THE CIVIL SOCIETY:
AN UNFOLDING CULTURAL STRUGGLEby David C. Korten
The Positive Futures Network &
The PeopleCentered Development Forum
Without a global revolution in the sphere of human consciousness, nothing will change for the better. . . and the catastrophe toward which this world is headed, whether it be ecological, social, demographic or a general breakdown of civilization, will be unavoidable.On November 30, 1999 some 70,000 union members, people of faith, environmentalists, youth, indigenous peoples, peace and human rights activists, feminists, farmers and others took to the streets in Seattle Washington to express their opposition to the World Trade Organization (WTO). Some called it "The Battle of Seattle" or "The Protest of the Century." Some simply called it "Seattle '99." Courageously standing their ground in the face of the rubber bullets, tear gas, and pepper spray of violent police battalions, the protesters played a major role in bringing the WTO negotiations to a standstill. They also focused world attention on two powerful divergent social forces contesting humanity's future course.
One is the force of corporate globalization being advanced by an alliance between the world's largest corporations and most powerful governments. The defining project of this alliance is to integrate the world's national economies into a single borderless global economy that frees the world's largest corporations to move goods and money as they will without governmental intervention. In the eyes of the corporate libertarians, whose primary focus is on financial indicators, this integration is creating the financial resources necessary to end poverty and save the environment, while at the same time increasing human freedom by eliminating repressive governments and spreading democracy throughout the world.
The second force is the global democracy movement advanced by a planetary citizen alliance known as global civil society. Before Seattle '99 this force has found expression in many great social movements of our time, including the civil rights, environmental, peace, and women's movements. Through national democracy movements it has played a critical role in the breakup of the Soviet empire, the fall of apartheid in South Africa. The citizen alliance depends largely on voluntary energy, is radically selforganizing., and is driven by a deep value commitment to democracy, community, equity, and the web of planetary life. Its most visible current focus is on corporate globalization, which in the eyes of the movement's participants is enriching the few at the expense of the many, replacing democracy with rule by corporations and financial elites, destroying the planetary lifesupport system, and eroding the relationships of trust and caring that are the essential foundation of a civilized societyin short, destroying life to make more money for the already wealthy.
These two opposing forces define an epic struggle between popular democracy and global corporate rulebetween a civil society of the whole and a capitalist society that sacrifices working people to the interests of property owners. At a deeper level it is a struggle between life and money for the soul of humanity.
Although the public face of the struggle is political, its roots are cultural and its resolution will depend ultimately on the outcome of a deep global shift in cultural valuesof which the global democracy movement is one manifestation.
Viewed through the lens of twentieth century leftist analysis the global democracy movement is a classic conflict between the working classes and the capitalist classes to be resolved through political struggle grounded in class consciousness. Yet the global democracy movement is more readily defined by shared values and world view than by class. This has important implications for the movement's strategies, because it suggests that political success depends on the awakening of a new cultural consciousness of our deep connection to the whole of lifeboth human and planetaryin all its wondrous variety.
CULTURE SHIFTValues researcher Paul Ray and feminist author Sherry Anderson, in their new book The Cultural Creatives, draw from extensive surveys of adult Americans over a period of some thirty years to make the case that a deep shift in cultural consciousness is occurring in America. Survey data from other countries reveal a similar trend. To describe this shift, Ray and Anderson divide adult Americans into three major cultural groupings.(1)
A variety of international surveys reveal that the patterns identified in America by Ray and Anderson are part of a generalized global trend. The pattern includes a loss of confidence in hierarchical institutionsincluding those of government, business, and religionand a growing trust in their inner sense of the appropriate. Interest in economic gain is decreasing, while desire for meaningful work and interest in discovering personal meaning and purpose in life is increasing.(2)
Leadership among the Cultural Creatives generally comes from among those who combine their outward commitment to family, community, the environment, and internationalism with a rich spiritual life. They align most fully with the values of an integral culturemeaning they honor life in all its dimensions, both inner and outer. These "core" Cultural Creatives, as Ray and Anderson characterize them, are about 12 percent of the adult American population. The social consciousness of the core Cultural Creatives grows out of an inner spiritual consciousness of life's fundamental unitya major source of their optimism about human possibilities.
