Rushkoff - Movie and Book
timely. Heed the message. Someone learned something that south americans
(who were killed with tax-money of this author)
knew long ago.
how the World became a Corporation and How to take it back
Your Money or Your Life
A Lesson on the Front Stoop
I got mugged on Christmas Eve.
I was in front of my Brooklyn apartment house taking out the trash when a man pulled a gun and told me to empty my pockets. I gave him my money, wallet, and cell phone. But then.remembering something I.d seen in a movie about a hostage negotiator.I begged him to let me keep my medical- insurance card. If I could humanize myself in his perception, I figured, he.d be less likely to kill me.
He accepted my argument about how hard it would be for me to get .care. without it, and handed me back the card. Now it was us two against the establishment, and we made something of a deal: in exchange for his mercy, I wasn.t to report him.even though I had plainly seen his face. I agreed, and he ran off down the street. I foolishly but steadfastly stood by my side of the bargain, however coerced it may have been, for a few hours. As if I could have actually entered into a binding contract at gunpoint.
In the meantime, I posted a note about my strange and frightening experience to the Park Slope Parents list . a rather crunchy Internet community of moms, food co-op members, and other leftie types dedicated to the health and well- being of their families and their decidedly progressive, gentrifying neighborhood. It seemed the responsible thing to do, and I suppose I also expected some expression of sympathy and support.
Amazingly, the very first two emails I received were from people angry that I had posted the name of the street on which the crime had occurred. Didn.t I realize that this publicity could adversely affect all of our property values? The .sellers. market. was already difficult enough! With a famous actor reportedly leaving the area for Manhattan, does Brooklyn.s real- estate market need more bad press? And this was before the real- estate crash.
I was stunned. Had it really come to this? Did people care more about the market value of their neighborhood than what was actually taking place within it? Besides, it didn.t even make good business sense to bury the issue. In the long run, an open and honest conversation about crime and how to prevent it should make the neighborhood safer. Property values would go up in the end, not down. So these homeowners were more concerned about the immediate liquidity of their town houses than their long- term asset value.not to mention the actual experience of living in them. And these were among the wealthiest people in New York, who shouldn.t have to be worrying about such things. What had happened to make them behave this way?
It stopped me cold, and forced me to reassess my own long- held desire to elevate myself from renter to owner. I stopped to think. which, in the midst of an irrational real- estate craze, may not have been the safest thing to do. Why, I wondered aloud on my blog, was I struggling to make $4,500-per-month rent on a two- bedroom, fourth-floor walk- up in this supposedly .hip. section of Brooklyn, when I could just as easily get mugged somewhere else for a lot less per month? Was my willingness to participate in this runaway market part of the problem?
The detectives who took my report drove the point home. One of them drew a circle on a map of Brooklyn. .Inside this circle is where the rich white people from Manhattan are moving. That.s the target area. Hunting ground. Think about it from your mugger.s point of view: quiet, tree- lined streets of row houses, each worth a million or two, and inhabited by the rich people who displaced your family. Now, you live in or around the projects just outside the circle. Where would you go to mug someone?.
Back on the World Wide Web, a friend of mine.another Park Slope writer.made an open appeal for my family to stay in Brooklyn. He saw .the Slope. as a mixed- use neighborhood now reaching the .peak of livability. that the legendary urban anthropologist Jane Jacobs idealized. He explained how all great neighborhoods go through the same basic process: Some artists move into the only area they can afford.a poor area with nothing to speak of. Eventually, there are enough of them to open a gallery. People start coming to the gallery in the evenings, creating demand for a coffeehouse nearby, and so on. Slowly but surely, an artsy store or two and a clique of hipsters .pioneer. the neighborhood until there.s significant sidewalk activity late into the night, making it safer for successive waves of incoming businesses and residents.
Of course, after the city.s newspaper .discovers. the new trendy neighborhood, the artists are joined and eventually replaced by increasingly wealthy but decidedly less hip young professionals, lawyers, and businesspeople.but hopefully not so many that the district completely loses its .flavor.. Investment increases, the district grows bigger, and everyone is happier and wealthier.
Still, what happens to the people who lived there from the beginning.the ones whom the police detective was talking about? The .natives.? This process of gentrification does not occur ex nihilo. No, when property values go up, so do the rents, displacing anyone whose monthly living charges aren.t regulated by the government. The residents of the neighborhood do not actually participate in the renaissance, because they are not owners. They move to outlying areas. Sure, their kids still go to John Jay High School in the middle of Park Slope. But none of Park Slope.s own wealthy residents send their kids there.
Our online conversation was picked up by New York magazine in a column entitled .Are the Writers Leaving Brooklyn?. The article focused entirely on the way a crime against an author could threaten the Brooklyn real- estate bubble. National Public Radio called to interview me about the story.not the mugging itself, but whether I would leave Brooklyn over it, and if doing so publicly might not be irresponsibly hurting other people.s property values. A week or two of blog insanity later, a second New York piece asked why we should even care about whether the writers are leaving Brooklyn.seemingly oblivious of the fact that this was the very same column space that told us to care in the first place.
It was an interesting fifteen minutes. What was going on had less to do with crime or authors, though, than it did with a market in its final, most vaporous phase. I simply couldn.t afford to buy in.and getting mugged freed me from the hype treadmill for long enough to accept it. Or, more accurately, it.s not that I couldn.t afford it so much as that I wouldn.t afford it. There were mortgage brokers willing to lend me the other 90 percent of the money I.d need to purchase a home on the block where I was renting. .We can get you in,. they.d say. And at that moment in real- estate history, putting even 10 percent down would have made me a very qualified buyer. .What about when the mortgage readjusts?. I remember asking. .Then you refinance at a better rate,. they assured me. Of course, that would be happening just about the same time Park Slope.s artificially low property- tax rate (an exemption secured by real- estate developers) would be raised to the levels of the poorer areas of the borough. .Don.t worry. Everyone with your financials is doing it,. one broker explained with a wink. .And the banks aren.t going to just let everyone lose their homes, now, are they?.
As long as people refused to look at the real social and financial costs, the market could keep going up.buoyed in part by the bonuses paid to investment bankers whose job it was to promote all this asset inflation in the first place. Heck, we were restoring a historic borough to its former glory. All we had to do was avoid the uncomfortable truth that we were busy converting what were being used as multifamily dwellings by poor black and Hispanic people back into stately town houses for use by rich white ones. And we had to overlook that this frenzy of real- estate activity was operating on borrowed time and, more significantly, borrowed money.
In such a climate, calling attention to any of this was the real crime, and the reason that the first reaction of those participating in a speculative bubble was to silence the messenger. It.s just business. The reality was that we were pushing an increasingly hostile population from their homes, colonizing their neighborhoods, and then justifying it all with metrics such as increased business activity, reduced (reported) crime rates, and.most important.higher real- estate prices. How can one argue against making a neighborhood, well, better?
As my writer friend eloquently explained on his blog, the neighborhood was now, by most measures, safer. It was once again possible to sit on one.s stoop with the kids and eat frozen Italian ices on a balmy summer night. One could walk through Prospect Park on any Sunday afternoon and see a black family barbecuing here, a Puerto Rican group there, and an Irish group over there. Compared with most parts of the world, that.s pretty civil, no?
Romantic as it sounds, that.s not integration at all, but co-location. Epcot- style détente. The Brooklyn being described here has almost nothing to do with the one our grandparents might have inhabited. It is rather an expensive and painstakingly re-created simulation of a .brownstone Brooklyn. that never actually existed. If people once sat on their stoops eating ices on summer nights it was because they had no other choice.there was no air-conditioning and no TV. Everyone could afford to sit around, so everyone did. And the fact that the denizens of neighboring communities complete the illusion of multiculturalism by using the same park only means that these folks are willing to barbecue next to each other.not with each other. They all still go home to different corners of the borough. My writer friend.s kids go off the next morning to their private school, those other kids to public. Not exactly neighbors.
Besides, the rows of brownstones in the Slope aren.t really made of brown stone. They.ve been covered with a substance more akin to stucco.a thick paint used to create the illusion of brown stones set atop one another. A façade.s façade. As any brownstone owner soon learns, the underlying cinder blocks can be hidden for only so long before a costly .renovation. must be undertaken to cover them up again. Likewise, wealth, media, and metrics can insulate colonizers from the reality of their situation for only so long. Eventually, parents who push their toddlers around in thousand- dollar strollers, whose lifestyles and values have been reinforced by a multibillion- dollar industry dedicated to hip child- rearing, get pelted with stones by kids from the .projects.. (Rest assured.the person who reported this recurring episode at a gentrified Brooklyn playground met with his share of online derision, as well.)
Like Californians surprised when a wildfire or coyote disrupts the .natural. lifestyle they imagined they.d enjoy out in the country, we .pioneer,. .colonize,. and .gentrify. at our peril, utterly oblivious to the social costs of our expansion until one comes back to bite us in the ass.or mug us on the stoop. And while it.s easy to blame the larger institutions and social trends leading us into these traps, our own choices and behaviors.however influenced.are ultimately responsible for whatever befalls us.
