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Worldchanging Review: Doug Rushkoff on Life Inc.
Jon Lebkowsky, 8 Sep 09
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Doug Rushkoff had set out, as he told me in an interview on the WELL, to write one kind of book -- "about money as a medium, and the way centralized currency and corporate capitalism were accepted as given circumstances of business, rather than inventions of particular people at a particular time."

Rushkoff, who's made a living as a writer, thinker and speaker who tries to step outside culture and see more clearly the patterns and processes at work, was ready to question fundamental assumptions about money and economies, and look for solutions to problems we all sense but barely understand -- cycles of boom and bust, polarization of economic and political thinking (which are inherently linked), and how commitment to abstract concepts can make humans less human. Also how people can unthinkingly (or other-thinkingly) accept and follow cultural notions that actually undermine sustainable futures.

Then, while Rushkoff was in the process of pulling the book together, a man with a gun robbed him on Christmas Eve, in front of his own apartment. Somewhat shaken by the experience, he posted a note about it on a neighborhood email list, and got a surprising response: some neighbors, concerned about how the news of the mugging might have an impact on their property values, were angry that he had posted where the crime occurred.

"I realized that my neighbors had internalized these sensibilities [associated with corporate capitalism] so deeply that they were behaving like corporations, themselves," he told me.

So he wrote a slightly different book -- about "how the world became a corporation," how authenticity, community, and human intimacy have been compromised by pervasive corporatization and nonstop marketing. The book, Life Inc. includes well and thoroughly researched history of the corporation, which began as a way for monarchs to participate in innovative business models developed by an emerging merchant class, and evolved as a way to organize power around economic engines.

I've been reading Rushkoff's book carefully and thinking a lot about it. He's very articulate and his arguments are compelling. There's no doubt that corporate form really has been foundational in organizing our perception of the world, more deeply generation after generation, and it's not surprising that global citizens of developed and developing nations organize their thinking around those patterns. When we talk about "developed" and "developing," we're talking about corporatization -- the extent to which the corporate model has taken hold, or you might say has colonized a particular locale.

Corporations bring compelling efficiencies along with them -- an abundance of products for consumption at relatively low cost. Food, clothing, shelter, etc. Sophisticated water systems and plumbing systems. Systems and vehicles for transportation. Money and jobs. Better medical systems. This is all what we call progress, and it feels like success, especially for those at the top or the corporate heap. However, Rushkoff points out, we haven't had many opportunities to consider alternatives, since corporations have controlled media, government and schools. Aren't we completely conditioned to accept corporate assumptions as what's real, inherent and incontrovertible? And, given this power over reality, aren't corporations vulnerable to corruption?

Obviously yes, and Rushkoff offers a wealth of well-researched factoids to suggest that corporations readily abuse power and exploit workers and consumers. That corporations seize and control our very sense of what's real, bend it to their will, driven by greed and focused on profitability above all else. The remedy, he suggests, is "the slow subordination of corporate activity to social activity, and corporate behavior to human behavior." We can use the Internet effectively to "connect those looking to reinforce their sense of hope and connection to others," he says, and "by restoring our connections to real people, places and values, we'll be less likely to depend on the symbols and brands that have come to substitute for human relationships."

Are corporations monolithic, opaque, sinister and all-powerful? While corporations are abstract systems, they are also people, and the cultures and values of corporations can be aligned with the values of the individuals who commit so much of their time and energy to work there. Culture change consultants (like Barrett Values Centre or Momentum Consulting) have systems for aligning corporate and human values. And there are other promising models (e.g. bootstrapping, coworking) for business organization and development, and corporate information flows and hierarchies are being transformed by internal uses of social media (with or without C-level acknowledgement and assent). The corporation of tomorrow may be quite different from today's corporation, and certainly different from yesterday's.

There's a sense throughout the book that corporate evolution is a conspiracy of the powerful to exploit the weaker masses, redefined and dehumanized within the corporate mind-set as abstract statistical entities called consumers. There's just so much evidence to support this perspective (again, the book is very well-researched), why wouldn't you go there? But I'm struck by a contrast I noticed recently. Rushkoff talks about the 1939 World's Fair as a platform for corporate rhetoric, a blast of blatant propaganda supporting the vision of "a consumer paradise -- not a worker reality -- in which machines did all the work and the family could enjoy a world filled with entertainment." Not long after I finished the book, I had a discussion with a brilliant designer and futurist whose ears stood up when the subject of the '39 World's Fair came up. To him, that fair was a great moment in our history, a surge of creative optimism as the world was going nuts. I think the story is always complex, that corporatization has been a good thing as well as a bad thing, and what's important is that we learn from our mistakes. And as Rushkoff suggests, we can hopefully learn to put the statistics aside for now and be "real people doing real things for one another - without expectations" again.

