Corporate Dominance of Every Aspects of Our Lives Is Suffocating us
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Are we all corporate shills? That's the thesis of Doug Rushkoff's provocative new book Life Inc.: How the World Became a Corporation and How to Take it Back.
Rushkoff, the new media theorist who came up with the term "viral media" in the early 1990s to describe how advertising concepts replicate in the virtual world like fast moving viruses, is now arguing that the corporate values of business, profit, and consumerism have so infected our lives that we are no longer cognizant life can be lived any other way. We are victims of a dysfunctional societal relationship -- one that has come to seem so normal we are almost incapable of processing of how screwed up it really is.
The corporation, one might say, has gone viral.
Rushkoff's epiphany came via a Christmas Eve mugging in the leafy brownstone liberal Brooklyn enclave of Park Slope. When he turned to a local parenting listserv to tell of his experience, his virtual first responders did not offer sympathy. Instead, they castigated him for publicly naming the block where the crime occurred, for fear it would damage local real estate values.
"It's as if the world itself were tilted, pushing us toward self-interested, short-term decisions, made more in the manner of corporate shareholders than members of a society," Rushkoff writes. "The more decisions we make in this way, the more we contribute to the very conditions leading to this awfully sloped landscape."
The corporation developed in the Renaissance, as royal governments attempted to hold onto their power and wealth in the face of rising capitalist merchant class tide. Corporations, in a sense, even founded the United States; We forget that colonists at Jamestown and Plymouth were not simply go-it-alone adventurers and religious zealots seeking wealth and religious freedom, but were sponsored by chartered business enterprises.
The corporation's most recent heyday occurred post World War II, where government officials, desperate to avoid another calamitous economic depression and violent upheaval, instead convinced Americans of the value of consumerism and business to save our lives. We are now living with the results of that decision. Everything from the deserted and boarded up main streets of our small suburban towns to the winner-take-all financial economy of bloated bonuses, banking crashes and flat-out fraud is the result.
So what to do? Rushkoff argues the answer is within all of us. Think local, think small, think about your community as a collection of individuals in need of help and support, not a temporary real estate investment. In the end, his message has much in common with another cri di coeur of 21st century American life, Sam Lipsyte's 2005 novel Home Land. In his marvelous speech near the end of the book, Home Land's narrator/protagonist Lewis Minor tells his fellow high school alumni how to live their lives, which includes many of the points Rushkoff hits on in his non-fiction jeremiad. "Don't expect a goddamn handout from the very people who have worked so hard to hijack your opportunities …Have faith. Take stock. Take five. Never surrender. Live to fight another day. Better a dead dog than sleeping all the time."
AlterNet sat down with Rushkoff recently to discuss how the corporation became us and what we can do to recover.
Helaine Olen: How do we internalize corporate values? How does it happen?
Doug Rushkoff: It happens over time. What happens is corporations like automobile industry have a need for roads or the energy industry has a need for regulation that doesn't let people use solar. So they go to government and get laws written that change -- they get laws written to get the things they want. So they basically steer the rail road through the real estate that they want to own or the automobile industry wants more people to use cars, so they get their guy in to be Secretary of Defense and he builds roads for cars and develop suburbs that require people to use cars to get to work. The next generation that grows up with things being that way, thinks that things just are that way. So the way we internalize corporate values is by assuming that the rules that are in place are pre-existing conditions of the universe rather than rules made by certain people at certain times.
Helaine Olen: Do you think Americans are susceptible to the lure of corporate values than other nations? We were founded as a corporation. Jamestown was sponsored by a corporation. So was the Mayflower. Is it in our blood?
Doug Rushkoff: What's in our blood more it is the need to believe. We are very, we are idealistic, optimistic, Calvinist spiritual people. So we have got that Frank Baum yellow brick road and that longing for heaven for reward that disconnects us from the moment That's why we are so susceptible to consumerism and propaganda. It's so beautiful that we want to believe. But the belief itself is disconnecting.
Helaine Olen: When do you feel it took off in this country? Reaganism is the traditional blame period but in Life Inc. you reference an earlier period.
Doug Rushkoff: I would say that the last great reset moment we could have had was when veterans were returning from World War II. FDR and his administration feared that the veterans would be crazy and have all this civil unrest. The government with folks like the Levitt Brothers to develop communities that isolated men from one another, focus them on the nuclear family and pre-occupied them instead with collecting consumer goods which would in turn keep the industrial age economy growing as needed to.
Helaine Olen: One on one level you could say it worked. We've not had a major war in 60 yrs. Is that a bad thing?