Park Slope, Brooklyn, is just a microcosm of the slippery slope upon which so many of us are finding ourselves these days. We live in a landscape tilted toward a set of behaviors and a way of making choices that go against our own better judgment, as well as our collective self- interest. Instead of collaborating with each other to ensure the best prospects for us all, we pursue short- term advantages over seemingly fixed resources through which we can compete more effectively against one another. In short, instead of acting like people, we act like corporations. When faced with a local mugging, the community of Park Slope first thought to protect its brand instead of its people.
The financial meltdown may not be punishment for our sins, but it is at least in part the result of our widespread obsession with financial value over values of any other sort. We disconnected ourselves from what matters to us, and grew dependent on a business scheme that was never intended to serve us as people. But by adopting the ethos of this speculative, abstract economic model as our own, we have disabled the mechanisms through which we might address and correct the collapse of the real economy operating alongside it.
Even now, as we attempt to dig ourselves out of a financial mess caused in large part by this very mentality and behavior, we turn to the corporate sphere, its central banks, and shortsighted metrics to gauge our progress back to health. It.s as if we believe we.ll find the answer in the stream of trades and futures on one of the cable- TV finance channels instead of out in the physical world. Our real investment in the fabric of our neighborhoods and our quality of life takes a backseat to asking prices for houses like our own in the newspaper.s misnamed .real estate. section. We look to the Dow Jones average as if it were the one true vital sign of our society.s health, and the exchange rate of our currency as a measure of our wealth as a nation or worth as a people.
This, in turn, only distracts us further from the real- world ideas and activities through which we might actually re-create some value ourselves. Instead of fixing the problem, and reclaiming our ability to generate wealth directly with one another, we seek to prop up institutions whose very purpose remains to usurp this ability from us. We try to repair our economy by bolstering the same institutions that sapped it. In the very best years, corporatism worked by extracting value from the periphery and redirecting it to the center.away from people and toward corporate monopolies. Now, even though that wellspring of prosperity has run dry, we continue to dig deeper into the ground for resources to keep the errant system running.
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 authorize 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 saviors, while we engage with our fellow humans as competitors to be beaten or resources to be exploited.
Indeed, the now- stalled gentrification of Brooklyn had a good deal in common with colonial exploitation. Of course, the whole thing was done with more circumspection, with more tact. The borough.s gentrifiers steered away from explicitly racist justifications for their actions, but nevertheless demonstrated the colonizer.s underlying agenda: instead of .chartered corporations. pioneering and subjugating an uncharted region of the world, it was hipsters, entrepreneurs, and real- estate speculators subjugating an undesirable neighborhood. The local economy.at least as measured in gross product.boomed, but the indigenous population simply became servants (grocery cashiers and nannies) to the new residents.
And like the expansion of colonial empires, this pursuit of home ownership was perpetuated by a pioneer spirit of progress and personal freedom. The ideal of home ownership was the fruit of a public-relations strategy crafted after World War II.corporate and government leaders alike believed that home owners would have more of a stake in an expanding economy and greater allegiance to free- market values than renters. Functionally, though, it led to a self- perpetuating cycle: The more that wealthier white people retreated to the enclaves prepared for them, the poorer the areas they were leaving became, and the more justified they felt in leaving. While the first real wave of .white flight. was from the cities to the suburbs, the more recent, camouflaged version has been from the suburbs back into the expensive cities.
Of course, these upper-middle- class migrants were themselves the targets of the mortgage industry, whose clever lending instruments mirror World Bank policies for their exploitative potential. The World Bank.s loans come with .open markets. policies attached that ultimately surrender indebted nations and their resources to the control of distant corporations. The mortgage banker, likewise, kindly provides instruments that get a person into a home, then disappears when the rates rise through the roof, having packaged and sold off the borrower.s ballooning obligation to the highest bidder.
The benefits to society are pure mythology. Whether it.s Brooklynites convinced they are promoting multiculturalism or corporations intent on extending the benefits of the free market to all the world.s souls, neither activity leads to broader participation in the expansion of wealth.even when they.re working as they.re supposed to. Contrary to most economists. expectations, both local and global speculation only exacerbate wealth divisions. Wealthy parents send their kids to private schools and let the public ones decay, while wealthy nations export their environmental waste to the Third World or, better, simply keep their factories there to begin with.and keep their image at home as green as AstroTurf.
People I respect.my own mentors and teachers.tell me that this is just the way things are. This is the real world of adults.not so very far removed, we must remember, from the days when a neighboring tribe might just wipe you out.killing your men with clubs and taking your women. Be thankful for the civility we.ve got, keep your head down, and try not to think too much about it. These cycles are built into the economy; eventually, the markets will recover and things will get back to normal.and normal isn.t so bad, really, if you look around the world at the way other people are living. And you shouldn.t even feel so guilty about that.after all, Google is doing some good things and Bill Gates is giving a lot of money to kids in Africa.
Somehow, though, for many of us, that.s not enough. We are fast approaching a societal norm where we.as nations, organizations, and individuals.engage in behaviors that are destructive to our own and everyone else.s welfare. The only corporate violations worth punishing anymore are those against the shareholders. The .criminal mind. is now defined as anyone who breaks laws for a reason other than money. The status quo is selfishness, and the toxically wealthy are our new heroes because only they seem capable of fully insulating themselves from the effects of their own actions.
Every day, we negotiate the slope to the best of our ability. Still, we fail to measure up to the people we.d like to be, and succumb to the tilt of the landscape.
Jennifer has lived in the same town in central Minnesota her whole life. This year, diagnosed with a form of lupus, she began purchasing medication through Wal- Mart instead of through Marcus, her local druggist.who also happens to be her neighbor. Prescription drugs aren.t on her health plan, and this is just an economic necessity.
Why can.t the druggist cut his neighbor a break? He.s trying, but he.s selling at a mere hair above cost as it is. He just took out a loan against the business to make expenses and his increased rent. The downtown area he.s located in has been slated for redevelopment, and only corporate chain stores appear to have deep enough pockets to pay for storefront leases. It sounded like a good idea when Marcus supported it at the public hearing.but the description in the pamphlet prepared by the real- estate developer (complete with a section on how to compete more effectively with .big box. stores like Wal- Mart) hasn.t conformed to reality.
Marcus.s landlord doesn.t really have any choice in the matter. He underwent costly renovations to conform to the new downtown building code, and needs to pass those on to the businesses renting from him. He took out a mortgage, too, which is slated to reset in just a couple of months. If he doesn.t collect higher rents, he won.t make payments.
Jennifer stopped going to PTA meetings because she.s embarrassed to look Marcus in the face. As their friendship declines, so does her guilt about helping put him out of business.
Across the country in New Jersey, Carla, a telephone associate for one of the top three HMO plans in the United States, talks to people like Jennifer every day. Carla is paid a salary as well as a monthly bonus based on the number of claims she can .retire. without payment. Without resorting to fraud, Carla is supposed to discourage false claims by making all claims harder to register, in general. That.s how Carla.s supervisor explained it to her when she asked, point-blank, if she was supposed to mislead customers. She feels bad about it, but Carla is now the principal breadwinner in her family, her husband having lost a lot of his contracting work to the stalled market for new homes. And, in the end, she is preventing fraud. How does Carla sleep at night, knowing that she has spent her day persuading people to pay for services for which they are actually covered? After seeing a commercial on TV, she switched from Ambien to Lunesta.
One of the guys working on that very ad campaign, an old co-worker of mine, ended up specializing in health- care advertising because nobody was hiring in the environmental area back in the .90s. Besides, he told me, only half kidding, .at least medical advertising puts the consumer in charge of her own health care.. He.s conflicted about pushing drugs on TV because he knows full well that these ads encourage patients to pressure doctors to write prescriptions that go against their better judgment. Still, Tom makes up for any compromise of his values at work with a staunch advocacy of good values at home. He recycles paper, glass, and metal, brought his kids to see An Inconvenient Truth, and even uses a compost heap in the backyard for household waste. Last year, though, he finally broke down and bought an SUV. Why? .Everybody else on the highway is driving them,. he explained. .It.s an automotive arms race.. If he stayed in his Civic, he.d be putting them all at risk. .You see the way those people drive? I.m scared for my family.. As penance, at least until gas prices went up, he began purchasing a few .carbon offsets..a way of donating money to environmental companies in compensation for one.s own excess carbon emissions.
In a similar balancing act, a self- described .holistic. parent in Manhattan spares her son the risks she associates with vaccinations for childhood diseases. .We still don.t know what.s in them,. she says, .and if everyone else is vaccinated he won.t catch these things, anyway.. She understands that the vaccines required for incoming school pupils are really meant to quell epidemics; they are more for the health of the .herd. than for any individual child. She also believes that mandatory vaccinations are more a result of pharmaceutical industry lobbying than any comprehensive medical studies. In order to meet the .philosophical exemption. requirements demanded by the state, she managed to extract a letter from her rabbi. Meanwhile, in an unacknowledged quid pro quo, she installed a phone line in the rabbi.s name in the basement of her town house; he uses the bill to falsify residence records and send his sons to the well- rated public elementary school in her high- rent district instead of the 90 percent minority school in his own. At least he can say he.s kept them in .the public system..
Incapable of securing a legal or illegal zoning variance of this sort, a college friend of mine, now a state school administrator in Brighton, England, just made what he calls .the hardest decision of my life,. to send his own kids to a private Catholic day school. He doesn.t even particularly want his kids to be indoctrinated into Catholicism, but it.s the only alternative to the eroding government school he can afford. He knows his withdrawal from public education only removes three more .good kids. and one potentially active parent from the system, but doesn.t want his children to be .sacrificed on the altar. of his good intentions.