Read related posts:
Rushkoff's Open Source Democracy

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I think what's being left out of the discussion is how much the realities of people and planet have humanized the corporation. It's easy to criticize the monolithic nature of these institutions, but they are constantly trying to bring a human face to their name or at least protect their image. They couldn't do this if, as institutions, they weren't at least entirely aware of their stake in human progress.

Posted by: Alex M. Thompson on 3 Sep 09

Sounds like an interesting read - I'll look for it.
And I agree with the closing - any complex phenomena is hard to categorize. Corporations, a corporation, is only a label for the actions of an aggregate of people.
We talk about them as if they act, as if they have a will of their own, but it's never a corporation that makes a decision. It's people, it's us.
And the first decision, the first domino, is tossed by me, when I'm trying to decide if I want to save money with Corp A, who'll pay me 3.1% interest, or Corp B, who'll pay me 3.2%.

Posted by: dave on 4 Sep 09

Rushkoff makes a clear distinction between corporatism and commerce. He is not critical of the latter. When the two are decoupled, all sorts of opportunities open up for discussion and experimentation.

Posted by: Peter Sims on 4 Sep 09

Corporations, having acquired personhood status (1886), do behave like living organisms -- perhaps cancers might be more accurate. As such, they act in their own interest and frequently this is at odds with the interests of human societies.

Since acquiring personhood status, the courts have also determined that they are beholden only to their shareholders (1919). That means the returns to shareholders must trump the welfare of their workers and the communities in which they operate. If follows that corporations will externalize any costs they legally can. I'm sure Pfizer views their billion dollar fine for illegal behavior as a cost of doing business.

Certainly, the current health care reform debacle makes it clear that they also, through their personhood status, have nearly complete control of the political process. For a very complete history of the corporation and its dysfunctional behavior, go to the WILPF site.

Are they evil? No and neither are the people who work within these constrained environments. They are just poorly designed inventions of our human culture which, if not redesigned, may take us down with them -- just like cancers.

Posted by: John Faust on 4 Sep 09

I was six years old and wide awake when I visited the 1939 NY World's Fair. Yes, I was greatly inspired by the General Motors exhibit, but over the years I finally figured out that the display extolling the automobile's part in the future of the USA served also to deflect attention to GM's approaching systematic extermination of the municipal trollycar systems in order to sell diesel busses. The rise of freeway building added "What's good for General Motors is good for the country" to our vocabulary of quotations. Now, it is easy to see what was really going on. On the other hand, I do miss the above-mentioned flowering of optimism. We could use some of that today. JB

Posted by: Jay Baldwin on 4 Sep 09

The Canadian documentary "The Corporation" spells out how disastrously our corporate Frankensteins have worked out for humanity. Corporations by definition operate as immortal sociopaths, and if we fail to control them then we will end up as their prisoners. Our role (as they see it) is to provide them with their one objective: increased profits. And they keep learning new methods of getting us to provide those profits. See "Shock Doctrine" by Naomi Klein for details.

Don't get me wrong, I do believe we need corporations. Without American corporations WW2 would have been lost, for example. But if we let the corporations decide what information the vast majority of people receive, then the people will never realize that they are slaves. I fear this is already the case.

Posted by: Dave P on 5 Sep 09

John Faust: I think (actual attorneys can correct me if I'm wrong) that Michigan Supreme Court’s decision in Dodge v. Ford Motor Company in 1919 could be trumped by an explicit agreement with shareholders to put other values before profit.

Jay Baldwin: I also miss that optimism. In fact, as I was writing the review, the part about my futurist friend's perspective, I was thinking of John Milius's depiction of American optimism in the Teddy Roosevelt era in the film The Wind and the Lion, and Coppola's film about Tucker. The Worldchanging version of the environmental movement has been about optimism and solutions-focus as we face enormous challenges (human impact on climate, air and water quality, complex economic issues, etc.) Adversity can be opportunity.

Posted by: Jon Lebkowsky on 5 Sep 09

"it's never a corporation that makes a decision. It's people, it's us."

Or, rather, a select subset of 'us'. Because few of 'us' consciously decide that profit is king over all else, including the wealth of life and the health of the world. To the extent that we've been seduced into such a point-of-view, we have propagated our own destruction.

If we are corpuscles in the bloodstream of a larger organism, we might be concerned whether that organism is serving our best interests. When the sole focus of an endeavor ignores countless signs that life itself is endangered (plastic oceanic whirlpools, melting icecaps, declining liberties, vanishing species, vanishing indigenous cultures, ubiquitous mercury), then uncritical acceptance is the path of madness.

Posted by: TJ on 6 Sep 09

"Corporations, a corporation, is only a label for the actions of an aggregate of people. We talk about them as if they act, as if they have a will of their own, but it's never a corporation that makes a decision. It's people, it's us."

