PCDForum Article #10r, Revised for release July 10, 1995
by David C. Korten
Around the world, societies are being transformed by a reformist political
movement that promises good jobs, cheap consumer goods, strong families, local
control, and greater individual freedom through increased reliance on the
workings of a free market. The movement’s policy agenda centers on privatizing
government functions, protecting and expanding property rights, eliminating
welfare dependence, deregulating markets, removing trade barriers, reducing
taxes, strengthening law enforcement, and maintaining a strong national defense.
The movement’s message has a broad populist appeal in a world of economic
insecurity, crime, high taxes, family stress, and intrusive governments. It
aligns with a growing desire of people everywhere to assume greater control of
their lives in the face of seemingly uncontrollable economic and political
forces. The actual consequence of the policies being put forward, however, is a
deconstruction of society that is weakening the social bonds of family and
community, encouraging individualism and greed, and consolidating economic power
and media control in the hands of a few global corporations that have become
detached from public accountability.
In the United States, leading right-wing ideologues such as Rush Limbaugh and
Newt Gingrich play to these fears and frustrations with a simple message: your
problems are caused by a government that has become too big and intrusive. It
takes too much of your tax dollar to support things that undermine the moral
fiber of society and tries to control your life by imposing mindless
restrictions on everything you do. They advocate cutting back on government
while strengthening defense and building more prisons to control the behavior of
those who, in their view, lack the moral character to live responsible lives.
Reports from colleagues reveal that various forms of this deconstruction agenda
are being advanced with an awesome speed and devastating consequences in nearly
every country of the world. The driving force behind it comes from a convergence
of neoliberal economic ideology, a corporate class interest, and the growing
fears and frustrations of ordinary citizens who see their hopes for the future
dashed by forces they only partially comprehend.
Powerful financial and corporate interests that have a big stake in lower taxes,
deregulation, privatization, and social control of the excluded willingly use
their money and media power to back the politicians and media personalities
willing and able to build popular political support for such policies. It is an
insidious process. The more successfully the social deconstruction agenda is
advanced, the more economic and political power the financial elites are able to
command, the greater their control over media and politicians, the more
uncertain the lives of ordinary people, the greater the evidence of governmental
failure, and the greater the populist appeal of the deconstructionists’
Meanwhile our governments meet in global fora such as the Social Summit to
produce declarations that reaffirm their faith in economic growth, market
deregulation, and economic globalization as the foundation of peace, equality,
human rights, democracy, a healthy environment, a strong social fabric, and
universal prosperity. The underlying contradictions are ignored. For example:
- Continued economic growth on a finite planet with an already overtaxed
ecosystem only accelerates environmental breakdown and heightens the competition
for resources between rich and poor.
- Policies that expand the market economy inexorably displace the social
economy of household and community–weakening the social fabric and destroying
livelihoods faster than new jobs can be created.
- Economic globalization shifts power from people, communities, and
governments to global financial markets and corporations, places those
institutions beyond human accountability, and makes responsible local action to
meet local needs increasingly difficult.
While advocates of the social deconstruction agenda maintain they have a broadly
based mainstream mandate, it is abundantly clear that the consequences of the
policies they promote are sharply at odds with the kind of world that most
people actually want. The evidence is overwhelming that people want to control
their own economic resources, live in free and democratic societies built on
strong families and communities free of violence, enjoy a healthy and beautiful
environment, be productive members of society, and have an adequate and secure
means of livelihood. What they are getting is social breakdown, environmental
devastation, joblessness, growing economic desperation, and a political system
cynically manipulated by big money.
