BALLE and the Renewal of the American Experiment

Presentation to the Second Annual Conference of the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, Philadelphia, May 20–23, 2004

We stand at a critical moment in Earth’s history, a time when humanity must choose its future.
– The Earth Charter

This is has been such an incredible gathering — a deep connection of heart and mind. BALLE’s rapid growth in numbers and the cutting edge sophistication of its work suggests that BALLE is an idea whose time has come. We are working for small-scale on a large-scale — a global community rather than a global Empire. Another world is possible and we are living her into being. In so doing we are reclaiming our humanity and finding our place of service in the great drama of Creation.

This afternoon Miriam MacGillis spoke of coming to the end of a 67 million year evolutionary cycle known as the Cenozoic Era. I’m going to take a shorter term perspective. My focus is on the terminal phase of a 5,000 year human Era of Empire that has brought us great technological mastery, but at a terrible cost to our humanity and to the planet that sustains us. These two endings are closely linked. This is a defining evolutionary moment. As Empire is dying because it is killing the Earth, we are participants in the birthing of a new Era of Earth Community. This is our work.

I find it profoundly significant that we are holding this gathering in Philadelphia, the birth place of our nation. We are near the very Independence Hall where the founding fathers of our nation met on July 4, 1776 to issue a bold declaration that raised the human species to a new understanding of its possibilities and changed the course of history. That Declaration framed and launched the American experiment, dedicated to demonstrating the possibilities of a society governed by ordinary citizens that gives full expression to the ideals of liberty, justice, and opportunity for all — the ideals of the true American patriot. These are words for our time.

We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness—That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed..

The American Experiment was at the time a truly audacious idea. When the founders boldly declared that all men are created equal and that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, the evidence of 5,000 years of rule by hereditary emperors, kings, and feudal lords suggested such an idea might even be contrary to human nature.

The road to democracy in America has been long and uncertain. The American Experiment was launched in 1776 with the Declaration of Independence. The U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1789. The Bill of Rights was added in 1791. The Thirteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution finally abolished slavery only in 1865. It was not until 1870, nearly a hundred years after the founding, that the Fifteenth Amendment declared that no citizen could be denied the right to vote on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. Black men thus finally won the vote. Women did not win full recognition of their humanity, citizenship, and right to vote until the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified in 1920, nearly a hundred and fifty years after the founding.

The arrogant overreach of those to whom the Supreme Court handed the keys to the White House in the year 2000, reminds us that democracy — even in America — remains to this day, an unfinished project. We have come face to face with the basic truth that without economic democracy, political democracy is little more than a façade. In the end, as Thomas Lindzey so powerfully demonstrated this morning, the central issue in the work of BALLE is democracy — an issue that lends itself to a natural alliance between liberals and conservatives.

Empire rests on a foundation of exploitation and that exploitation now exceeds the limits of what our social and environmental systems can sustain. The global corporate economy has become a suicide economy that is destroying the foundations of its own existence and of human survival. Empire no longer works.

When the founders issued the declaration that launched the American Experiment, the situation was grim. Washington’s ragtag part-time army of volunteer farmers stood against a much larger British force of disciplined professional soldiers. British loyalists controlled most of the institutions of government. And many colonists were royalists who remained loyal to the English king and the institutions of hereditary elite rule.

I find great inspiration in the parallels to our own situation. Just as democratic government seemed an audacious idea in 1776 in a world of great empires ruled by kings who commanded powerful armies, so too the idea of economic democracy seems audacious today in a world of corporate empires. We stand against overwhelming military and financial power armed only with the moral power of an idea. Ultimately, however, history teaches that the moral power of ideas trumps the coercive power of the sword and the profane power of money.

In its effort to roll back civil liberties at home and consolidate U.S. power abroad by the use of pre-emptive military force, the administration now in power has taken off the velvet glove of corporate domination to reveal the iron fist of military domination. The seemingly benign language of free trade has given way to the overtly hostile language of Empire. We can now see clearly the magnitude of the task at hand.

Corporate globalization is a relatively new affliction. Empire is quite another matter. Empire pre-dates the very existence of the modern corporation by some 5,000 years. Indeed, since the Mesopotamian and Egyptian Empires came into being around 3000 BC much of the world has scarcely known any form of political organization other than Empire — rule by a small and powerful elite.

It is sobering to realize that from 3000 BC until the American Revolution the closest the world came to experiencing democracy was in Ancient Greece — a splendid and inspiring civilization, except for the fact that its economy was built on a foundation of slavery, women had no rights, and its democracy lasted scarcely more than a hundred years.

