Irish Times Gets Life Inc

Finally, a newspaper review that really does get what I was going for. I’m still holding out for a NYTimes review – even a pan would be nice. (I’m not exactly sure why they’ve passed on this book so far, when they reviewed other less significant books I’ve written.)

But this one makes up for it, and reminds me that it’s only been out a few months and anything can still happen. I’m scheduling some talks and other events to help promote DIY culture and bottom-up activism. More on that very soon.

Corporations and the concentration of power


BOOK REVIEW: Life Inc: How the World Became a Corporation and How to Take it Back by Douglas Rushkoff Published by The Bodley Head, priced £12.99

BEING MUGGED at gunpoint is never going to be a pleasant experience, but for Douglas Rushkoff, his trauma was made all the weirder by the reaction of his neighbours.

E-mailing his local parents’ group to tell them a mugger was targeting that part of Brooklyn, New York, Rushkoff thought he was doing the responsible thing – hey, he might even get some sympathy. Instead, the responses were angry. How dare he mention the street where the crime had happened? Didn’t he know what that was going to do to their property prices?

Rushkoff was stunned. Had people been so sucked into the race for wealth that they cared more about the market value of their neighbourhood than what was actually happening within it? This was more than just an expression of a property mania, this was indicative of some deeper disconnect in society. And so Rushkoff, an American media and business commentator who once coined the term “viral marketing” (but he’s not entirely proud of it), was spurred to complete his “what went wrong” treatise.

Whether you’re part of the No Logo generation or you’ve heard your local priest sermonising about the amorality of consumerism, you’ll be familiar with the starting point for Rushkoff’s thesis: that the world has become corporatised, human needs commodified and human emotions commercialised to the detriment of all. Whereas once people were connected to their local communities and each other by mutual dependency and respect, now they only care about “brand me” – hell, we might as well just tattoo a barcode on our foreheads and be done with it. This is Life Incorporated.

But Rushkoff’s soundly reasoned, fact-packed volume is more than just superficial observation; Life Inc. kicks off with a powerful historical dissection of how we got here. There is no rose-tinted view of pre-Reaganite times or nostalgia for the era before public relations agencies. Rushkoff places the origins of corporatism’s corroding influence on wellbeing way further back in the timeline than you might imagine. Hands up who thought the Renaissance was all progress?

Rushkoff frames the Renaissance as a time when wealth accumulated in the hands of the aristocracy just as social conditions in Europe were deteriorating fast. The late Middle Ages, the period 1100-1300, was the real time of prosperity. As trade developed, a new merchant class emerged and towns thrived. But the sovereign rulers of Europe, faced with a democratisation of wealth, weren’t happy with that, and so they snuffed it out by establishing monopolistic corporations. The structure of corporations was not designed to promote commerce, but to prevent it by royal charter.

Meanwhile, the existence of local, multiple forms of currency, which had allowed smaller groups and regions to create and keep value for themselves based on their labour, were obliterated by centralised currencies designed to extend the power of central banks. “Those on the periphery owe, while those in the centre grow,” writes Rushkoff.

Fast forward to the 21st century and the corporation and its sole structural purpose – to “drive shareholder value” – is so entrenched that people who attempt to do things differently get walloped by legislation biased in favour of the wealthy. Even the poster children for corporatism, like the US car companies, are destroyed by the instability of bank-based economies.

Life Inc. is a compelling history lesson, and an important study of this stuff we call money. For my money, though, many readers will enjoy this book most when Rushkoff lets rip at some modern craziness. He’s none too happy about the corporatisation of friendship, charitable causes and even political beliefs via Facebook et al; while the popularity of self-help psychobabble phenomenon The Secret and pseudo-philosopher Malcolm Gladwell (much loved by “compliance professionals”) unsettles him greatly.

More enjoyable still are his first-hand encounters with the people who try to do things differently. Cindy, a Chicago department store worker, helps a colleague do his job, but is reprimanded for breaking the store’s “survival of the fittest” staff policy, whereby slower sellers are summarily dismissed.

John, owner of the Comfort café (Rushkoff’s local), finds he can’t finance the building of his second outlet (because the banks are broken) and so he turns to his loyal customers for help. Using an “alternative” currency dubbed “Comfort dollars”, John and his customers stop the spoils of their incomes from leaking away.

As corporatism is about controlling the masses, it actually has the same intellectual underpinnings as fascism, Rushkoff concludes. But he does not advocate extreme action. Instead, he implores readers to support the economic activity of their communities.

Everybody needs good neighbours, as the song goes.

© 2009 The Irish Times