power of Wall Street and gave me insights into how that resistance might self-organize.

While academic director of the Central American Institute for Business Administration in Managua, Nicaragua, I witnessed the extreme gap between the super-rich and super-poor.

While a professor on the organization faculty at the Harvard Business School, I learned how the structures of large-scale institutional systems shape behavior and how system structures can be designed to support intended outcomes.

During 15 years in Asia with the Ford Foundation and U.S. Agency for International Development, I experienced the positive power and potential of local community self-organization and the importance of the local control and management of essential natural resources and participated in many experiences in large-scale organizational change. These were the years of my awakening to the terrible truth that development models centered on economic growth almost inevitably make a few people fabulously wealthy at an enormous social and environmental cost to the substantial majority.

In 1992, Fran (my wife) and I returned to the United States and settled in New York City near Union Square between Madison Avenue and Wall Street and engaged the inquiry into the nature of the publicly traded limited liability, private-benefit corporation as an inherently destructive anti-market business form that produced When Corporations Rule the World. 

As a founding member of the International Forum on Globalization, I learned about the power of a new story propagated through global citizen networks to thwart the agenda of the world’s most powerful corporations and reshape the course of history.

As the cofounder and board chair of YES! Magazine, I have come to realize every act of resistance against what we don’t want must be paired with a positive vision of what we do want.

Writing The Post-Corporate World: Life After Capitalism drew me into in the study of the incredible reality of life’s capacity for creative, cooperative self-organization and the implications for the design of economies that mimic healthy living systems.

 The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community drew me into an examination of contemporary impact of 5,000 years of organizing human societies as hierarchies of domination governed by institutions that nurture and reward moral, emotional and behavioral dysfunction.

My experience as a founding board member of the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies has immersed me in the experience of communities all across the United States and Canada that are taking control of their economic future by rebuilding their local economies.

These are a few of the experiences and lessons that inform and find expression in Agenda for a New Economy and the blogs I will be sharing here in the next few months.

About David Korten

David Korten (livingeconomiesforum.org) is the author of Agenda for a New Economy, The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community and the international best seller When Corporations Rule the World. He is board chair of YES! Magazine, co-chair of the New Economy Working Group and a founding member of Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE).

About New Economy 2.0

Visionary economist David Korten introduces a national conversation series, New Economy 2.0, on CSRwire Talkback based on his acclaimed book, Agenda for a New Economy, 2nd edition. For the next several weeks, Korten will summarize the main points and key lessons of each chapter of his book, leading from a dissection of what went wrong in the “phantom wealth Wall Street economy” to the presentation of a vision of a world of real wealth Main Street economies that support strong middle class societies, honor real market principles and work in partnership with Earth’s biosphere.

New Economy 2.0 envisions an economy in which life is the defining value and power that resides in people and communities. It contrasts with the popular New Economy 1.0 fantasy of a magical high-tech economy liberated from environmental reality and devoted to the growth of phantom wealth financial assets.

This exciting, new series is co-published by CSRwire and YES! Magazine.

The arguments presented here are developed in greater detail in Agenda for a New Economy available from the YES! Magazine Web store.

Talkback Readers: What were the formative experiences that led you to a greater awareness of CSR and sustainability? Share them on Talkback!