Life Inc


(Author Douglas Rushkoff is a Boing Boing guestblogger.)

I'm going to be posting most or perhaps all of my upcoming book, Life Inc: How the world became a corporation and how to take it back, over the next two weeks. I'll put the beginning of each excerpt here, along with a link to where you can read or download the rest. So, let's start at the beginning.

Life Inc (Amazon)

Your Money or Your Life: A Lesson on the Front Stoop

I got mugged on Christmas Eve.

I was in front of my Brooklyn apartment house taking out the trash when a man pulled a gun and told me to empty my pockets. I gave him my money, wallet, and cell phone. But then--remembering something I'd seen in a movie about a hostage negotiator--I begged him to let me keep my medical insurance card. If I could humanize myself in his perception, I figured, he'd be less likely to kill me.

He accepted my argument about how hard it would be for me to get "care" without it, and handed me back the card. Now it was us two against the establishment, and we made something of a deal: in exchange for his mercy, I wasn't to report him--even though I had plainly seen his face. I agreed, and he ran off down the street. I foolishly but steadfastly stood by my side of the bargain, however coerced it may have been, for a few hours. As if I could have actually entered into a binding contract at gunpoint.

In the meantime, I posted a note about my strange and frightening experience to the Park Slope Parents list--a rather crunchy Internet community of moms, food co-op members, and other leftie types ded- icated to the health and well- being of their families and their decidedly progressive, gentrifying neighborhood. It seemed the responsible thing to do, and I suppose I also expected some expression of sympathy and support.

Amazingly, the very first two emails I received were from people angry that I had posted the name of the street on which the crime had occurred. Didn't I realize that this publicity could adversely affect all of our property values? The "sellers' market" was already difficult enough! With a famous actor reportedly leaving the area for Manhattan, does Brooklyn's real estate market need more bad press? And this was beforethe real estate crash.

I was stunned. Had it really come to this? Did people care more about the market value of their neighborhood than what was actually taking place within it? Besides, it didn't even make good business sense to bury the issue. In the long run, an open and honest conversation about crime and how to prevent it should make the neighborhood safer. Property values would go up in the end, not down. So these homeowners were more concerned about the immediate liquidity of their town houses than their long-term asset value -- not to mention the actual experience of living in them. And these were among the wealthiest people in New York, who shouldn't have to be worrying about such things. What had happened to make them behave this way?

( continues after the jump)

It stopped me cold, and forced me to reassess my own long-held desire to elevate myself from renter to owner. I stopped to think-- which, in the midst of an irrational real-estate craze, may not have been the safest thing to do. Why, I wondered aloud on my blog, was I struggling to make $4,500-per-month rent on a two- bedroom, fourth- floor walk-up in this supposedly "hip" section of Brooklyn, when I could just as easily get mugged somewhere else for a lot less per month? Was my willingness to participate in this runaway market part of the problem?

The detectives who took my report drove the point home. One of them drew a circle on a map of Brooklyn. "Inside this circle is where the rich white people from Manhattan are moving. That's the target area. Hunting ground. Think about it from your mugger's point of view: quiet, tree-lined streets of row houses, each worth a million or two, and inhabited by the rich people who displaced your family. Now, you live in or around the projects just outside the circle. Where would you go to mug someone?"

Back on the World Wide Web, a friend of mine--another Park Slope writer--made an open appeal for my family to stay in Brooklyn. He saw "the Slope" as a mixed-use neighborhood now reaching the "peak of livability" that the legendary urban anthropologist Jane Jacobs idealized. He explained how all great neighborhoods go through the same basic process: Some artists move into the only area they can afford--a poor area with nothing to speak of. Eventually, there are enough of them to open a gallery. People start coming to the gallery in the evenings, creating demand for a coffeehouse nearby, and so on. Slowly but surely, an artsy store or two and a clique of hipsters "pioneer" the neighborhood until there's significant sidewalk activity late into the night, making it safer for successive waves of incoming businesses and residents.

Of course, after the city's newspaper "discovers" the new trendy neighborhood, the artists are joined and eventually replaced by increasingly wealthy but decidedly less hip young professionals, lawyers, and businesspeople--but hopefully not so many that the district completely loses its "flavor." Investment increases, the district grows bigger, and everyone is happier and wealthier.

Still, what happens to the people who lived there from the beginning--the ones whom the police detective was talking about? The "natives"? This process of gentrification does not occur ex nihilo.

No, when property values go up, so do the rents, displacing anyone whose monthly living charges aren't regulated by the government. The residents of the neighborhood do not actually participate in the renaissance, because they are not owners. They move to outlying areas. Sure, their kids still go to John Jay High School in the middle of Park Slope. But none of Park Slope's own wealthy residents send their kids there.

Our online conversation was picked up by New York magazine in a column entitled "Are the Writers Leaving Brooklyn?" The article fo- cused entirely on the way a crime against an author could threaten the Brooklyn real- estate bubble. National Public Radio called to interview me about the story--not the mugging itself, but whether I would leave Brooklyn over it, and if doing so publicly might not be irresponsibly hurting other people's property values. A week or two of blog insanity later, a second New York piece asked why we should even care about whether the writers are leaving Brooklyn--seemingly oblivious of the fact that this was the very same column space that told us to care in the first place.

It was an interesting fifteen minutes. What was going on had less to do with crime or authors, though, than it did with a market in its final, most vaporous phase. I simply couldn't afford to buy in--and getting mugged freed me from the hype treadmill for long enough to accept it.

Or, more accurately, it's not that I couldn't afford it so much as that I wouldn't afford it. There were mortgage brokers willing to lend me the other 90 percent of the money I'd need to purchase a home on the block where I was renting. "We can get you in," they'd say. And at that moment in real estate history, putting even 10 percent down would have made me a very qualified buyer. "What about when the mortgage readjusts?" I remember asking. "Then you refinance at a better rate," they assured me. Of course, that would be happening just about the same time Park Slope's artificially low property- tax rate (an exemption secured by real- estate developers) would be raised to the levels of the poorer areas of the borough. "Don't worry. Everyone with your financials is doing it," one broker explained with a wink. "And the banks aren't going to just let everyone lose their homes, now, are they?"

As long as people refused to look at the real social and financial costs, the market could keep going up--buoyed in part by the bonuses paid to investment bankers whose job it was to promote all this asset inflation in the first place. Heck, we were restoring a historic borough to its former glory. All we had to do was avoid the uncomfortable truth that we were busy converting what were being used as multifamily dwellings by poor black and Hispanic people back into stately town houses for use by rich white ones. And we had to overlook that this frenzy of real- estate activity was operating on borrowed time and, more significantly, borrowed money.

In such a climate, calling attention to any of this was the real crime, and the reason that the first reaction of those participating in a speculative bubble was to silence the messenger. It's just business. The reality was that we were pushing an increasingly hostile population from their homes, colonizing their neighborhoods, and then justifying it all with metrics such as increased business activity, reduced (reported) crime rates, and--most important--higher real- estate prices. How can one argue against making a neighborhood, well, better?

As my writer friend eloquently explained on his blog, the neighborhood was now, by most measures, safer. It was once again possible to sit on one's stoop with the kids and eat frozen Italian ices on a balmy summer night. One could walk through Prospect Park on any Sunday afternoon and see a black family barbecuing here, a Puerto Rican group there, and an Irish group over there. Compared with most parts of the world, that's pretty civil, no?

Romantic as it sounds, that's not integration at all, but co-location. Epcot- style détente. The Brooklyn being described here has almost nothing to do with the one our grandparents might have inhabited. It is rather an expensive and painstakingly re-created simulation of a "brownstone Brooklyn" that never actually existed. If people once sat on their stoops eating ices on summer nights it was because they had no other choice--there was no air- conditioning and no TV. Everyone could afford to sit around, so everyone did. And the fact that the denizens of neighboring communities complete the illusion of multiculturalism by using the same park only means that these folks are willing to barbecue next to each other--not with each other. They all still go home to different corners of the borough. My writer friend's kids go off the next morning to their private school, those other kids to public. Not exactly neighbors.