So it.s not just a case of hip, hypergentrified Brooklynites succumbing to market psychology, but people of all social classes making choices that go against their better judgment because they believe it.s really the only sensible way to act under the circumstances. It.s as if the world itself were tilted, pushing us toward self- interested, short- term decisions, made more in the manner of corporate shareholders than members of a society. The more decisions we make in this way, the more we contribute to the very conditions leading to this awfully sloped landscape. In a dehumanizing and self- denying cycle, we make too many choices that.all things being equal.we.d prefer not to make.
But all things are not equal. These choices are not even occurring in the real world. They are the false choices of an artificial landscape.one in which our decision- making is as coerced as that of a person getting mugged. Only we.ve forgotten that our choices are being made under painstakingly manufactured duress. We think this is just the way things are. The price of doing business.
Since when is life determined by that axiom?
Unquestionably but seemingly inexplicably, we have come to operate in a world where the market and its logic have insinuated themselves into every area of our lives. From erection to conception, school admission to finding a spouse, there are products and professionals to fill in where family and community have failed us. Commercials entreat us to think and care for ourselves, but to do so by choosing a corporation through which to exercise all this autonomy.
Sometimes it feels as if there.s just not enough air in the room.as if there were a corporate agenda guiding all human activity. At a moment.s notice, any dinner party can slide invisibly into a stock promotion, a networking event, or an impromptu consultation.let me pick your brain. Is this why I was invited in the first place? Through sponsored word- of- mouth known as .buzz marketing,. our personal social interactions become the promotional opportunities through which brands strive to be cults and religions strive to become brands.
It goes deeper than that second Starbucks opening on the same town.s Main Street or the radio ads for McDonald.s playing through what used to be emergency speakers in our public school buses. It.s not a matter of how early Christmas ads start each year, how many people get trampled at Black Friday sales, or even the news report blaming the fate of the entire economy on consumers. slow holiday spending. It.s more a matter of not being able to tell the difference between the ads and the content at all. It.s as if both were designed to be that way. The line between fiction and reality, friend and marketer, community and shopping center, has gotten blurred. Was that a news report, reality TV, or a sponsored segment?
This fundamental blurring of real life with its commercial counterpart is not a mere question of aesthetics, however much we may dislike mini- malls and superstores. It.s more of a nagging sense that something has gone awry.something even more fundamentally wrong than the credit crisis and its aftermath.yet we.re too immersed in its effects to do anything about it, or even to see it. We are deep in the thrall of a system that no one really likes, no one remembers asking for, yet no one can escape. It just is. And as it begins to collapse around us, we work to prop it up by any means necessary, so incapable are we of imagining an alternative. The minute it seems as if we can put our finger on what.s happening to us or how it came to be this way, the insight disappears, drowned out by the more immediately pressing demands by everyone and everything on our attention. What did they just say? What does that mean for my retirement account? Wait.my phone is vibrating.
Can the hermetically sealed food court in which we now subsist even be beheld from within? Perhaps not in its totality.but its development can be chronicled, and its effects can be parsed and understood. Just as we once evolved from subjects into citizens, we have now devolved from citizens into consumers. Our communities have been reduced to affinity groups, and any vestige of civic engagement or neighborly goodwill has been replaced by self- interested goals manufactured for us by our corporations and their PR firms. We.ve surrendered true participation for the myth of consumer choice or, even more pathetically, that of shareholder rights.
That.s why it has become fashionable, cathartic, and to some extent useful for the defenders of civil society to rail against the corporations that seem to have conquered our civilization. As searing new books and documentaries about the crimes of corporations show us, the corporation is itself a sociopathic entity, created for the purpose of generating wealth and expanding its reach by any means necessary. A corporation has no use for ethics, except for their potential impact on public relations and brand image. In fact, as many on the side of the environment, labor, and the Left like to point out, corporate managers can be sued for taking any action, however ethical, if it compromises their ultimate fiduciary responsibility to share price.
As corporations gain ever more control over our economy, government, and culture, it is only natural for us to blame them for the helplessness we now feel over the direction of our personal and collective destinies. But it is both too easy and utterly futile to point the finger of blame at corporations or the robber barons at their helms.not even those handcuffed CEOs gracing the cover of the business section. Not even mortgage brokers, credit- card executives, or the Fed. This state of affairs isn.t being entirely orchestrated from the top of a glass building by an élite group of bankers and businessmen, however much everyone would like to think so.themselves included. And while the growth of corporations and a preponderance of corporate activity have allowed them to permeate most every aspect of our awareness and activity, these entities are not solely responsible for the predicament in which we have found ourselves.
Rather, it is corporatism itself: a logic we have internalized into our very being, a lens through which we view the world around us, and an ethos with which we justify our behaviors. Making matters worse, we accept its dominance over us as preexisting.as a given circumstance of the human condition. It just is.
But it isn.t.
Corporatism didn.t evolve naturally. The landscape on which we are living.the operating system on which we are now running our social software.was invented by people, sold to us as a better way of life, supported by myths, and ultimately allowed to develop into a self-sustaining reality. It is a map that has replaced the territory.
Its basic laws were set in motion as far back as the Renaissance; it was accelerated by the Industrial Age; and it was sold to us as a better way of life by a determined generation of corporate leaders who believed they had our best interests at heart and who ultimately succeeded in their dream of controlling the masses from above. We have succumbed to an ideology that has the same intellectual underpinnings and assumptions about human nature as.dare we say it.mid- twentieth- century fascism. Given how the word has been misapplied to everyone from police officers to communists, we might best refrain from resorting to what has become a feature of cheap polemic. But in this case it.s accurate, and that we.re forced to dance around this .F word. today would certainly have pleased Goebbels greatly.
The current situation resembles the managed capitalism of Mussolini.s Italy, in particular. It shares a common intellectual heritage (in disappointed progressives who wanted to order society on a scientific understanding of human nature), the same political alliance (the collaboration of the state and the corporate sector), and some of the same techniques for securing consent (through public relations and propaganda). Above all, it shares with fascism the same deep suspicion of free humans.
And, as with any absolutist narrative, calling attention to the inherent injustice and destructiveness of the system is understood as an attempt to undermine our collective welfare. The whistle- blower is worse than just a spoilsport; he is an enemy of the people.
Unlike Europe.s fascist dictatorships, this state of affairs came about rather bloodlessly.at least on the domestic front. Indeed, the real lesson of the twentieth century is that the battle for total social control would be waged and won not through war and overt repression, but through culture and commerce. Instead of depending on a paternal dictator or nationalist ideology, today.s system of control depends on a society fastidiously cultivated to see the corporation and its logic as central to its welfare, value, and very identity.
That.s why it.s no longer Big Brother who should frighten us. however much corporate lobbies still seek to vilify anything to do with government beyond their own bailouts. Sure, democracy may be the quaint artifact of an earlier era, but what has taken its place? Suspension of habeas corpus, surveillance of citizens, and the occasional repression of voting notwithstanding, this mess is not the fault of a particular administration or political party, but of a culture, economy, and belief system that places market priorities above life itself. It.s not the fault of a government or a corporation, the news media or the entertainment industry, but the merging of all these entities into a single, highly centralized authority with the ability to write laws, issue money, and promote its expansion into our world.
Then, in a last cynical surrender to the logic of corporatism, we assume the posture and behaviors of corporations in the hope of restoring our lost agency and security. But the vehicles to which we gain access in this way are always just retail facsimiles of the real ones. Instead of becoming true landowners we become mortgage holders. Instead of guiding corporate activity we become shareholders. Instead of directing the shape of public discourse we pay to blog. We can.t compete against corporations on a playing field that was created for their benefit alone.
This is the landscape of corporatism: a world not merely dominated by corporations, but one inhabited by people who have internalized corporate values as our own. And even now that corporations appear to be waning in their power, they are dragging us down with them; we seem utterly incapable of lifting ourselves out of their depression.
We need to understand how this happened.how we came to live for and through a business scheme. We must recount the story of how life itself became corporatized, and figure out what..if anything. we are to do about it.
While we will find characters to blame for one thing or another, most of corporatism.s architects have long since left the building. and even they were usually acting with only their immediate, short-term profits in mind. Our object instead should be to understand the process by which we were disconnected from the real world and why we remain disconnected from it. This is our best hope of regaining some relationship with terra firma again. Like recovering cult victims, we have less to gain from blaming our seducers than from understanding our own participation in building and maintaining a corporatist society. Only then can we begin dismantling and replacing it with something more livable and sustainable.
ONCE REMOVED: THE CORPORATE LIFE- FORM
Charters and the Disconnect from Commerce
If You Can't Beat Them...
Commerce is good. It's the way people create and exchange value.
Corporatism is something else entirely. Though not completely distinct from commerce or the free market, the corporation is a very speci.c entity, .rst chartered by monarchs for reasons that have very little to do with helping people carry out transactions with one another. Its purpose, from the beginning, was to suppress lateral interactions between people or small companies and instead redirect any and all value they created to a select group of investors.