Core Cultural Creatives are interested in alternative healthcare practices, personal growth and spiritual development, and they are careful, thoughtful consumers. They are pioneering psychological development techniques, restoring the centrality of spiritual practice to daily living, and elevating the importance of the feminine while seeking to recreate political and economic life to align with their values. To this end they are also at the forefront of crafting a new ecological and spiritual world view, a new literature of social concerns and a new problem agenda for humanity.
The cultural groupings described by Ray and Anderson bring into focus the cultural foundation of the struggle between the forces of corporate globalization and the forces of global civil society. Support for both forces is defined more by cultural orientation than by classeven though corporate globalization is creating enormous class disparities.
The focus of Modernists on materialism and the pursuit of individual advantage makes them a natural constituency for corporate globalization. Indeed, the modernist culture provides corporate globalization with its major underpinning of legitimacy. Even capitalism's losersso long as they embrace the values and world view of modernismremain mesmerized by the glitter of consumerism and live the dream that one day lady luck may smile on them and they will win the lottery.
Traditionals also contribute to capitalism's legitimacy through their belief that commercial success is a sign of the individual's righteousness and state of grace in the sight of God. For many Traditionals those who take exception to the established distribution of wealth challenge God's will.
Cultural Creatives, by contrast, have no reluctance to challenge the status quo on any dimension. They are less interested in inserting themselves into positions of power within the existing establishment than with achieving fundamental changes in the structures by which power is allocated. While they are especially inclined to oppose institutions that acknowledge only financial values and destroy life to make money, they are likely as well to be skeptical of any institution that amasses power without accountability.
Cultural values play a major role in determining which institutions we honor. Institutions that lack cultural support have a limited life expectancy, no matter how large their bank accounts or the police and military forces at their command. When values change, the pressures for institutional change grow accordingly. To the extent that the values and world view of the Cultural Creatives come to define the dominant culture of society, the money serving institutions of corporate globalization will face an erosion of their moral legitimacy and thereby their hold on human loyaltyeventually giving away to more life friendly institutional forms.
STORIES MAKE A DIFFERENCEMost important cultural orientations are grounded in a defining story, often a creation story, that provides the culture with its sense of identity, meaning, and purpose. One key to changing a cultural orientation is to change its underlying story.
Many of modernism's dysfunctions can be traced to the story of Newtonian physics that has deeply shaped the cultural foundation of Western societies, and increasingly societies the world over, According to this tale:
The universe resembles a giant clockworks set in motion by a master clock maker at the beginning of creation and left to run down with time as its spring unwinds. In short, we live in a dead and wasting universe abandoned long ago by its creator. Matter is the only reality and the whole is no more nor less than the aggregation of its parts. By understanding the parts we gain dominion over the whole and the power to bend nature to our ends. Consciousness is an illusion, and life only an accidental outcome of material complexity. We humans evolved through a combination of chance genetic mutations and a competitive struggle in which those more fit survived and flourished as the weaker and less unworthy perished. Neither consciousness nor life have meaning or purpose. People are just extremely complicated machines, whose behavior is dictated by knowable natural laws. Competition for territory and survival is the basic law of nature. We cannot expect humans to be or become more than brutish beasts driven by basic instincts to survive, reproduce, and seek distraction from existential loneliness through the pursuit of material gratification. A primary function of the institutions of civilized societies is to use the institutional control structures of hierarchy and markets to channel our dark human instincts toward economically productive ends.
This story has had numerous positive consequences. It liberated Western societies from the stultifying intellectual tyranny of the Church and gave legitimacy to learning through empirical observation. It brilliantly focused attention on mastering the material world and gave rise to extraordinary advances in scientific knowledge and technology that brought previously unimaginable affluence to some 20 percent of the world's population and propelled our species into the new levels of planetary awareness and communication.
