Living Economies for a Living Planet

Part IV: Awakening Consciousness and the Human Possible

By David C. Korten

The economic transformation from suicide economy to living economy will involve changes as sweeping and profound as those experienced by a forest ecosystem as it moves from colonization to maturity. The imperatives of our situation dictate, however, that this transformation be accomplished as an act of conscious collective choice at a far less leisurely pace. The way to this seeming miracle is being prepared by the awakening of a new human cultural and spiritual consciousness — a new understanding of who we are as a species and of our place in life’s creative unfolding. Visionary philosopherDuane Elgin speaks of it as moving from species adolescence to species maturity.

Most species are limited by their genetic programming to a limited range of adaptive possibilities. The limitations to human adaptation, however, are as much cultural and institutional as genetic. Human culture and institutions are human creations. They represent choice not destiny — and they are subject to change, sometimes with remarkable speed.

In her seminal book The Chalice & the Blade, feminist scholar Riane Eisler points to the range of human possibility in her treatise on the distinction between dominator and partnership societies. She re-examined 30,000 years of Western history to demonstrate that for many thousands of years before they were the dominator model was introduced by violent invaders, many of the earliest Western societies were organized on the partnership model.

The dominator model is based on top down control. It leads to a world of coercive hierarchy, competition, and violence. Every relationship is defined by who is on top and who is on the bottom; who gives orders and who takes orders. Be a winner or be a loser. Rule or be ruled. Kill or be killed. The dominator society has its own golden rule: “He who has the gold rules.”  So “Go for the gold,” and be sure you get more of it than your neighbor, because “It’s a dog eat dog world.” In a dominator world, hierarchy legitimates itself with the promise to impose peace and security on an otherwise chaotic and dangerous world.

The partnership model is built on a sense of community that supports relationships based on mutual respect, caring, and responsibility to and for the whole. The golden rule of the partnership society is: “Do unto your neighbor as you would have your neighbor do unto you.” As Eisler elaborates in a subsequent book, The Power of Partnership,

Because there is no need to maintain rigid rankings of control, there is also no built-in need for abuse and violence. Partnership relations free our innate capacity to feel joy, to play. They enable us to grow mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. This is true for individuals, families, and whole societies. Conflict is an opportunity to learn and to be creative, and power is exercised in ways that empower rather than disempower others.

Partnership societies have no need of hierarchies ruled by a strong leader. Yet far from being leaderless, they are leader-full — unleashing the creative power of systems self-organized through the creative and mindful initiative and problem solving capacity of all their members.

It is instructive to note that there is no equivalent of the dominator model in nature. Living systems are radically self-organizing. There is no ruler, no controlling hierarchy. They are basically partnership systems.

The dominator and partnership models represent not only different ways of organizing human relationships, but also deeply contrasting ways of seeing social reality and the human possible. History, anthropology, and daily experience demonstrate that both are within the range of the human possible. Eisler points out that all societies and individuals embody both dominator and partnership tendencies. They differ in the extent to which one or the other is primary. Neither represents the innate human condition. It is rather a question of which tendency a society’s culture and institutions nurture and reward.

A transition from Empire to Community — from suicide economy to living economies — depends on the requisite transformation of the dominator cultures and institutions of what is now a global human society. Perhaps the most formidable barrier to negotiating this transition is the ability of dominator cultures and institutions to create a self-fulfilling prophecy by creating what each individual experiences as a dog eat dog reality of violent competition that offers only two choices — be a big winner or risk being an even bigger loser. Because the system creates its own reality, it has little or no capacity for self-correction. Indeed, the primary purpose of institutional hierarchy is to allow autonomous initiative only within the bounds dictated by central management and preclude any action that might challenge central authority. Any such challenge is quickly suppressed.

For this reason, it is virtually impossible for successful leadership toward the creation of living economies to arise from within the dominator institutions of the suicide economy. If change is to come, it must come from outside the dominator system.

The power and legitimacy of the institutions of the suicide economy depend on the beliefs and values of a dominator culture that denies the spirit and the human capacity for sharing, cooperation, and love. This dependence is the suicide economy's most critical vulnerability, because it is fundamentally untrue. It cannot survive an awaking of consciousness to the spiritual underpinning of life and the human capacity to transcend our baser instincts. Most of the world’s people already know, or at least strongly suspect, the truth regarding the self-destructive corruption of society’s dominant institutions and long for change. Fearful of the consequences of dissent many remain silent.

Although unreported in the corporate media and unrepresented by a corporate dominated political process, an awakening of people by the tens and hundreds of millions to partnership values and a partnership world view is spreading around the globe. More than an awakening to new values, however, it is an evolutionary step toward an awareness of culture itself. The unexamined beliefs and values of our own culture become subject to conscious critical examination. The implications of the self-limiting values and world view of the culture of domination are exposed. Thus, liberated from the trance induced by of dominator cultures and institutions the mind able to observe that partnership is the way of nature and fully within the range of human possibility.

Values researcher Paul Ray and feminist author Sherry Anderson call these culturally awakened citizens Cultural Creatives. They estimate there are 50 million adult Cultural Creatives in the United States, more than 25 percent of adult Americans, and another 80-90 million in the European Union. There are hundreds of millions more spread throughout the world and their numbers grow daily. The awakening of cultural consciousness is a contagious process that cuts across the barriers of race, class, and religion. Once an individual consciousness is awakened it is virtually impossible to lull it back to sleep. This awakening is good news for humanity and bad news for the ruling institutions of Empire and the suicide economy. 