Doug Rushkoff: It worked but there are some consequences to the way it worked. In order to keep the economy growing at that rate, we had to create a consumer society of people looking for short term satisfaction over long term work. We ended up creating an economy that's much more dependent on speculation than it is the creation of real goods. We ended up having to expand through use of geopolitical terror because colonialism was over. So we ended up really destroying lot of developing nations in order to develop ourselves and we ended up in the long run bankrupting ourselves.
Helaine Olen: It was a temporary fix then?
Doug Rushkoff: It was a temporary fix, I mean everything is a temporary fix when you look at it as a fix which is why we have got to the point where, we are going to have to learn to do something and create, we are going to have to create value.
Helaine Olen: So we are going to back to reset again?
Doug Rushkoff: Right, either we would have to create value or the other alternative is to develop a fiscal policy that's based on model of abundance rather than the model of scarcity. Creating scarce markets for things works really well when there is a scarce market for things. If we can flip that and think or maybe an act we actually have enough food and stuff that we could probably, I couldn't do believe this we could get by in just America, we could probably each of those work maybe two days a week and have all the stuff we need.
Helaine Olen: Does the Internet help us or does it hurt us? The Internet was supposed to save us from all this but it seems to have turned into uber-Big Brother instead. Was it always oversold, did corporate interest infiltrate it or are we so corporate ourselves we made it in our image?
Doug Rushkoff: We are just simply corporate ourselves and we made it in our image again. The computer and Internet are modeling systems and we could have used them to model anything and we chose to use them to model the economy as we currently understood it, but we are still in the beginning we are still in the opening rallies. So I think the... the beauty of the Internet is that it has made people understand an abundant economy.
Helaine Olen: So how do you work for that?
Doug Rushkoff: Convincing people to stop outsourcing all of their economic activity, consumption and production to extremely inefficient long distance corporations that extract the human value without creating any values. You lose all your leverage. That's not to say that everyone has to do everything in some protest against every corporation out there but what if you reclaim the 90% of stuff that you can do locally or with friends and just give corporations 10% of what they need? It's the most activist thing you can do. Just the idea that people are now going to save maybe eight percent instead of three percent of their money has people shuddering in finance.
Helaine Olen: Just start with one small step . . .
Doug Rushkoff: That one small step is so big.
Helaine Olen: You talked about how that corporation was created during the Renaissance. Why does it persist?
Doug Rushkoff: It persisted because kings rewrote laws to preserve corporations whenever I mean corporation. Corporations were invented by kings as a way they could make money by having money and creating no value themselves. So they granted monopoly charters to their friends in return for shares in those companies. And it persisted because the kings were able to write laws that gave corporations unfair advantage at every term. So whenever corporations have been threatened by some form of competition or another, the king or in our era government ends up rewriting the laws to favor corporate activity over competitive local, small business activity. It's just corruption.
Helaine Olen: One thing I like about your book was, one said it was not traditionally political, I mean, you start out by attacking your former rather left wing neighborhood as much as more traditional right wing bugaboos.
Doug Rushkoff: They are not left wing. They convince us of their virtue by voting for Obama or holding meet ups or buying their stuff from the people who advertise on a new green shopping portal instead of some other shopping portal. In the end, virtue is not a consumer profile. Virtue is a way of actually engaging with other people in real life.
Helaine Olen: What do you think of Barack Obama?
Doug Rushkoff: He went wrong.
Helaine Olen: Are you surprised?
Doug Rushkoff: I am surprised because I know that Obama is smarter than me. I know that he is, but I think he has a false faith or misplaced faith in central bureaucracies and institutions and he really believes that the way to save the economy is to bail out banking.
The second problem is that the people he is entrusted to enact that model are Goldman Sachs executives and corrupt. So even if the model he thought would work could work, the people he is paying to do it are keeping the money. It's as corrupt as corrupt gets.
Helaine Olen: So what do you do?
Doug Rushkoff: I don't think you say fuck it, they are unjust, they are bad people they are doing bad shit affair with that money. What you do is you say that economy they are working in has nothing to do with me. I am going to, I am going to work two days a week at the community support agriculture that's close by, I am going to volunteer in my public school or work in a library. I am going to just disconnect from that economy and realize that dropping out is not dropping out, dropping out of that is dropping back in to the real world.
They have claimed the virtual world and they built that and they have convinced us that is where the action is. The action is not there, the action is here with your kids and the food and water that are going into their little cells everyday and that thing that they are doing up there can't last forever. It really can't.