‘Full on guns in face old school Roman oppression’ – Douglas Rushkoff, author of Life Inc., interviewed

rushkoffbiosmBig business – or the ‘big blank’, as author Douglas Rushkoff calls it in Life Inc, a new book that attempts to explain ‘how the world became a corporation’ and what we can do to ‘take it back’ – has come in for a fare amount of flack this last year or so. We spoke to Douglas about where the world is right now and what we can do to make things better…

You would’ve had to have been living under a rock this last many months not to have seen the glorious nose dive of big business across the globe. It was a nose dive that seemed long overdue to those people campaigning for more accountability among the business behemoths busy shifting tax bases here and manufacturing bases there, driving out local businesses as part of the free market and cheerily polluting with nary a backward glance towards anything even remotely ethical. Unfortunately, the nose dive has also brought to light a whole bushel-load of corporate, business practices that underline, perhaps more pointedly than anyone would’ve expected, how money is the only God big business respects. Perhaps the best example of this is the story about how Goldman Sachs were betting against the long-term future of US corporate giant AIG, making money on their eventual demise and then further recouping from the US government’s bail-out of AIG (when AIG had to pay Goldman Sachs back all the money it owed them). Douglas Rushkoff, the author of Life Inc, told Bookmunch that he understands how people can be overwhelmed by the scale of the problem. ‘The problem is just too big,’ he writes in his book. ‘Concern becomes cynicism, cynicism becomes despair and despair becomes self-preservation. Maybe I can insulate my family from the problem.’ But there are things we can do.

life incIt may be that you think big business has only got too big for its trousers in the last decade or so. The truth might surprise you. As far as Douglas Rushkoff is concerned, the system started ‘breaking bad’ about eight hundred years ago – in Florence of all places. ‘This is almost an untold story,’ Rushkoff explained. ‘History books gloss over or omit entirely the process through which monarchs outlawed certain currencies while promoting others.’ For a time, in Europe and the United Kingdom, dual monetary systems would run in tandem – with cheap, local currency being used to cover, say, the way in which a farmer sold his crop in return for local services and more durable currency used to buy and sell products from further afield, overseas. In Florence, in 1252, the ‘florin’ which began life as an illegal ‘people’s money’, started to be used further afield and eventually led France’s King Louis IX to outlaw any money that didn’t bear the King’s imprint. This was the beginning, Rushkoff posits, of a centralisation of power that has led – via the first great trade monopolies (England’s Muscovy Company of 1555, the British East India Company of 1602, the Dutch United East India Company of 1602), which in turn cemented the relationship between monarchs and corporations (who became ‘loyal subjects, dependent on the Crown for their legitimacy, protection and escape clauses’) – to where we are now. ‘The more such corporations came to dominate business and finance,’ Rushkoff told Bookmunch, ‘the more that legal and social systems evolved to serve them.’

And so, as time went by, ‘places became ‘territories’, people became ‘labour’, money became ‘capital’ and laws became ‘game rules’.’ Rushkoff writes: ‘The last century of media enhanced public relations [has] set in motion something the founding fathers simply couldn’t have imagined: a corporate sphere in cahoots not only with a corrupt government but with the people. We are the new collaborators, engaging with one another and the world at large through these artificial actors. As we do, our behaviours become increasingly predictable, our lives more predetermined and our awareness of alternatives to corporate-enabled autonomy diminished. It’s just the way things are and – as far as we can tell – have always been.’

‘It took me about four years to write Life Inc.,’ Douglas told us over the phone from New York, ‘and when I started the world was somewhat different. When I began I wanted to demonstrate that (in a rising market) the end products wouldn’t make anyone happy. There would be a price to pay.’ In the light of the financial crisis, however, Rushkoff’s view of the book changed. ‘With the crisis, I was much more hopeful,’ he explained, chuckling. ‘I wasn’t burdened with having to demonstrate that the current model was unsustainable. Now I had room to explain how we get ourselves out of the trap.’

