Representatives of a Private Foundation Pose Questions on Corporate Globalization to David C. Korten, May 8, 2001

Q: What is it that defines a project that would be described as addressing “corporate globalization”? Does activist organizing count on issues in which the rich northern countries exploit the poor South in the absence of addressing the higher order mechanisms that allow these northern industries to oppress? Does a project that simply targets an industry that sells its product in the global marketplace count?  Or one whose environmental impacts are global?  What are those elements of sufficiency that mark an effective approach to corporate globalization?

A: Corporate globalization encompasses the shift of power from people and communities to global corporations and financial markets and the related shift from life values to financial values, from public to private, and from diversity to standardization and monoculture. Most anything that addresses these issues from a local, national, or global perspective would probably qualify as addressing “corporate globalization.” The issue is strategy: Do you support resistance to slow the destruction? Or do you support proactive initiatives to change rules, structures, and the values and perceptions that support what some of our colleagues are calling the suicide economy? 

Q: Core segments of our economy that exhibit some of the greatest impacts of corporate globalization include :  Agribusiness/biotech, resource extraction (oil, metals), textile manufacturing and global finance.  Among these industries do any one or two strike you as more poised to be positively influenced by the resistance movement in its current form?  Where do you see the greatest levers for change in the current state of the movement?

A: Food and agriculture is the sector that provides the greatest immediate political opening. It is also highly strategic.  Eating is a deeply personal experience and the issues are easily understood. GMOs, mad cow disease, hoof and mouth disease, and small farms are hot topics in the public consciousness. Furthermore, food and agriculture link to everything else: health, environment, poverty, employment, intellectual property, technology, and ownership of assets.

Global finance is the most important sector, as it is the ultimate instrument of control and extraction. But it is far more difficult to address, because the individual interest contrasts sharply with the collective interest, it is cloaked in rarely challenged myths and illusions, and the issues seem abstract and arcane to most people.

Q: One of the elements of an improved outcome to this inexorable process of globalization is a more equitable sharing of the benefits being reaped.  What do you see as the most powerful and implementable pathway to this end?  Is patent reform an example of this in the capitalization of the genetic commons?  What other methods do you see as most viable at this time? 

A: Those initiatives that focus on questions of ownership are more basic than those that focus on income, because they deal with rights and power. The various initiatives to privatize the commons are all important. The particularly hot issues are intellectual property rights and water. There seems to be a very strong new push on privatization in the Third World. I recently met a prominent Nigeria who told me that the Nigerian government is responding to international pressures by putting several hundred public enterprises and utilities up for international sale. When I explained to her why this would be a tragic error, she asked who could help her build awareness in Nigeria of the consequences of such actions elsewhere. I know colleagues who work specifically on water privatization, but so far have not been able to locate anyone who is working in depth on the broader case of privatization. We need such a group. The Summer 2001 issue of YES! deals more broadly with the global assault on the commons, from the patenting of life to the militarization of space.

Q: Agribusiness/biotech represents a significant portion of our GDP. Can you help us quantify the size of this industry as a whole, and to compare it to the size of both the largest single corporation within it as well as to compare it to the largest single corporations in resource extraction and in global finance?

A: Going by percentage of GDP is a trap. Agriculture is a very small proportion of GDP, which leads economists to dismiss food production as unimportant–as if we don’t really need to eat. If you need specific figures, I suggest you contact Al Krebs.

Q: Einstein said that you can never solve a problem from the same level on which it was created.  If we accept the following evolutionary sequence as valid: Agriculture to Industry to Information Technology [inclusive of global finance], would it not follow that macroeconomic tools applied by consciousness higher than that dominated by the ego are required?

A: I’m not sure I follow the question. The sequence may also be a trap, because agriculture still remains the foundation of our existence. The idea that the economy has dematerialized is mainly illusion based on the disconnect of money making from reality.

Q: Can the type of consumer campaign that RAN successfully mounted in ending the sale of old growth products sold through Home Depot, a consumer products company, be expected to succeed against financial services companies, given the different type and sophistication of the “consuming audience” in which they’re targeting a change in behavior?  

A: It seems to me unlikely. There was a clear objective with the case of Home Depot. I’m not clear what change in behavior the action against Citibank is intended to achieve. The goal in finance ultimately must be to restore the integrity of money by restructuring the ownership of corporations to eliminate the gambling casinos we call share markets, break up the global money center banks to restore the concept of community banking, and convert from a debt money system in which private banks create money by loaning it into existence to a social credit system in which money creation is a public function.

Q: What are the key legal precedents used in recent years to advance human rights by reestablishing the preeminence of human rights over corporate rights?  Please comment on your perception of the likelihood of success using this approach. Do the courts provide a venue in which a significant power shift could really happen, or is the legal angle likely a quagmire?

A: I’m hard pressed to name a recent court victory of human rights over corporate and financial rights. The courts have become so deeply corrupted on this issue that one could argue the more strategic approach is legal reform rather than seeking to advance human rights through case law. The U.S. Supreme Court support for money as speech and its action to stop the vote count in Florida are among the more recent examples of this corruption.