Besides, the rows of brownstones in the Slope aren't really made of brown stone. They've been covered with a substance more akin to stucco--a thick paint used to create the illusion of brown stones set atop one another. A façade's façade. As any brownstone owner soon learns, the underlying cinder blocks can be hidden for only so long be- fore a costly "renovation" must be undertaken to cover them up again.

Likewise, wealth, media, and metrics can insulate colonizers from the reality of their situation for only so long. Eventually, parents who push their toddlers around in thousand- dollar strollers, whose lifestyles and values have been reinforced by a multibillion-dollar industry dedicated to hip child- rearing, get pelted with stones by kids from the "projects." (Rest assured--the person who reported this recurring episode at a gentrified Brooklyn playground met with his share of on- line derision, as well.)

Like Californians surprised when a wildfire or coyote disrupts the "natural" lifestyle they imagined they'd enjoy out in the country, we "pioneer," "colonize," and "gentrify" at our peril, utterly oblivious to the social costs of our expansion until one comes back to bite us in the ass--or mug us on the stoop. And while it's easy to blame the larger institutions and social trends leading us into these traps, our own choices and behaviors--however influenced--are ultimately responsible for whatever befalls us.

Park Slope, Brooklyn, is just a microcosm of the slippery slope upon which so many of us are finding ourselves these days. We live in a landscape tilted toward a set of behaviors and a way of making choices that go against our own better judgment, as well as our collective self- interest. Instead of collaborating with each other to ensure the best prospects for us all, we pursue short- term advantages over seemingly fixed resources through which we can compete more effectively against one another. In short, instead of acting like people, we act like corporations. When faced with a local mugging, the community of Park Slope first thought to protect its brand instead of its people.

The financial meltdown may not be punishment for our sins, but it is at least in part the result of our widespread obsession with financial value over values of any other sort. We disconnected ourselves from what matters to us, and grew dependent on a business scheme that was never intended to serve us as people. But by adopting the ethos of this speculative, abstract economic model as our own, we have disabled the mechanisms through which we might address and correct the collapse of the real economy operating alongside it.

Even now, as we attempt to dig ourselves out of a financial mess caused in large part by this very mentality and behavior, we turn to the corporate sphere, its central banks, and shortsighted metrics to gauge our progress back to health. It's as if we believe we'll find the answer in the stream of trades and futures on one of the cable- TV finance channels instead of out in the physical world. Our real investment in the fabric of our neighborhoods and our quality of life takes a backseat to asking prices for houses like our own in the newspaper's misnamed "real estate" section. We look to the Dow Jones average as if it were the one true vital sign of our society's health, and the exchange rate of our currency as a measure of our wealth as a nation or worth as a people.

This, in turn, only distracts us further from the real- world ideas and activities through which we might actually re-create some value ourselves. Instead of fixing the problem, and reclaiming our ability to generate wealth directly with one another, we seek to prop up institutions whose very purpose remains to usurp this ability from us. We try to repair our economy by bolstering the same institutions that sapped it. In the very best years, corporatism worked by extracting value from the periphery and redirecting it to the center--away from people and toward corporate monopolies. Now, even though that wellspring of prosperity has run dry, we continue to dig deeper into the ground for resources to keep the errant system running.

So as our corporations crumble, taking our jobs with them, we bail them out to preserve our prospects for employment--knowing full well that their business models are unsustainable. As banks' credit schemes fail, we authorize our treasuries to print more money on their behalf, at our own expense and that of our children. We then get to borrow this money back from them, at interest. We know of no other way. Having for too long outsourced our own savings and investing to Wall Street, we are clueless about how to invest in the real world of people and things. We identify with the plight of abstract corporations more than that of flesh-and-blood human beings. We engage with corporations as role models and saviors, while we engage with our fellow humans as competitors to be beaten or resources to be exploited.

Indeed, the now- stalled gentrification of Brooklyn had a good deal in common with colonial exploitation. Of course, the whole thing was done with more circumspection, with more tact. The borough's gentrifiers steered away from explicitly racist justifications for their actions, but nevertheless demonstrated the colonizer's underlying agenda: instead of "chartered corporations" pioneering and subjugating an uncharted region of the world, it was hipsters, entrepreneurs, and real- estate speculators subjugating an undesirable neighborhood.

The local economy--at least as measured in gross product--boomed, but the indigenous population simply became servants (grocery cashiers and nannies) to the new residents.

And like the expansion of colonial empires, this pursuit of home ownership was perpetuated by a pioneer spirit of progress and personal freedom. The ideal of home ownership was the fruit of a public- relations strategy crafted after World War II--corporate and government leaders alike believed that home owners would have more of a stake in an expanding economy and greater allegiance to free- market values than renters. Functionally, though, it led to a self- perpetuating cycle: The more that wealthier white people retreated to the enclaves prepared for them, the poorer the areas they were leaving became, and the more justified they felt in leaving. While the first real wave of "white flight" was from the cities to the suburbs, the more recent, camouflaged version has been from the suburbs back into the expensive cities.

Of course, these upper- middle- class migrants were themselves the targets of the mortgage industry, whose clever lending instruments mirror World Bank policies for their exploitative potential. The World Bank's loans come with "open markets" policies attached that ultimately surrender indebted nations and their resources to the con- trol of distant corporations. The mortgage banker, likewise, kindly provides instruments that get a person into a home, then disappears when the rates rise through the roof, having packaged and sold off the borrower's ballooning obligation to the highest bidder.

The benefits to society are pure mythology. Whether it's Brooklynites convinced they are promoting multiculturalism or corporations intent on extending the benefits of the free market to all the world's souls, neither activity leads to broader participation in the expansion of wealth--even when they're working as they're supposed to. Contrary to most economists' expectations, both local and global speculation only exacerbate wealth divisions. Wealthy parents send their kids to private schools and let the public ones decay, while wealthy nations export their environmental waste to the Third World or, better, simply keep their factories there to begin with--and keep their image at home as green as AstroTurf.

People I respect--my own mentors and teachers--tell me that this is just the way things are. This is the real world of adults--not so very far removed, we must remember, from the days when a neighboring tribe might just wipe you out--killing your men with clubs and taking your women. Be thankful for the civility we've got, keep your head down, and try not to think too much about it. These cycles are built into the economy; eventually, the markets will recover and things will get back to normal--and normal isn't so bad, really, if you look around the world at the way other people are living. And you shouldn't even feel so guilty about that--after all, Google is doing some good things and Bill Gates is giving a lot of money to kids in Africa.

Somehow, though, for many of us, that's not enough. We are fast approaching a societal norm where we--as nations, organizations, and individuals--engage in behaviors that are destructive to our own and everyone else's welfare. The only corporate violations worth punish- ing anymore are those against the shareholders. The "criminal mind" is now defined as anyone who breaks laws for a reason other than money. The status quo is selfishness, and the toxically wealthy are our new heroes because only they seem capable of fully insulating them- selves from the effects of their own actions.

Every day, we negotiate the slope to the best of our ability. Still, we fail to measure up to the people we'd like to be, and succumb to the tilt of the landscape.

Jennifer has lived in the same town in central Minnesota her whole life. This year, diagnosed with a form of lupus, she began purchasing medication through Wal-Mart instead of through Marcus, her local druggist--who also happens to be her neighbor. Prescription drugs aren't on her health plan, and this is just an economic necessity.

Why can't the druggist cut his neighbor a break? He's trying, but he's selling at a mere hair above cost as it is. He just took out a loan against the business to make expenses and his increased rent. The downtown area he's located in has been slated for redevelopment, and only corporate chain stores appear to have deep enough pockets to pay for storefront leases. It sounded like a good idea when Marcus supported it at the public hearing--but the description in the pamphlet prepared by the real estate developer (complete with a section on how to compete more effectively with "big box" stores like Wal- Mart) hasn't conformed to reality.

