Life Inc: a book against corporatism, published by a corporation

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(Douglas Rushkoff is a recent Boing Boing guest blogger -- below, a previously-planned excerpt from his new book, the last in a series of excerpts which ran during his guest-blogging period.)

Here's the final excerpts for the BoingBoing serialization of my new book Life Inc: How the world became a corporation and how to take it back.

I've chosen them in response to concern from readers of the earlier excerpts, who are asking "what should we actually do about all this?" 

I think the first step is to fully comprehend how the financial mess we're in is not some aberration, but the culmination of a debt-based economy. When speculation and lending outweigh innovation and value-creation as drivers of economic activity, addiction to growth and the attendant bubbles are really the only possible long-term outcome. That's why it's important we understand how the ground rules were established, who came up with them, and why. Only then can we begin to look at how arbitrarily they were determined, and how artificially they were upheld.

But once we've done that, we need to look at mechanisms for restoring the functioning of a bottom-up economy that is at least as worthy as its top-down counterpart. Corporate foundations, while well-meaning, end up sitting on giant stores of investment that work against the very causes the foundations are supposedly working to fix. (There's a big section on how this works, using some of the LA Times terrific analysis of how the Gates Foundation invests its assets.)

It's not a matter of getting rid of corporations and centralized currency altogether, but maintaining alternative means of creating value and exchanging it. This is as much about simple participation as it is about active legislation. Finally, I'll argue, it means abandoning "causes" as abstract as the entities for which we mean to develop alternatives.

(for more on the book, movie, and tour, as well as appearances for groups such as A New Way Forward, check out lifeincorporated.net )


From Chapter 8
No Returns


The Fourth Estate is made up almost entirely of large corporations. And, operating almost entirely under the principles of debt, media companies cannot make any distinction between the market value of information and its importance. Britney Spears's latest breakdown and the invasion of Iraq are both treated as major media events deserving of equal time and space. In the face of all this, the hippest way out is to adopt the attitude of amused and quizzical cynicism worn by Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart.

Besides, no matter how critical of corporatism some entertainers and journalists might be, the impact of their arguments is undercut by their dependence on corporatized media for dissemination. Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart work for Viacom. Naomi Klein writes for a division of the German publisher Verlagsgruppe, and this book is published by a subsidiary of Bertelsmann. We all have mortgages to pay. Even most progressive journalism--just like the kind that emerged in the early 1900s--tends to frighten and isolate the middle classes rather than bring them out of their homes to improve their communities. Populists such as CNN's Lou Dobbs, and others speaking out on behalf of working stiffs, stoke more rage and discontent than thoughtful engagement. In the isolation of our living rooms and surrounded by bills, the menaces of immigrants willing to take our jobs for less pay and affirmative- action candidates offered our jobs with fewer qualifications feel all too real.


Experiencing all this through the sensationalist lens of Big Media only reduces our connection to the real world in which all this stuff is supposedly occurring. We seek to take on our institutional enemies vicariously through our late- night comedians, or "directly" through our laptops. We get to enter contests through which we can compete to create the most effective video ad for an issue or a candidate. We can make viral documentaries that no matter how painstakingly researched they are end up indistinguishable from paranoid videos about how preset explosives took down the World Trade Center.

The problem with fighting "Big Blank" [Big Agra, Big Pharma, etc.] on its own turf and terms is that it has more money, more access to the government and media through which the battle takes place, better command of the symbols and semantics that sway public sentiment, and much more time to spend waiting for the results it wants. Real people working against it, on the other hand, need to keep alive, employed, and motivated. We need to steer clear of actionable copyright violation and libel, shield ourselves from the emotional damage caused by Internet "trolls" paid to insult or lie about us online, and still manage to maintain an audience willing to listen to what we have to say and then to actually do something about it instead of just nodding, passing on a link, and closing the computer for the night.

