Tuesday, July 03, 2007

David Korten's Big Theory

It took me a while to get a handle on David Korten and his "Great Turning" notion. I was assigned to cover his talk at the UU General Assembly in Portland, so I read his book The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community. As I said in my Portland, Ho! entry, the book pushed a lot of my buttons, so I had to work through that before I could cover his talk with any objectivity. My view of my role as journalist made that all the more important: I was working for the UUA web site, and the UUA was essentially Korten's host. I don't think that would have obligated me to whitewash what he said, but I do think it obligated me to give him every chance to get his points across. I believe I managed to do that in my account of his presentation.

Part of my problem was nothing personal about Korten, but is something that comes up whenever I read anti-corporate, anti-globalist authors. I share a lot of their conclusions, but for some reason our minds work differently, so that I have trouble pulling any testable hypotheses out of their big theories. So their writings seem to me to have a vaporous quality. They belabor points that seem obvious to me, while ignoring other questions that seem more fundamental. (Probably they think the same things about my writing, if they notice it.)

Anyway, the Great Turning is one of the biggest theories imaginable. It says that human civilization took a wrong turn five thousand years ago and chose to emphasize dominance over cooperation. A whole host of problems is leading to our final realization of the unsustainability of that choice, so that now we have to turn away from dominance and back towards cooperation. It ties together a bunch of ideas of varying degrees of acceptance, from more-or-less established theories like global warming to controversial ones like peak oil, the prehistoric matriarchy, intelligent design, a hierarchical theory of spiritual maturity, framing, and several others that may have slipped my mind.

Now, I love big theories. When postmodernists deride them as "master narratives" I reply: "You say that as if it were a bad thing." My notes these days are full of preparations to write something about how changes in media have influenced the history of religious thought, which certainly qualifies as a big, speculative theory. (You can see the beginning of that theory in my piece from last summer about the relationship between ritual and the preverbal mindset.) But I can't make sense of such a theory until I've answered these questions: Why are we doing this? What questions motivated this whole construction? What parts of the theory are really central, and which ones did we fill in later to patch the holes?

Eventually I came up with answers that satisfied me. Korten started out writing about corporations and globalization in books like When Corporations Rule the World. His arguments then were comparatively present-centered: Corporations are legal abominations that are obligated to seek profit at the expense of every other human value; free-trade agreements are ways for corporations to establish their agenda as paramount and to override or preempt any democratic attempt to favor non-corporate values; poor nations and poor communities are not going to be able to advance until they are able to pursue their own interests democratically rather than being dominated by foreign corporations.

So far, so good. I can translate all this into stuff that makes sense to me.

Then 9/11 happened, and suddenly the anti-corporate arguments seemed wholly inadequate to the challenge. Bush's anti-terrorist agenda swept away everything in its path, and while it seemed intimately connected to the corporate agenda, its arguments hit people on some whole other level. People who ought to have known better started repeating its slogans.

That's when Korten realized he needed a bigger theory, something that would explain not just why corporations and governments were doing things, but why those things garnered the enthusiastic support of ordinary people. That led him to the opposing visions of Empire and Earth Community. ("Empire" is Korten's re-labeling of the feminist "Patriarchy", which I think is a good change. It reminds me of Philip Dick's novel VALIS and its enigmatic line "The Empire never ended.")

These visions could stand on their own in the present, but Korten finds them more compelling if they're attached to a historical big theory, which is where the prehistoric matriarchy and the five-thousand-years-of-Empire come in. I don't find either of these theories all that convincing, so I'm happy to discover that they're separable from the rest.

Then he needs an argument that Empire is heading towards a crack-up. This is where global warming, peak oil, the coming collapse of the dollar, etc. come in. Some of these supporting theories are a whole lot more convincing than the others, so it's important to realize that you just need something in this slot. If you happen to believe that there's a whole lot more oil in the ground than pessimists think, or have an argument that explains why the trade deficit is not such a big deal, that doesn't torpedo the whole Great Turning.

Finally, the Great Turning comes with an action plan, and that plan starts with changing popular worldviews by changing the stories we tell. He doesn't use the term "framing", but that's what it is. Lakoff did it better in Moral Politics. Korten identifies three big stories (i.e. frames) that need to be changed from an Empire version to an Earth Community version: the prosperity story, the security story, and the meaning story. In each case, I found that the Empire version was too much of a caricature and the Earth Community story wasn't compelling. But this is fixable. I think I can write better Earth Community stories, and maybe I will. I don't think Korten would mind.

Korten's section on meaning stories is really awful. He identifies meaning stories with creation stories and gives two parallel Empire versions: the Calvinist God-made-the-rich story and the Darwinist everything-is-meaningless story. His Earth Community meaning story is basically intelligent design with a Dancing-Wu-Li-Masters, bad-quantum-mechanics twist. (The closest I got to snark in my account of his talk at GA was to note that the room went dead silent during this segment.) There's room for a much better liberal religious, meaning-is-what-we-make-it story.