Marcus's landlord doesn't really have any choice in the matter. He underwent costly renovations to conform to the new downtown building code, and needs to pass those on to the businesses renting from him. He took out a mortgage, too, which is slated to reset in just a couple of months. If he doesn't collect higher rents, he won't make payments.

Jennifer stopped going to PTA meetings because she's embarrassed to look Marcus in the face. As their friendship declines, so does her guilt about helping put him out of business.

Across the country in New Jersey, Carla, a telephone associate for one of the top three HMO plans in the United States, talks to people like Jennifer every day. Carla is paid a salary as well as a monthly bonus based on the number of claims she can "retire" without payment. Without resorting to fraud, Carla is supposed to discourage false claims by making all claims harder to register, in general. That's how Carla's supervisor explained it to her when she asked, point- blank, if she was supposed to mislead customers. She feels bad about it, but Carla is now the principal breadwinner in her family, her husband having lost a lot of his contracting work to the stalled market for new homes. And, in the end, she is preventing fraud. How does Carla sleep at night, knowing that she has spent her day persuading people to pay for services for which they are actually covered? After seeing a commercial on TV, she switched from Ambien to Lunesta.

One of the guys working on that very ad campaign, an old co-worker of mine, ended up specializing in health- care advertising because nobody was hiring in the environmental area back in the '90s. Besides, he told me, only half kidding, "at least medical advertising puts the consumer in charge of her own health care." He's conflicted about pushing drugs on TV because he knows full well that these ads encourage patients to pressure doctors to write prescriptions that go against their better judgment. Still, Tom makes up for any compromise of his values at work with a staunch advocacy of good values at home. He recycles paper, glass, and metal, brought his kids to see An Inconvenient Truth, and even uses a compost heap in the backyard for household waste. Last year, though, he finally broke down and bought an SUV. Why? "Everybody else on the highway is driving them," he explained. "It's an automotive arms race." If he stayed in his Civic, he'd be putting them all at risk. "You see the way those people drive? I'm scared for my family." As penance, at least until gas prices went up, he began purchasing a few "carbon offsets"--a way of donating money to environmental companies in compensation for one's own excess carbon emissions.

In a similar balancing act, a self- described "holistic" parent in Manhattan spares her son the risks she associates with vaccinations for childhood diseases. "We still don't know what's in them," she says, "and if everyone else is vaccinated he won't catch these things, any- way." She understands that the vaccines required for incoming school pupils are really meant to quell epidemics; they are more for the health of the "herd" than for any individual child. She also believes that mandatory vaccinations are more a result of pharmaceutical in- dustry lobbying than any comprehensive medical studies. In order to meet the "philosophical exemption" requirements demanded by the state, she managed to extract a letter from her rabbi. Meanwhile, in an unacknowledged quid pro quo, she installed a phone line in the rabbi's name in the basement of her town house; he uses the bill to falsify res- idence records and send his sons to the well- rated public elementary school in her high- rent district instead of the 90 percent minority school in his own. At least he can say he's kept them in "the public system."

Incapable of securing a legal or illegal zoning variance of this sort, a college friend of mine, now a state school administrator in Brighton, En gland, just made what he calls "the hardest decision of my life," to send his own kids to a private Catholic day school. He doesn't even particularly want his kids to be indoctrinated into Catholicism, but it's the only alternative to the eroding government school he can af- ford. He knows his withdrawal from public education only removes three more "good kids" and one potentially active parent from the system, but doesn't want his children to be "sacrificed on the altar" of his good intentions.

So it's not just a case of hip, hypergentrified Brooklynites succumb- ing to market psychology, but people of all social classes making choices that go against their better judgment because they believe it's really the only sensible way to act under the circumstances. It's as if the world itself were tilted, pushing us toward self- interested, short- term decisions, made more in the manner of corporate share- holders than members of a society. The more decisions we make in this way, the more we contribute to the very conditions leading to this awfully sloped landscape. In a dehumanizing and self-denying cycle, we make too many choices that--all things being equal--we'd prefer not to make.

But all things are not equal. These choices are not even occur- ring in the real world. They are the false choices of an artificial landscape--one in which our decision-making is as coerced as that of a person getting mugged. Only we've forgotten that our choices are being made under painstakingly manufactured duress. We think this is just the way things are. The price of doing business. Since when is life determined by that axiom?

Unquestionably but seemingly inexplicably, we have come to oper- ate in a world where the market and its logic have insinuated them- selves into every area of our lives. From erection to conception, school admission to finding a spouse, there are products and professionals to fill in where family and community have failed us. Commercials en- treat us to think and care for ourselves, but to do so by choosing a corporation through which to exercise all this autonomy. Sometimes it feels as if there's just not enough air in the room--as if there were a corporate agenda guiding all human activity. At a moment's notice, any dinner party can slide invisibly into a stock pro- motion, a networking event, or an impromptu consultation--let me pick your brain. Is this why I was invited in the first place? Through sponsored word- of-mouth known as "buzz marketing," our personal social interactions become the promotional opportunities through which brands strive to be cults and religions strive to become brands.

It goes deeper than that second Starbucks opening on the same town's Main Street or the radio ads for McDonald's playing through what used to be emergency speakers in our public school buses. It's not a matter of how early Christmas ads start each year, how many people get trampled at Black Friday sales, or even the news report blaming the fate of the entire economy on consumers' slow holiday spending. It's more a matter of not being able to tell the difference between the ads and the content at all. It's as if both were designed to be that way. The line between fiction and reality, friend and marketer, community and shopping center, has gotten blurred. Was that a news report, reality TV, or a sponsored segment?

This fundamental blurring of real life with its commercial counterpart is not a mere question of aesthetics, however much we may dislike mini- malls and superstores. It's more of a nagging sense that something has gone awry--something even more fundamentally wrong than the credit crisis and its aftermath--yet we're too immersed in its effects to do anything about it, or even to see it. We are deep in the thrall of a system that no one really likes, no one remembers asking for, yet no one can escape. It just is. And as it begins to collapse around us, we work to prop it up by any means necessary, so incapable are we of imagining an alternative. The minute it seems as if we can put our finger on what's happening to us or how it came to be this way, the insight disappears, drowned out by the more immediately pressing demands by everyone and everything on our attention.

What did they just say? What does that mean for my retirement account? Wait--my phone is vibrating.

Can the hermetically sealed food court in which we now subsist even be beheld from within? Perhaps not in its totality--but its development can be chronicled, and its effects can be parsed and understood. Just as we once evolved from subjects into citizens, we have now devolved from citizens into consumers. Our communities have been reduced to affinity groups, and any vestige of civic engagement or neighborly goodwill has been replaced by self- interested goals manufactured for us by our corporations and their PR firms. We've surrendered true participation for the myth of consumer choice or, even more pathetically, that of shareholder rights.

That's why it has become fashionable, cathartic, and to some extent useful for the defenders of civil society to rail against the corporations that seem to have conquered our civilization. As searing new books and documentaries about the crimes of corporations show us, the corporation is itself a sociopathic entity, created for the purpose of generating wealth and expanding its reach by any means necessary. A corporation has no use for ethics, except for their potential impact on public relations and brand image. In fact, as many on the side of the environment, labor, and the Left like to point out, corporate managers can be sued for taking any action, however ethical, if it compromises their ultimate fiduciary responsibility to share price.

As corporations gain ever more control over our economy, government, and culture, it is only natural for us to blame them for the helplessness we now feel over the direction of our personal and collective destinies. But it is both too easy and utterly futile to point the finger of blame at corporations or the robber barons at their helms--not even those handcuffed CEOs gracing the cover of the business section. Not even mortgage brokers, credit- card executives, or the Fed. This state of affairs isn't being entirely orchestrated from the top of a glass building by an élite group of bankers and businessmen, however much everyone would like to think so--themselves included. And while the growth of corporations and a preponderance of corporate activity have allowed them to permeate most every aspect of our awareness and activity, these entities are not solely responsible for the predicament in which we have found ourselves.

