Robertson Comments

Commentary from UK author/researcher James Robertson,
received December 7, 2002

Dear David,

Thank you very much for the draft of “Global Civil Society: The Path Ahead”.  You asked for comments on it.

I think the draft is really excellent, but I feel it may communicate a sense of not being quite hard-headed enough.  The following passage, just before the heading “Earth Democracy”, is an example of what I mean:

    The underlying principle of this five part strategy might be characterized as “Walking away from the king” because it centers not on confronting the authority of the king, but on walking away — withdrawing the legitimacy and the life energy on which the king’s power depends. Think of it as a conversation with the king along the following lines. 

    “You have your game. It’s called empire. I have no quarrel with you. It’s just that the game that works for you doesn’t work for me. Please, no hard feelings, but I’m leaving to join with a few billion others for whom the game of empire isn’t working either. We will no longer play by the rules of empire. We are creating our own game based on the rules and values of community. You’re welcome to join us as a fellow citizen if you are willing to share your power and wealth and play by new rules. In any event, we wish you good health and happiness.”

Do we really think the king will allow us to play our own game?  Is he not driven by the need to keep his power?

I  should confess that I took a similar view to that in your draft when, under the heading “Non-Violent Transformation” in the 1983 edition of “The Sane Alternative”, I said that many of us had already begun “to liberate ourselves and one another.  There is no need to try to destroy the present system or take it over.  It will be enough to withdraw support from it:” - and then I went on to give a list of examples of how to do that.  I should say that I took that view when I was still on the rebound from the frustrations of trying to achieve change when working in the corridors of power!
 
But by the mid-1990s I‘d come to the conclusion that it was an unrealistic view. Reviewing Richard Douthwaite’s splendid book Short Circuit in Resurgence, Jan/Feb 1997, I noted one important point on which I disagreed with him – his view that it would be possible to build self-reliant local communities on a significant scale, working only from the bottom up.  I said:

   “Today’s mainstream institutions are heavily biased against [self-reliant local communities].  Governments compel unemployed people to seek jobs from conventional employers; they channel huge amounts of public spending into big business and finance, including agribusiness; and they fail to make them pay the social and environmental costs of their centralised activities and their use of transport and fossil-fuel energy.  The education system and the media reinforce the perception that alternative local initiatives are very much a second best, mainly for those who have dropped out or failed to survive in the main stream.  All but a handful of today’s politicians, public officials, lawyers, accountants, bankers, economists, land surveyors, and other professionals are ignorant and unsympathetic.

    If parallel community economies did begin to be strong enough to loosen the stranglehold of big business and government, then – in the absence of changes in mainstream institutions and attitudes – the authorities would clamp down on them, just as they stamped out the parallel local currencies which began to flourish successfully in the 1930s.”

My conclusion is not that the aim should be to destroy  existing mainstream institutions, or even to take them over.  But, at least as an essential interim step, we do have to reform them out of their present perversity – which rewards activities and ways of life that are positively undesirable, penalises those that are desirable, and frustrates desirable change.  

In my view there is no one panacea or single way to break through the interlocking perversity of our present mainstream institutions.  We should each work on the areas to which, for one reason or another, we personally give top priority.  My own main focus at present is the financial and monetary system, and the many ways in which – as a scoring system for the game of economic and social and cultural life – it now rewards what is bad, penalises what is good, and frustrates change for the better.

All the best to you and yours,

James

Reply to James Robertson from David Korten

Thanks for your detailed and thoughtful comments on "Global Civil Society: The Path Ahead." We do face terrible dilemmas. I would be the first to acknowledge that my enthusiasm for concentrating on facilitating the emergence of a new economy grounded in living principles is also prompted in large measure from the failure of my own efforts to bring change from within the system. It is surely true that the dominant system is intent on wiping out alternatives. It is at least as intent on blocking internal reforms.

 I strongly agree that there is no one panacea and that we must each work on the areas which we give top priority. I will check to see that we have made this adequately clear. At the same time, Vandana, Nicky, and I have each made the choice to concentrate on strategies that seek to draw energy away from the currently dominant system in support of growing new life-serving economies into being. The portion of our paper to which you took exception is our effort to explain why we believe this to be the more promising approach.

 I applaud your work on demonstrating why the present financial and monetary system is a bad scoring system for the game of economic, social, and cultural life. Of course, whether one considers it a success or a failure depends on one’s view of whether this is the purpose for which the system was designed. Whether it is a success or a failure thus depends on what we presume to be its purpose. In a book I’ve just begun writing with Sarah van Gelder, the executive editor of YES! we are making the case that the system was not designed to serve life. It was designed to do what it does exceedingly well — serve the interests of power by facilitating the concentration of power and wealth without regard to the needs of life. That, of course, is why the beneficiaries in charge have not the slightest interest in changing it. Only those who believe the system’s purpose is to reward service to life are likely to be drawn to act on your message.

With thanks and best regards

David Korten

Posted January 7, 2003