Miriam MacGillis noted that in an earlier day humans worshiped the goddess, leadership came primarily from women, and their societies were generally peaceful and egalitarian. Then men took over to establish Empire and rule by the sword. Female gods were replaced with male gods and societies became divided between rulers and ruled. Not incidentally, historians date the beginning of civilization and history from the beginning of Empire, suggesting that nothing much of consequence happened until the men took over. We can guess who wrote that history.

From the beginning of the first Empires, much of the world has known only the dehumanizing domination and oppression of imperial rule. The economy of every Empire in the recorded human experience has been built on a foundation of slavery or its equivalents of bonded labor, sweatshop workers, and migrant agricultural laborers — all stripped of their dignity and any pretense of human rights. That reality remains to this day, as virtual slavery is the foundation of the corporate global economy.

Most of us grew up with the idea that the American Revolution marked the beginning of a historic transition from monarchy, rule by kings, to democracy, rule by ordinary people. It was in fact a transition from monarchy, rule by people of extreme wealth who had special titles, to plutocracy, rule by people of extreme wealth without titles.

The present U.S. administration wiped away the pretense of democracy as it populated its cabinet with former corporate CEOs, board members, and lobbyists to pursue a political agenda unabashedly devoted to building the power and wealth of the plutocrat class and a government of, by, and for the corporations that serve it. Relieved of our innocence, we can no longer escape the dark reality behind American democracy. We have been a plutocracy since the founding of our nation.

Given the extremist agenda and recklessly irresponsible policies of this administration, regime change in the upcoming U.S. election is important, but only a start. Even if we send George W. packing to his Texas ranch, the institutions of Empire that have shaped human history for 5,000 years will remain. Our longer-term work is to bring that Era to an end. This work is defined by an epic choice.

It is a choice between organizing ourselves as a global Empire or a global Earth Community. It is a choice between money or life as our defining value. It is a choice between the force of military domination and ruthless competition between global corporations, or cooperation and partnership among peoples and nations. Empire organizes to concentrate power in the hands of the few without accountability to the many. Community organizes to distribute power equitably within a system of mutual accountability. The publicly-traded, limited liability corporation is an institutional instrument for amassing virtually unlimited economic power without accountability. It is an institutional structure that overwhelms and displaces the natural ability of living communities to self organize in the interests of the whole.

As the institution of monarchy was to earlier Empires, the institution of the publicly-traded, limited liability corporation — the institutional centerpiece of the global suicide economy — is to contemporary Empire.

Visit the headquarters of a publicly traded corporation and you see people, buildings, furnishings, and office equipment. By all appearances the people are running things. An organization chart will show clear lines of authority leading to a CEO who in turn reports to a board of directors. It is easy to think of a corporation as a community of people. It is, however, a misleading characterization precisely because in a publicly traded corporation the people, including the CEO, are all employees of the institution — paid to serve the institution at its pleasure, required by law to leave their values and their rights of free expression and assembly at the door, and subject to dismissal without recourse at a moment’s notice

It is an institution legally licensed to amass virtually unlimited power governed by absentee owners and unaccountable managers to convert the life energy of people and nature into money for the sole financial benefit of already wealthy shareholders and managers without regard to broader human or natural consequences.

In other words, the publicly traded, limited liability corporation is a gigantic pool of money with an artificial legal personality required by law to behave like a psychopath.

In effect the corporation’s employees are by virtue of their employment stripped of the rights and responsibilities that make us distinctively human. Furthermore, as demonstrated so vividly by recent waves of corporate scandals, those most likely to rise to the highest levels of corporate power are the ethically challenged who feel most comfortable meeting the corporation’s dehumanizing demands. We are seeing that the same is true for those who rise to the highest levels of political power in the corrupt world of corporate rule.

And think of our business schools — boot camps for capitalism. In army and marine boot camps a primary goal of the training is to break down our natural resistance to killing other human beings and condition us to blindly follow the orders of those in positions of authority.

My graduate study was at the Stanford Business School and for a number of years I was on the faculty of the Harvard Business School. I have with time come to recognize the extent to which the business school curriculum is designed to strip away our natural human sensibility and instill a mindless devotion to financial profit as the defining value of our lives. Much like military boot camp the goal is to make us less than human and thereby prepared to serve and succeed in psychopathic institutions.

There are a number of readily identifiable characteristics of the publicly-traded, limited-liability corporation that account for its psychopathic personality:

  1. Monopoly-scale
  2. Absentee ownership
  3. An unaccountable CEO
  4. A narrow mandate to consider only financial return
  5. Limited liability
  6. A money serving culture.