Rather, it is corporatism itself: a logic we have internalized into our very being, a lens through which we view the world around us, and an ethos with which we justify our behaviors. Making matters worse, we accept its dominance over us as preexisting--as a given circumstance of the human condition. It just is.

But it isn't.

Corporatism didn't evolve naturally. The landscape on which we are living--the operating system on which we are now running our social software--was invented by people, sold to us as a better way of life, supported by myths, and ultimately allowed to develop into a self- sustaining reality. It is a map that has replaced the territory.

Its basic laws were set in motion as far back as the Renaissance; it was accelerated by the Industrial Age; and it was sold to us as a better way of life by a determined generation of corporate leaders who believed they had our best interests at heart and who ultimately succeeded in their dream of controlling the masses from above.

We have succumbed to an ideology that has the same intellectual underpinnings and assumptions about human nature as--dare we say it--mid- twentieth-century fascism. Given how the word has been misapplied to everyone from police officers to communists, we might best refrain from resorting to what has become a feature of cheap polemic. But in this case it's accurate, and that we're forced to dance around this "F word" today would certainly have pleased Goebbels greatly.

The current situation resembles the managed capitalism of Mussolini's Italy, in particular. It shares a common intellectual heritage (in disappointed progressives who wanted to order society on a scientific understanding of human nature), the same political alliance (the collaboration of the state and the corporate sector), and some of the same techniques for securing consent (through public relations and propaganda). Above all, it shares with fascism the same deep suspicion of free humans.

And, as with any absolutist narrative, calling attention to the inherent injustice and destructiveness of the system is understood as an attempt to undermine our collective welfare. The whistleblower is worse than just a spoilsport; he is an enemy of the people.

Unlike Europe's fascist dictatorships, this state of affairs came about rather bloodlessly--at least on the domestic front. Indeed, the real lesson of the twentieth century is that the battle for total social control would be waged and won not through war and overt repression, but through culture and commerce. Instead of depending on a paternal dictator or nationalist ideology, today's system of control depends on a society fastidiously cultivated to see the corporation and its logic as central to its welfare, value, and very identity.

That's why it's no longer Big Brother who should frighten us-- however much corporate lobbies still seek to vilify anything to do with government beyond their own bailouts. Sure, democracy may be the quaint artifact of an earlier era, but what has taken its place? Suspension of habeas corpus, surveillance of citizens, and the occasional repression of voting notwithstanding, this mess is not the fault of a particular administration or political party, but of a culture, economy, and belief system that places market priorities above life itself. It's not the fault of a government or a corporation, the news media or the entertainment industry, but the merging of all these entities into a single, highly centralized authority with the ability to write laws, issue money, and promote its expansion into our world.

Then, in a last cynical surrender to the logic of corporatism, we assume the posture and behaviors of corporations in the hope of restoring our lost agency and security. But the vehicles to which we gain access in this way are always just retail facsimiles of the real ones. Instead of becoming true landowners we become mortgage holders. Instead of guiding corporate activity we become shareholders. Instead of directing the shape of public discourse we pay to blog. We can't compete against corporations on a playing field that was created for their benefit alone.

This is the landscape of corporatism: a world not merely dominated by corporations, but one inhabited by people who have internalized corporate values as our own. And even now that corporations appear to be waning in their power, they are dragging us down with them; we seem utterly incapable of lifting ourselves out of their de- pression.

We need to understand how this happened--how we came to live for and through a business scheme. We must recount the story of how life itself became corporatized, and figure out what --if anything-- we are to do about it.

While we will find characters to blame for one thing or another, most of corporatism's architects have long since left the building-- and even they were usually acting with only their immediate, short-term profits in mind. Our object instead should be to understand the process by which we were disconnected from the real world and why we remain disconnected from it. This is our best hope of regaining some relationship with terra firma again. Like recovering cult victims, we have less to gain from blaming our seducers than from understanding our own participation in building and maintaining a corporatist society. Only then can we begin dismantling and replacing it with something more livable and sustainable.


  1. Ah, yes. “Property Values”: where the most vulgar manifestations of middle-class morality are given the veneer of numerical precision and economic inevitability…

    It’s funny, really, how willing so many people are to accept the petty tyranny of the homeowner’s association.

  2. The body of a rock
    This is recorded in the Terao Ka Ki, the chronicle of the house of Terao. Once, a lord asked Musashi “What is this ‘Body of a rock’?” Musashi replied, “Please summon my pupil Terao Ryuma Suke.” When Teruo appeared, Musashi ordered him to kill himself by cutting his abdomen. Just as Terao was about to make the cut, Musashi restrained him and said to the lord, “This is the ‘Body of a Rock'”.

  3. “It pays the mortgage. The Yuppie Nuremberg Defense.” from Thank You For Smoking

  4. I found this interesting, as far as I got in it. There’s this new invention called ‘paragraphs’ that makes reading lengthy text much easier. You should look into it.

  5. Not loading for me; did you overload your own site? I guess I’ll wait until you’re done and put up an official Pirate Bay torrent or something.

  6. I pay under $2,000 for a large 2 bedroom in Inwood, and when I was mugged, the entire community, including another mugging victim got into helping out. A local police officer went through the park where I was mugged with me and helped me put up signs.

    Park slope sis full of pretentious hipster snots. Inwood is the real hidden bohemia of NYC.

    Also, for the love of god and all that is holy, use paragraph breaks. Long rambling single paragraph screeds get the TL;DR response, and end up looking like they were co-authored by the unibomber.

  7. I tried to use the “extended” tab feature on boingboing’s version of Movable Type, which yanked all the paragraphs. It also refused to post the text in an ‘extended’ window. I’m asking the other bloggers here how to use that feature.

    Yes indeed, I crashed my own server. I had Dreamhost, and crashed it last time I guest blogged at bb. So I spent a ton of money to get private server, private database, a ton of memory…and of course none of that worked. The support staff guy who emailed me back says his microphone is broken and he can’t call me!

    But I will get this working somehow.

    I agree about different neighborhoods responding to crimes and other challenges differently. A lot of it has to do with how much living in a particular place is a market decision and how much is a decision of where and with whom a person really wants to live.

  8. It’s funny to me that Rushkoffs’ new message seems to be about the destructive reality of a corporatized culture when his thesis for the last decade was getting inside the machine and reworking it..
    Suddenly he’s a back to the land guy..

  9. Property prices come and go. Property values are something quite different. The “negative publicity” might push prices downwards, but may also push values upwards. People almost always get the two confused. It is not just in property either….

  10. I’m surprised at your surprise. The first response of any progressive or “other leftie types” when their own needs are directly threatened is to go NIMBY fascist so quickly your head will spin. More surprised that you are still allowed in the coop.

    Waiting patiently for your cloud to recover to read more shocking hypocrisy from the “left”.

  11. Okay, so if I call the cops on this mugger I’m a snitch?

    Can anyone explain Takuan’ comment to me?

  12. I wish I were still in the “left” Mega. This book would not be considered Leftie, but I am intrigued by your perception.

  13. I loved their part about how the whistleblower is all our enemy, because in a way he cries out against the all mighty dollar. Amazing piece, I’m totally going to buy this book.

  14. or did you mean the lefties of the neighborhood? yeah, I suppose it was kind of fascist.

    The whistleblower thing was so extreme, back before the crash. Now a lot of them are the heroes, I suppose, and we’re in more the scapegoat phase.

  15. @jasper,

    It is possible that your neighborhood is in the beginning stages of the gentrification cycle, when there really is a sense of community and people work together. Those aspects, after all, are what attract the yuppies in the first place. Sometimes this sense of community happens without a fear of the ‘other’ (in this case, the desperate destitute) but not often.

    Whether you are still there or not, analyse the community in ten years, and the truth will be obvious, either way.