We cannot market our way out of corporatism. While joining a big cause or a national political campaign may feel good for a moment, it can easily turn immediate, local, and actionable problems into great big abstract ones. The pollution leaching out of the local factory is hard to confront directly, and easier to address instead as part of a bigger environmental movement. Racism downtown can be addressed more painlessly by donating to a black candidate or a scholarship fund online. Carbon offsets, through which a person can pay an online company to counteract the effects of his air travel or air-conditioning, provide a virtual path to personal virtue--and a way for frequent fliers to recontextualize their actions right on their blogs for all to see.

This activity may be well intentioned, but it is chiefly concerned with finding ways to maintain our disconnection while still doing the right thing. Brands were invented to substitute for the real connections we had to people, places, and value. The brand was meant to disconnect, so branded movements and ideologies by their very nature tend toward polarization and extremism. Antiabortion and pro- choice constituencies are pushed to the edges by their highly branded, hotly worded campaigns, and thus less likely to rally around their common cause--reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies. While Saatchi & Saatchi's "loyalty beyond reason" might be great for a cereal's "consumer tribe," it's the surest path away from a reasonable engagement with real life's pressing issues. Activists on MySpace compete for numbers of "friends" willing to become associated with a particular cause, but fail to realize that signing on to a social cause is accomplished with the same mouse click as signing on to be a friend of the Nike Swoosh.

Employing the techniques of marketing to repair the ravages of corporatism is a losing proposition; branding only disconnects us further from the means to rebuild what we have lost. The medium becomes the message as Big Activism becomes just another Big Blank. By attempting to beat them at their own game, we become part of the very thing we should be dismantling.

From Chapter 9
Here and Now: The Opportunity to Reconnect


Having grown so absolutely dependent on corporations and their debt for our daily functioning and sense of continuity, it's not surprising that our first reaction to Wall Street's implosion is to fund the companies in trouble. So, the public borrows more money from the central banks in order to feed the private sector's credit- vanquished corporations. Instead of merely having value extracted from us in the present, we volunteer our future earnings to keep the system running. Either that, or let the other shoe drop and expose the credit- based, artificial economy and its faulty premise of infinite expansion.

The debate on whether or not to refund the corporate sphere has so far fallen along familiar battle lines. Conservatives see themselves as free- market advocates, and adopt a posture of nonintervention. Regulation and impediments to free trade are what hampered corporations' ability to stay profitable in the first place, they argue. Those arguing for government bailouts and federally sponsored work programs, on the other hand, see this crisis as the opportunity to return corporations to public control, offer funds in return for more socially beneficial products, keep people employed, and restore the corporate sphere to health. They believe the free market has finally been "disproved."

But the distinctions are false. The free market is itself already sloped--highly regulated, in a sense--toward the interests of corporations and away from labor, small businesses, and local activity. If conservatives got their open marketplace and maintained a truly hands- off approach, most of the corporations they seek to liberate from government control would cease to exist. They couldn't survive on a level playing field, because corporations are themselves a byproduct of government regulation. Meanwhile, liberals who promote government investment in corporate debt might as well be arguing for privatizing Social Security. Bailouts, even in the form of recoupable investments, just tie us further to the fortunes of the corporate sphere. We end up with a stake in restoring their future ability to extract value from our society while providing as little as possible in return. These supposedly polarized policy positions are mirror images of the very same corporatism.

The alternative is to let government and business continue their debate about how to mitigate the most painful effects of the speculative economy's cyclical nature. In the meantime, we use the financial stalemate--however long it lasts--as an opportunity to identify the disconnections inherent in our overcorporatized society and try out some new strategies for rebuilding it from the bottom up. The corporate sphere ill serves human needs even when it's working as it's designed to. As corporate insolvency, home foreclosure, and unemployment increase, our financial system may prove incapable of providing us the essentials we need at prices we can afford. Through what mechanisms might we do this for one another, instead of depending on the distant companies who took this responsibility away from us before failing themselves?

We don't all need to move to communes or planned communities; we needn't stake out turf in the mountains for a dream chalet with solar panels. Extreme shifts like that only produce more consumption, waste, and trauma. Nor can we all suddenly quit our jobs working for corporations, sell all the depressed stock in our 401(k) plans, or completely stop using the existing fiscal system to conduct our business. We are dependent on corporations right now, and--however much influence they may lose in the short term--they're not going away anytime soon. We may not even want them to.