At the same time, through its denigration of life and denial of meaning, it has led to the embrace of money as the defining value of contemporary societies and given birth to a hedonistic ethic of material selfgratification, the hierarchical, controloriented megainstitutions of the state and the corporation, and an economic system that rewards greed and destroys life. It gives us no reason to live beyond using our technology to create ever more perfect distractions. It tells us we have nothing higher to which to aspire than to indulge ourselves in material luxury, while absolving us of moral responsibility for the consequences of our actionsthus setting the stage both logically and emotionally for our embrace of capitalism and global corporate rule. It also conflicts with much of the reality of human experience and the findings of contemporary science.
Catholic theologian Thomas Berry makes an eloquent case in The Dream of the Earth that our survival as a species may depend as much as anything on discovering a new story of the cosmic creation that restores spiritual meaning to our lives. Berry and others of the great story tellers of our timesuch as Brian Swimme, Elisabet Sahtouris, Joanna Macy, MaeWan Ho, Lynn Margulies, and Matthew Fox, are drawing from diverse sources ranging from the leading edge of contemporary scientific inquiry to ancient spiritual wisdom to narrate a more uplifting story.
The journey began as much as 15 billion years ago when all the energy and mass of our known universe burst forth from a point smaller than the head of a pin and spread as dispersed energy particles, the stuff of creation, across the vastness of space. With the passing of time these particles, selforganized into atoms that swirled into great clouds that eventually formed into galaxies, and coalesced into stars that grew, died, and were reborn as new stars, star systems, and planets. The cataclysmic energies unleashed by the births and deaths of billions of suns converted simple atoms into more complex atoms and moleculesat each step opening new possibilities for the growth and evolution of the whole. More than 11 billion years later, at least one among the countless planets of the cosmos gave birth to tiny but enterprising living organismssimple singlecelled bacteriathat launched the planet's first great age of invention. They discovered the processes of fermentation, photosynthesis, and respiration that provided the building blocks for what was to follow. They learned to share their discoveries with one another through the exchange of genetic materialcreating the planet's first global communication system. With time these single celled organisms discovered how to join together in cooperative unions to create complex multicelled organisms with capacities far beyond those of the individuals of which they were composed. Our own bodies, composed of some 30 to 70 trillion individual living cells plus an even larger number of assorted beneficial bacteria and fungi, are an extraordinary example of the complex consequences of this experimentation. Continuously experimenting, creating, building, life transformed the planet's very substance into a web of living beings of astonishing variety, beauty, awareness, and capacity for intelligent choice. The universe is best understood as a living, selforganizing system engaged in the discovery and realization of its possibilities through a continuing process of transcendence toward ever higher levels of order and selfdefinition. Consistent with ancient Hindu teachings, matter exists only as a continuing dance of flowing energies yet is somehow able to maintain the integrity of its boundaries and internal structures in the midst of apparent disorder. Similarly, the cells of a living organism, which are in a constant state of energy flux, maintain their individual integrity while functioning coherently as parts of larger wholes. This implies some form of selfknowledge in both "inert" matter and living organisms at each level of organization. Intelligence and consciousness may take many forms and may in some way be pervasive even in matter.How different this unfolding epic is from the old story of the Newtonian scientific tradition. While the old story embraced death as the defining reality the new story fills us with a sense of awe and wonder at the grandeur and the sacred mysteries of a living cosmos engaged in an epic journey of selfdiscovery and calls us to reexamine the philosophical foundations of modern science and theology. Its cosmic metaphor is not the machine, but the organism. Its irreducible building block is not a particle, but a thought.
Rather than banishing the spiritual intelligence and energy we know as God to some distant place beyond our experience, it recognizes spiritual intelligence and energy as integral to all being. It reveals the wonder of life's extraordinary capacity for creative selforganization, infuses our lives with meaning and possibility, and evokes a love and reverence for the whole of life, the miracle of our living planet, and the creative potentials of each person. It reveals the underlying unity of all lifeindeed of all creationand calls us to accept responsibility for our presence on a living planetacting both as mindful stewards of God's creation and as participants in creation's continued unfolding.