It is a defining premise of BALLE that businesses can be organized as human enterprises that are:

  1. Human-scale
  2. Have engaged owners — workers, community members, customers, and suppliers
  3. Managers who are accountable to real owners
  4. A broad mandate to provide living returns to all stakeholders
  5. Normal liability
  6. Life serving cultures.

Our goal is to replace the suicide economy with local living economies based on locally rooted ownership and deeply held American ideals of equity, democracy, the rule of law, fair markets, and personal responsibility. Achieving an equitable distribution of ownership is an essential cornerstone of our work. Empire and capitalism are built on a concentration of ownership. Community and fair markets depend on each individual having an equitable ownership stake in the assets on which their livelihoods depend.

Elites have long maintained that decision making should be in the hands of property owners, because people who own property are more responsible. There is truth to the observation that people who are owners have a different feeling about themselves and their community — as Aqeela noted this morning. Elitists conclude therefore that the vote and positions of power should be reserved for owners. There is, of course, another more democratic possibility; make everyone an owner. This is the meaning of economic democracy and it is a defining BALLE goal. A nation of active owners is unquestionably a stronger nation than a nation divided between absentee owners and part-time, fire at will, wage slaves.

The culture and institutions of Empire that have turned us against one another and the Earth for 5,000 years are irreconcilably incompatible with a socially and environmentally sustainable future — and with the full realization of our humanity.

.Fortunately, the transition to a new Era is already underway. Joanna Macy calls it the Great Turning. The old Era — the 5,000 year Era of Empire is dying. A new era — an Era of Planetary Community — is birthing. We are experiencing the turbulence of the cultural and institutional disintegration of one Era as a new Era emerges from the remains of the old to find its form. These are frightening times not only because of the uncertainty, but also because evidence of the dying is so much more visible than evidence of the birthing. It is with good reason that there is an obsessive concern among religious fundamentalists with end times.

The most powerful expression of the birthing is found in global civil society — a social phenomenon new to the human experience and rarely mentioned by the corporate press. All over the world people are waking up to the reality of the need for deep change and embracing the challenge of what theologian Thomas Berry calls the Great Work. Over the past ten years, millions have taken to the streets protesting corporate globalization and the institutions and policies of Empire. We saw this expressed in a most amazing way on February 15 of last year when more than ten million people took to the streets of virtually every city and village in the world in a call for peace and justice.

Consider the extraordinary nature of the organizing challenge. As business owners you know what a challenge it is to organize a business of as few as ten or twenty people. This event involved the self organization of more than ten million people of every race, religion, language, and nationality on the planet — with no central organization, central budget, or charismatic leader calling his or followers to action.

Even less visible in the corporate media than the street demonstrations are the millions of people engaged in the work of birthing the new Era by living it into being. BALLE, which is birthing the new economy of the new Era, is a leading example.

Our mission at YES! magazine is to make the birthing more visible and help people see the many ways in which they can become engaged. The Fall 2002 issue on Local Living Economies, which is about the work of BALLE, is in your conference packets. The current issue — A Conspiracy of Hope — features stories about the nature, emergence, and significance of global civil society. The next issue, which features Frankie Moore Lappé and her daughter Anna on the cover, addresses “What is the Good Life?”

Empire’s power holders are much too pre-occupied with the competition for power to notice that the Earth and civilization are dying. Thus the leadership in birthing the new Era necessarily depends on groups like BALLE.

Our country has been taken over by an extremist right-wing alliance of plutocrats and theocrats, who profess an allegiance to democracy, yet are acting to bring the American Experiment to a close as they consolidate their personal hold on imperial power. How, we must ask, have these anti-democratic forces gained control of the institutions of democracy to advance a narrow agenda so deeply at odds with the human interest and the basic values of peace, love, compassion, and justice shared by most all the world’s people?

It is instructive to recall that to get within a half million votes of the man the majority of Americans chose to be our president, George W. Bush had to present himself to the electorate as a compassionate conservative who would work for ordinary people, be fiscally responsible, leave no child behind, protect the environment, and pursue a peaceful, cooperative, and non-belligerent foreign policy respectful of the rights and interests of others. In short, those who wrote George W’s speeches knew what Americans across the political spectrum actually want. He promised — in effect — to advance an agenda that serves and honors the best and truest of both conservative and liberal values.

Most of those who voted for him did so because they took him at his word. The gap between the Bush words and the Bush deeds has been so great that many of his once ardent supporters are coming to realize that they were betrayed — much the same as many of us felt betrayed by Al Gore when he came out in support of NAFTA and other imperial projects. Perhaps in the end George will fulfill his promise to be a uniter — although in a way wholly different than what he had in mind. I recently saw an op-ed by conservative pundit Pat Buchanan noting that the Bush Neocons had it totally wrong on the Iraq war and must be sent packing along with their imperial agenda. It might have been written by any one of us.

