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Leading Activists ask if Corporations are Organisms


how to participate in this conference



Dear friends,

Wow!  I am so excited to tell you about this online conference, March 3-20, 2000.  It will feature dialogues among some of the most influential people in my life (and perhaps yours) -- people like Ernest Callenbach, Fritjof Capra, Noam Chomsky, Hazel Henderson, David Korten, Frances Moore Lappe and Ralph Nader.  Perhaps even more remarkable is that they are going to be talking about the challenge presented by corporations AS BIOLOGICAL ORGANISMS, as gigantic life-forms competing with us for resources and life-options.

In my eyes, this is a breakthrough.  Never before have significant social change groups or leading activists talked seriously about large-scale human systems as living entities.  I believe this opens the door to new directions in activism -- not only in limiting the power of malignant human systems, but in enhancing the healthy capacities of more benign human systems.  This, of course, is the work I've been pursuing for almost a decade.  So this is personally exciting for me as well as transformationally promising for all of us.

Most activists would be surprised to learn that thousands of intelligent people think of organizations as living, adaptive systems -- even as biological organisms.  Most such living-systems thinkers are consultants and executives who use such "new science" insights to increase corporate effectiveness -- to make bigger profits... to more efficiently change the Earth into commodities... to more successfully reshape ecosystems, communities and societies into servants of corporate expansion... the kinds of things most activists don't like.  On the bright side, they often create less hierarchical, more interesting and creative workplaces.  Often they go beyond "biological systems thinking" to incorporate the powerful insights of chaos and complexity theories, field theory, quantum mechanics and relativity, cybernetics, and a variety of holistic perspectives -- applying them all to the human systems in and around their organizations.  One of the literary classics of all this is Margaret Wheatley's recently revised and reissued LEADERSHIP AND THE NEW SCIENCE: DISCOVERING ORDER IN A CHAOTIC WORLD, originally published in 1992, when it was widely acclaimed as "the best business [or leadership] book" -- of the year, of the decade, of all time... In short, a great book.  I recommend it very highly.  Many of you know Meg Wheatley as one of the earliest social-transformation visionaries in the Y2K movement.  Others of you already know her organizational transformation work.  She is a remarkable agent of change.  I've been quite surprised over the years to find out how many brilliant, passionate change agents are operating as organizational consultants in the corporate world and government -- a fact that reveals my own history and biases.

Meanwhile, people working for progressive, environmental, community-building or pro-democracy causes -- my lifelong activist community -- have hardly ever discussed corporations as living systems or biological entities -- or applied the new scientific knowledge or metaphors to their activism.  Most activists seem quite oblivious to the powerful new-science-based management experiments going on in corporations -- and even in the military.  Traditional activism is an expression of what many refer to as the "Newtonian-mechanistic worldview":  i.e., that we live in a world of objects and forces, where the challenges are quantity, speed, resistence, prediction, control.  If you blend this mechanistic perspective with mythic narratives of White Knights (us) battling the Darth Vaders (them), you get something like the activism I've been part of for most of my life, that is deep in my bones, even as I try to change it.  For decades we have been mobilizing our good forces to battle various (bad) dominant powerholders, using cause-and-effect strategies and brilliant David-and-Goliath heroism and hard work to overcome (or at least slow down) those we see as dominators and destroyers.  Many of us envision corporations as gigantic buildings all over the world... or as masses of faceless men-in-suits rushing around cutting deals... or as nighmare legal fictions which will vanish if we can just wake up from the legal spell we've been under, of "corporate personhood and limited liability".  The one thing we _don't_ think of corporations as, is organisms.

This difference in viewpoints -- the corporate consultants' and executives' living systems/new-sciences view of organizations, and the activists mechanistic/mythic view of social change dynamics -- has, in my view, served to empower corporations and undermine social change efforts.  This isn't to say that activists are not effective, or that we should abandon all linear, adversarial forms of activism.  But it is pretty clear who is making the most progress nowadays.  So I eagerly welcome activists exploring the new sciences for their implications for activism, just as the corporate people have been exploring the new sciences -- for more than a decade -- for new approaches to productivity and market share.

My own living-systems activist thinking has focused less on the dynamics of corporations and more on the dynamics of communities and societies.  I believe we need to better understand both --

   - what we need to work AGAINST (the growing power
         of toxic collective organisms like many large
         multinationals and bureaucracies), AND
   - what we need to work FOR (the growing power/
         intelligence/wisdom of life-supporting collective
         organisms like communities and cultures).