This agenda was so well embedded into the philosophy, structure, and practice of the earliest chartered corporations that it still characterizes the activity of both corporations and real people today. The only difference today is that most of us, corporate chiefs included, have no idea of these underlying biases, or how automatically we are compelled by them. That's why we have to go back to the birth of the corporation itself to understand how the tenets of corporatism established themselves as the default social principles of our age.
There were three main stages in the evolution of the corporation, and each one further imprinted corporatism on the collective human psyche. The corporation was born in the Renaissance, granted personhood in post-Civil War America, and then, in the twentieth century, branded as the benevolent guardian and savior of humankind.
Most history books recount the development of the corporate charter as a natural, almost evolutionary step in the advancement of commerce. To a certain extent, this is true. After the fall of the Roman Empire, early Middle Ages Europe fell into disarray. Europeans lived in isolation from one another, dominated by self- suf.cient and self-governing rural manors. Feudalism, as the prevailing political system came to be called, wasn't a particularly fun way to live--certainly not for the peasants who made up a majority of the continent's population. Landowning lords gave tracts of land to vassals in return for military allegiance. Vassals, in turn, ruled the peasant farmers, who were usually permitted to subsist on the remnants of their crops. Unlike in the Roman Empire, laws varied widely from place to place.
The lack of an overriding system of commerce left the lords out of a signi.cant but growing business sector: the activity occurring between the people of different manors and beyond. By the 1200s, technological developments such as water mills and windmills as well as increased travel and commerce led to the resurgence of towns and cities outside the lord's direct control. Towns became centers for the manufacturing, exchange, and circulation of goods, and provided a stark contrast to the to-each- his- own way of life in the manors and villages. In their new urban setting serfs found legal freedom, opportunities for work, and a place to start afresh. Citizens of cities became known as "burghers," a term that spread throughout medieval Western Europe and provided the basis for the later word "bourgeoisie."
It was only a matter of time before the burghers would grow wealthier and potentially even more powerful than the aristocracy. Instead of depending on the ownership of a .xed tract of land farmed by peasants and protected by an expensive army of vassals, this new class of merchants and manufacturers could increase production, commerce, and acquisition almost in.nitely. The marketplace where they transacted could grow as large as it needed to accommodate more and more trade, simply by spilling outside the city center. The town then naturally expanded around the new location, and this cycle would continue until the town would eventually blossom into a full- .edged city, which would in turn require more goods and commerce, and so on. Lords attempted to regulate all this trade and growth by controlling and taxing local markets, but people always found ways around these boundaries and restrictions.
One such boundary crosser was the merchant, who resurged in about the thirteenth century to serve as an intermediary between town and country, providing the .rst links in the chain connecting the movement of goods between producer, merchant, and retailer. On non- market days, cobblers, blacksmiths, and artisans were accustomed to selling their wares through the windows of their workshops. By allowing merchants to set up their own shops and sell these items for them, the artisans got more time to do what they did best. Shop owners did not specialize in actually making anything, but in generating pro.t through selling. Business for business's sake was born. Over the next few generations, along with the traders, moneylenders, and investors who backed them, these retailers would become the core of the urban bourgeoisie. While the nobility declined in land ownership, .nances, and power--as well as numbers--this new class of pure merchants had access to international trade, investment, and an alternative economy.
Worse yet for the aristocracy, as merchants set sail they were to bene.t from the vast resources of other territories. While the new bourgeoisie were becoming members of the .edgling global marketplace, the traditional aristocracy was essentially landlocked. What of.cial authority they had left to offer their subjects was diminishing as rapidly as their wealth, in.uence, and numbers.
The aristocracy longed for a way to participate in the new economy--a way to invest that didn't put them or their good names at any risk. For their part, the new merchant class had certainly increased the speed and breadth of wealth creation--but this also made for a highly competitive and .uid business environment. Sudden wealth could be followed by a sudden wipeout if a single ship got lost at sea or a .re took down an entire workshop. Merchant businesses were still mostly family run, and rarely operated more than a few voyages before a shipwreck or other calamity took them down. They needed a way to institutionalize their success while they were on top, right after their ship had come in.
This is the landscape on which the Renaissance was to take place and a new way of conducting business was to emerge. The overriding priority was not to promote economic activity, global cooperation, or colonial expansion, but rather to freeze all this development in a particular position, and prevent the cast of characters at the top from changing too much over time. But locking down wealth was a lot harder for everyone now that so much innovation was going on-- especially when success tended to come with a loss in competence. In fact, while the Renaissance is often celebrated for its emphasis on specialization and expertise, nothing could be further from the truth
The division of labor is not the same thing as the specialization of labor. On the surface, it may appear that a society of merchants, managers, and various levels of laborers is more specialized than one of shopkeepers and artisans. But it was not to the manager.s advantage to hire highly specialized laborers who could demand higher wages. Instead, managers standardized processes in order to hire the least qualified and most replaceable laborers around. Far from encouraging specialization, competence, or innovation, all this mercantile and industrial activity actually favored generalization.
As the population grew and the demands for goods increased, open land became privatized. This uprooted rural peasants, forcing them into the generic labor market. Previously, the life of a rural peasant had been below or altogether removed from money and the market found in urban centers. Peasants made do with what they could produce with their own hands and barter locally. It was a life of great limitation, but also of self- sufficiency. As the commercial economy spread, the peasant had to turn the only marketable skill he had. physical labor.into his means of survival. Evidence of this sort of wage labor can be traced all the way back to Portugal in 1253. Just like the Home Depot parking lot where Mexican immigrant laborers gather today, there were designated meeting places, usually a square at sunrise, where a foreman representing an employer would meet with day laborers and hire them right off the street.
Meanwhile, the managerial class sought to diversify itself as quickly as possible, undermining any specialization of its own. Once a low-level shopkeeper or wage earner had saved enough money to make the first step into more advanced levels of commerce, his first move was to commission the very work he used to perform. Then he began diversifying his wares and financial activities. The higher the capitalist was on the economic ladder, the broader and more varied were his investments and enterprises.and the more disconnected he was from his business.s skills and the people performing them.
So both the aristocracy and the most successful of the mercantile class required a new mechanism through which they could invest their almost .generic. capital in the form of pure financial and legal power. This mechanism had to offer the ability to invest in a business with total discretion, anonymity, limited liability, passive participation, and little or no expertise.
Traditional family businesses, which shared labor, risk, and capital by blood ties, were no longer sufficient to the task. New kinds of laws, contracts, and standardized currencies would be required to extend these agreements to people of different families and regions. Florence, with its key location on the Mediterranean (as well as its widely accepted currency, the gold florin), became the birthplace of the first .limited partnership. firms. The precursors to full- fledged corporations, they distinguished between the liability of the firm.s directors and of those who merely contributed capital, who would only be responsible for the amount of their contribution. Furthermore, contributors were not subject to being listed among the business partners, allowing noblemen, and even monarchs, to hide their commercial interests. The concept of the limited partnership quickly spread throughout Europe, funding daring investments from mines and plantations to colonialist adventures. Through this new opportunity for quiet and passive participation, the nobility became mad for investing.
As the operators of these huge projects sought to secure even more capital from a wider range of regions and social classes, they formed a more advanced form of limited partnership called the joint stock company, which could generate investment from shareholders on an open market. This broke business open, allowing for the creation of businesses by virtually anyone capable of getting investors. It almost heralded an era of business meritocracy, which would have generated unprecedented churn in the class structure. The wealthiest merchants were now as vulnerable to upstarts as the aristocracy.
Finally, the monarchy had something it could offer the bourgeoisie who threatened to unseat them.
A Child Is Born
Although monarchs might have lacked the vast financial resources of joint stock companies, they still enjoyed a structural advantage over any of them: central legal authority. Taking a cue from the Church, which had a tradition of .incorporating. groups of monks into single entities, royals exercised their authority to sanction a new kind of chartered body: the corporation. It was genius.
The corporation was not a business or a government entity, but a combination of the two. Its government supporters.the monarchs. had the authority to write the trade laws and grant monopolies; its business participants.the chartered companies.would enjoy the exclusive right to exploit them.
By granting a specific joint stock company a legal charter to do business, monarchs could give it a monopoly control of its business sector. So a shipping company that once competed with others for the resources of a set of islands now enjoyed exclusive, royally mandated control over that domain. No other corporation could do business in that region, and even locals or colonists would be prohibited by law from competing against the corporation extracting their resources or selling them goods. Another corporation would be granted monopoly control over glass production; another would win beer, and so on. By issuing corporate charters, kings could empower those most loyal to them with permanent control over their colonial regions or industries.
The joint stock companies. problem with competition from rising new businesses or local activity was solved. And in return for granting legally enforceable monopolies over particular industries and regions, monarchs got fiscal support and profit participation far exceeding the worth of any cash investment they could have made. As a Dutch lawyer explained in a letter describing the very first charter of this sort, for Holland.s East India Company, .The state ought to rejoice at the existence of an association which pays it so much money every year that the country derives three times as much profit from trade and navigation in the Indies as the shareholders..
For merchants whose businesses previously lasted only as long as a single expedition, the arrangement offered a way to earn more permanent status, military protection from the Crown, and the right to exploit new regions and peoples with authority and impunity. Equally important, they could lose no more than their initial investment. The .limited liability. granted in a charter meant that a corporation.s debts died with the bankruptcy of the corporation. And bankruptcy protection was granted by the state.