There is an important lesson here. The real political divide in the United States and the world is not between liberals and conservatives, who in fact share a great many core values — including the values of democracy and community. It is between those of us committed to a politics based on principle and the common good and those who pursue a politics of individual greed and power.

So how did the elitist power seekers of the far right pull it off?

We humans live by stories. The power of the right-wing comes not from their numbers, which are relatively small, but from their ability to control the stories by which we answer three basic questions. How do we create prosperity? How do we achieve security? And how do we find meaning? By monopolizing the stories by which we answer these questions, they define and control the political debate to advance an imperial agenda.

Listen carefully to the familiar elitist power story, as an important part of our work is to replace it in the public mind with a story both more democratic and more truthful.

Economic growth creates prosperity and expands the pie of wealth for all. It depends on investment. Since the poor have no money to invest, a wealthy investor class is essential to the prosperity of all. The greater the return to the investor class, the more it invests, the faster the economy grows, and the faster the lives of all improve. The market in turn rewards individual investors in proportion to their contribution. Inequality is therefore not only just, it is essential to prosperity.

Government, by contrast, creates poverty by distorting the allocation of rewards through regulation, taxes, and welfare programs that kill the incentive of the rich to invest in the creation of jobs, and of the poor to work and become productive members of the society. By restricting trade, government limits profits, raises prices to consumers, and destroys jobs in export sectors.

To achieve prosperity and end poverty, free the wealthy from taxes, regulations, and trade barriers, sell off public assets and services to private investors, and eliminate the disincentive of public welfare programs. The free market will then put people to work, eliminate poverty, get money in people’s pockets so they can make their own choices, create the wealth necessary to protect the environment, and provide people with better services at a cheaper price. The rich may get richer, but so does everyone else.

Filled with false promises, this familiar story leads not to prosperity for all, but to societies ever more deeply divided between the super rich who enjoy obscenely extravagant lifestyles and the desperately poor who lack basic food, clothing, and shelter. The economy suffers from overproduction even as the majority of people suffer from unemployment and unmet needs. The overworked and the out-of-work are both stripped of their humanity. This stunning economic failure undermines institutional legitimacy and creates the anger and desperation of the disaffected that breed the crime and terrorism that present a growing security threat. For all its flaws, however, the far-right carries the day with its prosperity story because it is the only prosperity story in town.

We progressives have many stories about redistributing wealth to help the poor and save the environment, but we have no prosperity story.

This allows the far right to accuse us of wanting to tax the productive to reward the lazy; and to sacrifice people to save exotic species. No matter how truthful our progressive claim that elitist policies actually destroy wealth, take from the poor to give to the rich, and threaten human survival, the elitist story will carry the day until we are able to counter it consistently and convincingly with a coherent prosperity story.

The plutocrats’ security story supports the use of police and military power to protect the rights of private property and the established order of elite privilege from all who would challenge it. George W took 9/11 as his call from God and borrowed language from the religious right to give the basic elitist security story a messianic edge. According to this story:

The peace, security, and prosperity of America and the world are threatened by forces of evil manifest in criminals, terrorists who hate us for our freedoms, the rogue regimes that support terrorist networks, and others who seek to undermine the established democratic order. We are engaged in a perpetual war against evil. Security depends on imposing order through use of military and police powers.

International peace and order must be imposed by the military power of a righteous empire. It is the responsibility of America, as the world’s most powerful and righteous nation, to play this imperial role.

Domestic security depends on imprisoning or executing criminals to protect the good and righteous and deter other potential evil doers.

This story draws our attention away from the economic injustice that lies behind most crime and terrorism. It also draws our attention away from what are in fact the greatest and most immediate threats to our security — financial breakdown, environmental collapse, and a disintegrating social and moral fabric — all of which are exacerbated by the economic policies of the corporate plutocrats. But many people buy the bogus prosperity story because although we progressives have peace and justice stories, we have no Security story to offer comfort to those fearful of criminals and terrorists who threaten the security of themselves and their loved ones. Elitists say we progressives side with terrorists and criminals, are traitors who hate America, and pose a security threat.

