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Life Inc., By Douglas Rushkoff
Friday 31 July 2009
When faced with windy laments of decline, you can always rely on British popular culture to worm its antic way into your brain. Throughout this overstated thesis in praise of bottom-up community against top-down capitalism, I kept seeing and hearing the frightening visages of the BBC's The League of Gentlemen: "We're local people... doing local things." Unfair, I know. But Douglas Rushkoff is so infuriatingly magisterial that you reach, with some desperation, for the nearest court jester.
It's the right moment to read long-view analyses of our commercialised society. Life Inc. is as fluent and well-researched as any of his books – but its target is too large, and too badly constructed to help us much. In a heaving rush of anti-modern sentiment, Rushkoff bundles together complex trends over the last half-millennium into a monolith called "corporatism".
For him, corporatism isn't just a form of commercial enterprise cooked up by 15th-century merchants and monarchs to standardise the varied social markets of the Middle Ages – an account he takes from the great French historians Ariès and Braudel. It's also a kind of permanent civilisational war, with abstraction, universalism and individualism versus the face-to-face, the local and the communitarian.
But like a CGI-generated robot with a faulty program, the monster's pieces just don't hold together. For one thing, not all universalised standards – a brand which Rushkoff sizzles into many hides, from the first central currencies to the latest "flashy" social network – are as implicitly "fascist" as he suggests. How about that brutal reduction of our oral traditions known as the printed book?
It's a format so standardised that it can convey the new verities of the village to audiences all round the world. Rushkoff deprecates the cultivation of interiority and subjective reflection in almost every realm except the one in which he plies his own trade.
So oppressive is the shadow of this corporate behemoth that the actual historical forces of resistance to capitalism and imperialism (more boring but more accurate terminologies) end up being downgraded or ignored. The Renaissance and Enlightenment are nailed for being a hand-maiden to domination by distant, centralising powers, with "clean, universal truths [keeping] people's attention and eyes upward, and off one another." This disconnection allows David Hume to support slavery and democrats to ignore the rights of women. But what about Romanticism, with its celebration of the organic and rooted, its passionate feminists and early ecologists casting off the "mind-forg'd manacles" of industrial society – and yet fuelled by all that nasty subjectivism?
Rushkoff's attitude to the labour movement as a corrective to the march of corporations is also, as he might say, kinda weird. He often bundles unions in with other "community-minded" groups whose hands-on sociability is swamped by a miasma of capitalist ruses – everything from housing regulations to self-help courses, never mind easy credit and ad-driven consumerism. But again, is this really a battle between local, face-to-face virtue and universal, faceless vice? Rushkoff undercuts his argument when he supports industry-wide collective bargaining. Yes, you could see it as part of the Sabbath tradition of holy days of rest – but it's also a continuing modern struggle conducted (at its best) in a supra-local way.
That Rushkoff is a sinner in repentance has been evident from his last few books. He turned spy on the marketing industry that initially feted him in Coercion, urged companies to eschew consultants in Get Back in the Box, even attempted to create his own open-source version of Judaism in Nothing Sacred. But there's something galling about a one-time evangelist of "Cyberia" who decides to wizz all over the current vibrancy of social media.
Yes, there is a battle of values going on between the copyright enclosures of the corporations and the frankly neo-communist behaviours of users, hackers and convivials. Californian internet platforms find themselves being used as tools for Iranian insurgents – their locality becoming our world responsibility, through the robustly universal protocols of the internet. In Rushkoff's Tolkien-esque, Mordor-like vision of corporatism, that shouldn't have been permitted.
At the beginning and the end, Rushkoff evokes what's wrong and right about the community values of his own upstate New York neighbourhood. With children and wife in tow, the writer has been moved to celebrate the immediate, the friendly, and the love-driven from the place where he lives and nurtures. No argument there. But such bucolics can't justify Rushkoff's gross misreading of the social structures of the 21st century. It's a disempowering account which makes you feel (wrongly) a deluded dupe for even trying to engage with current realities. To paraphrase our friends from Royston Vasey, "universal people doing universal things" have to be part of the progressive picture too.
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