Part of the way in which Rushkoff seeks to do that is by reclaiming what we perceive to be ‘anonymous’ decisions. ‘I do name names and I do show what kinds of people made decisions in certain centuries,’ Rushkoff said. ‘King Phillip made [local] currencies illegal in France. Some guy made a decision! I see that as being a liberating thought. If it was just one guy, well… we can change that!’ About midway through Life Inc, Rushkoff writes: ‘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 authorise 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 saviours, while we engage with our fellow humans as competitors to be beaten or resources to be exploited.’

As business got steadily bigger and blanker so the effect on the populace and the drivers used to affect the populace got bigger and more sophisticated: ‘…mass production led to mass marketing, which in turn required a mass media capable of delivering all that marketing across great nations and beyond. At each step of the way, human relationships were further mediated through capital, products or myths. Collectivist impulses were shunned in favour of strident individualism and personal achievement. Dreams of achieving status through social position were replaced by dreams of purchasing status through private acquisition.’ It gets worse: ‘While mass production desocialised the worker, mass marketing desocialised consumption. Brands had to alienate people from one another in order to replace the human bonds that once characterised commerce with artificial corporate ones. National brand relationships replaced local social relationships. Instead of supplying a neighbour with a particular good, the best one could hope for in an industrial economy was finding a friend loyal to the same brand.’

And so now we find ourselves in a world in which the public is manipulated – Rushkoff cites a Republican strategist who campaigned to change the terms ‘global warming’ to ‘climate change’, ‘estate tax’ to ‘death tax’ and ‘third trimester abortion’ to ‘partial birth abortion’, in order to gain leverage for his Party’s issues. We find ourselves in a world in which the news is manipulated – with VNRs ‘or video news reports… a complete, prepackaged story made by a company or a cause, beamed to news stations around the world for them to broadcast as if it were one of their own reports’. And the best alternative to Rushkoff we have is celebrating ‘brand You’ – Rushkoff cites consultant Tom Peters who said ‘It’s time for me – and you – to take a lesson from the big brands, a lesson that’s true for anyone who’s interested in what it takes to stand out and prosper in the new world of work… We are the CEOs of our own companies: Me Inc. To be in business today, our most important job is to be head marketer for the brand called You.’ Understandably, Rushkoff has a lot of issues with the whole idea of ‘Brand You’, saying, ‘The problem is that no matter how well we play, the real corporations will necessarily beat us. This is their realm. Corporations will always be better at being corporations than people will. They don’t need to eat, sleep, or worst of all, feel. They do not age or suffer doubt.’Although Rushkoff isn’t blown away by the new administration in the US (‘Part of what got Obama going was big investment from Wall St,’ Rushkoff told us, ‘his views are consonant with theirs’), he does prefer it to the ‘full on guns in face old school Roman oppression’ of the Bush/Cheney era. But the idea is not to look to Government or indeed big business for the answers. ‘There is a way out,’ he explains in Life Inc. ‘But it means getting off the artificial playing field or corporatism and touching terra firma. Only by disconnecting from corporatism and its dehumanising, delocalizing, depersonalising and devaluing biases can we muster the strength and find the tools through which a people-scaled society might be constructed – or reconstructed.’    

Right now there are people all over the world involved in doing good – whether as part as Doctors Without Borders, Free Geek (wiring up schools in underprivileged areas), Volunteer Match (connecting people with communities that require their skills) or countless other admirable ventures. ‘The rest of us just don’t have the time, the energy or the commitment to take a hands-on approach to anything but work and maybe family,’ Rushkoff writes. And what’s more, ‘We want to do right by the environment but we still want to take two adults and two children to Disneyland for under a couple of thousand bucks.’

‘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 can only produce more consumption, waste and trauma. Nor can we all suddenly quit our jobs working for corporations. 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 that 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.’

‘The more social we get, the more one voluntary act will encourage another one and so on.  We learn it’s fun and less time consuming to provide real help to our local school than to take an extra corporate job to pay for a private one. We reverse the equation through which we calculate how much money we’ll need to insulate ourselves from the world in which we live, and instead how much we can get from and give to that world with no money at all. Reciprocity is not a market phenomenon; it is a social one.’

 Life Inc by Douglas Rushkoff is published by Bodley Head priced £12.99  

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