For many in the United States the initial step in the awakening came with the civil rights movement, which brought to consciousness the reality that relations between blacks and whites are defined by cultural codes that have nothing to do with reality. Once a person learned to recognize the difference between the natural order and an unexamined belief system in reference to race relations, it became easier to see similar distortions of reality in the cultural codes that define the relations between men and women, people and the environment, straights and gays, people and corporations, and people and the economy. A culturally awakened consciousness is relatively immune to the distorted cultural conditioning promoted by corporate media, advertising, and political demagogues. Racism, sexism, homophobia, exploitation, and materialism are more easily seen for what they are — a justification for domination, exploitation, and violence against life — and a barrier to realizing the possibilities of partnership. It is no coincidence that all the great progressive movements of our time are based on the premise that a partnership world is possible.

The most visible contemporary global scale expression of this awakening is in the growing global citizen resistance to corporate globalization that announced itself to the world in 1999 during the Seattle meeting of the World Trade Organization in one of the more widely reported of the growing number of mass demonstrations taking place around the world against the institutions of the suicide economy involving millions of people. Although spokespersons for the institutions of Empire dismiss the resistance as meaningless and irrelevant, their ever more violent and repressive response reveals their true concern. 

Cultural Creatives are not only leading the growing resistance against the suicide economy's global assault on life, they are at the forefront of virtually every progressive cause that is living the Era of Community into being, including the pro-democracy, peace, environmental, human and civil rights, economic justice, gender equality, holistic health, gay rights, organic agriculture, and voluntary simplicity movements. Together they are creating a new politics of partnership centered on an affirmation of life and democracy. It grows out of the values and aspirations of ordinary people of every nationality, class, race, and spiritual tradition.

Organized by millions of leaders, the new politics seeks not to capture power, but to transform the relations of both political and economic power to create truly democratic societies. To this end it calls for the withdrawal of legitimacy and power from the culture and institutions of domination and for the living into being of economic, political, and cultural alternatives that mimic the ways of mature ecosystems. The annual World Social Forum, initiated in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 2001 on the theme “Another World Is Possible,” gives expression to the global scope of this movement. In 2002, it drew some 70,000 people in a grand celebration of diversity, partnership, and the human possible.  

The forces of Empire can be expected to fight any challenge to their authority with every resource at their command, including the full police and military powers of the state. The suicide economy is more than a collection of persons and organizations. It is a complex emergent system of interlocking, mutually reinforcing relationships supported by legally enforceable rights and obligations backed by a legitimating ideology and culture. Those who hold positions of influence within the ruling system, including directors and top managers of the largest corporations and the money managers of major investment funds, are bound by law and structure to serve the interests of money without regard to consequences for people or planet. The culturally aware among them who dare to challenge from within the primacy of money's claims over life are subject to instant dismissal without recourse. For this reason, it is virtually impossible for effective leadership for change to emerge from within the ruling institutions of the suicide economy or from governments run by politicians dependent on corporate money. Civil society must, therefore, define and pursue a strategy that does not depend on voluntary internal reform.

Noted corporate consultant, author, and organizational theorist Margaret Wheatley offers important insights into how an external change process might take place. According to Wheatley, living systems change through emergence — the experimental processes by which individuals create new relationships among themselves through trial and error toward the realization of new capacities beyond anything they knew before. There is no boss, no leader imposing structure on chaos. The system emerges through countless individual choices involving endless experimentation, adaptation, and shared learning. It is a partnership model in action.

In human societies, however, the process is shaped by the shared values and perceptions of the individual participants. Where dominator values of greed, competitive self-interest, and short-term advantage are primary, emergence will tend to reproduce dominator cultures and institutions.  Where partnership values of love, cooperation, and responsibility for the whole are primary, emergence will tend to reproduce partnership cultures and institutions.

No one planned and designed the global suicide economy. Rather it emerged over time through the actions of corporate executives responding from a dominator world view to the demands of financial markets to increase sales, market share, and profits from the. Wheatley goes on to spell out the implications: 

"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. This means that the work of change is to start over, to organize new local efforts, connect them to each other, and know that their values and practices can emerge as something even stronger." 

--Margaret J. Wheatley, “Restoring Hope to the Future,” Vimukt Shiksha, a Bulletin of Shikshantar, Udiapur, India, March 2001.

The key to transformational change is to create spaces outside the dominator system within which individuals who have awakened to the values and possibilities of partnership can join together to live into being emergent processes toward the creation of living economies and partnership societies.

Those who claim that corporate globalization is irreversible are in a strict sense correct. But irreversible does not mean eternal. No system that destroys the foundations of its own existence should presume to be immutable. The inefficient, unjust, and pathologically self-destructive suicide economy is well secured against internal reform. It is vulnerable, however, to displacement through succession by emergent life-serving living economies attuned to the needs and well-being of mature and healthy human communities. Fortunately, the prospect of such a displacement is far more than a hopeful fantasy.  

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This page was revised March 26, 2002