The new story opens the way to healing the centuries old breach between science and religion that has left us with an artificial and often schizophrenic separation of our intellectual and spiritual livestorn between a theology that denies the evidence of logic and observation and a science that denies our experience of consciousness and spirit. It allows us to recognize sin as that which is destructive of life and the actualization of life's potential. Equally it allows us to recognize our own capacity for goodness, compassion, and creative engagement in the unfolding drama of creation. In revealing life's ability to selforganize with a mindfulness of both self and whole it affirms our potential to create truly democratic, selforganizing human societies that acknowledge and nurture our individual capacity to balance freedom with responsibility in the service of life.
Given its firm foundation in both modern science and ancient religious wisdom the new story carries a powerful message in support of the beliefs and values of an integral culture and may prove a powerful tool in support of cultural recruitment and consolidation.
FROM CAPITALIST TO CIVIL SOCIETYThe term civil society came into current use with the emergence of the prodemocracy movements in Eastern Europe and is now closely identified with the global democracy movement. The term is appropriately used in two ways. The first is to refer to a radically democratic, lifecentered civil society of free and equal citizens who act with a mindful civic consciousnessthe kind of society the global democracy movement seeks to create. The second is to identify the civil society organizations and movements that are creating authentic cultural, economic, and political spaces toward the creation of a planetary civilization comprised of strong and vital civil societies.(3)
Historically the term civil society traces back to ancient Greece and Aristotle's concept of a politike koinonia or political community, later translated into Latin as societas civilis, or a civil society. Aristotle described the civil society as an ethicalpolitical community of free and equal citizens of good and responsible character who by mutual consent agree to live under a system of law that expresses the norms and values they share. As the law is a codification of the shared cultural values by which the members of society have chosen to live, it becomes largely selfenforcingmaximizing the freedom of the individual and minimizing the need for coercive state intervention. It is an ideal consistent both with our current understanding of the organizing principles of healthy living systems and with freeing the creative potentials of humanity.
Underlying Artistotle's conception is a question that has long engaged political philosophers: What is the nature of a civilized societyin contrast to what until recently was presumed to be the chaos of the wild state of natureand how is the civilized society best ordered. Artistotle took the side of democratic selfgovernance grounded in a culturally embedded civic ethic. Thomas Hobbes, who followed Aristotle by nearly 2000 years, was among those who had a less hopeful view of human nature and argued that if humans are to have an ordered society they must submit to the rule of absolute monarchs who hold the power to hold our aggressive, selfaggrandizing instincts in check.
The issue of monarchy was long ago settled. The choice between authoritarian hierarchy and selforganization, however, is not. The corporation is now the institution of choice among those who seek to impose order on an unruly society through the topdown power of an authoritarian hierarchy. Of course the proponents of corporate globalization style themselves as defenders of democracy and selforganizing markets. They neglect the fact that under the current system of corporate globalization corporations are among the most authoritarian and unaccountable institutions ever created by humans and the largest among them command internal economies larger than those of most states. Their internal structures honor neither the principles of democracy or those of selforganizing markets.
Figures 2 and 3 are inspired by and adapted from discussions with Nicanor Perlas based on his book Shaping Globalization: Civil Society, Cultural Power and Threefolding.(4) Figure 2 outlines three primary spheres of collective life: culture, polity, and economy. Figure 3 uses these categories to present in schematic form some of the key characteristics that distinguish the ideal of a civil society from the reality of contemporary corporate capitalism. The reader will note that the terms corporate globalization and corporate capitalism are used here interchangeably.
In a civil society the institutions of polity and economy are mindful creations of its citizens and naturally reflect and nurture the lifeaffirming values, symbols, and beliefs of an authentic culture of their own creation. This culture, in turn, informs their public participation in the political and economic affairs of the society. Constant citizen engagement assures that the institutions of polity and economy remain responsive to citizen defined public interests and evolve in response to the values and aspirations of an evolving culture. In this model of the civil society the power and values that define the society flow from life's animating spirit to people to institutions.
