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Issue No. 1 (January / February 1999) -- Mark Satin, Editor
Forget “New Left” vs. “Libertarian.” Forget “progressive” vs. “alternative."
Between the Third Way-ers and the Transformationalists.
And it’s more than just a debate about ideas. It’s also a debate about ideologies, about the way planetary activists should see the world.
Is human nature good or worrisome? Should corporations be improved or broken up?
Do the world’s people really want the economic globalization taking place before their eyes?
Should we seek a balance between individual ambition and social ties, or should we proclaim a radical “New Story” emphasizing our dependence on the Earth and on each other?
Those are some of the questions that visionary activists are debating these days.
And, recently, those debates have become much more systemic and pointed, thanks to two books that perfectly sum up the poles of the debate.
The “Sustainable Globalization” side of the debate, the Third Way side, is presented in Thomas Friedman’s book The Lexus and the Olive Tree (Farrar Straus, 1999). Friedman is a two time Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign affairs reporter for the New York Times with a funny handlebar moustache and an infectious sense of humor; his book has been on the best-seller lists for months.
The “Progressive Localism” side of the debate, the Transformational side, is presented in David Korten’s book The Post-Corporate World: Life After Capitalism (Berrett-Koehler, 1999). Korten is a former Harvard Business School professor turned international-development consultant. Chunky and aggressive, he became more and more of a development maverick the longer he stayed abroad (principally Asia), until he finally returned to the U.S. to operate the People-Centered Development Forum and direct an idealistic magazine, YES!
Korten’s book speaks for a burgeoning worldwide network of radical ecologists, spiritually attuned activists, and anti-corporate academics. “This is beyond ‘big think,” wrote Business Week in a grudgingly admiring review March 29. “[It] is positively cosmic [and] never far from the touchy-feely precipice. . . . [But] Korten’s book is valuable because it invites us to do something we rarely bother about: to reimagine ourselves.”
By contrast, Friedman’s book speaks for the kinds of people I went to law school with, brilliant, caring students with exciting careers ahead of them in large corporations or law firms who want to make economic globalization work for everyone. President Clinton tapped into this worldview when he told the University of Chicago graduating class last month, “[A]ll of us know that the problem with the new global economy is that it is both more rewarding and more destructive. . . . So the question is, How can we create a global economy with a human face?”
“Sustainable Globalization” and “Progressive Localism” are competing visions of how the world should be developed.
Sustainable Globalization accepts that what Friedman calls the “electronic herd” (the big multinational corporations, plus millions of investors moving money around the world electronically) is here to stay. He goes further and says the electronic herd can be a good thing, inducing governments to maintain low rates of inflation, shrink bureaucracies, lower tariffs, produce balanced budgets, introduce democratic freedoms, etc.
He gives a bittersweet name to such measures -- the “golden straitjacket.” Because unless governments take such measures, which are often unpopular with the folks back home, but which are probably wise in the long run, corporations and investors tend to shy away.
So Friedman accepts corporate-driven globalization. At the same time, he thinks it’s our job -- literally, America’s job -- to “make sure that globalization is sustainable.” He devotes big chunks of his book to suggesting ways we can help other nations preserve local cultures and the environment and enhance economic opportunity for all.
Here's how Korten might respond to Friedman:
“Tom -- you don’t mind if I call you Tom? Tom, you are capitalism’s man.
“Capitalism is a cancer, and I don’t mean that just as a metaphor. Capitalist globalization is destroying the Earth, and if you spent less time in luxury hotel rooms you’d maybe notice that fact. . . .
“I believe in a mindful economic marketplace, one that favors human-scale businesses and makes producers bear the full costs of their decisions. But we aren’t even enforcing our anti-trust laws today! Couldn’t be that our government’s in the pocket of the big corporations, could it, Tom? . . .
“I want the big corporations to be broken up, and to be replaced by small enterprises owned by local stakeholders such as workers, managers, suppliers, customers, and community residents. (Do you live anywhere, Tom?) And I want government power to devolve down to the lowest and smallest units appropriate to that function.
“Don’t get me wrong. I want One World as much as you do. But I don’t want any part of a world dominated by your greedy ‘electronic herd’ and its appalling ‘golden straitjacket.’ . . .
“And tell me, truly -- in your heart of hearts -- wouldn’t you like to see a planetary civilization animated not by McDonald’s and American military might, but by governments, communities, NGOs and small-scale industries cooperating in carefully targeted ways for mutual benefit?”
Free to choose
Now that international socialism and the universal welfare state have been discredited, the Third Way (aka Sustainable Globalization) and Transformational Politics (aka Progressive Localism) are the only alternatives we have to good old-fashioned American nationalism.
So as the 21st century looms, we’d be well advised to choose between the pragmatic altruism of the one and the unabashed idealism of the other. (Or to work out our own heroic synthesis.)
There’s a lot to choose from, and the differences are as much metaphysical as political.
Balance vs. New Story
The Lexus is the greatest luxury car in the world. (Or at least, Friedman owns one.) For Friedman it’s a symbol of the achievement-oriented, high-tech, intellectually ambitious, cosmopolitan modern world.
The olive tree, by contrast, represents to Friedman “everything that roots us, anchors us, identifies us and locates us in this world -- whether it be belonging to a family, a community, a tribe, a nation, a religion or, most of all, a place.”
