The Great Turning

“Rather than give in to despair in this often frightening time, let us rejoice in the privilege of being alive at a moment of creative opportunity unprecedented in the human experience. Peace and justice for all and a sustainable relationship to the planet are within our reach. If we fail to embrace the opportunity, Empire’s pessimistic assumption that we are an inherently destructive species becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and we continue on the path to collapse. If we pass the test, we move on to the exploration and realization of untold new possibilities.”
(Chapter 22, p. 254)

David Korten, author of When Corporations Rule the World, has written an important new book, The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community. It is a big picture, overarching, historically-grounded analysis, as well as a call for bringing forth what Korten calls “a new era of Earth Community. It describes how self-organizing processes of citizen action, based on grassroots leadership, can advance an agenda of cultural, economic, and political democratization that roots power in people and liberates the creative potential of the species.” (Prologue, p. 23)

Korten’s vision is not a small one. The Great Turning is, more than anything else, an effort to strengthen and inspire today’s activists and organizers by giving our day to day organizing a framework which puts that activity within a historical and forward-looking context. But as distinct from a traditional Marxist approach with its emphasis on economics and the material reality of people’s lives, Korten’s is much more culturally- and spiritually-oriented.

Indeed, one criticism that can be made of The Great Turning is that it underplays the role of organized resistance to poverty, inequality and labor exploitation in driving popular movements for revolutionary change. And the kinds of changes Korten advocates are definitely revolutionary.

Korten focuses much of his historical analysis on critiquing “Empire,” by which he means an oppressive, “dominator-dominated” mode of organizing society going back 5,000-6,000 years ago to the period of time when “Goddess societies” were overthrown by “God-worshipping,”
male-dominated, warlike societies. “With time, the conquered societies entered into a new period of material production and accumulation, but with a striking change in the pattern of distribution. Previously priority had gone to public works and an improved standard of living for all. Now the men at the top appropriated the bulk of the wealth and power. Their subjects had little choice but to make do with the leftovers.” (Chapter 5, p. 75)

We’ve been stuck with the Empire model ever since. And the truth of the matter is that this model, this approach, has infected, subtly or not so subtly, those male-dominated oppositional movements to Empire up to the present day.
There’s a long and sad history of revolutions going bad, where the difficulties faced by those who have come to power as a result of their commitment to social and economic justice have led many down the path of corruption in pursuit of personal power, wealth and privileges, or both.

Korten’s emphasis on the importance of cultural and spiritual change is an important corrective to this historic problem on the Left. “The human future turns on the question of whether the prevailing cultural values and worldview that shape the understanding of the swing majority are those of Empire or those of Earth Community.” (Chapter 20, p. 233)

Throughout the book Korten makes clear his belief in “the central place of a politics of consciousness in the work of the Great Turning.” (Chapter 2, p. 36) He identifies five levels of consciousness: Magical, Imperial, Socialized, Cultural and Spiritual. Magical consciousness is the lowest level, analogous to the worldview of a young child.
Spiritual consciousness is “the highest expression of what it means to be human, manifests the awakening to Creation as a complex, multidimensional, interconnected, continuously unfolding whole. . . (and) supports an examined morality grounded in the universal principles of justice, love and compassion common to the teachings of the most revered religious prophets.” (Chapter 2, p. 39)

Korten locates the beginnings of a “global meta-movement” in
1992 in Rio de Janeiro during the UN Conference on Environment and Development. At the same time as that UN conference, “on the other side of town, however, a gathering of eighteen thousand private citizens of every race, religion, social class, and nationality was making history as participants drafted informal citizen treaties setting forth agendas for cooperative voluntary action.” (Chapter 4, p. 66)

A next key moment came in 1999 in Seattle when tens of thousands of activists successfully disrupted the gathering of the World Trade Organization. In 2001 the World Social Forum process, under the slogan, “Another World is  Possible,” began in Porto Alegre, Brazil with 20,000 participants. By 2005 it drew 150,000. And in 2003, just prior to the start of the war on Iraq, ten million or more people demonstrated for peace on the same day, February 15th, all around the world. “Commenting on the demonstrations and their impact, the New York Times observed that ‘there may still be two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion.'” (Chapter 4, p. 67)

Korten believes that the struggle to achieve Earth Community-his phrase to describe a fundamentally different society grounded in justice and peace with one another and the earth-is an urgent one. He fully appreciates and explains how under the dominating system of Empire our ecosystem is being destroyed, with global warming a primary, immediate crisis, and we don’t have much time to turn things around.

Key approaches and strategies to making this “great turning”

-Appreciating nature in all its wisdom, “nature as teacher,”
as in cooperative self-organization and accepting diversity.
-“Turning from money to life as our defining value.”
(Chapter 17, p. 209)
-“Accelerate the awakening of Cultural and Spiritual Consciousness” (Chapter 19, p. 225) -“Resist Empire’s assault on children, families, community and nature.” (Ch. 19, 225) -“Form and connect communities of congruence.” (Ch. 19, 225) -“Build a majoritarian political base.” (Ch. 19, 226) -Develop “living economies that democratize economic relationships in the deepest sense.” (Ch. 21, p. 243)

While appreciating much of what David Korten has put forward, there are several areas of weakness in The Great Turning.

One is the underemphasis on questions of class and race. It’s not that they were absent; they weren’t. But I have long believed that it is those with the least to lose and the most to gain-low-income, working-class people of color-who must be strongly represented in both the base and the leadership of our new revolutionary movement. There are insights and power that arise out of their lives that, in the context of a popular movement for fundamental change, must be present, or it won’t succeed. This was not a point that Korten emphasized.

Along the same lines, there was little about the predictable response of the present rulers to a movement that is openly challenging their rule. It is true that a majoritarian movement will make it more difficult for these oppressive elites to utilize violence and repression. But there are numerous examples down through history of how they’ve done so even with a very limited popular base. This is something that needs to be analyzed, discussed and prepared for, especially as our movement grows stronger and becomes more of a threat.

Finally, although Korten at one point supports a voter’s bill of rights and a range of changes to democratize our electoral system, there is no explicit critique of the two-party system in which both parties are dominated by multi-national corporations. I continue to believe, as I have for over 30 years, that unless and until we can build a strong progressive party, or an alliance of parties, as part of a developing multi-party system, it is going to be very difficult to achieve the changes we desire; indeed, desired in many cases by a majority of our peoples in the USA.

I am glad that this book is available in bookstores and that David Korten is traveling and speaking to promote it. There is much of value to learn and to draw strength from to help us keep the faith and keep reaching out to build a stronger movement.