The conference described below is well organized to explore the former -- the dangerous mega-organisms we need to work AGAINST.  Since I've recently been invited to participate in the conference, I will certainly be talking about how we can effectively work FOR the giant, benign social organisms that we are all part of -- our communities and societies -- to make them healthier, stronger, wiser and less harmful to the natural systems around us.  If we're _really_ lucky and wise, some of us in this conference might even combine the new sciences with some very old spiritual and indigenous understandings to discover radically different forms of creative activism so effective that we no longer need to fight AGAINST things so much, because the whole flow of Life is working with us, and we with It.  (I know I'm dreaming here, but I sense we're moving into times where anything is possible, and I can smell the bakery around the corner....)

In any case, the fact that leading activists are now interested in thinking in terms of living systems theory is so new and important that I suspect the mere calling of this conference constitutes a significant breakthrough.  If, during the conference, some of the participants discover the social change potentials of focusing on improving the capacities of communities and political systems, then this event may well prove to be a watershed.  I'll be working for that.

But enough of my verbiage.  I turn you over now to the verbiage of others.  I've included below some tantalizing descriptions of the conference and its related ideas.  More information -- including more theoretical papers -- are available at the conference website .   You are all invited to watch, at least.  The organizers are still figuring out what sort of public participation makes sense, so stay in touch if you're interested.

What a time to be alive... even as a little living system like me.




- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Invitation to an Interdisciplinary Internet Colloquium
on Corporate Being and Life on Earth
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Are Corporate Bodies Really Alive?
(Are they now Earth's dominant species?)

BigBody Wakeup / BigBody Shakeup

Living System Perspectives
on Corporate Evolution, Anatomy
and Eco-Social Pathologies
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _


Although immense corporate bodies now wield definitive influence
over our economy, politics, educational agenda and popular
consciousness, curiously little attention has been paid to their
evolution, common attributes or basic nature.

Many decades ago, large organizations were recognized as true
"living systems." That is, they behave purposefully, cohere over
time, adapt to their environment, ingest/process/excrete
substances, display homeostatic reflexes, maintain an internal
sense of self/identity, respond (aggressively/ defensively) to
perceived threats, learn, grow, multiply, age, die, etc.

Astoundingly, the full implications of this insight - that our species
shares the biosphere with an exponentially larger, more powerful
and rapidly evolving life form that may not necessarily share our
values or aspirations - have never been adequately explored. For
those who sense these bodies, scale and activities now pose a
clear and present danger to our cultures, environment or
evolutionary future, let that exploration begin here...


"A fascinating conceptual breakthrough."
          - - David Korten

"Extraordinarily imaginative and important ideas."
          - -  Howard Zinn


"The task is not so much to see what no one has yet seen,
but to think what nobody has yet thought,
about that which everybody sees."
      - - Erwin Schrödinger

"Now, if the cooperation of some thousands of
millions of cells in our brain can produce our consciousness, a true
singularity, the idea becomes vastly more plausible that the
cooperation of humanity, or some sections of it, may determine
what Comte calls a Great Being."
     - - J.B.S. Haldane

"A power has risen up in the government greater than the people
themselves, consisting of many, and various, and powerful bodies,
combined into one mass, and held together by the cohesive power
of the vast surplus of the banks."
      - - John C. Calhoun

"The government has ceased to function,
the corporations are the government."
      - - Theodore Dreiser

"Nothing vast enters
the life of mortals
without a curse."
     - - Sophocles



- Conference Overview
- Background
- Preliminary Reference Papers



March 3rd (Friday) ~20th (Monday)

(Capitalized surnames have been contacted
and provisionally agreed to cooperate)

John Perry BARLOW
Frijof CAPRA
Michael Crichton
Richard Dawkins
Charles DERBER
Mae Wan HO
Dee Hock
Frances Moore LAPPE
Lynn Margulis
James Grier MILLER
Michael Moore
Kirkpatrick SALES
Vandana Shiva
David Suzuki
David Sloan WILSON




"Are Corporations Really Alive?" is the first interdisciplinary online
conference on the evolution, physiology, behavioral patterns and
eco-social impact of large living systems, specifically the powerful
corporate bodies that now dominate our economy, media and
governance. Participants have been invited from the fields of living
systems theory, evolutionary biology, history, political science,
mass communications, environmental protection, corporate
sociology, economics and science fiction. All are invited to
contemplate and address such themes as:

The Evolution Of Large Corporate Bodies
Including genesis and prototypes of vast bureaucratic entities (e.g.,
early military legions; Catholic Church; Euro-imperial chartered
corporations & "trading companies"; 19th century trusts,
monopolies & holding companies; state socialist bureaucracies;
zaibatsu, keiretsu & diversified conglomerates; et rapidly accreting
cetera); corporate Darwinism; evolutionary competition with other
species (e.g., ours); etc.

