Life Inc: How the World Became a Corporation and How to Take it Back by Douglas Rushkoff
Michael Bywater takes on the corporations with Douglas Rushkoff
Politicians who speak of “market forces” – whether with approval or with horror — are either misleading or misinformed. There are no “market forces”; there is no “market”, only individual human beings colluding to shape the world as they wish, some with frightening success, some with conspicuous failure.
And, of course, “as they wish” almost invariably means “give us your money”. (Indeed, as Joel Bakan put it in his celebrated, if slightly over-excitable, The Corporation, the law constrains them to that end alone, so that a corporation becomes not just a legal individual but a sort of licensed psychopath, forbidden from doing anything other than maximising financial gain for its shareholders.)
The degree of sheer human intellect devoted by the corporate world to the understanding of human motivations, frailities and desires is awe-inspiring, and its penetration almost universal. And it works. Even when it goes wrong (and the current financial crisis is almost entirely corporate in origin) it affects all our lives.
So Douglas Rushkoff’s book couldn’t have come at a better time. His thesis is a simple one, and well supported: that politics (in the grander sense) has become suborned by corporate power and ambition; that this is no new thing; that our entire financial system derives from early adventures in monopoly-licensed corporations; and that unless we do something, we’re sunk.
His arguments are hard to assail. Corporations control our lives – blatantly in the West, more (at the moment) subtly elsewhere. Children construct their social identities from an assembly of corporate brands and logos. Those who would denounce it on the free, open internet are paying corporate tribute for the privilege, every step of the way from the telecoms carrier to the ISP, from the computer they use to the operating system it runs and the software they use to publish their thoughts. At the heart of the Web 2.0 enterprise hums potentially the most lethal corporation of all: Google, which knows everything about us to a degree governments could only dream of (and boy, do they dream).
Rushkoff expands an often rehearsed thesis, most glamorously expounded in Eva Illouz’s brilliant 1997 book, Consuming the Romantic Utopia: that corporate capitalism is not so much about selling things as selling ideas of things and, in particular, selling us the idea of personal deficiencies.
There currently appears to be no escape; and Rushkoff skilfully, and beguilingly, prepares his ground by showing us, at the end of every avenue of escape, the outstretched corporate hand, simultaneously demanding tribute and barring further progress.
But Life Inc is no mere jeremiad. He has a solution, and it’s one with a powerful historical pedigree. We take the idea of a single, global (give or take the odd moneychanger) thing called “money”. The concept is at the core of our current crisis. And Rushkoff demonstrates that it’s both recent and contingent on corporatism.
He’s for a dual currency, based on the model common in the Middle Ages in Europe. Then, there was a local money, representing (for example) stored grain, redeemable at the miller’s or the granary, and renewable each year at a discount, not least because stored grain goes off. So a 2009 pound would be renewable for 90p in 2010. This self-devaluing currency encourages local spending.
The other currency is what we now think of as money: a national (and now global) currency, its roots in government/corporate monopolies; this “money” inherently encourages saving, thus lending, thus borrowing, and thus speculation.
Rushkoff’s historical arguments are occasionally confusing or unnuanced. But they hold water. They also lead him to a solution: re-introduce local currencies.
This isn’t just hot air. He’s been involved with one: Comfort Dollars, a local scheme in his home town to aid Comfort, a “tiny organic café”, to expand. Buy a $1,000 “Comfort Card” and you get back $1,200 worth of food. “John [the owner] gets the money he needs a lot cheaper than if he were borrowing it from the bank – he’s paying for it in food and labour that he has in ample supply. Meanwhile, customers get more food for less money [and] the entire scheme reinvests a community’s energy and cash locally. [ . . . ] It’s not complex or even communist. It’s just local business, late Middle Ages style.”
But what of businesses that need to buy in supplies from outside the local area? Easy: split the currencies. Rushkoff cites the “BerkShares” – alas, the name doesn’t travel well – used in the Berkshire Hills region of Massachusetts. “The three automobile repair shops in Great Barrington that accept BerkShares must still buy auto parts . . . with US dollars. But they are willing to break down their bills into two separate categories, selling parts at cost in US dollars, and markups and labor in the local currency.”
It seems a touch Utopian and, worse, worthy, in that same joyless, Birkenstock fashion that has made environmentalists the greatest stumbling-block to environmentalism. There’s something about the affronted, purse-lipped sanctimony of the Greens that makes one want to rush out and fuck up the environment without delay, just as there’s a perversity that, on reading Rushkoff, makes one want to rush out of the house and buy crap on AmEx.
But how sad that worthiness should inherently seem joyless; and good sense should resist such idiocy. Good sense should pay attention to constructive thinkers like Rushkoff, not just by reading and admiring him, but by trying out his ideas. In a saner world that would be self-evident. But I fear corporatism is dug too deep. Judging by the insane response to the present mess (caused simply by the misinterpretation of information, the failures of regulation, and the three-year-old idiocy of believing the point of cornflakes is the free plastic spaceman rather than the cereal) the parasite has taken over the host.
Life Inc is published by Bodley Head