But we can't ask corporatized institutions from the private or public sectors to fix this mess for us, either. Just as Malcolm X rejected the help of white liberal groups, understanding that his community needed to learn to help itself, we humans cannot depend on entities biased toward repressing us to assist us in our quest to regain agency. Corporations can't save us, and we have more important business to attend to right now than obsessing over how to save them.

Instead, we can look to those who are reclaiming territory, creating value, and reconnecting with others in ways that we might actually be able to try ourselves. Small is the new big, and the surest path to global change in a highly networked world is to make an extremely local impact that works so well it spreads. This may amount to a new form of activism, but it is one without slogans, heroes, or glory. The efforts, and the rewards, are scaled to human beings.

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Instead of fighting corporations with corporations of our own, or working through corporations to reduce their negative impact on our society, we're better off reinventing ourselves as humans. We live on a terrain and in a dimension they can pollute but to which they will never belong. By working on this human- scaled landscape instead, we can create the changes in our own lives and communities that stand a chance, in aggregate, of trickling up and changing how the big world operates as well.

We can't look for those kinds of changes overnight. The grand expectations we have for ourselves and our achievements are really just the false promises of consumerism, brand culture, and the politics of revolutionary change. This is the ideological heritage of the Renaissance, and what brought us into the cycle of utopian hopes and alienated cynicism we're churning through today.

We'd each like to launch a national movement, create the website that teaches the world how to build community from the bottom up, develop the curriculum that saves public schools, or devise the clever antimarketing media campaign that breaks the spell of advertising once and for all. But these ego trips are the artifacts of the strident individualism we were taught to embrace. The temptation to save the whole world--and get the credit--comes at the expense of steps we might better take to make our immediate world a more fruitful, engaging, sustainable, and satisfying place. A successful movement depends on getting attention from media and institutions that are dead set against recognizing our ability to create value ourselves, and for its own sake. The minute they find out what we're up to, it's their job to dash our hopes and return our attention to the false idols they're selling us.

We'll run into obstacles soon enough. A friend of mine--from the genuinely activist culture fighting to stay in Park Slope--is building bicycle lanes throughout Brooklyn and has fought with enough legislators for zoning changes that he now knows his way around City Hall. A collective in the Midwest outfitting their homes with solar panels is in a battle with the utility company to be permitted to sell the electricity they create back through the power grid. Parents in Pennsylvania got themselves elected to the school board so that they could give themselves permission to teach computer skills to their own public-school teachers, whose union originally resisted teachers' being forced to get online. Once we start reinvesting in our local reality and reaping the returns, the corporatized institutions accustomed to extracting this value at our expense--be they private or public--will do their best to stall our progress.

Finally, we must fight the notion that redirecting our concerns in this fashion represents a retreat into provincial self- interest. The efforts may be local, but the effects are global. Every gallon of gas we don't burn is a few bucks less going to exploit someone in the Middle East. Every student we educate properly has more potential to create value for us all. Every plate of chard we grow is another patch of topsoil saved, another square foot of room on a truck, and another nail in the coffin of Big Agra. Every Little League game we coach is an assault on the obesity epidemic, every illiterate adult we teach to read may become one fewer welfare case to fund, and every hour we spend with friends is that many eyeballs fewer glued to the TV. The little things we do are big, all by themselves.

The best reason to begin reconnecting with real people, places, and value is that it feels good. Happiness doesn't come from the top down, but from the bottom up. The moment we think of ourselves as part of a movement, instead of real people, will be the moment we are much more susceptible to being disheartened or sidetracked by the business page, the terror alert, and the never-ending call to self- interest.

But real people doing real things for one another--without expectations--is the very activity that has been systematically extracted from our society over the past four hundred years through the spectacular triumph of corporatism. And this local, day- to- day, mundane pleasure is what makes us human in the first place.

Life Incorporated