  16. I think the problem you have is with our nature to trade long term gains for short term ones, and how often we get neither. People wanted their homes to be sold for a profit, even if it was based on lies and obfuscation, so badly, that they ignored the very issues which would, or will, eventually destroy the very thing they’re trying to protect. Do you think that this is really any more prevalent now, then in the past? Are people any more educated about what is actually in their best interest today then hundred, or two hundred or a thousand years ago?

    (btw, I really like your show on WFMU. Not everything, but most of it. Keep up the good work).

  17. This should be shelved in the horror section.

    And it’s the kind of horror you can’t get away from. Once you start to see the kinds of long-term sacrifices people make for short-term gains, you can’t unsee it. The next-fiscal-quarter mentality is everywhere. And many people don’t even get that far ahead. For most it’s next-month’s-rent.

  18. $4500 a month?? Errrr, wow. Maybe you should come to Seattle… I’m paying about $1100 for a 2500-sq foot, 4-bedroom home on a nice lot in a quiet, friendly neighborhood in north Seattle. I can’t imagine paying $4500 a month for any home anywhere, even if it came with a padded rumpus room full of nubile young sex goddesses. I mean, really…$4500 a month??

  19. Great intro, though depressing. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the book. I just hope you’ve got some solutions – it’s so easy to point out all that’s wrong without talking about how to change it.

  20. Yes I meant the lefties from the neighborhood.

    Your story simply reinforced my perception of most progressives: as long as it someone else’s problem it is a cause that requires the application of everyone else’s money. That is until if becomes a problem that impacts their money.

  21. Rushkoff, I live in Prospect Heights, a short walk from the northern end of the Slope, and and I’m both seeing and not seeing the Slope I’m familiar with in your descriptions.

    On the matter of race, yeah, I’ve long noticed that the racial composition of the people I see shifts as I cross Flatbush Ave.

    But on the matter of public vs private schools, what about PS 321? That’s a public school, and yet local parents fight to get their kids into it.

  22. You definitely need to ditch DreamHost. I did the same thing: had problems with the cheap account, then moved to a Private Server, one each for http and the database, and it still sucked. Constant outages, constant failures to help me, and constantly blaming me–though that particular site never got more than 1800 page views a day. So I told DH to go screw and moved elsewhere.

    Regarding Park Slope, though, I don’t agree with you. It shows the same flabby thinking you used to throw around Slashdot.

    I remember your mugging story from the first time around and I’ll say now what I said then: You need to quote those emails from the Park Slope Parents email list. Let’s see them. Or shall I go dig them out of the archives myself?

    The Park Slope you’ve describe is just New York City, buddy, and America. It’s not a neighborhood that is somehow grossly different. It’s simply a collection of aspirants who want good things. You make it sound rich and fancy, when all I see from my office window in my little rented apartment in north Park Slope is a bunch of working class immigrants, young families, and people looking to get, and stay, comfortable. If you’re seeing anything so poisonous as what you describe, then you need to change the company you’re keeping.

    And another thing: the coop is totally a normal place. Seriously. It reminds me of every non-profit I’ve ever worked for. There’s nothing unusual about it at all and it is neither a tone-setter for the neighbhorhood nor particularly remarkable.

  23. Doug,

    As an NYC resident, 99% of the disgusting behavior that you describe (the woman refusing to vaccinate her kid and then conspiring with her rabbi to job the system for school records purposes) isn’t due to any Big Bad Machine out there. It’s simple human greed coupled with an ability to get away with it.

    It’s an intellectual laziness that’s mollified by hairshirting on the small stuff (cloth diapers, re-washing plastic bags for use, paying 10x more for organic) while ignoring the big stuff (promoting reasonable supermarkets in poor areas so that everyone can have SOME kind of fresh food, fair housing practices, supporting local school districts and literacy programs by actually putting your kid in to them).

    Oh, and fuck your neighbors sideways with a rabid pit bull set on fire if they really DID bust you for reporting your mugging because they were afraid of their property values going down.

    Finally, let me say this: If you’re paying $4500/month for a 2 BR in a walkup, you DID buy into the hype. Big time. You can rent an entire house for that in a lot of nice neighborhoods in Queens and even further out in Brooklyn, if you could just get over that “hip” cachet. I think you know that.

  24. Paragraphs or not, I sat and read this end to end. I think your experience was worthwhile in allowing you the space and ability to step back and glimpse this world we have built up around ourselves. I believe strongly in face to face discourse as a curative to our cultural illness. Please be assured you’ve given me a whole months worth of discussion. I cannot wait to spread awareness of your perspective and look forward to seeing a historical overview of out post industrial transition from Citizens to Consumers.

  25. Wow, $4500 a month, with jerks for neighbors. That’s unfortunate. Thanks for reminding me why I don’t live in NYC, though.

  26. This book clearly took a lot of work, it is very well written, and I appreciate it being posted here.

    On the other hand, I think it’s taking something simple and making it much more complicated than it has to be.

    Tell me if I’m oversimplifying things, but the message seems to be; Money is the root of all evil.

    OK, more precisely: People care about money (getting it and not losing it) and about value (i.e. stuff/usefulness/enjoyability per unit money) more then they care about community, civic engagement, and (some) relationships. What you call “corporatism” to me looks like nothing beyond wanting to optimize the use of money.

    You say people don’t want this system, but I would debate that. People are consumers/investors, and consumers/investors want this system. Corporations (and governments and other institutions) often present people with the choice of being a good consumer/investor or being a good citizen, and people apparently choose to be a good consumer/investor (i.e. buy cheap stuff, invest on what’s most profitable). What has changed is not what people want. What has changed is that we’re now being presented with these consumer-OR-citizen choices, since corporations (and governments and so on) realized that people choose “more money and more stuff per unit money” over “more social responsibility” every time, and that optimizing ventures to exploit the consumer/investor mindset (at the expense of the citizen mindset) is profitable and causes fewer complaints.

    As usual, let me make the analogy with air travel. Yes, seats are tiny and uncomfortable, flights are delayed and overbooked, and airline operations cut corners in customer service and cleanliness and sometimes even safety. Why? Because that’s what people want! How do I know? Because when people search for a trip online and are shown a few options, they buy the cheapest one (that fits their schedule), every time. This sends a clear message to airlines: Only ONE parameter matters, and it is ticket price, so if you improve anything and raise the ticket price, you’ll get less business.

    Maybe the message of your book is more similar to my own take on all this than I realize. But it’s really as simple as “People care about money, and companies know it”. That’s all that there is to it.

    The current situation was not brought on by conspirators in Wall Street or Washington; It was brought on by people making choices that showed companies and governments that we care about money. We all did it. Each time one of us shopped at Wal-Mart, bought something manufactured in eastern Asia, dealt with a company through an overseas customer-service phone center, invested in the most profitable stock or real-estate development regardless of social/environmental consequences… we motivated companies and governments to become like this. We communicated to them that we care about money, and they catered to us. They don’t control us, we control them.

    Of course, the consequences of caring about money at the expense of social/environmental consequences is becoming clear, and maybe people will see that other important things should be cared about, not just money. Just as caring about family comes before money (e.g. getting a plane ticket on short notice to visit a sick grandparent, or monetarily helping an old parent or unemployed sibling or child), maybe some aspects of caring about community and society should too.

    Maybe I’m making the same point you’re making, as far as what needs to change. But I’m not pretending that the problem is about “corporatism”, conspiracies, or authoritarian fascism. We brought this on ourselves. We could have stopped it at any point by caring more about society than about money. And we still can. If we want.

    But will people want to spend more money for the same stuff, just for the sake of reviving Main Street? Maybe they will, when they see that the consequences of supercapitalism is increased social inequality. Or maybe they won’t, if it seems like social equality and a stable economy are luxuries so expensive that they’re only possible through authoritarianism (i.e. at the expense of freedom to choose jobs, products, etc). We could end up like a South American country, or like communist Russia, but luckily (and too subtly for most online articles) there is a nice wide spectrum in between.

