excerpt 3/4 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.
The benefits to society are pure mythology. Whether it's Brooklynites convinced they are promoting multiculturalism or corporations intent on extending the benefits of the free market to all the world's souls, neither activity leads to broader participation in the expansion of wealth - even when they're working as they're supposed to. Contrary to most economists' expectations, both local and global speculation only exacerbate wealth divisions. Wealthy parents send their kids to private schools and let the public ones decay, while wealthy nations export their environmental waste to the Third World or, better, simply keep their factories there to begin with - and keep their image at home as green as AstroTurf.
Somehow, thought, for many of us, that's not enough. We are fast approaching a societal norm where we - as nations, organizations, and individuals - engage in behaviors that are destructive to our own and everyone else's welfare. The only corporate violations worth punishing anymore are those against the shareholders. The "criminal mind" is now defined as anyone who breaks laws for a reason other than money. The status quo is selfishness, and the toxically wealthy are our new heroes because only they seem capable of fully insulating themselves from the effects of their own actions.
Every day, we negotiate the slope to the best of our ability. Still, we fail to measure up to the people we'd like to be, and succumb to the tilt of the landscape.
Jennifer has lived in the same town in central Minnesota her whole life. This year, diagnosed with a form of lupus, she began purchasing medication through Wal-Mart instead of through Marcus, her local druggist - who also happens to be her neighbor. Prescription drugs aren't on her health plan, and this is just an economic necessity.
Why can't the druggist cut his neighbor a break? He's trying, but he's selling at a mere hair above cost as it is. He just took out a loan against the business to make expenses and his increased rent. The downtown area he's located in has been slated for redevelopment, and only corporate chain stores appear to have deep enough pockets to pay for storefront leases. It sounded like a good idea when Marcus supported it at the public hearing - but the description in the pamphlet prepared by the real-estate developer (complete with a section on how to compete more effectively with "big box" stores like Wal-Mart) hasn't conformed to reality.
Marcus's landlord doesn't really have any choice in the matter. He underwent costly renovations to conform to the new downtown building code, and needs to pass those on to the businesses renting from him. He took out a mortgage, too, which is slated to reset in just a couple of months. If he doesn't collect higher rents, he won't make payments.
Jennifer stopped going to PTA meetings because she's embarrassed to look Marcus in the face. As their friendship declines, so does her guilt about helping put him out of business.
Across the country in New Jersey, Carla, a telephone associate for one of the top three HMO plans in the United States, talks to people like Jennifer every day. Carla is paid a salary as well as a monthly bonus based on the number of claims she can "retire" without payment. Without resorting to fraud, Carla is supposed to discourage false claims by making all claims harder to register, in general. That's how Carla's supervisor explained it to her when she asked, point-blank, if she was supposed to mislead customers. She feels bad about it, but Carla is now the principal breadwinner in her family, her husband having lost a lot of his contracting work to the stalled market for new homes. And, in the end, she is preventing fraud. How does Carla sleep at night, knowing that she has spent her day persuading people to pay for services for which they are actually covered? After seeing a commercial on TV, she switched from Ambien to Lunesta.
One of the guys working on that very ad campaign, and old co-worker of mine, ended up specializing in health-care advertising because nobody was hiring in the environmental area back in the '90s. Besides, he told me, only half kidding, "at least medical advertising puts the consumer in charge of her own health care." He's conflicted about pushing drugs on TV because he knows full well that these ads encourage patients to pressure doctors to write prescriptions that go against their better judgment. Still, Tom makes up for any compromise of his values at work with a staunch advocacy of good values at home. He recycles paper, glass, and metal, brought his kids to see An Inconvenient Truth, and even uses a compost heap in the backyard for household waste. Last year, though, he finally broke down and bought an SUV. Why? "Everybody else on the highway is driving them," he explained. "It's an automotive arms race." If he stayed in his Civic, he'd be putting them all at risk. "You see the way those people drive? I'm scared for my family." As penance, at least until gas prices went up, he began purchasing a few "carbon offsets" - a way of donating money to environmental companies in compensation for one's own excess carbon emissions.
In a similar balancing act, a self-described "holistic" parent in Manhattan spares her son the risks she associates with vaccinations for childhood diseases. "We still don't know what's in them," she says, "and if everyone else is vaccinated he won't catch these things, anyway." She understands that the vaccines required for incoming school pupils are really meant to quell epidemics; they are more for the health of the "herd" than for any individual child. She also believes that mandatory vaccinations are more a result of pharmaceutical industry lobbying than any comprehensive medical studies. In order to meet the "philosophical exemption" requirements demanded by the state, she managed to extract a letter from her rabbi. Meanwhile, in an unacknowledged quid pro quo, she installed a phone line in the rabbi's name in the basement of her town house; he uses the bill to falsify residence records and send his sons to the well-rated public elementary school in her high-rent district instead of the 90 percent minority school in his own. At least he can say he's kept them in "the public system."
Incapable of securing a legal or illegal zoning variance of this sort, a college friend of mine, now a state school administrator in Brighton, England, just made what he calls "the hardest decision of my life," to send his own kids to a private Catholic day school. He doesn't even particularly want his kids to be indoctrinated into Catholicism, but it's the only alternative to the eroding government school he can afford. He knows his withdrawal from public education only removes three more "good kids" and one potentially active parent from the system, but doesn't want his children to be "sacrificed on the altar" of his good intentions.
So it's not just a case of hip, hypergentrified Brooklynites succumbing to market psychology, but people of all social classes making choices that go against their better judgment because they believe it's really the only sensible way to act under the circumstances. It's as if the world itself were tilted, pushing us toward self-interested, short-term decisions, made more in the manner of corporate shareholders than members of a society. The more decisions we make in this way, the more we contribute to the very conditions leading to this awfully sloped landscape. In a dehumanizing and self-denying cycle, we make too many choices that - all things being equal - we'd prefer not to make.
But all things are not equal. These choices are not even occurring in the real world. They are the false choices of an artificial landscape - one in which our decision-making is as coerced as that of a person getting mugged. Only we've forgotten that our choices are being made under painstakingly manufactured duress. We think this is just the way things are. The price of doing business.
Since when is life determined by that axiom?
Unquestionably but seemingly inexplicably, we have come to operate in a world where the market and its logic have insinuated themselves into every area of our lives. From erection to conception, school admission to finding a spouse, there are products and professionals to fill in where family and community have failed us. Commercials entreat us to think and care for ourselves, but to do so by choosing a corporation through which to exercise this autonomy.
Sometimes it feels as if there's just not enough air in the room - as if there were a corporate agenda guiding all human activity. At a moment's notice, any dinner party can slide invisibly into a stock promotion, a networking event, or an impromptu consultation - let me pick your brain. Is this why I was invited in the first place? Through sponsored word-of-mouth known as "buzz marketing," our personal social interactions become the promotional opportunities through which brands strive to be cults and religions strive to become brands.
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