Grounded in the beliefs and values of the old story as expressed through the modernist culture, capitalist society denies spirit and denigrates life and the human capacity for cooperation and compassion. Money is its measure of value. Life is valued only for its liquidation price; the tree for the sum its wood chips will fetch. Individual purpose is defined in terms of the pursuit of material gratification.
Economy is the dominant sphere of collective life. The institutions of economy systematically coopt the life energies of the individual to the collective purpose of replicating money. The capitalist economy's favored institutionthe public traded, limited liability corporationconcentrates power over productive resources, markets, media, and technology to the service of financial markets that measure performance solely in financial terms. This power is used by the corporate institutions of economy to dominate the institutions of polity and culture to their own ends. The rule making powers of polity and the normative power of culture become instruments of control and manipulation. The message endlessly repeated through the corporate media that the path to meaning, love and fulfillment is through the purchase and consumption of advertised products strengthen the individual's alienation from authentic sources of meaning and identity. The power and values that define the society flow from money to institutions to people.
Control over the systems by which money is created and allocated is the primary source of the power of the institutions of corporate globalization. Their dependence on an inauthentic culture based on illusion and misdirection to maintain their legitimacy in the eyes of society is their Achilles heal. Cultural authenticity is the arena of civil society's strength. For civil society, culture is therefore the arena of choice in which to engage its primary struggle against the political and economic forces of corporate globalization.
CULTURAL FOUNDATION OF CHANGEParker Palmer has articulated a simple model of social change that illuminates how the seemingly soft path of a cultural transformation can translate into a hard path of political and institutional transformation. [See Figure 4] The process begins with the awakening of the individual consciousness. One might think of it as a kind of awakening from our cultural conditioning to recognize how our lives are shaped by the assumptions and underlying values of the culture in which we live. Once the cultural trance is broken the individual experiences an increasingly painful disconnect between what they value and the realities of family, work, and community life grounded in the values of the old culture.
Eventually the individual decides, in Parker's words, "to live divided no more." Attempts to live by authentic values in an inauthentic culture result in a sense of isolation that can be broken only by joining with like minded persons to form communities of congruence. Initially small and isolated unto themselves, these communities eventually meld into larger alliances. Step by step authentic cultural spaces are created and expanded reflecting the authentic values and experience of those who have awakened from the trance of an artificially fabricated culture. As alliances grow they gradually achieve the power to transform the logic and reward systems of society's political and economic institutions.
The process is interactive in that while the culture shift is expanding and deepening the base of the social movements, the social movements are in turn advancing the awakening to authentic values that drives the culture shift. Paul Ray observes that the civil rights movement played a major role in building awareness of the contradictions that drive the larger culture shift now underway and is the foundation on which the success of subsequent social movements has been built.
Ray also believes it appropriate that the various social movements assess their success by their contributions to building a new social consciousnessan arena in which their accomplishments are generally more evident than in the legislative arena. The new consciousness provides a foundation on which deep structural change will subsequently be built.(5) Corporations still rule, but a 1999 Pew poll finding that some 77percent of Americans believe that too much power is concentrated in the hands of a few large corporations.(6) the beginning of the end for corporate tyranny.
We must be aware, however, that individual consciousness does not become a serious force for institutional change until it evolves into a shared public consciousness. The Cultural Creatives are a case in point.
Ignored by the media and the political system, Ray and Anderson report that most Cultural Creatives feel culturally isolated, out of step with the mainstream, and politically disempowered. This explains why the political power of Cultural Creatives is far less than we would expect from their numbers and activism.
The cultural struggle of a declining population of Traditionals against modernism around issues such as abortion and school prayer is well known. The potentially more decisive struggle against modernism of a now larger and rapidly growing population of Cultural Creatives remains unacknowledged. Perhaps the most important consequence of the Seattle WTO protests was the message it sent to the world's Cultural Creatives that they are not alone in their discomfort with the cultural, economic and political forces of modernism and corporate globalization. Many Cultural Creatives found it to be a powerfully energizing moment. This underscores a key fact
The political power of the global democracy movement depends on the organization, public visibility, and size of its cultural base. Facilitating the expansion of authentic cultural spaces that nurture the exploration of creative possibilities may be its most appropriate and promising political strategy.