Corporate Membranes, Identity and Vitality
Including the objective nature of attention structure, organizational
bonds, and esprit de corps; the psychology of self-surrender/self-
sacrifice/self-synchronization; the demographic distributions of
hierarchy-friendly vs hierarchy-averse individuals; how the
distribution can be skewed by education, propaganda and other
forms of social conditioning; etc.

Corporate Physiology and Metabolism
Including various paradigms of nutrient/resource acquisition
(feeding), processing (digestion) and production/disposal

Corporate Taxonomy
Including different models of corporate conformation (e.g.,
commercial, religious, military, communist/socialist, worker-
controlled, etc.)

Corporate Ethology
Including corporate bodies' common modes of behavior with
respect to competitors, recalcitrant constituents, unprotected
resources, societal/ environmental restraints; institutional memory;
learning functions; etc.

Corporate Scale and Eco-Social Pathology
Including consideration of:
- the scale at which corporate bodies lose meaningful contact with
the earth, local society and/or basic human concerns;
- the corporate accelerated pace of technological change and
cultural disruption;
- the effects of corporate media on civil society, consumption and
consciousness; etc.

Corporate Dominion vs Democratic Rule
- the problematic endowment of corporate bodies with human
- their rapid acquisition/consolidation of social/political power;
- conflicts between their monotonic economic agendas and other
dimensions of value.


Asynchronous Caucus computer conference : At least once
each day for the week of the conference, conferees present
perspectives, follow debate and contribute comments via email
or fax or directly to the home page where the conference is
presented. (Detailed explanations of each mode of
participation will be forwarded to each participant in advance
along with further Delphi-style briefing papers.)


Conferees : Read/Write - Each conferee is requested to read
and respond to other participants' contributions at least once
each day for the term of the conference via email, fax or the
conference homepage. (BIGBODY WAKEUP)

Guest/observers (general public) : Read only (but self-
registered guests may write to a separate comment page for
moderated forwarding to the conferees. Exceptionally active
and insightful guests may occasionally be invited to participate
directly in the conference. (BIGBODY SHAKEUP)

All proceedings will be archived for enduring online reference and
later edited (with conferees' aid and consent) for publication.

See: how to participate in this conference




Ever since James Grier Miller's interdisciplinary opus "Living
appeared in the early '70s, there has been a widening
recognition of the unique semi-autonomous life forms that either
comprise or surround human being. Miller's research teams listed 7
levels of animate singularity including the cell, organ, individual,
group, organization, nation-state and transnational
commercial/financial/security system. Lovelock and Margulis later
escalated this hierarchy yet another level by defining the Earth
itself as Mother living system of all, and evolutionary biologist
Richard Dawkins added a new conceptual basement to
accommodate the realm of the self-ish, purposeful gene.

While the "lower" levels (up to the individual) and even the full
"Gaian" system now enjoy gratifying academic scrutiny, there has
been curiously little interest in applying living system analysis or
insights to larger collective life forms. That is, while most observers
admit that vast corporate entities (herein generically termed Big
Bodies) now exercise predominant power over our economies,
politics, media, and even educational agendas, as a "species" of
living system these bodies remain resolutely unexplored in
academia, undebated in social discourse, and ill- defined in the
public mind.

(While much may be said about this corporation or that industry,
as a society we still stand mute before these bodies as an
emergent new class of being, and continue to treat terms such as
social organism, leviathan, corporate body, etc. as quaint
metaphors rather than heuristically useful descriptions of meta-
biological entities.

Even though corporate bodies now legally command the same
rights and privileges as "natural persons" in society at large, and
their behaviors now deeply affect our consciousness, societies and
environment, Multinational Monitor's Rob Weissman recently
recounted that a comprehensive subject search of US doctoral
theses over the last two decades did not turn up a single paper that
even attempted to address corporations as active purposeful
systems. That is, no aspiring Ph.D. candidates of late have
bothered to:
       - examine corporations as a historically
             new class of social entities;
       - systematically assess their evolutionary
             antecedents or societal impact;
       - compare corporate life forms' common
             physiological or behavioral traits;
       - analyze their phenomenal modern growth
             and rise to power; or
       - even explore organismic terms for corporate
             bodies as a heuristic tool.