The far right has responded to the human need for meaning with a sacred story with deep Calvinist roots that lends moral legitimacy to elite rule. Progressives have only recently begun to recognize that versions of this story have substantial currency among religious groups of the far right that would turn America into a fundamentalist Christian theocracy and look to George W as a leader in their cause. By this story:

All that happens in Creation is by the will of God, the Father and Rule Maker, who created the world in six days, gave his creation to man in return for strict obedience to his will, and in his infinite righteous judgment favors the obedient with wealth and power. Wealth and power are the mark of the pure and righteous; as poverty and suffering are marks of the impure and disobedient. It is the the responsibility of those God has identified as the righteous to rule the wicked. Indeed, it is the responsibility of God’s chosen to establish an Empire of the just in preparation for the return of Christ to rule as king over all. Meaning is found in obedience. The faithful will be rewarded with eternal salvation at the time of the Rapture when Christ will return to lift the faithful to heaven to live in eternal relation to God.

This story is based on a selective reading of biblical scripture and dishonors the life and teaching of Jesus, who chose a life of poverty, taught that the poor enjoy God’s special blessing, urged compassion for all people, and was strongly opposed to violence and the rule of Empire.

But again, many people buy the flawed story, because they are desperate to bring spiritual meaning to their lives and the story offered by the theocrats is pretty much the only story being offered. Although virtually every progressive leader I know is working from a deeply spiritual place, we generally avoid talking about the sacred in our peace and justice work. We progressives have no meaning story. The theocrats say we have no values and hate Christians.

There is a painting of George W. Bush in prayer flanked by George Washington and Abraham Lincoln — each surrounded by a halo-like glow — that hangs in the homes of Christian homes that look to George W. as their religious and political leaders. This painting underscores two things progressives are only beginning to recognize. First, George W believes he gets his orders directly from God — which helps to explain why he is reluctant to acknowledge his mistakes. Second, many among his political supporters on the Christian right believe he is divinely inspired and therefore above judgment.

The elitist prosperity, security, and meaning stories each lead to a bottom line of support for Empire by legitimating the concentration of unaccountable power in the hands of a self-appointed, unaccountable ruling elite.

It is not enough merely to point out the flawed and ethically challenged assumptions of an established story. A story that embodies a flawed theory can be challenged successfully only by a more compelling story. The de-humanizing stories championed by the advocates of plutocracy in support of Empire demean and diminish the human spirit. They cannot compete with the stories of creative human possibility that are ours to tell.

The prosperity story for a new Era is implicit in the work and vision of BALLE. We must make it more explicit. I’ve been thinking a good deal about that challenge over the past few weeks. Out of a number of recent experiences, and most particularly this conference, I believe the outline of a rather extraordinary story is beginning to emerge that provides a common underpinning for the prosperity, security and meaning stories of the new Era.

This afternoon, Miriam MacGillis drew attention to how far our understanding has advanced about ourselves and the universe to which we are born in only the past hundred years. I see this understanding converging on a profound, yet elegantly simple, insight: Relationships are the foundation of everything.

The old physics was based on a premise that only matter is real. The new physics suggests the sharply contrasting conclusion that matter is an illusion, only relationships are real. There is a parallel in biology. The old biology taught that each living being is engaged in a ruthless competition for survival against every other living being. The new biology concludes that life exists only in relationship to other life; the very existence of life depends on a continuous, cooperative flow of active energy within and between living organisms. Life exists only in community.

Helena Norberg-Hodge told us last night that what people want most is to love and be loved. Our deepest desire is to live in caring relationships with one another. That is the foundation of true prosperity, security, and meaning. Our connection to community — including the community of the whole of life — is our connection to the deep spirit of creation. It is through the relationships of community that we find our place of service to the larger whole of life. This is our source of meaning, the reason for our existence.

True prosperity, security, and meaning are all found in the life of vibrant, interlinked communities that offer every person — without exception — the opportunity to contribute their creative energy through joyful, creative, engaged relationships with one another and the Earth to Creation’s search for ever unfolding possibilities. Life in community is essential to the realization of our humanity.

This is the larger context of the work of BALLE. Our mission is to nurture the formation and connection of living enterprises that function as communities within communities to support the realization of the fullness of our human possibility. Such enterprises offer the prospect of unleashing the entrepreneurial potentials of the species to the end of creating a world that works for every person and the whole of life. As Empire has dehumanized the workplace, we seek to humanize the workplace by organizing it to function as a values based community in a mutually accountable relationship to the larger community it serves.

We are living into being the economic foundation of a new Era of Earth Community. There is no work more creative or life affirming.

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In these turbulent and frightening times it is important to remind ourselves that we are privileged to live at the most exciting moment in the whole of the human experience. For this is the moment when we are being called by the deep forces of creation to awaken to a new consciousness of our human possibilities and to embrace the responsibilities to one another and to the planet that go with our collective presence on the living jewel of life called Earth. It is the time of our Coming of Age on a Small Planet.

The choice is ours. The work starts here. Now is the hour. We’re the ones we’ve been waiting for.

Thank you all for the wonderful work you do.