Friday, June 22, 2012

Life Inc.

Life Inc.
by Douglas Rushkoff
Published in 2009
Published by Random House
ISBN: 978-0-8129-7850-6

I pretty much agree with Douglas Rushkoff's Life Inc.  Yet I'm conflicted about it. Maybe unfairly so.

On the one hand, I'm sympathetic towards the worldview that he's expounding. His chief message is that the methods and madness of corporations -- which exist in order to maximize their economic value -- have insidiously seeped into our lives and ways of thinking. The ideology of corporatism has devalued us as human beings, changed us from citizens into consumers, and wrecked our notion of community -- largely without our noticing that such an ideology even exists, or that this is anything other than the natural order of things, or that we could shed this ideology without necessarily reverting back to pre-industrial times.

But on the other hand, I get suspicious whenever someone takes history and turns it into a narrative to back up one's views. Rushkoff uses a large portion of the book doing this as he describes how corporations were originally created to funnel wealth towards the already wealthy. This automatically sets off warning sirens and klaxons in my mind. Ever since I realized that a 'big-picture' historical narrative could be correct in every historical fact, and yet still be absolute rubbish, I've been awfully reluctant to read much into one, no matter how artfully it's constructed.

Rushkoff's view is that the ideology of corporatism has its origins in the Italian Renaissance. From the extremely contrarian way he describes the Renaissance, you would assume it to be one of the great misfortunes to have ever befallen the human race, one from which all of our current troubles can be traced in one way or another.

Now, he does this in order to make some interesting points. Rushkoff argues that our image of medieval Europe as a horrible place full of squalor and hardship is largely a misconception, shaped by the 14th and 15th centuries, which really were terrible times to be an ordinary person in Europe. But there is ample evidence that the 12th and 13th centuries were far more pleasant, a time when local economies prospered without being dependent on faraway economic centers of authority. This was the time of the great cathedrals, which were grassroots building projects financed by the townspeople rather than by any pope or emperor. He makes the astounding claim that Europeans from this era were generally healthier than at any other time in history, and if modern Europeans are taller that's largely because of hormones in the food, not better nutrition.

He has two reasons for setting our traditional understanding of history on its head. Not only is he damning the events of the 14th and 15th centuries, which gave rise to centralized economic control and the rise of corporations, but he also wants to describe finance as it was understood during the heyday of late medieval Europe. The heavy, centrally minted gold and silver coins from our modern stereotype of old-style money did indeed exist, but they were used more for long-distance trading and affairs of state than for modest local transactions. For these, people used light silver coins called brakteaten (Wikipedia spells it bracteate) which couldn't be hoarded, because they steadily lost value. They were invested back into the local economy quickly. Building cathedrals was a prudent financial decision for prosperous communities, because cathedrals would bring in religious tourists for centuries to come.

This is why Rushkoff speaks approvingly of the many local currencies that have begun popping up in the last few years. These currencies can only be spent within the local community and depreciate with time. I've never been in a position where I could use a local currency, but the concept intrigues me.

Rushkoff's book is much more than just a treatise on medieval currency and what it has to teach us, and my distrust of 'big history' when it's told to promote a particular point of view can't color my impressions of the entire book. He presents the problem of all-pervading corporatist ideology as one which does not fit neatly into a traditional left vs. right political axis, and finishes the book (in the 2011 edition) with suggestions for what ordinary people can do and organizations which are helping people to transcend an excessively corporation-driven lifestyle -- and not by escaping into hippie communes.

And as much as I rolled my eyes at his blatant creation of a narrative, I do believe he's basically right about the big picture.

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