Given the lack of serious scholarship, media debate or social
commentary on the evolutionary or animate aspects of large
corporate entities, this will probably be the first conference ever to
address these issues, let alone examine these bodies as
pathogens with respect to the eco-social surround.

(While Big Bodies have marshaled enormous PR resources to tout
their benevolence and indispensability, there has been remarkably
little attention paid to the systemic harm that large scale
organizations visit upon our social and natural environments. There
are fortunate signs from the increasingly alarmed activist/populist
community that this is about to change.

"Practically every progressive struggle--campaign finance reform,
sweatshops, family farms, fair trade, health care for all,
unionization, military spending, tax reform, alternative energy,
healthy food, media access, hazardous waste dumps, redlining,
alternative medicine, you name it--is being fought against one
cluster of corporations or another. But it is not that corporation over
there or this one over here that is the enemy. It is not one
industry's contamination of our drinking water or another's
perversion of the lawmaking process that is the problem--rather it is
the corporation itself that must be addressed if we are to be a
free people... The piecemeal approach to fighting corporate abuses
keeps us spread thin, separated, on the defensive, riveted on the
minutiae, and fighting on their terms. Piecemeal battles must
certainly continue, for there are real and immediate corporate
harms to be addressed for people and communities. But it's time
for our strategic emphasis to shift to the offensive, raising what I
believe to be the central political issue for the new century: Who
the hell is in charge here?" - - Jim Hightower)


Ref #1: Personal communication from Ernest Callenbach, 11/20/99
Excerpts from a work in progress  [given below]

Ref #2: Excerpts from "E PLURIBUS YAMATO:
The Culture of Corporate Beings" by W.D. Kubiak

Ref #3: Excerpts from LUSIONS - Suggestive Parallels between
Japanese Corporations and Biological Systems; collated by WDK

Ref #4: Reviews & Excerpts from "THE LIVING COMPANY" by
Arie de Geuss, a lifelong executive in the Royal Dutch/Shell Group.

Ref #5: "Levels of Evolutionary Selection: Groups vs. Individuals"
by David Sloan Wilson


Ref #1: Personal communication from Ernest Callenbach
      Nov. 20, 1999 Excerpted from a work in progress:

"The insight that corporations are a kind of organism that has
infested our modern world is not original with me. I claim only to
begin the task of spelling out the "natural history" of this unique
life form as we encounter it today. We might suspect that
corporations are a life form because of their name: a corpus, in
Latin, is a body. But the realization has been slow to dawn...

"To understand an organism, we must study:
      - its genetic script and how it is transmitted
      - its structure and physiology
      - its food or energy sources
      - its metabolism, including its ingestive,
           digestive and excretory systems
      - its evolutionary origins, as far as we can
           determine them.
Only then can we understand its ecology - its place in the
biological universe...

"Corporations relate powerfully and intricately with other aspects of
their environment, not only the biological world but also with the
lives and behavior of nations and international organizations. They
control immense physical and monetary resources. Immortal, in
principle, they live on far beyond the lifetimes of their founders or
any individual human participants...

"Corporations can seem abstract and incorporeal, despite the
overwhelming power we know they mobilize. Their control over the
human cells that make them up is largely invisible to our conscious
minds. But as it grows more absolute, this control also becomes
more obvious to those who learn how to see it...

"Corporations are special kinds of living beings. In one sense they
appear to be utterly fictive ("legal fictions"), created by acts of
legislation and maintained only by the allegiance of other
organisms, namely humans. In daily reality, however, as we know
from the experience of practically every moment of our
contemporary waking lives, they have not only the physical reality
of comprising persons, technological/ architectural facilities, and
communications capabilities but immense force. They act as
organisms for concerted purposes with predictable patterns of
behavior. We constantly speak of corporations as if they were living
beings; the business pages are full of news and speculation about
what individual corporations are up to. Such manners of speaking
indicate our folk wisdom about corporations, and I believe folk
wisdom here is perfectly correct...

"Corporate beings have evolved over a considerable history and
doubtless they are evolving even now, as all living species do.
However, until we grasp their present strategies for survival and
proliferation, we will be utterly unable to predict their future - much
less combat their dominance."