    Of course, I could be wrong. I could be missing something. So I’ll keep reading the book as it is posted on BoingBoing, and I’ll try to keep an open mind. But I’m skeptical that the current economic system (and it social consequences) was brought on by anything other than a populace who wants to be careful about money and who made choices (about what to buy and what to invest in) accordingly. Speaking of which, I should get back to work… ;)

  27. “Oh, and fuck your neighbors sideways with a rabid pit bull set on fire”, why thank you, a useful turn of phrase. I’ll be putting that in my style manual.

  28. @ – Jenonymous once an area is so hip it’s got $4,500/month 2 bedrooms, it’s no longer actually hip, it’s just full of hipsters. My neck of the woods is not going to gentrify the way Park Slope has, but it still attracts artists , because real artists can afford to *live* here. If you can afford $4,500/month, you’ve already made it.

    So I figure that attracts people who’ve got the “I got mine, screw you” attitude Rushkoff is talking about.

    But he’s dead wrong about this – . If people once sat on their stoops eating ices on summer nights it was because they had no other choice–there was no air- conditioning and no TV.

    My neighborood has plenty of people who sit on stoops, drinking beer or eating ices. We’ve got the guys with the ice block carts, bells, and tamarind syrup too. Better than the cheap pre-processed crap you get in midtown.

    People set up outside in the warm summer air (or will if we ever get any) and play dominoes. They have illegal BBQs. They play music real loud at odd hours of the night. They shout comments at each other’s opera scales (Inwood has a lot of opera singers!)

    Everyone has AC. We’re not a third world country, or living in the 1940’s. People here like to talk to each other. There’s a *community*. Not just rich white people who have a suburbs mentality. I think that’s a good part of your problem.

    Anyhow, thanks for reformatting.

  29. Ths rtcl scks. It seems to lay the blame for all of today’s human ills (crime, sickness, amorality, ignorance) at the feet of “corporatism”, which it doesn’t even define.

    Your schools suck? Blame corporatism! Your neighbor is an asshole? Corporatism again! The easy-answer crowd will love this one.

    By the way, did you know that book publishers only publish books that they think will make money? And that writers with a proven track record of selling are more likely to get lucrative book deals, thus creating a terrible feedback loop? Horrors!

  30. well now, imagine that:

    “The financial meltdown may not be punishment for our sins, but it is at least in part the result of our widespread obsession with financial value over values of any other sort. We disconnected ourselves from what matters to us, and grew dependent on a business scheme that was never intended to serve us as people.”

    Sometimes the illusion of money alone is enough to make us discard people. Or even the promise of an illusion.

  31. “Oh, and fuck your neighbors sideways with a rabid pit bull set on fire”

    Nah. The tune is okay but the lyric is off.

  32. I printed this out, and then my girlfriend snatched it. She’s reading it behind me, not knowing that I’m typing this out. ;)

  33. Yep, It’s called change. Happens all the time. Sometimes it happens the other way too. A “nice” neighborhood declines and “poor” people move there. Do you feel bad for the displaced “rich”. Me either, but then I expect change.

  34. hot damn… my 1500 3br in greenpoint’s looking better by the second! stone’s throw from williamsburg, should you desire to throw stones at hipsters (we have a good angle out our window).
    i’m concerned for greenpoint though. i tried to move to w’burg years ago before it got too hip, and was priced out to bushwick. fearing for my life (yes i’m a paranoid suburban girl, plus my friends getting attacked down the street didn’t help) i moved up to greenpoint and it’s just the bees knees. same price as w’burg, one-tenth the dog poop, broken glass and roving machete gangs. i think greenpoint is next for the big G-fying though. manhattanites stay on your side of the river!!

  35. I think it’s hilarious how most of the comments here have focused on how much you pay too much for rent. They’re making your point for you!

    I think everyone dismissing this as “laying the blame for everything at corporatism’s feet” completely misses the point. The issue at hand isn’t corporations, it’s how people have absorbed that value system (“maximizing shareholder value”) as their own, while simultaneously convincing themselves that human beings have always operated this way and that nothing can be done to change it.

  36. /thanks for posting this

    love reading your stuff, even if i don’t always agree…

    have added your title to my amazon wish list (even if i read it online, i’ll still want a paper copy to pore over…)

  37. Bridgie: I did, in fact, read the part where the original poster says that the problem is not corporations, but “corporatism”. The term is not really defined anywhere, as far as I can see. Thus, I stand by my original (now disemvoweled) assessment.

    Everybody wants a better life for themselves (this is the “maximized shareholder value” you refer to, I assume). I wouldn’t have it any other way.

    Sometimes, in order to get a better life for ourselves, we must first help others. This is known as “enlightened self-interest”.

  38. OMG BRILLIANT! I pray this book and author is on every major TV show, starting with Oprah, 60 Minutes, cable news, whatever most peeps watch, plus major articles in Newsweek, Time and Vanity Fair, NY Times (LA Times, gotta laugh at that one!), even the “free” LA Weekly and sister mags, and of course blogs like HuffingtonPost to Ann Coulter.

    I write this with tongue-in-cheek and heavy heart, because your book/dissertation “attacks” and dissects ALL they stand for and all their reason for being.

    Plus it should be mandatory reading for Congress and everyone in school, as important as the three R’s or that stuff they force students to memorize to pass tests so schools get money to support Government and Business interests.

    I am excited to see such a brilliant analysis of what I’ve long felt, but could never write so persuasively and scholarly as Rushkoff. I’m ALWAYS the whistleblower, and ALWAYS disliked, mistrusted and ultimately hurting myself in so many ways. I truly do suffer for being outspoken for asserting my LEGAL rights.

    For example, making suggestions in offices (don’t rock the boat, or else get fired). No wonder American business is suffering!

    Recently I wondered how to implement a new city ordinance which ultimately benefits ALL in terms of health. Imagine the resistance I’ve gotten from fellow renters, the owners, management company and City Attorney’s Office because I dared tried to inform peeps Santa Monica just passed an ordinance prohibiting smoking outdoors in shared areas.

    The owner of my bldg REFUSES to post the info, even though LEGALLY he is obligated to do so. Will the City Attorney do anything? NO.

    AND our corporate minded Rent Control peeps objected to the ordinance, cos they see it as a way to evict peeps, even though the LAW prevents that. I bet Rent Control is full of smokers.

    Imagine that I should be thrilled I don’t have to smell smoke in MY apt while doing yoga or merely being in my kitchen, even with the window closed.

    We have toothless laws regarding smoking outside businesses and bus stops. If someone wants to smoke where it is illegal to smoke, there is nothing anyone can do about it.

    And people still say Santa Monica is full of hippies and liberals, a city who brags about being “Green” and responsible. A city tearing down buildings to put up larger ones, to bring in more city taxes and whatev.

    I want to read how to survive in a city full of yogis and raw foodies who pay top dollar for yoga classes, clothes, raw foods. Yep, even the “counter culture” sold out long ago. “Green” businesses and cities, yogis, raw foods, health freaks, just as corporate and greedy and self-serving as the Glen Becks of the world.

    BUT NO, I’m the criminal, the way peeps treat me. Toothless laws.

    I think it’s too late to close the barn door after the horse it out. When yogis and raw foodies buy into this . . .

    Written by someone who is a yogini raw foodie, but disgusted at the way stores, studios, mags, etc — the so-called “enlightened” community — ruthlessly treat the individual.

    I was a teen in the 60’s and have seen so much go downhill and corporate. I won’t give up, but ever feel like Sisyphus?

  39. “Everybody wants a better life for themselves (this is the “maximized shareholder value” you refer to, I assume). I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

    Of course, I can’t presume to speak for the author, if you want my definition of “corporatism”, I’d say a big part of it is the neat little trick you just pulled there where you equated “pursuit of happiness” with “pursuit of money”.

  40. Bridgie: I was specifically thinking of the original poster’s example of the man sending his child to Catholic school. Pursuit of happiness there means seeking a better education for his son. There’s no pursuit of money there.

    But this just brings up my original point, which is that the original post doesn’t define its “corporatism” bogeyman, thus, it’s nearly impossible for you and I to debate it.