By inventing this virtual entity.the chartered corporation.the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie entered into a mutual codependency that changed the character of both. Through these first great trade monopolies, such as England.s Muscovy Company of 1555, the British East India Company of 1600, or the Dutch United East India Company of 1602, monarchs found a way to extend their reach without the cost or liability of an official military expedition. Better yet: for the monarchs, the merchants running the corporation would now become loyal subjects, dependent on the Crown for their legitimacy, protection, and escape clauses.
The chartered corporation was a bold grasp for permanent rule and permanent wealth that constituted a stalemate between the two groups. The contracts that monarchs and mercantilists wrote not only stopped their own decline from power; they stopped time, locking in place a set of corporatist priorities that to this day have not significantly changed. Instead, these priorities work to change the world and its people to conform to the rules of corporatism.
People who had always engaged in business with one another would now be required to do so through monopoly powers. All lateral contact between people and businesses would now be mediated through central authorities. Any creation or exchange of value would have to be run through these centrally mandated companies, in a system enforced by law, controlled by currency, and perpetuated through the erosion of all other connections between people and their world. Moreover, the emphasis of business would shift from the creation of value by people to the extraction of value by corporations.
In the new corporate scheme, the profitability and authority of a company now depended on its centrality. The more powerful the king, the more dominion a chartered company could enjoy. Where successful companies once threatened the authority of the state, now they contributed to it. While earlier companies benefited from a landscape on which value could be created independently of established power structures, these new, chartered corporations were part of the established power structures. The more that currency, law, and belief systems favored trade conducted at a great distance and orchestrated by a central authority, the better off chartered corporations were. Merchants who originally came to power in a bottom- up fashion were now maintaining their positions through borrowed top- down authority. Their power was no longer earned in real time, but mandated by proxy; their business practices were no longer dependent on value created but value extracted.
Meanwhile, and almost certainly unintentionally, the abstract and independent nature of the corporation gave it a life and agenda of its own. The more such corporations came to dominate business and finance, the more that legal and social systems evolved to serve them. Most of the business and finance innovations of the early corporate era.inventions we still look on fondly today.were really just ways of preserving and extending the reach of this new business entity.
The health of a corporation was understood purely in terms of money, as measured by the new accounting technique of double- entry bookkeeping. Any transaction resulted in the debiting of one account and the crediting of another. This made achieving a favorable balance of trade the highest priority, and fostered a zero- sum- game mentality among all participants. International trade became a fierce competition between states for positive balances, which led to wars unlike any seen before.
Where armies and navies had for most countries consisted of temporary forces raised to wage a specific conflict, the emergence of corporations with long- term agendas now necessitated full- time professional armed forces. This, in turn, led monarchs to raise sufficient quantities of hard currency to support their militaries. Corporations were happy to pay the levies for military protection.as long as they gained more influence over state policies protecting them from competition. And thus the cycle reinforced itself.
As businesses and states alike began to see the world through the lens of corporatism, places became .territories,. people became .laborers,. money became .capital,. and laws became .game rules.. For this was the embedded bias of the charter itself: to maintain the central authority of the state while granting monopoly power to the corporation. Corporatism. Real things, such as human beings, land, and resources, only mattered insomuch as they kept the credit side of the balance sheet bigger than the debit side. The underlying bias of corporatism would be that everything, and everyone, could be colonized for a profit. Anything and anyone would be incorporated, as long as they increased the power of a central authority that in turn promoted the monopolies of its chartered corporations.
The rise of European imperialism itself can be attributed to this new perspective. Thanks to the distance and limited liability offered by the new corporate entity, the people enacting policies and making decisions were effectively removed from any personal connection to the repercussions of their actions. The less liable for and connected to their choices, the less responsibility they felt and culpability they incurred. Besides, corporations outlived any human individual or monarch, anyway.
My Oppressor, My Hero
By the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, monarchs were unflaggingly catering to the merchant corporations that fed them. Whenever state favoritism became too overt and subjects or colonists revolted, monarchs eased restrictions on the people and promoted their favorite corporations. interests through preferential taxes and duties instead. Everything went through corporations; even the Pilgrims. famous voyage to America was made on a chartered British East India Company ship, the Mayflower, which was actually on its fourth such trip to the continent. The corporation had already claimed.and been granted.the entire American coast. Successive waves of colonists were appreciated solely for their capacity to enhance the credit column of the ledger back home.
The East India Company lobbied vigorously for laws that would help it quell any competition from the colonists. This was a particularly easy sell since the royals and governors they were lobbying also happened to be shareholders. Laws forbidding colonists to actually fabricate anything from the resources they grew and mined made self-sufficiency or local economic prosperity impossible. .An Act for the Restraining and Punishing of Pirates. defined the import of tea from anyone other than the Company as smuggling. The Townshend Acts of 1767 and the Tea Act of 1773 helped the Company unload a surplus of tea accumulated in British warehouses by removing all barriers to trade as well as granting tax exemptions. .No taxation without representation..the rallying cry that led to the Boston Tea Party.wasn.t about voting as much as about Britain.s passage of tax laws to the exclusive benefit of the East India Company. The American Revolution itself was less a revolt by colonists against Britain than by small businessmen against the chartered multinational corporation writing her laws.
This is why the founders so carefully limited the reach and scope of corporate power in newly independent America. Corporations were to be chartered by states, not by the federal government, so that their actions could be governed locally by those affected. Corporations were also required to demonstrate that they had a specific beneficial purpose other than making money.such as getting a bridge built or a waterway opened. Having fought against a foreign megacorporation, the founders understood the dangers inherent in the kind of centralized economic authority demanded by corporatism. Just like Adam Smith, they hated big government and big corporations alike, envisioning the ideal business landscape characterized by locally scaled firms and farmers, unencumbered by large, dehumanizing monopolies. Thomas Jefferson considered .freedom from monopolies. one of the fundamental human rights. James Madison praised self-sufficiency and appropriately scaled enterprises: .The class of citizens who provide at once their own food and their own raiment, may be viewed as the most truly independent and happy. They are more: they are the best basis of public liberty, and the strongest bulwark of public safety.. It was as if they meant to reverse the effect of the Renaissance- conceived corporate charter.
Still, due largely in part to the tremendous Revolutionary War debt, early American politics was dominated by a division over whether or not the United States, like European nations, should have a strong central government that was also capable of granting corporate charters and running a bank. Jefferson argued unsuccessfully against Federalists George Washington and John Adams for the Bill of Rights to include .freedom from monopolies in commerce. and to forbid the creation of a permanent army. This back- and- forth continued for the next century. One administration or Congress would pass laws favorable to corporations, and then the next would attempt to rescind them. But because they could live on indefinitely, corporations simply waited for conditions to change, made what progress they could, and then waited some more.
The second great phase in the evolution of the corporate life- form would take place under Abraham Lincoln, who had built his legal career fighting on behalf of the Illinois Central Railroad, and then used the privilege of free rail travel the job afforded to keep his presidential-campaign costs low. With Lincoln.s help the railroads won the right to break unions, hire immigrants for up to a year by paying for their passage to America, and.most important.enjoy strong contractual advantages that people didn.t have. According to successive pieces of legislation he signed in the early 1860s, if a corporation broke a contract with another corporation, it was still to be paid for the portion of the contract it had fulfilled. But if a human being broke a contract with a corporation, he was entitled to no payment whatsoever. The playing field itself was changed to give corporations rights that people lacked.
The only privilege corporations were still denied was that of personhood itself. If only corporations could get a court to consider them people, they would be entitled to all the rights that real people got in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The rail companies understood this well, and fought for the .personhood. argument in every court case they entered.whether it applied or not. The passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, written to guarantee the rights of citizenship to former slaves, gave corporate lawyers the legal framework to make their cases. For reasons historians can.t quite articulate, the Amendment uses the phrase .persons. instead of .natural persons.. Corporations argued that this was because it was meant to include their own, non- natural personhood. In their opinions, justices repeatedly scolded corporate lawyers for attempting to exploit a law written on behalf of emancipated slaves. But the corporations had patience, and opportunistically sought out every leak and crack in the system.
Finally, in 1886, in a legal maneuver that has yet to be conclusively explained, a Supreme Court clerk with documented affinity for corporate interests incorrectly summarized an opinion in the headnotes of the decision on Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company. The clerk wrote, .The defendant corporations are persons within the intent of the clause in section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution . . . which forbids a State to deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.. There was no legal basis for this statement, nor any discussion about it from the justices. From then on, however, corporations were free to claim the rights of personhood. The more precedents that were established, the more embedded the law became. Over the next twenty- five years, 307 Fourteenth Amendment cases went before the Supreme Court. Two hundred eighty- eight of them were brought by corporations claiming their rights as natural persons.
The elevation of corporations to personhood was accompanied by a slow, corresponding devolution of human beings to something less than personhood. Corporations were bigger than people, lived longer, had more money and more influence. The biases programmed into them four centuries earlier, however.to thwart local activity, prevent competition, and disconnect people from their resources and competencies.remained the same, regardless of the circumstances. Traditionally, the distance between corporations and the people or territories they exploited was a matter of geography, class, and race. But America was already a colony, and its people had been raised on an ideology of equality, freedom, and agency. The Industrial Age gave corporations a new way to create the illusion of a preordained social order: the machine.
