The collapse of public confidence in corporations may be the silver lining in the dark cloud of economic news. In the race to revise our way of life before we inflict permanent damage to the Earth's ecological and social fabric, losing our society's almost religious faith in the corporate system could open us to fresh possibilities.
The Enron and WorldCom managers who walked off with millions while employees and other shareholders were left holding depreciated or worthless stock have provoked a crisis of confidence in corporations, a crisis Congress has responded to with reforms addressing only the tip of the iceberg—the accounting scandals.
But what if we responded to the deeper problems of corporate rule? What if along with investors, the natural world could cry “Foul?” What if the people who have lost their land, water, and livelihoods to corporations; the people whose governments have been corrupted or overthrown to extend corporate access to their resources and markets; the victims of land mines, massacres, and other attacks carried out with the products and blessings of the military-industrial complex—what if all these people had a voice? What might they say?
Corporate rule has thus far continued in spite of its damaging record in part because no one—at least no one whose voice is heard in the mainstream media—offers a workable alternative. Media pundits, economists, and politicians from both parties agree that the corporate capitalism of the late 20th century is it. We've reached “the end of history,” in the words of author Francis Fukuyama. This is the best of all possible worlds, and the best we can do for those devastated by its collateral damage is to enact a few social programs, tune out the suffering of those excluded from this bright new economy, and hope that the ecological damage will be repaired by the next invention or the next generation.
This issue of YES! reveals that in fact there are workable alternatives unfolding before our eyes. The protests against the WTO, World Bank, IMF, and specific corporations indicate widespread discontent with this system. One outcome of that has been serious rethinking and a spate of innovation. New, living economies are forming that provide for the long-term healing and sustaining of, well, life—people, communities, ecosystems, future generations. Life is not fodder for the corporate mill. Life is the whole point. Here's some of what I've found to be at the foundation of this new economy, as it is envisioned and as it is beginning to emerge.
• Production and exchange takes place at the most local level possible, rather than at the most global. When production must be larger and more powerful—because of technology or real economies of scale—democratic accountability ensures that these enterprises remain responsive to the requisites of life.
• Those who have rights also take responsibility. Ownership and decision-making rest with employees, members of the community, single-proprietors, customers, and others with a direct stake in the enterprise itself.
• Mutually supportive networks develop among individuals, enterprises, and communities based in distributed power, not in the coercion that results from vast differences in size and power.
• There are rich and abundant feedback loops, so that those who make decisions for an enterprise are accountable for the impacts—not just the stock values. Transparency helps keep enterprises honest. And, instead of “externalizing” costs (passing on to the public such costs as pollution and poor safety standards), costs are borne by the enterprise. When the resulting prices reflect the true costs of production, the market can tell the truth.
• Instead of being invisible, the “care” and “gift” economies (involving, for example, the care of children and elders, the strengthening of community, or the sharing of cultural treasures) are celebrated, supported, and rewarded; the contribution of all ages, races, and genders is recognized.
• Government intervention in the market encourages the production of goods and services that meet basic needs and discourages practices that result in safety and health hazards; distributes power, wealth, and opportunities widely; enhances and protects the commons; protects the natural world so it can continue to meet the needs of the next seven generations and more.
As Americans wake up to the high costs of corporate rule, they are becoming more open then ever to the possibility of a truly life-centered economy. Now is the time to open a dialogue about the kind of economy we want. Do we want a world ever more dependent on giant corporations whose wealth and power exceed that of many nations, and whose centralized command-and-control structure makes them unaccountable to people, communities, and the future of the planet? Or do we want a living, diverse, democratically accountable market economy, founded in communities and cities throughout the world, with power, decision-making, responsibility, and initiative resting in ordinary people?
Let's imagine together some of the possibilities.
Sarah Ruth van Gelder