Life Inc.: How the World Became a Corporation and How to Take it Back. Douglas Rushkoff. Random House. 304 pages.
BY RICHARD PACHTER
In a review of one of his earlier books a few years back, I referred to author Rushkoff as a Renaissance Man, though after reading this new one, he'd clearly be more at home in the latter part of the Middle Ages between the 11th and 13th centuries. According to him, that era was a more productive and people-friendly period, with many of the advancements attributed to the latter one actually occurring in this so-called First Renaissance.
This new one is an interesting and challenging book. Its primary theme is that corporations, which were originally devised to suppress competition and preserve the wealth and power of monarchies, have evolved to possess more rights than individuals and most governing authorities. Furthermore, the ''operating system'' behind the world's economies and monetary systems is antithetical to productivity and most other human values beside greed, avarice and (unenlightened) self-interest. Rather, says Rushkoff, through manipulation of markets, resources, production and labor, the world's ascendant corporate interests have diminished humanity. What we're largely left with is artificial scarcity, perpetual debt and an empty allegiance to the slogans and logos of the oppressors.
Rushkoff writes: 'There are two economies — the real economy of groceries, day care and paychecks, and the speculative economy of assets, commodities and derivatives. What forecasters refer to as `the economy' today isn't the real one; it's entirely virtual. It's a speculative marketplace that has very little to do with getting real things to the people who need them, and much more to do with providing ways for passive investors to increase their capital. This economy of markets — first created to give the rising merchant class in the late Middle Ages a way to invest their winnings — is not based on work or even the injection of capital into new enterprises. It's based instead on 'making markets' in things that are scarce — or more accurately, things that can be made scarce, like land, food, coal, oil and even money itself.''
Though eschewing the tone of a manifesto or screed, the narrative is a tour de force survey of the economic history of the modern world. A less elegant and gifted writer might have produced a dour and plodding polemic against materialism and our consumerist culture, but Rushkoff's prose is a pleasure to read. He's clearly lecturing, but his seasoned teaching chops result in a painlessly enlightening and consciousness-raising experience. You may not agree with all of his conclusions, but it's a fascinating view and one that's rarely presented with such élan.
Rushkoff's not a socialist or communist, to be sure, though he's clearly opposed to corporatism, or as it's also known, ''fascism.'' He questions and exposes many of the things that are taken for granted, such as home ownership, which he exposes as a means to tie workers to their labor by giving them a tiny stake, albeit one with enormous debt attached to it. But for all his slow-boiling outrage, Rushkoff's proposed remedies are modest and local, as befitting a near-impossible endeavor dedicated to chipping away at the foundations of civilization.
Originally published in The Miami Herald