Originally, the steam engine was developed as a means of sucking water out of mine shafts in order to get to the coal beneath. Until the abolition of slavery, American industrialists saw no role for this contraption in agriculture or industry, where the human body was still the primary energy source. When slavery became untenable, a reconfigured steam engine rose to the occasion, accomplishing with coal what used to be done with indentured muscle, and what we now call the Industrial Revolution began. Coal allowed for the mechanized factory, the locomotive, and, perhaps most important, the steamship. With coal- powered boats, newly industrialized Western nations. predominantly Britain.were capable of distributing their manufactured goods to their colonies, as well as enforcing military superiority and the trade policies that went along with them. Legislation required the colonies in India to use mechanized looms, for example, so that the ready availability of human labor in that region could not compete with En gland.s mechanical replacements.
The increased mechanization of labor in the United States, where freedom was supposed to rule, proved a bit more troublesome. Machines now controlled the rate at which people worked, and the assembly line further reduced the autonomy and humanity of workers by relegating them to a single, repetitive task. Early industrialists, such as Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford, and particularly John D. Rockefeller, were constantly on guard for labor unrest, and not averse to resorting to violence when necessary. It was a bad strategy. Union busting only provoked progressive newspapers to attack the industrialists, leading to further unrest, more violence, ugly interventions by the National Guard, and even some legislation against corporate power.
As an alternative to overt repression, the industrialists sought to develop a cultural ethos more simpatico with corporate prosperity. In their new world picture, machines became the model for society, and people were the cogs within it.increasingly disconnected from their own sense of technical expertise or whatever unique contributions they might make to the process of production. They were replaceable. The function of the industrial corporation was to extract value from people.s work, for the economic benefit of the nation. This meant disconnecting people from the wealth they might be creating through their labors, and substituting a less costly sense of satisfaction or, at the very least, compliance.
So leading industrialists funded public schools.at once gifts to the working class and powerful tools for growing a more docile labor force. They hired education reformers, like Stanford.s Ellwood P. Cubberley, to design a public school system based on a Prussian method that sought to produce what he called .mediocre intellects . . . and ensure docile citizens.. Cubberley modeled our public schools after .factories, in which the raw product [the children] are to be shaped and fashioned . . . according to the specifications laid down..
Still, a public school system alone didn.t guarantee a compliant population.not when intellectuals, artists, philosophers, and labor-union organizers still seemed to emerge from its ranks and so easily foment dissidence wherever they went. Henry Ford, in particular, identified this ability to breed discontent with the Jews.not the real Jews people might know as neighbors, but the more abstract Jews and Jewish ideology thought to be running and ruining the world. The anti- Semitic diatribes Ford published formed the foundation for the anti- Semitism incorporated by Hitler into his book Mein Kampf. Hitler even quoted Ford, with attribution. And though Ford might have been more vocal about the need to eliminate Jews than most of his fellows, he was hardly alone in his support of Nazi- style fascism. American corporations from General Electric to the Brown Brothers Harriman bank either funded the Nazis directly, or set up money-laundering schemes on their behalf. Though well financed, this effort to order the world by force would fail.
While Henry Ford was busy compiling his perverse pamphlets on the power of industry and the Jewish obstacles to corporatism, brighter propagandists with even loftier goals were still working on behalf of government. Although he had run for reelection to the presidency in 1916 on a .peace. platform, Woodrow Wilson eventually decided that America needed to get involved in World War I. With the help of some of the first practitioners of the new science of public relations, including a young Edward Bernays, he formed the Creel Commission, whose job was to change America.s mind. It worked, and it served as the model for what would become known as mass communications.
Bernays and his cohorts, just like Ford, honestly believed that the masses were too stupid to make decisions for themselves.particularly when they involved global affairs or economics. Early public-relations specialists were convinced by Freud (Bernays.s uncle) and a century of savage wars that human beings could never overcome their bestial instincts. Instead of letting them rule themselves, an enlightened and informed élite would need to make the decisions, and then .sell. them to the public in the form of faux populist media campaigns. This way, the masses could believe they were coming up with these opinions themselves.
But particularly after the perceived failures of the League of Nations and two world wars to lay the groundwork for a peaceful world order, Bernays and those of his ilk no longer believed that this enlightened élite was to be found in the chambers of government, or that this was even the power center from which to direct the mob. Bernays turned instead to the boardrooms of corporations. If democracy is a sham, why bother to prop up its impotent leaders? Consumers are easier to please than citizens, anyway: simply get people to believe in corporations as the great actors of civilization, and in consumption as the surest path to personal fulfillment.
Besides, the more influential the public- relations industry became in the electoral process, the more corporate funding was required to put anyone in office. By the late 1940s, it was already very clear which way the power was flowing: toward a corporately governed industrial society that had much less to do with politics than it did with commerce and capital. So the public- relations industry eventually turned its back on an already cynical version of democracy, and focused its efforts on supporting an institution it believed really did stand a chance of organizing the savage world with far less messy voter intervention: the corporation.
This was not a devious plan, but a hopeful model for controlling human beings and their unpredictable group behavior, as well as keeping an economic engine in motion without an all- consuming war to motivate our production and resource extraction. As the nation.s best engineers and economists unanimously agreed after World War II, the tremendous strides made in wartime technology simply had to be retooled for a postwar era. Although everyone from computer scientists and the Frankfurt School to President Eisenhower warned of the dangers of a military- industrial complex promoted through mass spectacle, the engines of production could not be slowed for the specious priorities of civically engaged workers or an artwork.s .aura..
The disconnections inherent in industrialized culture would thus extend beyond the division between management and labor to include the distance between consumer and producer. The rise of factory-made products and a rail system to transport them meant that consumers no longer knew exactly where their goods came from or, more important, the people who made them. The .brand. emerged to serve that function, to put a face on the oats, beverages, and automobiles we bought, and eventually elevating them from commodities to icons. The new corporatism would use television to stoke desires, and factories to fulfill them.
Mass media stimulated the new mass market and created a sense of trust between people and the corporate- created brands that were bidding for their attention. Marketing through media also became a kind of science, ruled by the same principles and ethos as the factory floor. Everything from spokesmodels to theme songs were tested on samples of potential consumers for their efficacy in eliciting a positive response. This made us all, in one sense, parts of the machine. Goods were developed by industrialists, manufactured in factories, shipped via rail or interstate highways, and then sold to consumers whose appetites were already whetted by commercial television. The more dependent Americans and our economy became on this model, the more America remodeled itself to its demands.
Suburbs such as Levittown, New York, guaranteed that each family would own an individual house, car, and entertainment system. And the more individualized consumers became.the more separated in their own suburban homes, isolated from their communities and totally self- reliant.the more stuff they would need to buy. Independence from one another meant increasing dependence on the companies that served us.
For those who might yet remember.or, worse, talk openly about. better times, a new ethos was developed that valued the future over the past, and progress over nostalgia. Public- relations and advertising chiefs borrowed the most persuasive features of the spectacles staged by their Nazi counterparts.and in some cases employed some of the very same architects.to stage new spectacles on behalf of the American corporation.
World.s Fairs in 1939 and again in 1964 offered the experience of a future America where a benevolent corporation would address every need imaginable. AT&T, GM, and the U.S. Rubber Company sponsored utopian pavilions with names such as Pool of Industry and the Avenue of Transportation. Corporations would take us into the automobile age, the space age, and even the computer age. No matter the sponsor, the overarching message was the same: American- style corporatism would create a bright future for us all.
The intelligentsia played along. Former socialist academics and Nazi expatriates alike were finding easy money in the form of research grants from both the military and industry if they recanted their prior socioeconomic theories and promoted the new corporatism. Many of these academics, like James Burnham, professed the benefits of an industry- led .American Empire,. which, like the Roman Empire that conquered Greece, would .be, if not literally worldwide in formal boundaries, capable of exercising decisive world control.. Freshly graduated psychologists, now willingly in the service of marketers, conducted the first .focus groups. to determine how and why people buy things. Slowly but surely a new definition of self as .consumer. penetrated the mass psyche.
The scores of economic, management, urban- planning, and marketing theories to emerge from this effort were almost invariably geared toward making one part or another of the industrial machine work more efficiently: motivate production, stimulate consumption, assimilate impediments. No matter how humanistic in their wording, or how focused on giving people what they really wanted or needed, these techniques were only .creative. in their ability to tweak the great engine of commerce. They all came down to manufacturing, shipping, and selling more stuff for greater profit and in less time.
As a result, our physical, commercial, spiritual, and personal accomplishments came to be valued only insofar as they could serve the market. And while the market may be as good a model as any for human interaction, the corporate terrain did not represent a level playing field or a .free market. in which value might be created from anywhere. Remember.in spite of its individualistic mythology of open competition, the landscape of corporatism was first cultivated during the Renaissance, when local currencies were outlawed in favor of centralized money. In the United States, in an assumption of centralized value creation that reached a crescendo under the Nixon administration, the Federal Reserve won the authority to create money by fiat, based on nothing but faith in its own corporate chutzpah.
