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When the People Lead, the Leaders Follow

Deep change is possible, but only when a politically aware citizenry demands it.

This is the twenty-seventh 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


WTO protesters by Chris Blakely

Protesters in Seattle during the 1999 WTO protests that subsequently inspired massive protests wherever corporate elites met with national political leaders and bureaucrats to negotiate away the people’s rights and interests.

Photo by Chris Blakely

Through word and deed, the early American colonists who refused to accept the authority of a distant British monarch and his rapacious chartered corporations created a political imperative. Ultimately the formal political leaders we now call the founding fathers were forced to issue a Declaration of Independence and raise an army or risk being swept aside. The people led; the leaders followed.

The idea of ordinary citizens leading the way to liberate the United States and the world from the grip of the Wall Street–Washington axis might seem a naïve fantasy. We, however, live in a unique historical time in which seemingly impossible transformations of unjust and deeply destructive relationships of power occur on a global scale with breathtaking speed and inspiring regularity.

An advantage of reaching my elder years in this historically unique time is that I have been witness, sometimes at close hand, to events that have fundamentally shifted global relationships. My lifetime has spanned the liberation of India from rule by the powerful British Empire, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, the end of apartheid in South Africa, and the People Power Revolution that brought down the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines. All came quickly and were achieved through largely peaceful means.

Attempting to resist the will of a determined people is futile, no matter how many guns and how much money the colonizing power has at its disposal.

From my vantage point as an Air Force officer assigned to the Office of the Secretary of Defense in the Pentagon as the Vietnam War began to wind down, I witnessed from inside the U.S. military establishment the beginning of the defeat of the world’s most powerful military by an ill-equipped but determined ragtag army of Vietnamese peasants. Attempting to resist the will of a determined people is futile, no matter how many guns and how much money the colonizing power has at its disposal.

I have also been witness to the dramatic changes brought by the civil rights, women’s, and environmental movements in little more than a half century.

On a visit to the South with my parents in my early teens I rode a bus in Miami in which “colored” people were confined to the last rows. It was beyond imagination that I would live to witness millions of whites weeping tears of joy over the landslide election of a black president.

When she went off to college, Fran, my wife [and publisher of YES! Magazine], was warned by her father that if her grades were too high, no man would marry her. She had a straight-A average when I met her. I married her anyway—a smart choice, as it turned out—but assumed without question that she would follow me without complaint and subordinate her career to mine. Years later, she was the primary wage earner and I happily and productively followed her path from the U.S. to Asia and back again, fashioning my career to fit hers.

As a participant in the citizen portion 1992 UN Earth Summit in Rio, the author of When Corporations Rule the World, and a founding member of the International Forum on Globalization (IFG), I was on the front lines of the birthing of global civil society as it developed in tandem with the Internet as a tool for citizen organizing on a global scale in defense of democracy and popular sovereignty.

Millions of people of every color and every cultural and religious identity are sharing ideas and inspiration and growing the political power to awaken our formal leaders to the imperative to get on board or risk being swept aside.

The movement began with a tiny group of "Third World" activists centered in Penang, Malaysia going back to the 1980s. In 1994, when I was writing When Corporations Rule the World, there was still virtually no public awareness that trade agreements were being used to facilitate the global consolidation of corporate power beyond democratic accountability. That year I was invited to join a small international group of activists that formed the IFG and launched a largely below-the-media-radar public education campaign. In 1999, a powerful and interlinked global civil society announced itself to the world with the historic Seattle World Trade Organization protest.

Inspired by its success in Seattle, global civil society subsequently mobilized millions of people in massive protests wherever corporate elites met with national political leaders and bureaucrats to negotiate away the people’s rights and interests. The abuse of multi-lateral trade agreements was thwarted and the WTO never recovered.

In 2001, the movement energy began to shift from resistance to a proactive effort to build the institutional foundations of a planetary system of locally self-reliant and rooted economies that function in balanced relationship to their local ecosystems.

Now, through word and deed, global civil society is building the institutional foundations of a New Economy. Millions of people of every color and every cultural and religious identity are sharing ideas and inspiration and growing the political power to awaken our formal leaders to the imperative to get on board or risk being swept aside.

[Next: A Crumbling Cultural Story]


David Korten author picDavid Korten (livingeconomiesforum.org) 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 New Economy 2.0 blog series is co-sponsored by csrwire.com and yesmagazine.org based on excerpts adapted from Agenda for a New Economy, 2nd edition.

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