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Are People Becoming Corporations? - An Interview with Douglas Rushkoff

Have people internalized corporatism?

“With any luck, the economy will never recover,” Douglas Rushkoff wrote in a March column for Arthur magazine.

Let’s be clear: Rushkoff isn’t advocating permanent financial misery for the masses. He’s not even addressing the daily commerce millions of individuals engage in every day. Rather, his beef is with big institutions—the mega-corporations, the investment banks, the federal government. Those institutions, he says, traffic in abstract financial products, encourage speculation, peddle the myth that home and stock values will always increase—and now advocate that America’s path to economic salvation is simply more of the same products and policies.

He believes basic commerce is good. “It’s the way people create and exchange value,” writes Rushkoff in his new book, Life Inc.: How the World Became a Corporation and How to Take It Back. “Corporatism is something else entirely.”

Corporations were created during the Renaissance, he explains, to let monarchs and other aristocrats invest in, and thus reap some of the profits, from the merchant classes, who were quickly outpacing the rulers in wealth and capital. The purpose of corporations from the beginning was to suppress interactions between individuals in a community, or small businesses, and instead deliver profits to investors.

Flash forward to today, and we see the same thing, only magnified, he says. Companies are not satisfied with merely creating and sustaining a good business, but instead must constantly “grow”—even if this growth means exploiting cheap labor and materials overseas, or putting local competitors out of business—in order to create more value for shareholders. This is corporatism.

What’s worse, according to Rushkoff, we have all internalized it. We aren’t satisfied with our homes being shelter for our families; we want them to be assets that constantly appreciate in value. We aren’t content just to make a living; we invest—in stocks, in self-help gurus, in get-rich-quick schemes—and hope to constantly move up the consumerism ladder. We are so disconnected from the production of most of our food and goods that we rely on corporate advertising to tell us what we want and need. And we are so disconnected from our communities, and from one another, that we’ve adopted a highly individualistic, selfish approach to decision making.

It is time, the 48-year-old author, academic and filmmaker believes, for people to reconnect with their communities—to create and purchase things locally, to find ways to cooperate, transact and share with one another. We can recognize, Rushkoff believes, what has been spoon-fed to us and choose to opt out. Here, he explains to AARP Bulletin Today some of his ideas and solutions.

Q. Why did you write the book at this time?

A. I actually chose to start writing it when no one around me believed that home value prices were inflated; when no one wanted to believe me that the stock market didn’t always go up. I wanted to try and call people’s attention to the fact that perhaps their money wasn’t really safe where they were putting it.

Q. What do inflated home prices and stocks have to do with corporatism?

A. The most interesting thing about the construction of your question is that homes and stocks are basically equivalent. Homes are places we live—or used to be. Now, they are primarily real estate assets. Likewise, stocks used to be shares of working companies. Now, they are really just debt. My book is largely about how we disconnected from the real world and began to relate to derivatives instead. Real estate is not property, and property is not place. Stocks are not corporations, and corporations are not people.

Q. You wanted to look at how human beings have absorbed the logic of corporatism. How do people act like corporations?

A. If you think of your home as property, rather than a place, and your community as a brand, rather than people, then you have decided to take a businessman’s approach. If you become a selfish individual, trying to extract value out of every person you meet, then you are a corporation. That is the logic of corporatism: Instead of creating value with others, you extract value from others, in a zero-sum game.

Q. Can you give me an example?

A. One good example is that women are being hired by Procter & Gamble to talk about Procter & Gamble products. The women never tell their friends they are working for the company, only that they love Mr. Clean Magic Eraser, or whatever product they’re pitching.

Another example might be people who are being taught by the Learning Annex how to recognize when one of their friends is near default—divorce, illness, job loss—and then how to exploit this knowledge to be the first one there to buy their real estate when it is going into foreclosure.

When we live in a world that functions like a corporation, we tend to measure success by corporate metrics. We tend to treat the people and things in our lives as assets to be exploited.

Q. You blame part of this on the rise of individualism and personal freedom. On the surface, this seems counterintuitive—when people think corporatism, they think conformity, the “man in the gray flannel suit.”

A. It started back in the Renaissance, when we birthed the notion of the individual, a single person acting alone. And the notion of the individual that came through the Renaissance—this notion of the individual as sort of the unit of humanity that we focus on—is a highly selfish construct. Once you’re thinking of yourself as an individual in competition with all these other individuals, then the guiding rule of humanity becomes self-interest.