The massive potential of computers and networking, technologies developed in many cases by engineers hoping to decentralize the very power structures funding their projects, was quickly recontextualized as a market opportunity.the beginning of a .long boom..and appropriated as NASDAQ.s stepchild. New rules for a new economy were invented, in which people.s ability to access interactive technology for free or to create value independent of any corporation could be understood as the power of the network to leverage what were formerly .externalities.. The dot- com boosters sought to reconcile the incompatibility of an abundant, decentralized media space with the legacy of a scarce, centralized monetary system. Everything is .open source,. except, of course, money itself.
Instead of serving to reconnect us, our technologies now serve to disconnect us further, reducing our contact to virtual prods and pokes. Meanwhile, corporations are finding online a path toward incarnation: Chase and Coca- Cola build avatars in online environments such as the Second Life .virtual world. that are as real as we are. Sometimes more so, especially as our life and status online dictate or even supersede our life and status in the former real world.
The institutions of last resort, be they religious or nonprofit, are themselves in the thrall of the marketing techniques employed on behalf of their corporate rivals. Instead of presenting alternatives to totalitarian corporatism, they conclude that .if you can.t beat them, join them.. Religions hire consultants to re-brand them in the image of MTV, while charities refashion themselves into for-profit corporations seeking .social- philanthropy. money as sexy to venture capitalists as an Internet IPO (initial public offering of shares). Even those who seek to overturn what they see as the corporate hegemony succumb to the logic of corporatism in their campaigns.
It.s not just that the landscape is sloped toward corporate interests, but that our own beliefs and activities are directed by corporate logic. When those of us alive today have no memory of a world that functioned in any other way, how are we to think otherwise? Like kids with a radio dial that plays nothing but Top 40 songs, we have adapted to the music that we hear, and choose our favorite tunes and pop heroes from the available menagerie.
With no other choice available, we grow up partnering with corporations for our very identities. A kid.s selection of sneaker brand says more about him than his creative- writing assignments do, and is approached with greater care. Our ability to actually do anything about, say, greenhouse- gas emissions is based entirely on the extent to which we can trust Toyota.s claims about developing a car that cleans the air as it drives. Our feedback and participation are managed by customer service, empowering us as consumers by infantilizing us as human beings. This dependency augurs a regression on our part, and a transference of parental authority onto our corporations that recalls our ancestors. allegiance to emperors and high priests.
While some corporations may serve as our accepted public enemies, others quickly step in to embody our dissent. Ford.s contention that it knew the one right car for every American was countered by GM.s repackaging of its cars in personalized brands for each of us. As much as Microsoft frightens us by echoing the tactics of chartered monopolies, Apple and Google excite us by presenting the illusion of a bottom- up, people- centered alternative. We hate Nike and love Air-walk, hate Hummer and love Mini, hate Nabisco and love Hain, hate A&P and love Whole Foods. Or vice versa.
But we all love corporations.
The last century of media- enhanced public relations 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 behaviors 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.
The more disconnected and predictable we become, of course, the less alive we are by all measures that matter, and the more our corporations take on a life of their own. On the synthetic landscape of corporatism, corporations are the indigenous creatures and we are the aliens. They function better than we can, because our laws.even our roads, neighborhoods, and political processes.are written to favor their activity over our own. We must work through them rather than through each other, which only worsens our disconnected predictability. We surrender our agency, losing the free will that makes us human. We have reversed roles.
The landscape of corporatism favors the selfish over the social, the brand over the product, and the central over the local. This is why our search for solutions has been so stunted; we look for nationally branded answers to problems that can be approached only on a local or a personal level. We are drawn to solutions that offer the same instant gratification as consumption, the same frictionless immediacy as high- end salesmanship. Political leaders have all the emotional power.and insubstantiality.of the tested images on which their campaigns are based. As long as we experience the world from the perspective of its corporate conglomerates, we will remain oblivious to the activity and opportunities still available to us on a human scale. We will continue to fight on a battlefield that was created to benefit corporate actors while disempowering and dehumanizing real people. And the longer we limit our activity to this synthetic sphere, the further we mistake this artificial landscape for the territory on which we are to act.
The corporation is a significant but invented institution.and the impact of its invention on our relationship to one another and the world around us was as significant as the invention of an abstract God. For while it might be said that the invention of monotheism purposefully disconnected us from the forces of nature, the invention of the corporation purposefully disconnected us from one another. And while religious institutions and mythologies may have dominated the social, political, and economic landscapes for the first thousand or so years of civilization, it.s corporations and their mythologies that direct human activity today.
Corporatism depends first on our disconnection. The less local, immediate, and interpersonal our experience of the world and each other, the more likely we are to adopt self- interested behaviors that erode community and relationships. This makes us more dependent on central authorities for the things we used to get from one another; we cannot create value without centralized currency, meaning without nationally known brands, or leaders without corporate support. This dependency, in turn, makes us more vulnerable to the pathetically overgeneralized and fear- based mythologies of corporatism. Once we accept these new mythologies as the way things really are, we come to believe that our manufactured disconnection is actually a condition of human nature. In short, we disconnect from the real, adapt to our artificial environment by becoming less than human, and finally mistake carefully constructed corporatist mythologies for the natural universe.
By tracing the development of the great disconnect and unearthing the misconceptions supporting it, we will enable ourselves to come to terms with how we reconnected to an artificial landscape sloped in favor of corporations and away from our own agency.or why we behave against our better natures in the name of self- interest. Luckily, if we can call it that, the real world is finally diverging too far from this false model for the illusion to be sustained. The reality in which we actually live is crumbling; the barbarians are at the gates and the muggers are in Park Slope, while the wealthy are still arguing about the impact on property values.
Instead of using this opportunity to reconnect to our world and our potential to create value from the bottom up, we argue about how to restore and refinance the very corporations whose purpose is to dis-empower us further. If we can forget about the Dow Jones Industrial Average for long enough to remember who we are and what value we might truly bring to this world, we may just be able to take back the world we have ceded to a six- hundred- year- old business deal.
..As a result, our physical, commercial, spiritual, and personal accomplishments came to be valued only insofar as they could serve the market. And while the market may be as good a model as any for human interaction, the corporate terrain did not represent a level playing field or a "free market" in which value might be created from anywhere. Remember--in spite of its individualistic mythology of open competition, the landscape of corporatism was first cultivated during the Renaissance, when local currencies were outlawed in favor of centralized money.
In the United States, in an assumption of centralized value creation that reached a crescendo under the Nixon administration, the Federal Reserve won the authority to create money by fiat, based on nothing but faith in its own corporate chutzpah.
The massive potential of computers and networking, technologies developed in many cases by engineers hoping to decentralize the very power structures funding their projects, was quickly recontextualized as a market opportunity--the beginning of a "long boom"--and appropriated as NASDAQ's stepchild. New rules for a new economy were invented, in which people's ability to access interactive technology for free or to create value independent of any corporation could be understood as the power of the network to leverage what were formerly "externalities." The dot- com boosters sought to reconcile the incompatibility of an abundant, decentralized media space with the legacy of a scarce, centralized monetary system.
Everything is "open source," except, of course, money itself.
Instead of serving to reconnect us, our technologies now serve to disconnect us further, reducing our contact to virtual prods and pokes. Meanwhile, corporations are finding online a path toward incarnation: Chase and Coca- Cola build avatars in online environments such as the Second Life "virtual world" that are as real as we are. Sometimes more so, especially as our life and status online dictate or even supersede our life and status in the former real world.
The institutions of last resort, be they religious or nonprofit, are themselves in the thrall of the marketing techniques employed on behalf of their corporate rivals. Instead of presenting alternatives to totalitarian corporatism, they conclude that "if you can't beat them, join them." Religions hire consultants to re-brand them in the image of MTV, while charities refashion themselves into for-profit corporations seeking "social- philanthropy" money as sexy to venture capitalists as an Internet IPO (initial public offering of shares). Even those who seek to overturn what they see as the corporate hegemony succumb to the logic of corporatism in their campaigns.
It's not just that the landscape is sloped toward corporate interests, but that our own beliefs and activities are directed by corporate logic. When those of us alive today have no memory of a world that functioned in any other way, how are we to think otherwise? Like kids with a radio dial that plays nothing but Top 40 songs, we have adapted to the music that we hear, and choose our favorite tunes and pop heroes from the available menagerie.
With no other choice available, we grow up partnering with corporations for our very identities. A kid's selection of sneaker brand says more about him than his creative- writing assignments do, and is approached with greater care. Our ability to actually do anything about, say, greenhouse- gas emissions is based entirely on the extent to which we can trust Toyota's claims about developing a car that cleans the air as it drives. Our feedback and participation are managed by customer service, empowering us as consumers by infantilizing us as human beings. This dependency augurs a regression on our part, and a transference of parental authority onto our corporations that recalls our ancestors' allegiance to emperors and high priests.
While some corporations may serve as our accepted public enemies, others quickly step in to embody our dissent. Ford's contention that it knew the one right car for every American was countered by GM's repackaging of its cars in personalized brands for each of us. As much as Microsoft frightens us by echoing the tactics of chartered monopolies, Apple and Google excite us by presenting the illusion of a bottom- up, people- centered alternative. We hate Nike and love Air-walk, hate Hummer and love Mini, hate Nabisco and love Hain, hate A&P and love Whole Foods. Or vice versa.
But we all love corporations.
