In his new book, Life, Inc., Douglas Rushkoff lays bare the history of corporations and how our society became shaped in their image. He theorizes that corporatism has such a hold on us that we tend to live our entire lives like miniature corporations, thinking only of the short-term value of things and even seeing other people solely as assets to be managed.
Rushkoff took some time to talk to Sarah Jaffe of GlobalComment about his book and the problems and solutions that he sees for our society at this moment of crisis.
Sarah Jaffe: One of the things that I thought was very interesting about Life, Inc. was that it was a very nonpartisan solution to current problems, instead of a left or right political argument.
Douglas Rushkoff: I was trying to show how either one can fall into the same trap of centralization. Both left and right seem almost equally susceptible to the corporatist thinking.
It seems to be a problem of scale. You wouldn’t need labor unions if you didn’t have giant corporations. You can have a union of six, but if you have six people in a company, you should be able to negotiate in an open and straightforward way. You need a union when you’ve got Henry Ford and 6,000 employees and that giant corporate industry going on. But then you end up with a labor union that is a corporate-style entity.
S: The larger anything gets, the less contact it has with the people—whether it’s the people it’s supposed to protect, as in the unions, or with the corporate shareholders.
DR: Those of us in activism, trying to do good things, are now stuck believing that unless the thing we’re doing is big, then it’s not real or not worth anything. That’s an awful trap, because often it’s real, up until it gets to be big.
S: Your basic solution was for very small changes in the way you live your life, but people often like to make the grand gesture and then go home to watch American Idol.
DR: In New York, the well-meaning ultra-rich will spend thousands of dollars a table to go to fundraisers for various things. They’ll give a couple thousand bucks to [an underfunded school], while sending their own kids to some super-elite private school where they’re never going to have to run into the child they’re doing the fundraiser for. So it’s the old argument, where they’re spending time and money to keep poverty from impacting themselves rather than creating any systemic response to the problem.
S: A lot of the things that you mention as solutions, like buying local, are being tossed around now because they’re environmentally friendly, but you talk about them as good in themselves, because they connect you to the place where you live and the people that you know.
DR: Right. Which would I rather do? Hang out with these pretty girls on an organic farm, get some really bright gorgeous chard, or go into the fluorescent-lit A&P and push a cart around with a bunch of bored people? It becomes an easy choice when you think about it from a sensual level, rather than just an intellectual level. I’m trying to show people that I’m not asking them to live an ascetic life of renunciation and denial, but actually a much more abundant life of fun and pleasure.
When people are doing stuff out of guilt, which is what people get from the sort of Al Gore/”Inconvenient Truth” method of environmentalism or the Noam Chomsky approach to politics and economics, you get the feeling that you have to hole up somewhere and not consume anything. There’s this false dichotomy set up between doing it for the world OR having fun.
S: You talk about the connection to work, whether it’s on a farm or whatever you do—when I say it that way it almost sounds like the classic Marxist argument, that people are alienated from their work.
DR: Marx really did get a lot of it. It got used in some really silly ways and was a terrible basis for a movement. That’s why in the book I speak out against movements in general—you join this whole big thing and then the movement itself becomes a distraction from whatever’s really going on.
S: I want to ask about the problems you discussed in the book. One of the things you were talking about was creating value on the Internet and the biases of the Web as a medium, so I wanted to ask if you’ve thought at all about journalism as it moves to the Web and how we support it.
DR: Not to quote the Founding Fathers, but they understood that to have a well-functioning government you need the checks and balances of the press, so much so that they thought that the government should have to pay for their own critique. That’s probably true.
If someone else is going to pay for newsgathering and I don’t have to, I’m going to let them pay for it rather than be the sucker. But if government and taxes and all are here to make us the people we want to be rather than the people we would be, I think that’s something that has to be government-funded.
How you administrate that is kind of tricky, because if you get your political parties in charge then you’re totally screwed. If you just funded NPR and PBS, that’d be fine for you and me but all the FOX type people would be upset, although I guess that’s the point that FOX should be supported by the market because that’s what [FOX] support[s].
There’s also tremendous redundancy in the news. Britney has some experience, and you see the shot from outside her house and there’s like 15 news vans there—there’s a lot of equipment and stuff that’s not being appropriately allocated.
The Los Angeles Times takes a person, and they say “Let’s look at what the Gates Foundation invests in,” and if they hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t have had a whole chapter in my book. They spend however many weeks it is looking at every single investment and basically conclude that financially, the Gates Foundation spent more money undoing the things it’s trying to do. Without the LA Times and the staff and the money that wouldn’t have happened. That’s cool. What’s not cool is when you get the redundancy of 20 or 30 basically equivalent news agencies showing up at the same press conference. The Chicago Tribune should not be in competition with the New York Times for a scoop.