Q. How has corporate marketing played into this notion?

A. This whole “you’re the one,” “you deserve a break today,” “you’re an individual, you deserve your Botox”—it’s the way you talk to a child, it’s the way you talk to a little brat, not a thinking, adult human being. But it fosters more consumption, because people are just trying to fill themselves with stuff—or with food.

Q. And you blame the corporations for this?

A. You can’t blame corporations themselves, because corporations aren’t alive. They’re not conscious. It’s like blaming a computer program for how much time you spend on the Internet. So I blame us for buying their logic—for accepting the false premise. And in some cases, I don’t blame us at all. It’s just that when you live in a world that was built to support the market, that was built to support consumption, it’s only natural that we ended up being consumers.

Q. You had your own brush with the culture of risky mortgages and home ownership at all costs, yes?

A. I don’t know if I was caught up in the idea of having an asset that was going to go up as much as I just wanted to find a stable place where my family could live. Brooklyn had gotten really expensive, but if I put three or four hundred thousand dollars down, and borrowed $900,000 to a million … And even though I wouldn’t give myself a loan at that amount, there were banks more than ready to do it. The banks said, “We can get you in. Look, everybody’s in this position, so five years down the line the bank can’t raise your rates, because no one would be able to pay it back and the banks couldn’t foreclose on everybody.” And then I had friends saying, “Doug, you’ve got to man up. This is what growing up is, taking on that responsibility and that debt and then working hard enough to pay it back.”

Luckily, that’s ending. It’s kind of run its course—we’ve discovered that debt is not a good product. And that’s really returning us to values that our elders had.

Q. What sorts of values?

A. People who became adults in the 1950s, or before, very often have more of a connection to an actual ability than people who became adults after that. Most of us who became adults in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s have no actual skills. We don’t know how to garden, how to build things; we don’t know how to use a hammer and nails. We don’t understand stain and shellac; we can’t bake or cook or fabricate things or work with leather. We don’t know how to do anything.

Q. How did we get so disconnected?

A. Over time, it became more efficient for companies to prevent their workers from knowing how to do anything advanced. This way, each employee was replaceable with just 15 minutes of training. Meanwhile, markets did better when people didn’t do things for themselves or one another. The less we do—the less gardening, fixing, or anything else—the more dependent we are on corporations to do these things for us.

Q: And that, you write, has also extended into our homes?

The housing policies of the 1950s supported building houses that were too small for extended families to live in, because if Americans took in their older relatives and supported them, then there’s much less market activity. If you can’t take in your grandparents, there’s more economic activity. And then the grandparents began having to depend on money, and retirement savings, instead of on their family. And now grandparents feel that moving in with their kids would be somehow a burden, instead of an asset to the whole family.

When I was growing up, we didn’t take in my grandparents, but they were close enough that they were in our face—in ways that I’m sure bugged our parents, but it made our family feel like something other than what families are like today. If I’d gotten married earlier and had kids earlier, I could have had my mom move in when she was still really useful. If kids looked at it that way—if you’d get your parents in with you when they’re in their 60s—they’re going to help you. You’re not just stuck in four walls with the four nuclear-family people who will drive you crazy. You get the extended family.

Today it’s so hard to break [nuclear-family-only living] when your neighborhood promotes that, when TV promotes that, your mortgage promotes that and the market promotes that.

Q. You wrote a little bit in Life, Inc.about the bank bailouts, how instead of using this recession as a chance for real change, the government is propping up the same institutions that got us into this mess in the first place.

A. Government certainly is taking the central approach, whereas I was hoping a guy like Obama would use his community organizing to do a little bit more of a local approach. That would go further than a GM bailout. Invest in mass transit, for example. We wouldn’t even have to lose the manufacturing base, we’d just be manufacturing something else. The thing that concerns me is we create a fake recovery that lulls people into complacency, and then we get hit even harder in three or four years.

Q. So what can you or I do?

A. You can start living real life. How much would it really cost you to take in your parents, rather than putting them in a managed care facility? To try to make your public school better, versus sending your kids to private school? Looking at your neighbors, your friends, who don’t have jobs, and rather than trying to get a corporation to move into your town, looking at what you can do to help. This is really basic, Depression-era reclamation activity.

On a certain level, even when macro-level economic activity and indicators are so very bad, it doesn’t mean that we as individuals and communities are enslaved by that. Not if we transact with one another instead. If I’m going to make shoes for you, it doesn’t matter what the dollar is trading at. That’s where local currencies and other local exchange situations come in handy. Pretty much anything we need we can get locally.

Elizabeth Nolan Brown is an assistant editor and Web content manager for AARP Bulletin Today.