    Is it greed? Shortsightedness? A combination? Something else? Why invent this new category of “sin”?

    Having this underdefined evil of “corporatism” makes it easy for the original poster to blame everything bad that happens on it. It also makes it easier for everyone to agree with him; people can easily blame, for instance, spousal abandonment or noisy kids on the lawn on “corporatism”, because who’s to say that they’re wrong?

  41. “We are fast approaching a societal norm where we–as nations, organizations, and individuals–engage in behaviors that are destructive to our own and everyone else’s welfare.”
    Because in the good old times things were different, right? Everyone worked for the common good and there was no exploitation, right?

  42. For those who think it’s tl;dr:

    Cognitive Dissonance: We Has It.

    Also, 2 months of that rent quote would totally pay off my current school debt. Is this what you’d call “normal” rent in NYC? If yes, consider me a country mouse. That’s insane!

  43. From the original post: We live in a landscape tilted toward a set of behaviors and a way of making choices that go against our own better judgment, as well as our collective self- interest. Instead of collaborating with each other to ensure the best prospects for us all, we pursue short- term advantages over seemingly fixed resources through which we can compete more effectively against one another.

    This is one of most succinct descriptions of human behavior I’ve seen–actually, it’s a great description of the behavior of any biological entity on the planet. Biological organisms, from viruses to plants to animals on up to humans always act out of selfish, short-term, non-collective interest. Read Richard Dawkins, read Darwin, etc. I was thus surprised to see you follow this up with In short, instead of acting like people, we act like corporations. Sure, corporations act like this too, but this behavior seems quintessentially human to me.

  44. What a great post. Thanks so much for taking the time to think this through. Well done!

  45. Great bit of writing, Rushkoff…
    You got at something I think about a lot. Much of what happens in our world (whether you live in Michigan or Slovakia or Ohio) is justified because at some point wolves might attack. Thoughtfulness and idealism and the common good are luxuries that just can’t be considered when wolves are about to attack. We have to get in line and just accept whatever.
    I agree with you and I say bullshit, too.


    I think that something you’re missing is what money actually is. It has become something almost arbitrary and detached from anything with real quantifiable value to people. It’s just an agreement, and lately it hasn’t been working in our favor.

    This is something that M. King Hubbert realized this in 1933. Hubbert and other Technocrats suggested linking money to energy, something I find very attractive. Technocrats also had some other exotic economic ideas that are either extremely naive or genius. I’m not really sure yet.

    I think a great place to start would be a reevaluation of our concept of money and how we define it.

  47. About three-quarters through, I recalled the title of a horror node on e2 that seemed rather relevant
    “We are trapped in the belly of this horrible machine, and the machine is bleeding to death.”

    Somehow, reality has found a way to become more terrifying than the fiction we create for that purpose.

  48. Brilliant. Totally and completely on point. Possibly the best thing I have read on the net, and yes, I’m going to buy the book. Maybe I’ll even get my dad a copy. Thanks for your brilliant and concise writing.

    -Scott in Tokyo

  49. Very nicely written, and very expressive. As I was reading it I couldn’t help but think, “Habermas redux.”

    Seems to me what NYC, at least, and perhaps all of the U.S. needs is a little post-Marxist thought to take the neo-liberal edge off somewhat. Habermas, Gramsci, with a dash of Foucault would just hit the spot. Political economy should be a required subject in business schools, which might then allow some of these ideas of what we’re doing to ourselves to filter through to the general, self-interested public. Either that, or a little of this guy.


    Each time one of us shopped at Wal-Mart, bought something manufactured in eastern Asia,

    And since when have any of us had a choice otherwise? This is a book I want to read.

    Also, assuming some personal responsibility generally leads to some sort of morality. And we already know what everyone thinks of the fundies here! Otherwise, a very good post.

  51. Great post! Although in essence I think it’s just elaborating on a point that was made much more succinctly in an earlier article —

    Couple of other points:

    Invoking fascism seems inaccurate and unhelpful. The OP says that we have ‘succumbed to an ideology that [resembles] mid- twentieth-century fascism’, but heck, from where I’m sitting, ideology doesn’t even come into it. These days, the closest you have is meaningless partisanship garnished with bits and pieces of patriotic, ethnic, cultural, and/or religious PR window dressing. So I think it would be more correct simply to say that the machineries of government are functioning more and more like corporations. And they exist for very similar reasons too, ie to self-perpetuate and to increase their control over their ‘stake holders’.

    @ Airshowfan #30: Yes, I think you are oversimplifying slightly: it’s not that money is the root of all evil, it’s that the *love* of money is the root of all evil. (Timothy 6:10 – the Bible gets it right for once!)

    Lastly — and if I’m wrong, then I’ll be very glad to be corrected by Rushkoff’s book or by anyone/anything else — however good your analysis and however good your proposed solution, no-one — certainly not corporations or the government — is going to be slowing down the metaphorical bus anytime soon to let you get off. If you want off, you have to jump.

    And you know what? I don’t know many people — in fact, except for one mad, brave niece, I don’t think I know anyone, myself included — who’s really willing to do that.

  52. My children are in the NYC public school system, and I have committed subterfuge to enroll them at a better school than the zoned neighborhood option. I would do it again-and I don’t know any parent who would not do the same.

    For one year they attended the zoned school down the block. Both children learned and got along just fine with their peers. However, the despair, the drudgery of the system put in place at the school by the school administration and the government-tightly scheduled blocks of instruction in reading writing and math-only (absolutely no extra learning “frills” like science or music, art) was soul crushing. There was no way for one motivated parent, or even 15 motivated parents to counter this entrenched failure-and we tried. The teachers counselled me to move them to another school. One gave me some pointers on how to do it.

    Am I behaving like a greedy corporatist? Yes-if seizing an opportunity to better my childrens’ future is akin to corporatism and greed. I deprived a local school the opportunity to bore my children to death and turn them off learning as their neighborhood friends are becoming. I gave myself a 3 hour daily commute by subway to deliver and retrieve the kids from school. My kids enjoy the privilege of attending a public school that does what a school is supposed to do. If you had children, I’ll bet you would do the same.

  53. I don’t blame you, Caesar. We’re all in the same situation. Those of us with the ability to leverage what we have to rise above what’s on offer (by almost any means necessary) – particularly for our kids – are obligated to do so. At the same time, we grow aware of how our actions sometimes simultaneously contribute to the underlying problem.

    Yes, I’d do the same. In my case, I moved out of the city altogether. Both a good thing and a bad thing. And that’s why I told the stories in this introduction of all those truly good people who were nonetheless taking steps that went against their better natures, if you will, in order to get by. The woman who has to trick people out of getting insurance reimbursements – or her own job and salary are at stake. The woman who has to buy drugs at Wal-Mart, and so on. They’re not bad. We’re not bad.

    We are behaving in ways that I believe are actually more “greedy” (to use your word) than we really are, because the underlying landscape – the rules of the game – are based in false assumptions about markets and scarcity and centralization and corporatism.

    But it took me a whole book to unpack it in its detail. The excerpt above is an introduction, meant to present the problem – not to lay blame.

    And no, I don’t believe its human nature. There’s a section in the book on Dawkins and the way I believe social evolution has been twisted to support an untrue set of assumptions about human non-cooperation.

    As for #30 posted by airshowfan: yes yes! Of course, yes. That’s why there’s a whole book. It’s much much more complicated than the ten page introduction. But if I went into how complex it was in that introduction, I fear that readers would just throw the book down. I wanted to humanize the problem in the introduction. That’s why I took a very small story about a single little mugging and used it as a symbol or metaphor for something bigger. But it’s not the real story – just my own little touchstone, and what I hoped would be an easy window.

    Please keep the comments coming. This is super-informative for me. I don’t want to overwhelm people, so I’m thinking one real excerpt per week – and then more on my own site (once it’s working).

  54. Hello,

    Which one is the chapter where you define “corporatism”? Am I correct that the whole book revolves around this concept?