Newspapers ended up serving the function that the market wanted them to serve. They became more about delivering eyeballs to advertisers than information to people, and now they’re paying the price.
S: Sports and entertainment coverage is cheap to do and doesn’t offend. But if you’re writing a political story, you’re going to piss somebody off, and then they won’t read you and you can’t deliver them to advertisers.
DR: And people aren’t advertising in the sort of Grey Lady section in the New York Times anyway. They’re advertising in the special cover pullout, or the sections that were created for advertisers, like “Dining Out.” I don’t know if those are the ones that are going to die or survive.
The coverage in those sections is always happy and positive because it’s got to be good background for advertisers. The “Dining Out” section has to be pro-dining out. The “Dining In” section has to be pro-consumption of the things you need to have a special dining in experience, all the special tools and bizarre rare tomatoes or whatever it is.
The only section that’s left to be anti is Section One, the government section, because the government’s not advertising. So you end up with a newspaper that’s increasingly critical of government and promoting corporatism.
S: And then what you get is Reagan Republicanism. Yay corporations. Boo government.
DR: Right, that’s the only direction it can go at that point. The Times did that and and now they’re being hoist with their own petard, because the advertisers have not come to their rescue.
S: You mention the A&P corporation hiring publicists to create the illusion of public protest against taxes on grocery stores. I immediately thought of the tax day tea party protests, where you have people who mostly just got a tax cut protesting tax increases on richer people.
DR: I guess I’m considered upper middle class, and I’ll see a person just hanging on arguing against their own interests, when I am arguing for their interests and against my own, if I’m thinking purely short-term self-interest. It is interesting, but it’s also what leads to this accusation of us being elitist. How dare we tell poor people what’s good for them?
I understand their frustration because they believe that I somehow want to centrally administrate a marketplace that has no way for them to succeed. They don’t realize that all the oldest tricks in the book, from religion to advertising to hate-baiting, are being used to get them to support their own oppressors. It’s cynical. It’s not that there are the pro-market intellectuals who really believe the things they’re saying. I point out in the book that you’ll see papers from the Cato Institute using Darwinian evolutionary logic and Richard Dawkins and all to demonstrate the natural evolutionary qualities of the market, at the same time as they’ll put out propaganda saying that anti-market people also don’t believe in creation.
They’ll use creationism to promote market views among the people they deem to be stupid, and use evolution to justify their economic arguments to one another. To me that’s proof that it’s a cynical manipulation of people they believe to be stupid. The choice for us – and I don’t mean us as in the Left, but us as the people who would increase the power and agency of as many other people as possible – is education. If [people] can’t get the Econ 101, macroeconomic stuff, then they certainly can get the very basic local economic truths, that it’s less expensive for people to do favors for one another than to borrow expensive currency in order to pay one another.
S: You know, I grew up in a family that owned a small business, and my family always used to barter with other people for things.
DR: It shouldn’t be as subversive, but it turns out it is. It’s what you have to do when there’s a recession or when there’s stagflation. The banks and the bankers are going to hoard the cash, then we’ve got no choice, so let’s do business in other ways.
The problem that lefties run into is they keep thinking of business itself as the problem, when it’s not.
S: Right. It’s the way you do business. You get people arguing Adam Smith’s market arguments for a large corporation, which is not at all what Adam Smith was writing about.
DR: I look forward to engaging with Cato people or with corporate libertarians on these issues. You want to have a free market? Cool. The first place I want to compete is in currency. What, I’m not allowed to print my own currency? I thought we were in a free market. OK, then the first place I want to compete is what is this charter making this corporation or this big agricompany the only one who’s allowed to produce these things? You want a free market, let’s have a free market.
Without the tremendous protectionism and regulations, these giant corporate conglomerates would cease to exist. They do business less efficiently and more expensively, but they have an unfair advantage through their collusion with government. So if Cato and the Heritage Foundation really want to practice what they preach, then let’s go for it.
S: One of the things I found most interesting about your argument was the one about currency, how local currencies are biased toward spending. It seems particularly appropriate right now.
DR: The thing I’m getting now when I talk to people about local currency is they say “Oh, well that’s going to require a big leap of faith for people.” And actually it’s the opposite. Centralized currency, especially a centralized currency that’s based in nothing—is a pure faith-based currency.
That’s why what we have now is an opportunity, while the banks are busy, to create value for ourselves.