Friedman wants us to create a world in which societies balance Lexuses with olive trees. And in which individuals are free to work out their own appropriate balances.
Korten is much less sanguine about the modern world. He is appalled at the disparities in wealth, at the rampant consumerism, at the importance of money, at the purely formal nature of democracy. And he thinks he knows what’s at the root of it all.
For hundreds of years, he says, we’ve been living in a world inspired by “the basic precepts of Newtonian physics,” in which the “universe resembles a giant clockworks. . . . Matter is the only reality and the whole is no more or less than the aggregation of its parts. . . . Neither consciousness nor life have meaning or purpose. . . .”
But today, he says, science (and especially biology) is teaching us a New Story, in which the “universe is a self-organizing system engaged in the discovery and realization of its possibilities through a continuing process of transcendence. . . .”
Here’s the point: We’ve barely begun to test our “potentials for self-directed cooperation.” And now that the scientific winds have shifted, a much more decentralist, cooperative and spiritually-oriented society may soon come to be seen as “natural” and even necessary for our survival.
When I ran the New World Alliance and edited NEW OPTIONS, I’d have been drawn to Korten’s New Story in a heartbeat. Now that I’ve experienced the world in a more Newtonian way -- at law school and then on multi-million-dollar legal cases -- I think Friedman’s notion of Balance comes closer to addressing the totality of what’s inside us.
Friedman doesn’t write specifically about human nature, but you don’t have to look very hard to discern his views. He thinks the “electronic herd” and the “golden straitjacket” are necessary to get things done. He tells endless stories about people who come across as, variously, recalcitrant, sweet, bullying, funny, dunderheaded and wise. In a phrase, he’s at home with the light and dark sides of human nature.
Korten is made of sterner stuff. For him, evolution is “fundamentally cooperative and intelligent.” It is “entirely natural” for us to live “fully and mindfully in service to the unfolding capacities of self, community, and the planet.”
If we fail to do so, it’s largely because of the old dead-universe story, above, and the power of capitalism to shrink our dreams and play games with our desires.
I find Friedman’s picture of human nature closer to life -- or at least, my life. I like to think I’m as “cooperative” as the next guy, but I’m a lot more cooperative when money, status, or power (deadlines; a contract) is part of the equation.
And I’ve never noticed any great difference in cooperativeness, kindness, truthfulness, etc., between those who identify with what Korten calls the “living world” and those poor souls rooted in what he calls the “money world.”
We’ve gotta have it
Why is the world becoming more homogenous -- a Taco Bell in every neighborhood, a billion folks tuned in to the NBA finals (in 180 countries)?
According to Friedman, it’s because modernity is genuinely appealing. “Before Taco Bell . . . there was probably a fly-infested sidewalk stand.”
All over the planet, he says, ordinary people are clamoring to live in the modern world. They find it cleaner, freer, hipper and more exciting than the traditional world. Above all, they find it has infinitely more options than the traditional world.
Korten is not fooled one whit by the homogenized “modern” world. He sees it as the latest expression of “the money world,” whose “song calls us with promises of ease, personal power, and material prosperity; in return we must accept money as the mediator of all values and dedicate our lives to its reproduction.”
Korten goes so far as to sketch a “post-corporate” alternative to the money world. It would consist of village or neighborhood clusters (each within bicycling distance of a larger “town center”), energy self-reliance, closed cycle materials use, local production for local needs, interregional electronic communication (but almost no long distance air travel, except for “international and cross-cultural exchange to build human bonds that transcend one’s own locality”), and voluntary simplicity.
I’ve got to admit, I’d prefer living in D.C. -- or even Baltimore! even Philly! -- to living in Korten’s world. Though I might want to retire there in my dotage.
And I find it hard to believe that the technological advances we need for a sustainable planet will require us to live like that. I suspect that, if all goes well, Korten’s alternative will be simply one option for people -- one among many. And as Friedman makes clear, options is what modernity is all about.
What activists should do
Neither Friedman nor Korten is shy about handing out advice.
“We need to demonstrate to the [electronic] herd that being green, being global and being greedy can go hand in hand,” says Friedman. “If you want to save the Amazon, go to business school and learn how to do a deal.”
By contrast, Korten warns against “upwardly mobile modernist[s]” and the professional “rat race.”
I think Korten dismisses the professional world too quickly.
For some of my former law school classmates, law practice is a rat race. But others love the intensity of it, love helping people and entities in need, love making the world work more smoothly. And nearly all of them appreciate the credibility it’s giving them.
Passion matters. Commitment matters. But Friedman is right: In this world (and Friedman is unapologetically talking about this world), position matters too.
Utopia vs. the good-enough
I used to feel the most idealistic books were also the wisest and most hopeful. Now I’m not so sure. The 20th century is littered with utopias gone awry -- Hitler’s Germany, Mao’s China, Cambodia, the Soviet Union. . . .
It may be that, as political philosopher Isaiah Berlin has suggested, the abandonment of utopia is what makes real, gritty, ground-level progress possible. It may be that, by accommodating to unlovely realities like the “electronic herd” and the “golden straitjacket,” and by not worrying overmuch about leading purely virtuous lives, we can create an imperfect but sustainable planetary civilization.
Friedman’s column: www.nytimes.com/ library/opinion/friedman. Korten’s magazine: YES!, P.O. Box 10818, Bainbridge Island, WA 98110, www.futurenet.org.
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