That's like saying an anthill is just a collection of ants. I don't think this is a correct view. Corporations are more than people, and more than just immortal legal entities.

There's a property of nature called emergence: complex systems emerge out of many small entities acting according to simple, local rules. (Google 'automata', for one example.)

I believe that corporations, like cities, really do have a life of their own. They exhibit behaviors which are inherently non-linear, non-controllable, and non-moral. Everyone who works for a corporation (including the CEO) is simply "doing their job", and (hopefully) not consciously trying to do evil. But taken together, all those individual contributions add up to something greater than the sum of their parts.

Kinda creepy, huh?

Posted by: Tristan N on 7 Sep 09

"Corporations, having acquired personhood status (1886), do behave like living organisms -"
"That's like saying an anthill is just a collection of ants."
"Or, rather, a select subset of 'us'."
I understand - I think I understand emergence, and the personhood status of corporations, and the oligarchy they represent.

Still, there are people there. And one point is that by talking about the Corporation rather than the CEO or CFO or Board then we have lost the idea of personal accountability. A corporation by definition invites this sort of transference, but I think I should resist it.

And by placing us all in the same boat, by saying "we", I intend to bring attention to what motivates us to succeed in the first place, and how that success is defined. However one feels about a CEO, they are, in our society, looked up to as great successes and leaders.

For me, the center point holding together this system is not any corporation, necessarily, it's what we consider important and well and good; what constitutes a life well-lived. Is it more important to work late and pay the mortgage on a big house, or leave in time to get to my small dwelling to prepare dinner for a few friends? Who's more successful?

In my opinion, this is the thing that would change everything.

Posted by: dave on 8 Sep 09

(Tristan wrote:)
"I believe that corporations, like cities, really do have a life of their own ... Everyone who works for a corporation (including the CEO) is simply "doing their job", and (hopefully) not consciously trying to do evil. But taken together, all those individual contributions add up to something greater than the sum of their parts."
(end quote)

Bang on - corporations can't be reformed without being redefined. They're cancerous black holes of value.

(Dave wrote:)
"Still, there are people there ... by talking about the Corporation rather than the CEO or CFO or Board then we have lost the idea of personal accountability."
(end quote)

There are people there *on the condition* that they act in accordance with the corporate charter to "take everything".

That's what a "job" is - serving a function rather than providing an intention.

"There are *good* people tied to that enormous boulder - why are they rolling it toward that town at the bottom of the hill?"

Posted by: Regular Reader on 8 Sep 09

To extend that analogy - if corporations are boulders, they were lifted by late-medieval monarchs up the hill of The Monopoly on Centralised Currency. Uh, and gravity is interest.

Point being - it's not *just* corporations - it's the whole artificially constructed economic landscape.

People tied to boulders can wriggle all they want: the rules are already set - but they can be changed.

Posted by: Regular Reader on 8 Sep 09

Rushkoff's articulating what a lot of Americans and others feel: that most of us have lost control of the things that affect us, and it's affecting prized characteristics like American innovation and liberty.

I see a pattern lately in several insitutions (ranging from corporations to non-profits, from government to families): characterized by lack of what was once called leadership (managers lay off employees, but won't go down with the ship). Management of anything is at best an inexact and unproven art, not a science.

The biggest problem with removing corporate power is knowing what you would replace it with. Government can be every bit as inefficient, and often provides only one size fits all solutions.

We have a middle class who in times of hope feels like we are rich, and want policies helping the rich, who is unaware that there are people far richer (and getting richer always). In times of disaster, we can only hope we will all recognize that these crises will have in them the seeds of opportunity for individual entrepreneurship, increases in freedom and individual responsibility. If not, we're doomed.

Posted by: LeDasha on 10 Sep 09

>That's what a "job" is - serving a function rather than >providing an intention.

Yes! Corporatism turns people into robots, agents that act only by function, and not by characteristics that make us human. We've seen a lot of this lately - from Abu Ghraib to Enron, from the banking crisis to more. The crises are caused by humans, but humans following institutional rules without scruples. Often, there is an end goal, like profits, or ridding the world of terrorists.

I sincerely can't recognize any legitimate function of managers, especially in the context of the pay inequalities; I think this whole mess is bound to end up with the middle class as serfs, and the CEOs, (the Mussolini-esque heads of corporations) as feudal lords. Oh wait, we already have that.

The only way, I as an individual can change any of this is:
1. Vote with my feet - try to patronize local business. and 2. Try running my own business.

Posted by: LeDasha on 10 Sep 09

any complex phenomena is hard to categorize. A corporation, is only a label for the actions of an aggregate of people.see a pattern lately in several insitutions

Posted by: r4 firmware on 29 Oct 09

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