Here’s my favorite review of Life Inc, so far. Maybe it’s enough to get Rachel Maddow’s people to notice the book.
What I like about the reviewer’s approach is that he gets the book is not about particular corporations or CEOs being evil. I didn’t write a typical critique of corporate activity at all, but rather an analysis of the real reasons corporations and central currency were developed, and why these mechanisms can’t help but operate the way they do today. It’s not a matter of making corporations behave better – it’s a matter of seeing how their most basic structure and function were designed to extract value from people and deliver it to centralized institutions.
Thank goodness for DailyKos. Here’s the review in its entirety. The link and discussion are right here.
I’m on DailyKos tonight to chat about the book and related subjects. 8pm Eastern, at http://dailykos.com
This Corporate Life
At your nearest bookstore, you’ll find racks of books that deliver some edifying bit of history in an entertaining package. You’ll also find the ground thick with books that leave you in despair over some aspect of our unbalanced society. But it’s a rare book that doesn’t just leave you better informed, doesn’t just make you angry, but delivers that gape-mouthed moment, that instance in which your forehead becomes marked by a savage palm-slap, that second when you realize just how completely you’ve been duped.
Reading Douglas Rushkoff’s Life Inc.: How the World Became a Corporation and How to Take It Back, you can’t help but recall the statement often attributed to Winston Churchill: history is written by the victors. What we tend to forget is that the victors of every battle for the last half a millennium have been the same — corporations. That’s true if we’re talking about the Battle of the Bulge, or the battle to keep down your own bulge.
It’s easy, almost expected, that we should rail against the intrusion of corporations in our lives. Gouging by Haliburton. Destruction of communities by Walmart. Bonuses paid out to the executives of name-your-least-favorite-corporation-here.
But corporate influence is more than that. Deeper than that. It extends farther into the past than most of us realize (look too closely, and half of what you were taught in grade school goes up in a puff of marketing), and it extends more profoundly into our own “hearts and minds” than we want to admit. To a frightening degree, we’ve modeled our own lives, not after the people we say we admire, but after the corporations we claim to hate.
Many of the specific incidents Rushkoff uses in his book are familiar, but stripped of marketing inventions, those events have a very different feel. Underneath the textbook heroics, characters from the great “Age of Exploration” turn out to have been unconcerned with expanding human knowledge, or even with finding new markets. Instead they actively worked against exploration to protect their own interests. Adam Smith, conservative saint, is revealed as a crusader against the spread of international corporations, as someone whose plea to preserve small, local business was co-opted to serve the corporations he was warning against.
How would the people screaming around the reflection pool this past Saturday react if you told them that a big part of what drove the American Revolution was not the unfair actions the British government, but the grinding tactics of British corporations? That it was as much about stopping laissez-faire economics, as it was about turning back taxation without representation?
Quick: what’s the purpose of a corporation? If you think about it for a few minutes, you can come up with a justification about encouraging innovation by protecting investors from failing along with their ideas. The truth is, corporations are such a part of our lives that most of us are as likely to ask the purpose of the sun. And heck, every heartwarming story of a corporate CEO seems to start with the tale of how he or she drove three businesses into the ground before hitting it big, and who would want to mess with a system like that?
Rushkoff shows that corporations don’t owe their origins to a desire for fostering innovation or to open up the investor class. It wasn’t about building an “ownership society” or encouraging enterprise. Corporations were invented to stop all those things. They were invented because the ruling class saw that the middle class was ascendant, that the would-be bourgeoisie were expanding their wealth and threatening to squirm out from under the thumbs of their upper-class lords. The aristocracy created the corporation to perpetuate the control of the aristocracy.
Corporations are business at a distance. Work once (or twice, or many times) removed from the people who do the work. They allow difficult tasks to be performed by surrogates who may never had met the people they serve. They allowed the aristocracy to get their hands dirty without actually getting their hands anywhere near the dirt. It’s business, and life, lived as an abstraction. Why should we be surprised that modern corporations are increasingly reliant on complex and incomprehensible derivatives to fund their business, when they are themselves a kind of unquantifiable derivative of real people and real work?
If a casino can be described as a machine designed to extract money from those who come inside, a corporation is a machine designed to extract money from everyone it touches. Not just consumers, not just investors, but also anyone unfortunate enough to be in the way of resources the corporation hopes to exploit. The money from this machine is then funneled to a few people at the top. It’s pocket feudalism, designed to sustain by law the hierarchy that threatened to be undermined by pesky things like freedom and individual enterprise.
It’s not that individual corporations are bad. It’s that corporations can’t help but be bad. It’s built into the design.
