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Life, Inc: Tripping the Corporatism Fantastic with Douglas Rushkoff

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Message Carola Von Hoffmannstahl
Spoiler alert for the last few folks who take Alan Greenspan seriously-- don't read chapter two of Douglas Rushkoff's new book Life, Inc. The scene where Greenspan addresses attendees of the 2008 Wealth Expo in New York City via satellite is pure twisted comedy. The Expo, a yearly wing ding of wishful thinking and pyramid scheming organized by NYC's Learning Annex, was held at the Jacob Javits Center. Despite the housing bubble's demise real estate was being served. Speakers who appeared in the flesh included Than Merrill of A&E's Flip This House and Donald Trump. Also on hand: busty babes in tight tank tops doing a “money dance” to a song with the refrain “Oh Oh I want a pie in the sky!”

The lyrics weren't a satirical dig at the audience's aspirations, they were meant to be inspirational.

Many in the audience had lost investment properties and homes to foreclosure, but hoped to get back on the horse. In order to learn the secrets of sky pie they over-extended their credit yet again to buy pricey “wealth system” info packs peddled by financial gurus such as Than Merrill and Barron's. Hey-- no risk involved. The packs could be profitably flipped to other wealth seekers who didn't attend the Expo and had missed out on the special Expo-only prices. Attendees also got to chow down at a special auction of distressed and/or foreclosed real estate. Held in a windowless room so as to lock out distraction. From his place in space former Fed head Alan Greenspan answered tough economic questions put to him by a soap opera star. Real estate was “unquestionably” one of the best investments “over the long run”. Even if we are going through a “testing period”. Greenspan also suggested-- albeit with a laugh-- that the audience invest in his book, The Age of Turbulence.

When reading the account of the Expo I had to put Life, Inc. down and check the cover. Had Random House sent me an advance copy of the wrong book? Was this Bonfire of the Vanities Redux? Or had Mark Twain or Jim Thompson risen from the dead to re-skewer American grift? Nope. There was the short sweet title Life, Inc. Followed by--

How the World Became a Corporation and How To Take It Back

Life, Inc. contains many passages that can be appreciated as black comedy (see the section on The Secret, the best selling self-help system that raises solipsism to new heights) but it's not all fun and games. Life, Inc. is a relatively small book (244 pages in advance copy) on a very large topic: how and why we've devolved into consumers, rather than citizens, in a society dominated by what Rushkoff calls “corporatism”. In the process becoming divorced from ourselves and others, internalizing corporate values and applying them to our relationships and communities. Seeing life through shareholder eyes.

The introduction to Life, Inc. opens with an anecdote by Douglas Rushkoff about being mugged at gunpoint several years ago in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Park Slope. Thinking to alert his neighbors Rushkoff posted news of the mugging on a local Internet list. Instead of receiving thanks for the heads-up, he got angry missives about naming the street where the mugging took place and the potential impact on property values. Those who responded angrily weren't real estate suits. As Rushkoff puts it, he posted the warning to a “crunchy Internet community of Moms, food co-op members, and other lefty types dedicated to...their decidedly progressive, gentrifying neighborhood.”

The mentality described in Rushkoff's intro is oh so familiar. In my years of city living I often saw gentrifiers sweep crime under the rug. Pressuring local papers to drop police blotter and court docket coverage, leave out street names in crime reportage, and not run crime stories on Sunday. (Aka real estate section day.) By censoring crime info they endangered their neighbors, lured naive buyers into war zones, and helped keep incompetent and/or corrupt pols and cops on the job. Concern for property values trumped concern for public safety as well as the long term benefit of reducing crime by facing it squarely. Which is why I don't believe homeownership inevitably brings stability to urban neighborhoods. (Another reason is the seemingly intractable prevalence of taxpayer-supported mortgage fraud.) The model for this theory of homeownership predates the era of unreal real estate.

Much has been written about the housing bubble and Wall Street and Washington's role in pumping it. But few have nailed how abstract and fantastical the housing market, mortgage lending, and mortgage- derived investment became as vividly as Rushkoff does in the chapter of Life, Inc. titled The Ownership Society: Real Estate and the Disconnect from Home. The depiction of the chimeric daze when home sweet home morphed into mind money evokes Kubla Khan: “It was a miracle of rare device/A sunny pleasure dome with caves of ice”.

At times, Rushkoff strikes notes reminiscent of social critics such as Christopher Lasch and James Howard Kunstler. Like Lasch, Ruskoff perceives the corrosive effect of consumer society solipsism on community. The Kunstler resonances are less effective. Like Kunstler, Rushkoff socially stereotypes suburbia as a desolate landscape of isolated family units, with each member alienated from the other, locked in gas guzzling SUVs, shuttling endlessly between sterile McMansions and soul crushing mega malls. The falseness of the cliché undercuts Rushkoff's credibility when he argues that suburban form follows corporate function. He also has a tendency to make sweeping generalizations, ascribing conscious, almost one-mind intent to negative events generated by huge numbers of people acting independently. Life, Inc., which at heart is a critique of dehumanization, too often dehumanizes. Depicting people as Gumbys trapped in a corporate imposed consciousness we may be incapable of recognizing from within. However, Rushkoff has managed to recognize it. When he writes “we” he means “thee”.

That being said, Life, Inc. is a visionary work powered by moral passion and resting on solid historical research. The sections delineating how corporations came to exist and develop a hand in glove relationship with political power are particularly illuminating as our here-and-now government slouches toward oligarchy. And Life, Inc. is not just a jeremiad; Rushkoff has a plan. Put on the new man-- and woman. Think local, trade local. Eat food produced locally. Maybe even establish a local currency. Gouge out your shareholder eyes (figuratively speaking) and get down with your real community self. Stop looking for succor from politicians and big business. Grants be damned! Support your local artist.

Incidentally, do I believe the premise that corporatism has worked a fundamental change on our very being? Nope. But then, I'm a Catholic who believes in fallen nature. I figure the devil is always up to date and from age to age works with whatever we give him.

Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff
Mondo QT

Life, Inc. by Douglas Rushkoff and published by Random House is on sale now. You can also visit Douglas Rushkoff at http://rushkoff.com/

Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff

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After several years of NYC go-go dancing and wacky radical fun (including a trip to the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago) Carola Von H. became a No Wave band leader and Mail Artist. Picking up change as a free lance writer. Her pen ranged (more...)
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