Round in Circles: a review of David C. Korten’s The Great Turning

Part One: Politics By Another Name

Over the last few months, as my posts on this blog have strayed from the brass tacks of dealing with peak oil’s consequences, and wandered deeper into the murky territory of mythic narratives and cultural history underlying the predicament of industrial society, quite a few people online and off have asked about my opinion of David Korten’s 2006 book The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community. The questions come naturally, since Korten deals with many of the same issues I’ve tried to address in The Archdruid Report – the centrality of the stories we tell about the world, for example, and the role of history in defining the choices we face in the present – but proposes a different and, to many people, more appealing response than the hard road of personal responsibility and acceptance of natural limits I’ve advocated.

Still, most often up to now I’ve ducked questions about Korten’s book. My initial take on it – based, I freely admit, on nothing more solid than a few minutes spent flipping through its pages at a local progressive bookstore – was that it was just one more naive utopian fantasy projecting its author’s dream of a world he likes onto the inkblot patterns of the deindustrial future. But I finally made time to read it, and it turns out I was quite wrong. The Great Turning is anything but naive, and though it uses the rhetoric of Utopian fantasy it does so in pursuit of a far more pragmatic agenda.

This may be less of a ringing endorsement than it sounds, because that agenda actually has nothing constructive to offer the world as we approach the difficult years in the twilight of the industrial age. Still, it answers a question of some importance to the peak oil movement. For several years now I have been wondering when the first significant figures on the edge of the political mainstream would start trying to coopt peak oil as a weapon in the quest for political power. With the publication of The Great Turning, that moment has arrived.

You have to read The Great Turning carefully to make sense of its political dimension, because the basic narrative that provides its structure obscures that dimension very effectively. The narrative starts by defining two organizing principles for human culture, leading to two possible futures. The first principle Korten calls “Empire.” He spends many pages defining exactly what Empire is and what it does, but those can be summed up readily by describing it as an early 21st century progressive Democrat’s version of evil incarnate. Thus it predictably includes every policy supported by the current US administration. The inevitable future of Empire is what Korten calls the “Great Unraveling,” something not too different from the model of catabolic collapse I’ve proposed here and elsewhere.

Korten’s second principle is Earth Community, which can be summed up with equal facility as everything an early 21st century progressive Democrat considers good. The future toward which Earth Community moves, in Korten’s view is the “Great Turning,” a worldwide change of heart in which people everywhere up and abandon all their Empire-derived bad habits and create a peaceful, just, and sustainable society for all. While Empire has had things pretty much all its own way since before the beginning of recorded history, Earth Community is inherently stronger because, well, it’s so much nicer than Empire, not to mention the Great Unraveling. And this, Korten says, is why believers in Earth Community need to adopt the tactics lately used by the neoconservative movement, seize control of the cultural dialogue, and convince the masses to follow their lead into the brave new world of the Great Turning.

It’s a remarkable scheme, though not an especially original one, and some of its features deserve attention. Notably, it defines the world with a level of moral dualism strident enough to make a third-century Gnostic blush. In place of the sloppy and richly human realities of politics and culture in the world we actually inhabit, The Great Turning offers up a one-dimensional morality play in which Empire and Earth Community are the only options, and the choice between them is a choice between absolute evil leading to planetary suicide, on the one hand, and radiant goodness leading straight on to utopia on the other. Third options and moral ambiguity apparently do not exist in Korten’s cosmos.

His scheme also has a problem, a massive one, with reification. (Those of my readers who aren’t philosophy geeks may want to know that this is the logical mistake of treating an abstraction as a concrete reality.) The concept of “Empire” is a textbook example. In effect, Korten’s simply taken everything he doesn’t like about contemporary industrial society, piled it in a heap, and dressed up the resulting mass in a Snidely Whiplash costume, as though it’s an active and villainous presence in its own right rather than an abstract label for one end of a complex spectrum of human social behavior. Granted, reification is one of the most widespread bad habits in current political discourse, and so it’s not surprising to see it here, but The Great Turning relies on it to an extent few other recent books can match.