There are many realistic possibilities. Participants in the global democracy movement can help Cultural Creatives break free of these sense of isolation and powerlessness by making them aware that 50 million people share their values and are emerging as a powerful force for deep social and institutional change. They can facilitate the processes by which Cultural Creatives find others with whom they can create communities from which to reach out to form ever growing alliances.
By spreading the news of the culture shift they can increase public awareness that there are attractive and viable cultural alternatives to the exclusionary values of traditionalism and the materialistic values of modernism. They can discredit the gloomy mantra that "There is no alternative to global capitalism" by demonstrating that significant change is underway. Through protest they can expose the contractions of corporate capitalismparticularly its claim to being the champion of democracy, choice and economic justice. Through their political campaigns they can hone political skills, define issues, and advance public education on critical the policy choices. One of their most powerful options may simply be to spread the new story through their writing and conferences.
TRUTH TELLINGSimple truth telling is an especially powerful culture shift strategy. The legitimacy of global corporate rule rests on a foundation of demonstrably false beliefs imbedded in the corporate reinforced modernist culture. Truth telling becomes a potent counterespecially when the truths told challenge the system's foundation myths. The following are examples of such truths.
Consider the possibilities if the values embodied in these five ideas become a part of society's defining culture. Maintaining and enhancing the living capital of planet and society will surely replace economic growth as the priority of economic policy. Public policies and institutions will stop preaching the merits of global competition and undertake to facilitate cooperative exchange among people, communities, and nations. Aware that their future depends on their current choices, people will turn their creative energies to the task of creating a world that works for all. Priority in the allocation of productive resources will be given to assuring every person, including generations to come, access to the means of creating an adequate and fulfilling livelihood. Corporations and private money would be barred from the public political process and the liberal ideal of democratic selfgovernance may finally be realized.
We find ourselves at a moment of choice and creative challenge without precedent in human history. Within the next twenty to thirty years we must transform a society dedicated to the love of money to a society dedicated to a love of lifeor risk our own extinction. Sustained political struggle will be essential to the outcome. We must recognize that because political victories will likely be few and inconsequential until a critical mass of supporting cultural power is achieved political struggle alone could easily exhaust us to no end. Political struggle designed as one element of a larger cultural strategy is quite another matter.
NOTESDraft of October 17, 2000 (10:33AM)
(1) Paul H. Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson, The Cultural Creatives: How 50 Million People Are Changing the World (New York: Harmony Books, 2000).
(2) Ronald Inglehart, Modernization and Postmodernization: Cultural, Ecnomic, and Political Change in 43 Societies (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997). For a summary report see Duane Elgin and Coleen LeDrew, "Global Paradigm Report: Tracking the Shift Underway," Yes! A Journal of Positive Futures, Winter 1997, p. 21; & Duane Elgin with Collen LeDrew, Global Consciousness Change: Indicators of an Emerging Paradigm (San Anselmo, CA: Millennium Project, 1997). For further information on the work of Elgin visit his web site: www.awakeningearth.org
(3)The term civil society is often used inappropriately to refer to all notforprofit, nongovernmental or third sector organizations. Since many third sector organizations, such as industry associations and nonprofit service providers, are not engaged in advancing a vision of a civil society such usage diminishes an otherwise richly meaningful term to describe a much more distinctive phenomenon that has no other name, and in my view is inappropriate.
(4) The following discussion , including Figures 2 and 3, is inspired and adapted from Nicanor Perlas, Shaping Globalization: Civil Society, Cultural Power and Threefolding (Quezon City, Philippines, Center for Alternative Development Initiatives, 1999).
(5) Paul Ray, personal communication, August 7, 2000.
(6) "The New Economy Voter," Business Week, August 7, 2000, p. 138.