  55. Rush, is this the first chapter of your book? I NEED to read the rest of this! It’s so damn good and timely.


  56. I think Rushkoff’s got something important to say here, but at first blush it seems like a whole lot of words that can be boiled down to “people are selfish nowadays.” In order for this to be meaningful it must be the case that people haven’t always been selfish. This seems to fly in the face of basic biology, psychology and history.

    What’s more, like many World Bank protesters and their ilk, I can’t get past the fact that his negative observations about the plight of the poor seem to occur in a vacuum. The poor in these neighborhoods are now serving fast food? That may be a bad thing, but what jobs did they have before? Brain surgeon? Ballerina?

    And disparity always seems like a weasel word to me. If everyone in my neighborhood gets a $10,000 (inflation-adjusted) raise but Bill Gates moves into the neighborhood, disparity has skyrocketed, but are we really worse off? I’m more interested in actual poverty. If someone invents a poverty-eliminating machine, but in the process becomes a quadrillionarie, throwing off the curve and making him, his friends family and neighborhood impossibly wealthy in a world that no longer has poverty, how is this not an improvement?

    I understand that psychological research indicates that our happiness is based more on our comparative wealth than on our actual wealth once basic needs are met, but I don’t think that making rich people poorer should be an actual development goal.

  57. Current anthropology suggests a competitive human species, and that the greed that corporatism encourages or at least allows is merely an extension or amplification of something already there. I’ll grant you that.

    But there is plenty of evidence from anthropology that humans behave quite cooperatively – the food-sharing work of Glynn Isaac, for example. I can’t help but suspect that the popularity of counter-examples to collaborative behavior are as much or more the fashion of a greed-based society than they are its best science.

    And even if people do have a tendency towards greedy behavior, I’ve made the argument in the book that this kind of behavior has been encouraged – even legislated – in favor of sharing or other behaviors that do not contribute as immediately to the GNP.

    People spending time together not buying anything are bad for the economy, as measured by current metrics.

  58. Rushkoff

    I’m with you here. I started watching The Company, and found its thesis, that corporations are programmed to operate like sociopaths, instantly convincing. And this from a librtarian former Merrill Lynch broker. A company is as greedy (but no more greedy) as a human. But it has no empathy. No conscience. It’s literally not in the programming. And you can’t put a company in jail. This seems like a significant flaw in the system. I couldn’t watch the rest of the movie, though. It became clear that it saw the world in black and white, as fundamentalists often do. It’s silly to pretend that free trade and development haven’t brought billions of people out of poverty in our lifetimes. Things, people and systems are rarely all bad or all good.

    So yes, I think corporatism has had a significant impact. But I think it hasn’t so much changed the DNA of society as it has provided an amplifier to certain aspects of society (wealth creation and consumption) without any amplification being applied to the other aspects (community, empathy, accountability). This is a problem. And the true costs of things are not reflected in prices so that individuals can make rational choices, resulting in invisible and awful externalities. I’d like to see a carbon tax and the DOD and VA budgets funded entirely by oil taxes. Let a market with more accurate signals do its magic.

    But if I had a guess, I’d say that the answer to improving our civilization will come from amplication rather than trying to turn down the volume on corporatism. Too many developing countries have seen what we have and want it. If that process pulls them out of poverty, good.

    Humans are rational actors who make decisions based on inputs. Most don’t get that yet. Most people think advertising doesn’t affect them. They are wrong. And the evolutionary forces of the free market mean the companies most skilled at creating effective inputs that result in consumption of their product will thrive. Sometimes those inputs are created by word of mouth and quality. That’s a good thing. Sometimes those inputs are billions of dollars of advertising and chemical manipulation. That’s not. So maybe I’m wrong. Maybe a little regulation to turn down the volume on these kinds of inputs would be good for society. Should a company with no soul, conscience or accountability really have the same free speech rights as a citizen? Eh, maybe not.

    And speaking of legislation, companies that thrive through effective lobbying? Also not good. The defense industry, which I am a veteran of, favors the survival of those companies most skilled at manipulating the acquisition system. They therefore rationally spend billions on this activity. There are not billions on the other side to lobby for sanity. This is a problem.

    I’m optimistic, though. I don’t think America is the example of what lies ahead for development. I think Scandanavia is. People want to be safe and happy. Money does that for you, to a point, possibly somewhere around $60k. After that, there are significant diminishing returns. People start to realize that friends, family and time to spend with them are more valuable. Me and my friends are hitting this point. I save for early retirement and take comp time rather than overtime. Hopefully we’re the canaries in the coal mine?

    Damn fine discussion you’re starting here, Rushkoff. Ping me if you’re in DC and I’ll buy you a drink at the best bar in town. (The Gibson)

  59. I think this is a thrilling conversation to be having. Thank you for posting it. As I’ve said in the Metaverse Manifesto, “From the moment that one’s vision can become another’s instantaneously, the enormous division between individuals – previously spanned by corporate interfaces – is ended.”

  60. Caesar: If you want better schools and can live with a 3 hour commute, why not just move to New Jersey – good schools!

  61. Maybe people on this post lack a capacity for abstract thought. Sure, anyone can read someone’s opinion and then pick details to argue against, thus negating the legitimacy of the argument on the whole right?

    No. I personally don’t feel attacked or threatened by Rushkoff’s arguments, which makes it easier to listen to his point of view on the whole and assume there is probably some middle ground we can both agree on.

    I may not agree with instances of experiences making valid argumentative commentary on our social dynamic. But I do sympathise that we as a society should take a proactive stance and eliminate the mechanism that create social virus by replacing them with mechanism that evolve us.

    Though we have replaced authoritarian rule with something more subtle, I believe our society will be forced to evolve into something more conscious of itself when we reach our environmental carrying capacity. At least Rushkoff is trying to change this voluntarily.

    Whether I a agree of disagree is irrelevant, the fact that there are still idealists gives me hope.

  62. I heard the tail end of your interview with Michael Krazny on Forum and came here to dive into Life Inc. First, kudos for calling a facade facade, for concisely distinguishing real wealth from jargon, and for keeping in check the tendency to rush to blame and promoting instead acknowledgement of where we’re at so we can move to a new playing field with our eyes open. My first step will be to take inventory of the stocks that I hold and find out if the corporations in my “portfolio” are worthy of propping up. Then, to reassess my own “psychological portfolio” and begin to question the basis of the values that determine where I direct my energy, and create a livelihood from a basis that has, at a minimum, not solely corporatist values. Thanks for the stories, insights, and inspiration. Looking forward to reading more of what you’ve written.

  63. I’m reading the book and your argument is interesting. It’s infuriating that Americans refuse to see that corporations are not people no matter what the law says and that expecting them to behave like people is like expecting your toaster to love you.

    However, the argument so far comes dangerously close to making the same assumption at times. If we acknowledge that corporations are entities with no individuality, then we have to also acknowledge that they cannot be “evil” and that we cannot assign blame to them. Especially if we want to convince people with embedded interests that there’s a better way, simply pointing out all the problems with the corporation isn’t enough. After all, we all want toast. Making the argument that toasters are bad because they burn the bread doesn’t cut it. I hope the book points out some of the good things that the corporate structure has enabled. We can and should do better, not just different.

  64. I’m sorry all this had to happen to you, but I’m glad it did since it’s what helped open your eyes.

    Many of you might find it interesting to watch the documentaries at:

    Every problem has a root and a solution… and ignorance isn’t one of them (solutions that is)

    I said many might find it interesting… in fact many won’t, but those who do are the only ones who will matter in the long run.


  65. The more I read and watch Douglas Rushkoff’s work (on teen media, on human agency…) the more I wish he would look at more specific solutions. He’s on it now with CSAs and local bartering.

    Please look at democratic education. This is the last bit of daylight between what has been and shall be. Democratic schools are the true (unlikely though they be) hope for helping along a generation NOT bought and sold and corporatised.

    Arts & Ideas Sudbury School in Baltimore. Voices From the New American Schoolhouse on youtube.

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