It’s hard to imagine any conservative ever picking up media theorist Douglas Rushkoff’s newest book.
They’ll see the title and immediately walk the other way: Life Inc.: How the World Became a Corporation and How to Take It Back.
And they would not be doing so without due cause.
Since the formation of the New Left in the ‘60s the attack on the corporation has been a staple of the radical assault on freedom. “Muckraking” journalists make their living going after corporate scandals and corporate evils, always while demanding one solution: more and more government regulation to come crashing down on these enemies of the people, these greedy “fat cat” CEOs.
We see it most prominently in the films of Michael Moore (catch the new one this fall!) and the books of Naomi Klein. In both cases, though, the critique is not truly of the corporation but of capitalism itself. The corporation is just the lowest-hanging fruit. It’s far easier to slam the faceless corporate behemoth than the small businessman just scraping by to feed his family.
And so conservatives have been on the defensive, continually having to justify the rights of corporations to engage in the free market. The Right does this, though, because it’s ultimately pro-freedom and pro-capitalism, not pro-corporatism. There could be no greater proof of this than in the Conservative Movement’s harsh response to the current culture of government bailouts for corporations. When confronted with the news that the Big Three automakers will go under without government assistance, few can respond better than Indiana congressman Mike Pence: “Economic freedom means the freedom to succeed and the freedom to fail.”
Is it possible to critique the idea of the corporation while still advocating capitalism? While rarely happening, yes, in fact it is. And Rushkoff shows us how in his fascinating new book.
Rushkoff’s book is wide-reaching, incorporating economics, history, sociology, cultural analysis, current events and even memoir. The book is perhaps at its most touching when Rushkoff argues his central claim: the corporatist approach has spread not just outward but inward as well. Rushkoff argues that people behave like corporations, acting for the short term, individual profit at the expense of their own long term good for themselves and their communities.
The central example to describe this is personal. Rushkoff describes how he was mugged at gunpoint outside of his Brooklyn home. His wallet and cell phone were stolen. Afterwards, concerned for his community’s safety and hoping for some expression of sympathy, he posted about what happened on the Park Slope Parents list, which he describes as “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.”
The first two responses he got were from people mad at him for disclosing the exact location he was mugged! Didn’t he know that the news of a mugging could lower their property values? Rushkoff writes,
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?
They were behaving like corporations. Their behavior was neither “liberal” nor “conservative.” It was corporatist. They were valuing short-term profits over long-term stability and greater profits.
Rushkoff goes way back to explain the origins of the corporation and how it came to dominate the capitalist system. He puts the date of birth of the organism at some point in the late middle ages. It was at that time that European monarchs were beginning to lose power. Individual communities of merchants and artisans were growing richer because they were actually creating value. Rushkoff cites this as a time of greater economic prosperity than is often depicted. It was an age when communities created so much value that they could afford to invest it in creating things like cathedrals.
The monarchs struck back, though, through the creation of chartered corporations like the Dutch East India Company and the Muscovy Company. The purpose of these companies was to have royally-sponsored monoplies extract value from wherever they went and bring it back to the monarchs.
It was in this context that the United States emerged. Unlike the Howard Zinn/Noam Chomsky school of understanding the founding, Rushkoff has nothing but praises for the founders. The thirteen colonies’ initial purpose was to extract value for the King of England. And the colonists got sick of their value that they worked for being taxed from them while they lived without representation. Thus one aspect of the American Idea was a revolt against corporatism. (And now isn’t history repeating itself as citizens thunder against their tax dollars going to “bail out” failing corporations?) And the founders aren’t the only conservative icons for whom Rushkoff has kind words. Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek are two other thinkers he praises.
The book is filled with so many examples of the corporatist mindset – some hilarious others depressing – that it’s difficult to choose ones to highlight.
Perhaps the most amusing one is the relationship between General Motors’s lobbying battle against environmentalists’ attempt to force a raise in fuel-efficiency standards and its current economic failure. Rushkoff reveals that in the fight over fuel standards, Toyota lobbied with GM despite the fact that the regulations wouldn’t affect them. They already made cars that far exceeded the proposed standards. So why lobby against them? Rushkoff writes,
No, Toyota was lobbying to keep U.S. standards much lower than its own – and to keep GM uncommitted to competing on that score. While advertising its own commitment to energy efficiency, Toyota was actively lobbying to help the rest of the industry maintain worse fuel standards.
