Monday, 18 October 2010

Book Review - When Corporations Rule the World

The intended audience for When Corporations Rule the World would appear to be Americans, but much of it applies to the global situation and so anyone could benefit from reading it.  Although I would recommend this book, I have quite a few reservations. For instance, Korten believes in restoring power to the small and local, while historically, the small and local never had much power.   He also insists that business and the market per se are not the problem, but rather it's the corruption of the system that is the problem. Yet even without corruption, business and the market invariably lead to unfair practices. In addition, Korten believes that our era with its technological accomplishments is the most remarkable for mankind to date which thoroughly contradicts his acknowledgement that we have done the most destruction to nature.

David Korten refers to an old Star Trek episode with Captain Kirk called The Cloud Minders from which he uses an analogy to the Stratos dwellers in a fair part of the book. He focuses on the wealth of the few and describes how the superrich are living an illusionary life above everyone else, like the Stratos dwellers. This is a point well taken. However, some of his ideological suggestions seem to come from the clouds above as well.

Korten occasionally gets on a soapbox and waves the American flag a few times, especially in the first and last few chapters, which coincidentally were newly added for this second edition. Also, some of his statements are not in keeping with the general flow of the book, probably remnants from his sheltered, privileged upbringing and background. In addition, even though he emphasises the importance of small and local, he promotes big organisational movements that entail standardisation similar to the corporate movement.  But for the most part, he has a direct writing style and covers some very interesting facts in a straightforward manner, albeit, with a bit of witticism thrown in.

While reading When Corporations Rule the World  it occurred to me that we are actually in the midst of World War III. As Korten explains, in essence, declaration of the new war was made soon after World War II and has raged ever since as a covert operation under the guise of economic pursuits.  But also, it became clear to me that on the one side we have people who love nature and all things natural, and on the other, we have people who love all things plastic and manmade.  The plastic people are winning the battle through corporate exercises, but losing the war against nature (since we are all part of nature and so killing ourselves in destroying it). Korten gives some shocking examples of how the pursuit of corporate interests has wreaked devastating results on nature around the world.

Korten discusses the ideology of the correlation of rights with property ownership - a popular corporate strategy.  Then, he personifies corporations to the point that corporations are responsible for the colonization of our planet and running amuck to everyone's dismay.  I think a little more accountability on behalf of the people who work in corporations, invest in them and buy their products is called for.  However, his statement that "[t]he Western scientific vision of a mechanical universe has created a philosophical or conceptual alienation from our own inherent spiritual nature" may begin to explain how this lack of owning up has come about.

From the Roundtable to the Council on Foreign Relations, the Bilderberg and the Trilateral Commission to the Bretton Woods institutions (including the World Trade Organisation), Korten sets out the politics behind the development of the transnational corporations.  He then embarks on an analysis of the global financial system which he says "has become a parasitic predator that lives off the flesh of its host - the productive economy."  The recent Panorama investigation into Lord Ashcroft's Millions reminded me of Korten's "extractive investors who do not create wealth but simply extract and concentrate existing wealth." The chapters on these topics show that history is repeating itself ... again.

Another interesting point made by Korten is that "[t]he world's corporate giants are creating a system of managed competition by which they actively limit competition among themselves while encouraging intensive competition among the smaller firms and localities that constitute their periphery."  This is an extension of the practice of passing externality costs onto others, and in particular, passing on risks.  He uses the agriculture sector as one of the most vivid examples of this two-tiered structure.

This book was prepared as a project for the People-Centered Development Forum (PCDForum).  He co-founded the Positive Futures Network with Sarah van Gelder, and his partner, Dr Frances F Korten is the executive director while he chairs the board.  The group publishes the magazine, Yes! A Journal of Positive Futures.  He has written two other books which can be found on the PCDForum website. 

Photo credit from the PCDForum.