By David Korten / 10.19.2016
In this most bizarre of presidential elections, no one is talking about one of the biggest—if not the biggest—issues of our time. Namely, the global power imbalance between corporations and governments.
Not Donald Trump, as he obsesses over the weight of a long-past Miss Universe. Not Hillary Clinton, despite her many substantive proposals that the media largely ignores. Not even Jill Stein, although she offers many proposals for moving power to the people at the national level.
Earth is dying. A few hundred billionaires are consolidating their control of the Earth’s remaining real wealth. Racism is rampant. And violence devastates millions of lives. These issues do get mention, though less than they deserve. What is not mentioned, the elephant in the room, is that which blocks serious action on these and other critical threats to the human future: the glaring and growing global power imbalance between corporations that represent purely financial interests and the institutions of government we depend on to represent the interests of people and living communities.
The healthy function of society requires that governments be accountable to the electorate and that corporations in turn be accountable to democratic governments. Our ability to deal with every other issue of our time—from climate disruption to inequality to violence—depends on that accountability.
In a complex modern society, government is the essential and primary institution by which communities set the rules within which they organize. Even markets need rules to function in the community interest, and those rules must be made and enforced by government. Claims that a “free” market—a market free from rules—best serves the common good are an ideological fiction born of the dreams of banksters.
No candidate is addressing the global power imbalance issue—and no corporate media outlet will ever call them on it.
The significance of this issue rests on an analysis of the role and power of money in contemporary society.
Not that long ago, most people lived directly from what they harvested from their land—and might barter for other needs. For example, a country doctor might treat a patient in exchange for a chicken. By these and other means, most people minimized their need for money.
As society urbanized and industrialized, people were, by choice or exclusion, separated from the lands and community relationships that provided their means of living with little need for money.
We now live in a society in which our access to food, water, shelter, energy, transportation, health care, education, communication, and most all the other basic essentials of daily life depends on our ability to pay. No money, no life.
Each time we monetize a relationship—for example, replacing a parental caregiver with a paid child care worker or a backyard garden with a trip to the supermarket—we grow GDP and create new opportunities for corporate profits. At the same time, we weaken the loving bond between child and parent and between humans and Earth. And we become more dependent on money.
So what does this have to do with power? The more dependent we become on money, the more dependent we become on the money masters—bankers and corporations—that control our access to money through their control of paid employment, loans, and investments.
We now live in servitude to money masters, who organize globally beyond the reach of democratic institutions and deny responsibility for or accountability to the people and communities they hold hostage. From their position of separation, power, and privilege, they buy politicians, avoid taxes, and take over the institutions of media, education, health care, agriculture, criminal justice, communications, energy, and more.
Though it is a defining issue of our time, politicians who depend on corporate money and media dare not mention the growing power imbalance between corporations and governments and its sweeping implications. They will face it and address it only when forced to do so by “we the people.” Leadership in the cause of democracy and community will come—can only come—from an organized electorate with a power analysis.
Last week, Bayer, a transnational drug and pesticide company, secured funding for its $66 billion offer to acquire Monsanto, the world’s largest producer of agricultural seeds. This follows the announced $130 billion merger of chemical giants Dow and DuPont, and ChemChina’s proposed $43 billion purchase of the seed and pesticide firm Syngenta.
Bayer, DuPont, Dow, Monsanto, and Syngenta are five of the world’s six biggest pesticide and seed corporations. There are claims, which I find credible, that the “Big 6” and their products bear major responsibility for pesticide-resistant weeds and insects, and are implicated in impoverishment of small farmers, collapse of honeybee colonies, water pollution, and loss of biodiversity and soil fertility—all serious attacks on the common good. And similar consolidation continues in most every sector of the economy.
As individual corporations grow in size, global reach, and political power, we see a corresponding shift in the primary function of national governments—from serving the interests of their citizens to assuring the security of corporate property and profits. They apply police and military powers to this end, subsidize corporate operations, and facilitate corporate tax evasion. They let corporations off the hook with slap-on-the-wrist fines for criminal actions. Rarely, if ever, do they punish top executives.
We the People never voted to yield our sovereignty to transnational corporations. Nor was the corporate takeover a response to public need.
The subversion began with the recolonization of developing countries, which I witnessed firsthand while living and working as a development professional in Asia from the late 1970s to the early 1990s. For years, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and national foreign assistance programs had been luring former colonies into funding development projects with debt payable in foreign currency. They could repay only by selling their national assets and the fruits of their labor to foreign corporations.
It became evident in the early 1980s that most borrowing countries could not repay their debts and fulfill their fiduciary responsibility to their own citizens. The World Bank and IMF stepped in as international debt collectors with a corporatist agenda that forced debtor nations to:
1. Slash public expenditures for health and education to provide tax breaks and subsidies to foreign investors;
2. Put public assets and services, including communications, power, and water, up for sale to foreign corporations;
3. Eliminate restrictions on foreign ownership, imports, banks and financial institutions, cross-border financial flows, and the extraction and export of natural resources; and
4. Roll back protections for unions, workers, public health and safety, and the environment.
Emboldened by this success, the corporatists globalized their agenda in the 1990s through international agreements like NAFTA and international organizations like the World Trade Organization (WTO). Step by step, they co-opted politicians and reduced the ability of governments of all countries—creditors and debtors, rich and poor, large and small—to protect and advance community social and environmental interests if doing so might reduce the anticipated profits of a transnational corporation.
In the United States, as corporate profits soared, working people became mired in unpayable mortgage, credit card, and student debt. It grew harder to find a meaningful and secure job at a living wage. Young people gave up expecting they would have better lives than their parents. And we experienced a host of environmental consequences ranging from violent weather events to contamination of drinking water.
There are no simple solutions to this distortion of priorities and its devastating social and environmental consequences. It will require a major restructuring of both governmental and corporate institutions to strengthen democracy and subordinate corporate power to people power.