Q: In the wake of the Supreme Courts overturning of the Mass Burma Law can you comment on the current potential impact of state level requisition boycotts and compare that to the relative power of shareholder resolutions?

A: With regard to local government actions I consider this an area for civil disobedience as part of a process of public education on the reality of the corruption of our courts and the conflict between “free” trade and democracy.

Shareholder resolutions are also a consciousness raising measure. In the larger scheme, holding corporations accountable through shareholder action is pushing on a string and is inherently temporary since all the structures and incentives to shift back to the old ways remain to be activated as soon as shareholder activists become complacent.

Q: Talk to us about the power of shareholder resolutions, particularly in both the resource extraction and the global financial services industries.  Please compare and contrast the relative power of legal vs. shareholder vs. corporate/consumer campaigns or strategies.

A: There are two questions here.

1. Do you believe that corporations can be tamed through shareholder and consumer vigilance? In short, are you willing to leave the king on the throne so long as he shows signs of benevolence? Or do you want to eliminate the institution of monarchy?

2. Do you believe that the global crisis can be resolved through actions internal to corporations — even with an enlightened and closely monitored corporate management? Do we believe that the resource extraction industry will align itself with a serious industrial ecology movement that seeks to reduce resource exaction to a bare minimum? Is Coca Cola likely to give up marketing very expensive sugar water to children? Will Nike stop manipulating the minds of people to make the Swoosh the defining symbol of their personal identity? Will the finance industry take the lead in pulling itself out of international markets, stop pushing credit cards to the financially challenged, restore community banking, and return money creation to government? It seems unlikely.

Q: Can you talk to us about Living Wage campaigns and which industries are best poised to make headway in that arena? Given the conditions of the movement towards sustainable development, where is the greatest efficacy in organizing right now? Using cross-border labor organizing and trade levers to end the exploitation of women and children in sweatshop maquiladoras? Organizing landless agricultural workers in Brazil or India?

A: I do not watch these campaigns closely. In a borderless, labor-surplus, global economy it seems to me extremely difficult to make more than temporary progress through voluntary Living Wage campaigns that do not deal with the underlying structural issues. They are enormously important in terms of public education and they can produce useful, though likely marginal, gains. The companies that are the most susceptible to such campaigns are those like the big apparel companies for which their brand name/logo is their primary asset. As Naomi Klein articulates so well in No Logo these companies are extremely vulnerable to campaigns that build an association in the consumer mind between their logo and sweatshop labor.

Anything that builds labor solidarity across borders is a plus. On the other hand, it seems likely that collective bargaining is a losing strategy in a borderless labor-surplus world. The focus must ultimately move to issues of ownership and the use of local resources and labor to meet local needs. Organizing landless laborers is a positive step, but ultimately the goal should be land reform to allow them to re-establish themselves as family farmers.

Q: In which global grassroots mobilization do you see the greatest momentum at this time?  Is it possible to counter the concentration of power currently in the hands of Cargil, ADM and Monsanto through the power of grassroots organizing alone?  What additional elements could turn a million member movement into the flash of heat and light that goes around the world the way N30 did from Seattle?   What’s the next most necessary step in taking the global grassroots movement to the next level of development of concentrating power back in the hands of the people? 

A: The flashes of heat and light are important. But the foundation for change, including political change, is an awakening and consolidation of cultural consciousness–as in cultural creatives. Everything comes back to that. Cultivating this awakening and consolidation is the central role and mission of YES! magazine, which is why it is so much the focus of my attention. A part of the need is to build an infrastructure of dialogue at all levels from local support groups to national forums visioning the kinds of societies in which people want to live. More operational priorities include :

Political reforms to establish democracy–especially in America. Get bribery out of politics. Remove barriers to voter registration and assure accurate vote counting. Open the system to third party voices. We will not get anywhere with changing the rules until we deal with the bribery issue.

Ownership. Equitable ownership of the assets on which one’s livelihood depends. This is the foundation of deep structural change.

Size. Human-scale enterprises. A bias toward smaller rather than larger. The controlling issue is not efficiency–it is the concentration versus the distribution of power. Let the burden of proof rest on those who seek the expansion and consolidation of individual firms.

Rights. It must be clearly established in law that corporations may be granted certain temporary and limited privileges, but corporations have no rights and human interests properly trump corporate interests. We can do education now, but it seems unlikely there will be any traction on this issue until we get the political reform in place.

Q: If you could deliver just one message to funders in this arena, what would you consider to be most important to convey?

A: Most funders are devoting their resources to ameliorating problem symptoms rather than addressing deeper underlying causes. Progressive citizen groups have traditionally done the same. Ameliorating symptoms is important. It is also a growth industry, and by itself is a losing strategy.

For me the most positive aspect of Seattle was that so many diverse groups were coming together around a shared realization that whatever their particular cause, it will remain at risk so long as the world is governed by the institutions of a dominator system that values money more than life. No matter how skillful and committed our efforts, the symptoms will become ever worse until we address the need for deep structural change to transform the relationships of power within human societies and to create authentic, life-affirming cultures grounded in the authentic spiritual experience of their members. In summary, the shared goal is to transform societies dedicated to the love of money to societies dedicated to the love of life. This should be a centerpiece of every foundation action, not simply one item in its portfolio.