There is growing hope, however. The debates around NAFTA, GATT, Maastricht, and
other international agreements aimed at consolidating corporate rights and power
in the name of free trade have helped give birth to a true populist political
movement. Even with the full power of the mainstream media fully aligned behind
the neoliberal economic ideology, many citizens are coming to recognize the true
nature and implications of the massive economic restructuring that the
deconstruction agenda is advancing. While they are told by the media that this
restructuring is inevitable, the realization is emerging that their lives are
being torn apart not by inexorable historical forces, but rather by conscious
choices made by those who stand to benefit handsomely from the lowering of
wages, the undermining of health and environmental standards, and the weakening
of democracy–the same big money players who are bankrolling the conservative
We have come to see that when our governments invite citizens organizations to
join them in global conferences such as the Social Summit to craft declarations
of commitment to addressing pressing social and environmental needs, they are
engaged in public posturing. We know the more substantive international
agreements that define the priorities and commitments that create the human
crisis are being crafted behind closed doors in secret consultations with the
world’s most powerful corporations in fora such as the World Trade Organization.
The experience of Canada is instructive. Fed up with a conservative government
committed to free trade and corporate rights, in October 1993 Canadians voted
out all but two members of the ruling party from their parliament one of the
most sweeping repudiations of a democratically elected government in history.
Once seated, the new Liberal party government went on to carry out essentially
the same policies as the government the electorate had voted out. It became
clear to many Canadians that global corporate interests had gained control over
their government and economy.
A citizen organization, the Council of Canadians, was formed to oppose these
forces. Its members are developing a "Citizens’ Agenda for Canada" to
define the kind of caring society that Canadians want for themselves and their
children. The idea of a citizens’ agenda was launched at the beginning of 1994
after NAFTA came into force. Hundreds of meetings were held across the country.
There were also focus groups and expert consultations from which a draft
document was produced and distributed to the 30,000 Council members. Feedback
from more than 1,000 respondents was incorporated into a revised draft reviewed
by participants in the Council’s annual membership meeting in October 1994.
Further drafts are being prepared.
We can no longer leave it to the mainstream political parties and corporate
lobbyists to set the terms of the public policy debate. We must reclaim our
basic rights and sovereignty as citizens and in so doing build the foundations
of broadly based grassroots political movements. The need for such initiatives
is almost universal and citizen groups in many countries are pursuing or
considering such efforts.
The press to regain citizen sovereignty is unfolding at global as well as local
levels. For example, many citizen organizations involved in the U.N. Social
Summit concluded that little would come of the official negotiations so long as
governments remained wedded to the prevailing neoliberal economic ideology. They
thus joined in crafting an alternative Copenhagen declaration that rejected the
official declaration on the ground that by embracing the neoliberal ideology of
growth, free trade and free markets, it embraced the causes of the poverty,
joblessness, and social disintegration it professed to alleviate.
This rejection, supported by a broad cross-section of civil sector
organizations, prepares the way to engage grassroots citizen movements in
building truly populist agendas for the human future. Citizen participants in
the Fourth UN World Conference on Women in Beijing will be crafting a women’s
agenda for the 21st century. Citizen groups are building food and agriculture
agendas in anticipation of the forthcoming World Food Conference. The United
Nations Conference on Human Settlements to be held in Istanbul in June 1996 will
provide an opportunity for grassroots groups from many countries to share their
local and national agendas. It is important to meld these many initiatives into
a global agenda for institutional reforms that will enable people to regain
control of their lives, resources, and governments to resolve the problems that
global conferences discuss at length, but cannot solve.
To an extent the right-wing ideologues are correct. Central governments are
failing in their roles as guardians of the public interest. In simpler times the
appropriate answer might have been simply to scale back governments and
decentralize their functions. These are not, however, simple times and such an
answer to a very real problem would simply remove the only remaining protection
we have against the unaccountable power of global corporations and financial
Corporations and governments exist for no purpose other than to serve the human
interest as defined by an active and politically aware civil society. In all too
many instances they are failing to do so. Countering the deconstruction agenda,
restoring the public accountability of governments and corporations, and
enabling people to regain control of their lives must begin with broadly based
grassroots engagement in building local, national, and global citizen agendas
that define the kinds of societies that people really want for themselves and
David C. Korten is president of the People-Centered Development Forum (PCDForum)
and the author of When Corporations Rule the World to be released in September
1995 by Kumarian Press, 630 Oakwood Ave., Suite 119, West Hartford, CT
06110-1529, U.S.A. phone (1-203) 953-0214 or fax (1-203) 953-8589 and Berrett
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