So anyway, this is the scaffolding that I needed to construct around The Great Turning. If you've had as much trouble with it as I did, I hope this helps.


LT said...

Good post.
David Korten spoke at the church I serve and I had some similar responses and questions. What was essential to the theory and what was not?

What gives his presentation power is its appearance of systematicness, or its comprehensiveness. If you think that all political/cultural and economic phenomena are connected, then you have to have a theory which explains why everything is the way it is -- and a theory that explains how it is possible to change everything.
Dialectical and Historical Materialism (or Marxism-Leninism) was the most complete expression of a comprehensive and systematic understanding of the causes of the present world, an explanation of how it works, and a strategy for changing it. As an intellectual effort, Korten's work is rudimentary in comparison.

There is some hubris in trying to assert such a comprehensive understanding -- to try to explain and then change the whole world. The words of Lao-Tse in the reading #604 in the Singing the Living Tradition come to mind. "Those who would take over the earth/And shape it to their will never, I notice, succeed.

hafidha sofia said...

Thanks for the summary. Even getting to the point where folks are willing to consider that there is an "empire" is a struggle. As you said, I don't think Korten would mind people clarifying or improving upon his "big theory."

Anonymous said...


When I was a kid in the South 40 years ago, I would sometimes listen to preachers on the radio. My parents were UUs, but sometimes listened too out of intellectual interest. Most of the preachers told a story very similar to Korten's.

They agreed that humanity had indeed made a serious error about 5,000 years ago, probably in Mesopotamia. They sometimes specified 4004 B.C. as the exact date. They agreed that since then humanity had been in a depraved and deteriorating condition. They further agreed that matters were becoming unsustainable. Often capitalism and international trade were cited as demonic influences. For example the formation of the European Common Market was often cited as evidence that the world was in the End Times.

The also agreed with Korten that the solution was a "great turning", although to Jesus instead of Earth. They claimed all sorts of evidence that such a turning was happening in the current generation, which they explicitly argued was the last generation under the current flawed dispensation.

I guess people just want to believe that the world is coming to an end.

Doug Muder said...

Anonymous is pointing to something that has bothered me for a while. There's a tendency to just turn a story around rather than actually transcend it. The feminist Patriarchy story (which Korten has picked up) is basically a Garden-of-Eden story where Adam is at fault rather than Eve. I'm not sure that's progress.

A similar thing in GT is the way that Empire stories are criticized for being dualistic and Manichean and turning people against each other. Well, that's exactly what the dichotomy of Empire vs. Earth Community does. We've plugged new characters into the story, but we haven't transcended it.

kim said...

I am under the impression that Korten's work is connected with the Saeculum theory of history; though he doesn't mention it overtly, he does use some of the buzzwords. The Great Turning seems to be a sort of Meta-Saeculum.
If you wish to read about the theory, the best book (I'm told -- it's the one I have been told to read first) is The Fourth Turning by William Strauss and Neil Howe. I recommend it.
Strauss and Howe's theory is being taught in Futurist curricula. It is a legitimate theory of how history goes in cycles.

Allison said...

Thanks, Doug. That does help me understand the idea in a way that doesn't make me react so negatively. I definitely agree about telling new stories.

There are still two things that bother me about the theory.

One is the idea that everything is interconnected, so if you're in any way connected to Empire, which is evil, you are 100% evil. This may have been an addition of the person who presented the theory to me in a sermon. It was the only time I've ever felt damned in church. I felt completely and irredeemably a horrible person.

The sermon also came at a time when I was struggling against self-destructive perfectionism, and it was the exact wrong message for me. I think the theory encourages "perfect" at the expense of better. (Again, perhaps this was more about the minister giving the sermon, though he has studied the issue deeply.)

The other is that I feel like the anti-scientific mindset runs deeper than the dancing-wu-li-masters quantum. I get the impression that most of science is Empire.

As you can see, there are personal reasons I react so strongly in the negative, but I think there's something behind it. I'm curious if anyone has responses or rebuttals to these points.

Doug Muder said...

It's been a while, but I think I read The Fourth Turning, and I know I read Generations. I'm not seeing the connection. There's no cycle in Korten's theory -- Empire was just a mistake and we need to stop doing it.

kim said...

Yeah -- I saw the connection because when I asked Sara Robinson (of Orcinus) about there possibly being a meta-saeculum, she said yes they are talking about it at GA and calling it the Great Turning. That's why I went to his presentation at all. I don't see an overt connection either, but as I said, he did use a few of the buzzwords. It's a bigger cycle than the saeculum, so maybe he didn't want to complicate things by going into the cyclicity of it. Who knows....?