Yet the point that seems most important to me about all this is the way it moves at once into what, to students of history, is an uncomfortably familiar kind of doublespeak. In Korten’s view, what makes the tactics of today’s neoconservatives wrong is not that these tactics are morally despicable in themselves; they’re bad solely because the neoconservatives are using them on behalf of Empire, and they become good when proponents of Earth Community take up the same tactics and use them instead. In the same way, a belief system that belongs to Empire is an ideology while a belief system that belongs to Earth Community is an “emerging values consensus,” and when one group of people tell another group of people what to do, it’s the domination of an imperial elite if they speak for Empire, but inspired leadership helping to birth a better world if it serves the interests of Earth Community.

That Earth Community will have leaders, by the way, is something Korten states explicitly. He even sets out exactly who those leaders will be, by way of a political redefinition of developmental psychology that takes up a substantial portion of The Great Turning. The short form is that there are five stages of human psychological and spiritual development. The first, Magical Consciousness, is normal for children from two to six, and focuses on a belief in powerful, magical beings, some benevolent and others malevolent. The second, Imperial Consciousness, is normal from six to twelve and focuses on the ability to control one’s surroundings without any regard for others. The third, Socialized Consciousness, is normal from twelve to sometime after thirty, and focuses on the values and mores of the prevailing culture. The fourth, Cultural Consciousness, can (but does not always) emerge after thirty, and focuses on an inclusive world view founded on liberal political principles. The fifth, Spiritual Consciousness, is only achieved in old age by those whose sense of the oneness of all creation leads them into an even greater commitment to liberal ideals.

What turns this scheme into a political weapon is Korten’s argument that under Empire, most adults remain stuck in immature developmental stages. The more someone’s values and opinions differ from Korten’s, the more firmly he labels them “developmentally challenged” – not exactly a value-free term, given that it’s currently an accepted euphemism for what, in my school days, was called mental retardation. Now the astonishing arrogance implicit in the claim that anyone’s level of psychological and spiritual development can be measured by the extent to which they agree with some particular ideology – excuse me, an “emerging values consensus” – is one thing, but the political implications of a scheme that assumes that some people are naturally suited to lead, and others ought by rights to follow them, is something else again.

Go through The Great Turning with an eye to Korten’s comments about leadership, and a very clear picture emerges of the people he thinks ought to be running the world. They belong to the upper two levels of consciousness, of course, which means that they agree with the “emerging values consensus” of The Great Turning, and also means that all of them are of middle age or older – people below thirty, remember, are by definition stuck in a lower level of consciousness. They have spent time with people of many different cultures, and thus – in terms of today’s world – belong to the middle and upper classes, the people who have the opportunity to travel widely. They do not have influential positions in current economic and political systems; rather, they are attracted to leadership roles in social movements opposed to Empire. Compare each of these points to the details of David Korten’s own biography and it’s hard to miss the conclusion that he thinks the world basically ought to be run by David Korten.

Now as it happens, I fill pretty much all the qualifications Korten outlines for leaders of Earth Community. I was raised in a multicultural family, I’ve traveled abroad, I’m well past thirty, I don’t have a high-ranking or –paying position in business or government, and I serve without salary as the Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America (AODA), a church of Druid nature spirituality with a strong environmental focus. My social and political views, for that matter, are a good deal closer to Korten’s than the above critique might suggest. With all this in mind, I have to say that Korten’s claim that people like me are uniquely suited to lead the world would likely scare me silly if it didn’t make me laugh so hard.

Intellectual idealists like the two of us are, if anything, uniquely unsuited to leadership roles in political life. Politics, as the saying goes, is the art of the possible; it demands a facility for compromise, a readiness to find common ground with people of radically divergent ideals and interests, and a willingness to make room for moral complexity and human fallibility. Idealists are notoriously bad at all these things because they get caught up in the play of abstractions, and too often fail to notice that the real world doesn’t necessarily follow the abstract models we define for it. The results, as a glance at history shows, range from comic-opera ineptitude to Hell on earth.

Yet the seductive notion that the intelligentsia ought to run the world has a long history behind it. In next week’s post, I plan on exploring that history as a way to put Korten’s project into perspective and see how such projects promise to play out as the deindustrial age dawns.