Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Life, Inc. by Douglas Rushkoff

Life Inc.: How the World Became a Corporation and How to Take It BackWow, this book is depressing!  Which doesn't mean I didn't like it - although it was really, really depressing.  The subtitle is "How The World Became A Corporation... And How To Take It Back", but as for the taking it back part, the reader's first strategy might be curling into the fetal position, or maybe arranging for intravenous antidepressants.

The real problem here is that, unlike other polemics regarding the imminent downfall of our way of life, Rushkoff's doesn't go for a scapegoat.  It's not Dick Cheney's fault, or Henry Ford's, or the Trilateral Commission's, or the Jews' - it is the slow, unpredictable result of simple historical trends, building since the adoption of mercantilism and a central currency in the late Medieval Era.

Corporations have since evolved from a simple combine of business aims and state power (say, a charter granted by royalty to a company to found a new colony) to a legal fiction (a corporation granted the rights of a person during the Gilded Age) to a monolithic enterprise supporting thousands of Americans (IBM, GM, ADM) to a new-age "brand", attempting to control and manipulate all aspects of its consumers' lives through advertising.

Rushkoff delineates in great detail the interactions between business and the developing sciences of psychology, sociology, statistics, and demographics, in achieving the ultimate goal of answering all consumer needs, even the ones that don't exist until they have been programmed into the consumer.

Likewise, Rushkoff shows how suburbanism, technocracy, and self-absorbtion have combined to make each American an island devoid of spiritual or emotional support, whose only hope of happiness is the constant consumption of goods and services to stem the ever-present tide of fear and insecurity that floods the culture.

So, yes, not very fun.  The author does outline several interesting counter-movements looking to change the system - localities and small businesses successfully implementing their own controllable currency is a great example - but because the mess we're in is represented as a long-term historical evolution, rather than a recent outbreak of corruption or incompetence, the odds of being able to reform or amend the situation seem small.

Overall, one of the best, broadest, and fairest examinations of how Americans' acceptance of the corporate model has enabled their worst nightmares to come true, but definitely not for those easily discouraged.

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