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Every Great Social Movement

When ordinary people reject the cultural stories that limit their possibilities and bind them to servitude, the course of history turns.
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This is part thirty of a series of blogs based on excerpts adapted from the 2nd edition of Agenda for a New Economy: From Phantom Wealth to Real Wealth. I wrote Agenda to spur a national conversation on economic policy issues and options that are otherwise largely ignored. This blog series is intended to contribute to that conversation. —DK

Whose civil rights are next, photo by Tantek Çelik

Photo by Tantek Çelik

Every great social movement begins with a set of ideas validated, internalized, and then shared and amplified through media, grassroots organizations, and thousands, even millions, of conversations. A truth strikes a resonant chord, we hear it acknowledged by others, and we begin to discuss it with friends and associates.The new story spreads out in multiple ever-widening circles that begin to connect and intermingle.

A story of unrealized possibility gradually replaces the falsified story that affirmed the status quo. The prevailing culture begins to shift, and the collective behavior of the society shifts with it.

For the civil rights and women’s movements, the old story said:

Women and people of color have no soul. Less than human, they have no natural rights. They can find fulfillment only through faithful service to their white male masters.

A profound cultural shift occurred between 1950 and 1980 as the consequence of a growing rejection of these stories in favor of a new story that recognized and affirmed the full humanity and rights of all people.

It began with the civil rights movement, inspired in part by the words and writing of W. E. B. DuBois, founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). His ideas were carried forward by others such as the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. Communicated through books, periodicals, and speeches, these ideas inspired and shaped countless conversations, particularly in black churches, about race and the possibilities of integration based on a full recognition of the inherent humanity of people all races.

A story of unrealized possibility gradually replaces the falsified story that affirmed the status quo. The prevailing culture begins to shift, and the collective behavior of the society shifts with it.

Thinkers, writers, and activists who embraced the idea of integration engaged in verbal combat with those who defended the status quo as legitimated by the old story. As the story of possibility gained currency, proponents engaged in nonviolent civil disobedience in the form of sit-ins in segregated facilities, which began to create a new reality and set the stage for political demands to replace laws that institutionalized the old story with laws that institutionalized the new.

In 1963, as the civil rights movement was gaining traction, Betty Friedan published The Feminist Mystique, calling attention to a vague dissatisfaction plaguing housewives. It touched a deep chord and became the focus of thousands of living room conversations in which women who had been raised on the story that the key to a woman’s happiness was to find the right man, marry him, and devote her life to his service gathered to share their own stories. Conditioned to believe that failure to find happiness in service to their husbands revealed a character flaw they must strive to correct, those for whom this wasn’t working found they were not alone. The flaw lay not with them, but with the false story.

Those whom these discussions initially liberated lent their voices to a growing chorus that spread a story of women’s rights and abilities. As millions of women joined in the conversation, a new gender story came to the fore and unleashed the feminine as a powerful force for global transformation.

The environmental movement emerged as a challenge to two old stories, one biblical and one secular:

God gave nature to man to do with as he pleases.

Nature has no value beyond its market price and is properly used for whatever purpose generates the greater financial return.

Many trace the origin of the modern environmental movement to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, published in 1962. It stimulated countless conversations about the human relationship to nature. The resulting challenge to the old stories spread through media and academic programs. A new political consensus on the human imperative and responsibility to protect and conserve nature began to emerge.

These transforming experiences have combined with the growth in global intercultural exchange that came with the expansion of international air travel to awaken a consciousness of culture as a perceptual lens and a human construct with powerful consequences. With that awakening came recognition of the need to accept responsibility for our shared stories and their consequences.

Stories that Light Up the Dark

Stories that Light Up the Dark

Together the great social movements of the 20th century and the expansion of international communication has unleashed global scale liberation of the human mind that transcends the barriers of race, class, and religion and has enabled hundreds of millions of people see themselves and the larger world in a new light.

The awakened consciousness is relatively immune to manipulation by corporate media, advertising, and political demagogues. For those who share this experience, the stories that affirm and encourage racism, sexism, homophobia, and consumerism are more easily seen for what they are—a justification for imperial domination, exploitation, and violence against life.

The global awakening creates the opportunity for the first time in 5,000 years to consign the dominator structures of Empire to the dustbin of history, bring forth a New Economy, and complete the human transition to full-fledged democracy and Earth Community.

[Next: A Three-Fold Change Strategy]

David Korten author picDavid Korten ( is the author of Agenda for a New Economy, The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community, and the international best seller When Corporations Rule the World. He is board chair of YES! Magazine and co-chair of the New Economy Working Group. This Agenda for a New Economy blog series is co-distributed by and based on excerpts from Agenda for a New Economy, 2nd edition.


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