In other words Toyota was knowingly sabotaging GM – just helping the corporation tie the noose as it continued to commit economic suicide. Toyota knew that GM would just keep making the same old inefficient cars they were making until the company went bankrupt. And as today’s headlines reveal, they were right.
Another entertaining Rushkoff take-down is when he targets the New Age scheme The Secret:
The Secret is spirituality reconstituted for the “me” generation. As self-contained and utterly artificial as Birkdale Village, The Secret masquerades as a time-honored and diverse set of insights. And like the faux New Urbanist shopping mall, the underlying purpose of the Secret is to make money. Most of the spiritual teachers in The Secret are wealth-seminar leaders who display the book’s logo on their ads and websites.
The critiques conservatives are most likely to appreciate, though, are when Rushkoff demonstrates how the Left has become what it claims to be trying to destroy: a corporation. What good does it do to pay corporations tens of thousands of dollars to advertise on their TV stations? And what if some leftist group can help unveil enough corporate corruption to bring down some “evil” corporation? If the Left somehow helped topple Wal-Mart – dream on! – then Target and Meijer would just assume control. Heck, Target might even secretly fund their activism!
Despite these jabs, Rushkoff still draws on the Left’s critique of the corporation – he cites Klein for example – and ends up subverting it. He does not argue that “progressives” should organize to elect politicians that would seek to crush or control corporations. Nor does he argue we should disconnect entirely from the existing system.
He instead holds up the economy of the late Middle Ages as a model to consider for today. Part of the prosperity of that period that we see in the beautiful cathedrals they left behind was in the interaction of both local and international economies. People literally would have two forms of currency – one for local transactions and another for those over long distances. Rushkoff’s critique is not an either/or, zero sum game. It’s not about destroying corporations, it’s about achieving balance: we should use the corporate economy for the goods and services that it can provide best, and our local economies for everything else.
There’s nothing leftist about the way people are putting Rushkoff’s ideas into practice. As I put the book down I could think of several friends who have never identified as “progressive,” who are pro-capitalism, and yet often try to transcend corporations in favor of engaging with the community.
Josh and Joanna Burress have discovered that often greater value could come from their own communities – and backyards -- rather than through corporations. Joanna gave me several examples:
“Growing my own food, even if it's just some of what we eat, gives me peace of mind, knowing that the peas and potatoes in my dinner didn't travel from South America or China to get to me- they just came from outside my back door. I appreciate that the national food recalls don't concern me- my family is safer…. This may seem just idealistic, but it's selfish, really. A local farmer that chooses the lower-profit but more sustainable route of grassfed animals as opposed to a confined-feeding operation pollutes local neighborhoods and drinking water less, and the meat I get is far less prone to bacteria and disease. Again, my family's meal is safer….”
Food is an obvious example of a product that a community can produce better than a corporation. But Joanna had other suggestions for finding value within a community:
“When we need to buy other things- whether it's a piece of furniture, electronics, or clothes- we prefer to buy local. Many times, this means checking whether we can get the item outside of the typical retail outlets first- does anyone on Freecycle have one to offer? Is anything posted on Craigslist? Do any of the many Goodwills in the area have something that will work? Are our friends getting rid of something we need? This approach bypasses corporations altogether, connects us more deeply to our community and its resources, and typically gets us a pretty good deal on whatever it is we're looking for. If we spend money on the thing we're looking for, it goes directly to our neighbors, without any corporation taking a cut.”
Doesn’t exactly sound like socialism, does it?
Joanna and others that practice Rushkoff-style progressivism aren’t raging against a machine. Joanna has another term: “'Bypass' seems to be the key word- by knowing the local sources, we can bypass corporations in a whole slew of industries, giving us other, better options.”
One of the great things about the book is it finally provides a great alternative to the Left’s status quo. When my “progressive” friends are going on about the evils of corporations now all I have to do is put Rushkoff’s book in their hands and say, “You want to fight the corporations? Fine. Just do it this way.” As Rushkoff said to Bobbie Johnson of the Guardian:
"I'm not Naomi Klein," he says with a grin. "Not only am I not capable of spearheading a movement, I don't believe in movements. What I'm trying to do is encourage people to take the steps they need to take, in their communities and cities and towns."
In other words, Rushkoff doesn’t believe in the Left. He doesn’t believe in movements to change and remake society. Instead he argues for individuals to reconnect with others in their community. He argues for the individual to take responsibility for improving his own life and then taking the direct actions to do so. It’s hard to imagine any conservative objecting to that sentiment.