Integral to every modern corporation is a model that incorporates (literally) the power structure of the late Middle Ages, and the colonization strategy of 18th century empires. They don’t open a store in an area, they establish a colony. That store isn’t the corporation, it’s an instrument of the corporation, and that’s a very different thing. The corporation establishes a beachhead in an area using any tactic necessary. If possible, they gain the help of local governments, secure the assistance of local land developers, whet the appetites of local consumers, even capture the unwitting aid of soon-to-be competitors with talk of “revitalizing” the area. All of which helps provide the advantage that the corporation needs to offer goods in a variety and at a price no local operation can match. If local competitors do happen to prove particularly inventive or persistent, the corporation steps up the pressure by slashing prices well below costs. They have the resources to keep this up. Small stores, dependent on making profit at only a few locations, can’t match these cuts. If the locals still hold out, the corporation can open a second store, or a third, raising the stakes until at last the locals throw up their hands in surrender. These are acceptable expenses. After all, once the corporation has finally driven local competition to extinction, they can always close the other stores and raise prices. And they will, because the intention is the same as it is everywhere else — exploit all local resources as completely as possible.
You don’t have to make too many changes to see how this scenario applies equally to Walmart moving into the nearest small town, and Leopold II capturing the Congo.
What each chapter of the book drives home is that this activity doesn’t require evil people at the helm. There doesn’t need to be a cackling set of greedy bastards circling the board table. The structure of a corporation dictates how it will operate. Force of law and force of habit ensures that any action not intended to improve the corporation’s means of exploitation is discarded. The corporation is drive to act… like a corporation. It’s not an evil plot, it’s an evil system.
Rushkoff provides numerous stories of the lengths that corporations have gone to in order to expand their reach. How do car dealers match demand to production capability after World War II? Well, you don’t actually have to destroy all public transportation — just enough of it to leave people worried that the rest could go away at any time. Land developers didn’t need to ruin every city neighborhood and institution to raise the value of that worthless land on the outskirts — they only had to make things bad enough that the newly minted commuters happy about their decisions to move on down the road.
Again, some of these actions fit together so well that they seem like parts of a fabulous plot. But a plot is not required. It’s the outcome of the a corporate model that distances the people at the top of the later-day aristocracy from their actions. It’s the inevitable result of the way corporations are formed and regulated. In it’s own way, the interwoven actions of corporation are organic.
The destruction of local businesses and the gutting of cities is only the medium-scale activity of the field on which corporations play. Armed with the assistance of the tools they’ve created — the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and World Trade Organization — modern corporations can quite easily bludgeon whole nations. Why don’t the nations that are the subjects of massive loans make economic recoveries? Because they’re not supposed to. The structure of the loans, and the regulations that back them up, are designed like those of the most odious pay-day loan. They’re designed to get nations in debt, then deeper in debt, while extracting from them anything of actual worth. Nations that participate may think they’re getting a hand up in the international market. Instead they find that they are losing their best assets, surrendering their ability to control their own markets, giving up the ability to feed their own people, and providing cheap labor, raw materials, and a handy place to scatter the most toxic pollution.
I confess that I’ve watched protestors of these international organizations with a kind of disdain. How could the actions of a group of bankers managing loans to countries who are already poor, be the source of such emotions? All I can say now is; I’m sorry, I didn’t understand.
To make an appropriately corporate-driven analogy, reading Life Inc. is like suddenly becoming “Claritin Clear” — only it sometimes feels as if the film is being removed from your eyes with a pair of pliers. Once the comfortable illusions have been stripped away… it’s hard to get them back.
But the stories about corporations aren’t the worst of it. In fact, that’s just the set up. The world is under the control of giant international companies which employ ruthless tactics to break down national barriers — actually, who often don’t even notice national barriers — and we’ve all cooperated to the extent that we’ve helped them dismantle the few things that stood between these relentless abstractions and real people. Yeah, what else is new?
What’s new, at least relatively so, is the extent to which we’ve internalized the values of corporations. We criticize corporations for acting as if only the next quarter counts, but how often do we treat our own investments (an not just our financial investments) in the same way? How often is our response on any issue made on corporate terms, on terms that assume life is a zero-sum game where your advancement means my stagnation?
Just to give one example: language. How many times over the last four years have we sought the perfect phrase to remedy What’s the Matter with Kansas? How much grudging admiration have we given to the effect of death tax and partial birth abortion? And in reaction, how much time have we devoted to strategies that first require us to treat our fellow Americans as if they are idiots? We roll our eyes at the antics of Glenn Beck, but if we feverishly look for ways to persuade rather than educate, how are we any better? There’s a huge danger in treating politics as a kind of intellectual race to the bottom, a contest to reduce talking points to a three word phrase that carries the most emotional wallop. You can run that experiment a thousand times, and you know who will win? The side that has the best professional marketeers. You want to make a bet on which side that would be?
How about instead of working on our “elevator pitch,” we work on our conversation skills? What if, instead of marketing, we explain? That’s just one way, and it’s not a small one, in which we can stop acting as if we are Progressives, inc, dealing with potential customers, and start acting as if we are real people trying to persuade other real people of the benefits of our approach.