excerpt 4/4 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.
It goes deeper than that second Starbucks opening on the same town's Main Street or the radio ads for McDonald's playing through what used to be emergency speakers in our public school buses. It's not a matter of how early Christmas ads start each year, how many people get trampled at Black Friday sales, or even the news report blaming the fate of the entire economy on consumers' slow holiday spending. It's more a matter of not being able to tell the difference between the ads and the content at all. It's as if both were designed to be that way. The line between fiction and reality, friend and marketer, community and shopping center, has gotten blurred. Was that a news report, reality TV, or a sponsored segment?
This fundamental blurring of real life with its commercial counterpart is not a mere question of aesthetics, however much we may dislike mini-malls and superstores. It's more of a nagging sense that something has gone awry - something even more fundamentally wrong than the credit crisis and its aftermath - yet we're too immersed in its effects to do anything about it, or even to see it. We are deep in the thrall of a system that no one really likes, no one remembers asking for, yet no one can escape. It just is. And as it begins to collapse around us, we work to prop it up by any means necessary, so incapable are we of imagining an alternative. The minute it seems as if we can put our finger on what's happening to us or how it came to be this way, the insight disappears, drowned out by the more immediately pressing demands by everyone and everything on our attention. What did they just say? What does that mean for my retirement account? Wait - my phone is vibrating.
Can the hermetically sealed food court in which we now subsist even be beheld from within? Perhaps not in its totality - but its development can be chronicled, and its effects can be parsed and understood. Just as we once evolved from subjects into citizens, we have now devolved from citizens to consumers. Our communities have been reduced to affinity groups, and any vestige of civic engagement or neighborly goodwill has been replaced by self-interested goals manufactured for us by our corporations and their PR firms. We've surrendered true participation for the myth of consumer choice or, even more pathetically, that of shareholder rights.
That's why it has become fashionable, cathartic, and to some extent useful for the defenders of civil society to rail against the corporations that seem to have conquered our civilization. As searing new books and documentaries about the crimes of corporations show us, the corporation is itself a sociopathic entity, created for the purpose of generating wealth and expanding its reach by any means necessary. A corporation has no use for ethics, except for their potential impact on public relations and brand image. In fact, as many on the side of the environment, labor, and the Left like to point out, corporate managers can be sued for taking any action, however ethical, if it compromises their ultimate fiduciary responsibilities to share price.
As corporations gain ever more control over our economy, government, and culture, it is only natural for us to blame them for the helplessness we now feel over the direction of our personal and collective destinies. But it is both too easy and utterly futile to point the finger of blame at corporations or the robber barons at their helms - not even those handcuffed CEOs gracing the cover of the business section. Not even mortgage brokers, credit-card executives, or the Fed. This state of affairs isn't being entirely orchestrated from the top of a glass building by an elite group of bankers and businessmen, however much everyone would like to think so - themselves included. And while the growth of corporations and a preponderance of corporate activity have allowed them to permeate most every aspect of our awareness and activity, these entities are not solely responsible for the predicament in which we have found ourselves.
Rather, it is corporatism itself: a logic we have internalized into our very being, a lens through which we view the world around us, and an ethos with which we justify our behaviors. Making matters worse, we accept the dominance over us as preexisting - as a given circumstance of the human condition. It just is.
But it isn't.
Corporatism didn't evolve naturally. The landscape on which we are living - the operating system on which we are now running our social software - was invented by people, sold to us as a better way of life, supported by myths, and ultimately allowed to develop into a self-sustaining reality. It is a map that has replaced the territory.
Its basic laws were set in motion as far back as the Renaissance; it was accelerated by the Industrial Age; and it was sold to us as a better way of life by a determined generation of corporate leaders who believed they had our best interests at heart and who ultimately succeeded in their dream of controlling the masses from above. We have succumbed to an ideology that has the same intellectual underpinnings and assumptions about human nature as - dare we say it - mid-twentieth-century fascism. Given how the word has been misapplied to everyone from police officers to communists, we might best refrain from resorting to what has become a feature of cheap polemic. But in this case it's accurate, and that we're forced to dance around this "F word" today would certainly have pleased Goebbels greatly.
The current situation resembles the managed capitalism of Mussolini's Italy, in particular. It shares a common intellectual heritage (in disappointed progressives who want to order society on a scientific understanding of human nature), the same political alliance (the collaboration of the state and the corporate sector), and some of the same techniques for securing consent (through public relations and propaganda). Above all, it shares with fascism the same deep suspicion of free humans.
And, as with any absolutist narrative, calling attention to the inherent injustice and destructiveness of the system is understood as an attempt to undermine our collective welfare. The whistle-blower is worse than just a spoilsport; he is an enemy of the people.
Unlike Europe's fascist dictatorships, this state of affairs came about rather bloodlessly - at least on the domestic front. Indeed, the real lesson of the twentieth century is that the battle for total social control would be waged and won not through war and overt repression, but through culture and commerce. Instead of depending on a paternal dictator or nationalist ideology, today's system of control depends on a society fastidiously cultivated to see the corporation and its logic as central to its welfare, value, and very identity.
That's why it's no longer Big Brother who should frighten us - however much corporate lobbies still seek to vilify anything to do with government beyond their own bailouts. Sure, democracy may be the quaint artifact of an earlier era, but what has taken its place? Suspension of habeas corpus, surveillance of citizens, and the occasional repression of voting notwithstanding, this mess is not the fault of a particular administration or political party, but a culture, economy, and belief system that places market priorities above life itself. It's not the fault of a government or a corporation, the news media or the entertainment industry, but the merging of all these entities into a single, highly centralized authority with the ability to write laws, issue money, and promote its expansion into our world.
Then, in the last cynical surrender to the logic of corporatism, we assume the posture and behaviors of corporations in the hope of restoring our lost agency and security. But the vehicles to which we gain access this way are always just retail facsimiles of the real ones. Instead of becoming true landowners we become mortgage holders. Instead of guiding corporate activity we become shareholders. Instead of directing the shape of public discourse we pay to blog. We can't compete against corporations on a playing field that was created for their benefit alone.
This landscape of corporatism: a world not merely dominated by corporations, but one inhabited by people who have internalized corporate values as our own. And even now that corporations appear to be waning in their power, they are dragging us down with them; we seem utterly incapable of lifting ourselves out of their depression.
We need to understand how this happened - how we came to live for and through a business scheme. We must recount the story of how life itself became corporatized, and figure out what - if anything - we are to do about it.
While we will find characters to blame for one thing or another, most corporatism's architects have long since left the building - and even they were usually acting with only their immediate, short-term profits in mind. Our object instead should be to understand the process by which we were disconnected from the real world and why we remain disconnected from it. This is our best hope of regaining some relationship with terra firma again. Like recovering cult victims, we have less to gain from blaming our seducers than from understanding our own participation in building and maintaining corporatist society. Only then can we begin dismantling and replacing it with something more livable and sustainable.
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