excerpt 2/4 from
How The World Became A Corporation
And How To Take It Back
by Douglas Rushkoff
Copyright (c) 2009 by Douglas Rushkoff. Published in the United States by Random House, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.
In such a climate, calling attention to any of this was the real crime, and the reason that the first reaction of those participating in a speculative bubble was to silence the messenger. It’s just business. The reality was that we were pushing an increasingly hostile population from their homes, colonizing their neighborhoods, and then justifying it all with metrics such as increased business activity, reduced (reported) crime rates, and – most important – higher real-estate prices. How can one argue against making a neighborhood, well, better?
As my writer friend eloquently explained on his blog, the neighborhood was now, by most measures, safer. It was once again possible to sit on one’s stoop with the kids and eat frozen Italian ices on a balmy summer night. One could walk through Prospect Park Sunday afternoon and see a black family barbecuing here, a Puerto Rican group there, and an Irish group over there. Compared with most parts of the world, that’s pretty civil, no?
Romantic as it sounds, that’s not integration at all, but co-location. Epcot-style détente. The Brooklyn being described here has almost nothing to do with the one our grandparents might have inhabited. It is rather an expensive and painstakingly re-created simulation of a “brownstone Brooklyn” that never actually existed. If people once sat on their stoops eating ices on summer nights it was because they had no other choice – there was no air-conditioning and no TV. Everyone could afford to sit around, so everyone did. And the fact that the denizens of neighboring communities complete the illusion of multi-culturalism by using the same park only means that these folks are willing to barbecue next to each other – not with each other. They all still go home to different corners of the borough. My writer friend’s kids go off the next morning to their private school, those other kids to public. Not exactly neighbors.
Besides, the rows of brownstones in the Slope aren’t really made of brown stone. They’ve been covered with a substance more akin to stucco – a thick paint used to create the illusion of brown stones set atop one another. A façade’s façade. As any brownstone owner soon learns, the underlying cinder blocks can be hidden for only so long before a costly “renovation” must be undertaken to cover them up again. Likewise, wealth, media, and metrics can insulate colonizers from the reality of their situation for only so long. Eventually, parents who push their toddlers around in thousand-dollar strollers, whose lifestyles and values have been reinforced by a multibillion-dollar industry dedicated to hip child-rearing, get pelted with stones by kids from the “projects.” (Rest assured – the person who reported this recurring episode at a gentrified Brooklyn playground met with his share of online derision, as well.)
Like Californians surprised when a wildfire or coyote disrupts the “natural” lifestyle they imagined they’d enjoy out in the country, we “pioneer,” “colonize,” and “gentrify” at our peril, utterly oblivious to the social costs of our expansion until one comes back to bite us in the ass – or mug us on the stoop. And while it’s easy to blame the larger institutions and social trends leading us into these traps, our own choices and behaviors – however influenced – are ultimately responsible for whatever befalls us.
Park Slope, Brooklyn, is just a microcosm of the slippery slope upon which so many of us are finding ourselves these days. We live in a landscape tilted toward a set of behaviors and a way of making choices that go against our own better judgment, as well as our collective self-interest. Instead of collaborating with each other to ensure the best prospects for us all, we pursue short-term advangages over seemingly fixed resources through which we can compete more effectively against one another. In short, instead of acting like people, we act like corporations. When faced with a local mugging, the community of Park Slope first thought to protect its brand instead of its people.
The financial meltdown may not be punishment for our sins, but it is at least in part the result of our widespread obsession with financial value over values of any other sort. We disconnected ourselves from what matters to us, and grew dependent on a business scheme that was never intended to serve us as people. But by adopting the ethos of this speculative, abstract economic model as our own, we have disabled the mechanisms through which we might address and correct the collapse of the real economy operating alongside it.
Even now, as we attempt to dig ourselves out of a financial mess caused in large part by this very mentality and behavior, we turn to the corporate sphere, its central banks, and shortsighted metrics to gauge our progress back to health. It’s as if we believe we’ll find the answer in the stream of trades and futures on one of the cable-TV finance channels instead of out in the physical world. Our real investment in the fabric of our neighborhoods and our quality of life takes a backseat to asking prices for houses like our own in the newspaper’s misnamed “real estate” section. We look to the Dow Jones average as if it were the one true vital sign of our society’s health, and the exchange rate of our currency as a measure of our wealth as a nation or worth as a people.
This, in turn, only distracts us further from the real-world ideas and activities through which we might actually re-create some value ourselves. Instead of fixing the problem, and reclaiming our ability to generate wealth directly with one another, we seek to prop up institutions whose very purpose remains to usurp this ability from us. We try to repair our economy by bolstering the same institutions that sapped it. In the very best years, corporatism worked by extracting value from the periphery and redirecting it to the center – away from people and toward corporate monopolies. Now, even though that wellspring of prosperity has run dry, we continue to dig deeper into the ground for resources to keep the errant system running.
So as our corporations crumble, taking our jobs with them, we bail them out to preserve our prospects for employment – knowing full well that their business models are unsustainable. As banks’ credit schemes fail, we authorize our treasuries to print more money on their behalf, at our own expense and that of our children. We then get to borrow this money back from them, at interest. We know of no other way. Having for too long outsourced our own savings and investing to Wall Street, we are clueless about how to invest in the real world of people and things. We identify with the plight of abstract corporations more than that of flesh-and-blood human beings. We engage with corporations as role models and saviors, while we engage with our fellow humans as competitors to be beaten or resources to be exploited.
Indeed, the now-stalled gentrification of Brooklyn had a good deal in common with colonial exploitation. Of course, the whole thing was done with more circumspection, with more tact. The borough’s gentrifiers steered away from explicitly racist justifications for their actions, but nevertheless demonstrated the colonizer’s underlying agenda: instead of “chartered corporations” pioneering and subjugating an uncharted region of the world, it was hipsters, entrepreneurs, and real-estate speculators subjugating an undesirable neighborhood. The local economy – at least as measured in gross product – boomed, but the indigenous population simply became servants (grocery cashiers and nannies) to the new residents.
And like the expansion of colonial empires, this pursuit of home ownership was perpetuated by a pioneer spirit of progress and personal freedom. The ideal of home ownership was the fruit of a public-relations strategy crafted after World War II - corporate and government leaders alike believed that home owners would have more of a stake in an expanding economy and greater allegiance to free-market values than renters. Functionally, though, it led to a self-perpetuating cycle: The more that wealthier white people retreated to the enclaves prepared for them, the poorer the areas they were leaving became, and the more justified they felt in leaving. While the first real wave of "white flight" was from the cities to the suburbs, the more recent, camouflaged version has been from the suburbs back into the expensive cities.
Of course, these upper-middle-class migrants were themselves the targets of the mortgage industry, whose clever lending instruments mirror World Bank policies for their exploitative potential. The World Bank's loans come with "open markets" policies attached that ultimately surrender indebted nations and their resources to the control of distant corporations. The mortgage banker, likewise, kindly provides instruments that get a person into a home, then disappears when the rates rise through the roof, having packaged and sold off the borrower's ballooning obligation to the highest bidder.
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