FROM ECOLOGY TO ECONOMY
Big Business and the Disconnect from Value
...There are two economies--the real economy of groceries, day care, and paychecks, and the speculative economy of assets, commodities, and derivatives. What forecasters refer to as "the economy" today isn't the real one; it's almost entirely virtual. It's a speculative marketplace that has very little to do with getting real things to the people who need them, and much more to do with providing ways for passive investors to increase their capital. This economy of markets--first created to give the rising merchant class in the late Middle Ages a way to invest their winnings--is not based on work or even the injection of capital into new enterprises. It's based instead on "making markets" in things that are scarce--or, more accurately, things that can be made scarce, like land, food, coal, oil, and even money itself.
Because there's so much excess capital to invest, speculators make markets in pretty much anything that real people actually use, or can be made to use through lobbying and advertising. The problem is that when coal or corn isn't just fuel or food but also an asset class, the laws of supply and demand cease to be the principal forces determining their price.
When there's a lot of money and few places to invest it, anything considered a speculative asset becomes overpriced. And then real people can't afford the stuff they need. The oil spike of 2008, which contributed to the fall of ill- prepared American car companies, has ultimately been attributed not to the laws of supply and demand, but to the price manipulations of hedge- fund speculators. Real jobs were lost to movements in a purely speculative marketplace.
This is the reality of speculation in an economy defined by scarcity. Pollution is good, not bad, because it turns water from a plentiful resource into a scarce asset class. When sixty- eight million acres of corporate- leased U.S. oil fields are left untapped and filled tankers are parked offshore, energy futures stay high. Airlines that bet correctly on these oil futures stay in business; those that focus on service or safety, instead, end up acquisition targets at best--and pension calamities at worst. Such is the logic of the speculative economy.
As more assets fall under the control of the futures markets, speculators gain more influence over both government policy and public opinion. Between 2000 and 2007, trading in commodities markets in the United States more than sextupled. During that same period, the staff of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission overseeing those trades was cut more than 20 percent, with no corresponding increase in technological efficiency. Meanwhile, speculators have only gotten better at exploiting structural loopholes to engage in commodities trades beyond the sight of the few remaining regulators. Over-the- counter trading on the International Commodities Exchange in London is virtually untraceable, while massive and highly leveraged trades from one hedge fund to another are impossible to track until one or the other goes belly- up--and pleads to be bailed out with some form of taxpayer dollars. Government is essentially powerless to identify those who are manipulating commodities futures at consumers' expense, and even more powerless to prosecute them under current law even if they could. People, meanwhile, come to believe that oil or corn is more scarce than it is (or needs to be), and that they're in competition with the Chinese or the neighbors for what's left.
The speculative economy is related to the real economy, but more as a parasite than as a positive force. It is detached from the real needs of people, and even detached from the real commerce that goes on between humans. It is a form of meta- commerce, like a Las Vegas casino betting on the outcome of a political election. Only in this case, the bets change the costs of the real things people depend on.
As wealth is sucked out of real economies and shifted into the speculative economy, people's behavior and activities can't help but become more market- based and less social. We begin to act more in accordance with John Nash's selfish and calculating competitors, confirming and reinforcing our dog- eat- dog behaviors. The problem is, because it's actually against our nature to behave this way, we're not too good at it. We end up struggling against one another while getting fleeced by more skilled and structurally favored competition from distant and abstracted banks and corporations. Worse, we begin to feel as though any activity not in some way tied to the corporate sphere is not really happening.
Wal- Mart's success in extracting value from local communities, for example, is tied directly to the company's participation in speculative markets beyond the reach of small business, and its tremendous ability to centralize capital. We buy from Wal- Mart because Wal- Mart sells imported and long- distance products cheaper than the local tailor or pharmacist can. Not only does the company get better wholesale prices; its centrality and size lets it get its money cheaper. Meanwhile, because we are forced to use centralized currency instead of a more local means of exchange or barter (and we'll look at these possibilities later), each of our transactions with local merchants is passed through a multiplicity of distant banks and lenders.
All of the advantages and efficiencies of local commerce are neutralized when we are required to use long- distance, antitransactional currency for local exchange between people. We must earn the currency from one corporation that has borrowed from the central bank in order to pay another corporation for a product it has purchased from yet another. We don't have an easy way to get the very same product from the guy down the street who knows how to make it better and get it to us ultimately more efficiently than the factory in Asia.
But the notion of purchasing things with some kind of local currency system, bartering for them with members of our local community, or--worst of all--accepting favors in exchange for other ones feels messy and confusing to us. Besides, Wal- Mart is a big company with lots of insurance and presumably some deep pockets we could sue if something goes wrong. When favors replace dollars, who is responsible for what? Too many of us would rather hire a professional rug cleaner, nanny, or taxi than borrow a steamer from a neighbor (what if we break it?), do a babysitting exchange (do we really like them?), or join a carpool (every day? Ugh). Social obligations are less defined than financial ones.
Our successive disconnects from place and people are what make this final disconnection from value so complete and difficult to combat. We have lost our identification with place as anything but a measure of assets, and we have surrendered our identification with others to an obsession with ourselves against everybody else. Without access or even inclination to social or civic alternatives, we turn to the speculative market to fulfill needs that could have been satisfied in other ways.
From Chapter 8
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. 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.
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.
"There are few more important subjects in the West today than the corporaticization of public and personal space and few writers as well-suited to the subject as the always insightful and provocative Doug Rushkoff. A terrific contribution to an urgent debate."
Naomi Wolf - author, The End of America
.This is a provocative and controversial historical look at the dark side of corporatist effects on our economy. Douglas Rushkoff explores the various ways, some you may never have considered, that innovation and commerce can be stunted by corporations. Whether or not you agree, you will find this book challenges some of our basic assumptions about how our economy works..
Walter Isaacson - Aspen Institute, author of Einstein: His Life and Universe
"Handwringing over the state of the global economy? Think again. Douglas Rushkoff explains why this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to remember what matters, and to rethink our economic system so it reinforces our human values. This book provides a profound and important call to action."
Tim O.Reilly - founder, O.Reilly Media
.This is an urgent book, essential reading about an important topic you.ve probably never considered before. Like all great books, it will open your eyes to a whole new way of thinking. I hope that everyone gets a chance to read it, before it.s too late..
Seth Godin - Author, Tribes
.Read this book if you want to understand how the current economic meltdown started 400 years ago, how so much of what you consider to be a natural evolution of daily life was carefully designed to profit a few, and how corporatism has so colonized every part of life that most of us don.t even recognize how our lives and fortunes are channeled and manipulated by it. Rushkoff is going to be attacked as a communist, but that gets his point wrong. Look at his references . he has meticulously documented his argument. I love that Rushkoff isn.t afraid to think big . very big. He took on the media more than a decade ago. Then he took on Judaism. But now he.s chosen a larger target . the corporation..
Howard Rheingold - author, Smart Mobs
.fuck you, douglas rushkoff, for pissing me off and making me re-think everything. anyone who questions everything will have their everything re-questioned. this book is a painful read, and i loved it. gore ain.t got nothing on this inconvenient truth. i couldn.t put it down while i wanted to burn it, and i learned more from it than i learned in all of college. life inc.s education is intense and puts you on a wild ride to seeing the world damn naked and disconnected. this book will either be burned or regarded a masterpiece. required reading for anyone who wants to really understand our world, our economy, our history, and our hope for the 21st century..
Scott Heiferman, Meetup.com
TOUR DATES 2009
Tuesday, May 26th:
Reading in Irvington, 8pm-9pm
4 West Main Street in Irvington, NY
Chutney Masala website
Sunday, May 31st:
Comp Currency Lecture, 1-5PM
St. Marks Church
2nd Ave & 10th St
Monday, June 1st:
Media Squat Radio, 7pm EST
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Tuesday, June 2nd:
NPR, Live Interview, 11am EST
Boston Public Library, book reading, 6pm
700 Boylston St., Boston MA
Boston Public Library website
Thursday, June 4th:
Air America Radio, 3:10pm EST live interview
Friday, June 5th:
KPFA Radio, Interview, 3pm - 4pm EST
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Sunday, June 7th:
Life Inc. Book Party, open to public
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Monday, June 8th:
Mediasquat Radio with Harvey Pekar, 7pm EST
The Media Squat
Tuesday, June 9th:
Booksmith, reading and signing, 7pm - 8pm PST
1644 Haight St, San Francisco, CA
Wednesday, June 10th:
NPR, KQED Radio, The Forum with Michael Krasny, 10am . 11am PST
The Forum on KQED website
ANWF Educational Seminar on the Financial Crisis, Lecture and Q&A,
6:30 p.m. - 8:00 p.m. PST
Mechanics Institute Library
57 Post Street at Montgomery, San Francisco
Monday, June 15th:
The Media Squat, 7pm EST
The Media Squat
Tuesday, June 16th:
Mancow Radio, Live, 8am - 9am
McNally Jackson Books, book reading and signing, 7pm - 8pm
52 Prince Street, New York, NY 10012
McNally Jackson Books website
Thursday, June 18th:
Blue Stockings, book reading and party, 7pm
172 Allen St, New York, NY 10002
Blue Stockings website
Tuesday, June 29th:
Personal Democracy Forum
Thursday, July 16th:
The Change You Want To See Gallery, book reading and signing, 7:30 - 9:30pm
84 Havemeyer St, at Metropolitan Ave
Brooklyn, NY 11211
The Change You Want To See Gallery