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Douglas Rushkoff’s “Life Inc.” Now in Paperback: Capitalism Yes, Corporations No

Posted on January 17 2011 6:00 pm
David Swindle is the Managing Editor of NewsReal Blog and the Associate Editor of FrontPage Magazine. Follow him on Twitter here

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Rushkoff goes way back to explain the origins of the corporation and how it came to dominate the capitalist system. He puts the date of birth of the organism at some point in the late middle ages. It was at that time that European monarchs were beginning to lose power. Individual communities of merchants and artisans were growing richer because they were actually creating value. Rushkoff cites this as a time of greater economic prosperity than is often depicted. It was an age when communities created so much value that they could afford to invest it in creating things like cathedrals.

The monarchs struck back, though, through the creation of chartered corporations like the Dutch East India Company and the Muscovy Company. The purpose of these companies was to have royally-sponsored monoplies extract value from wherever they went and bring it back to the monarchs.

It was in this context that the United States emerged. Unlike the Howard Zinn/Noam Chomsky school of understanding the founding, Rushkoff has nothing but praises for the founders. The thirteen colonies’ initial purpose was to extract value for the King of England. And the colonists got sick of their value that they worked for being taxed from them while they lived without representation. Thus one aspect of the American Idea was a revolt against corporatism. (And now isn’t history repeating itself as citizens thunder against their tax dollars going to “bail out” failing corporations?) And the founders aren’t the only conservative icons for whom Rushkoff has kind words. Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek are two other thinkers he praises.

The book is filled with so many examples of the corporatist mindset – some hilarious others depressing – that it’s difficult to choose ones to highlight.

Perhaps the most amusing one is the relationship between General Motors’s lobbying battle against environmentalists’ attempt to force a raise in fuel-efficiency standards and its current economic failure. Rushkoff reveals that in the fight over fuel standards, Toyota lobbied with GM despite the fact that the regulations wouldn’t affect them. They already made cars that far exceeded the proposed standards.  So why lobby against them? Rushkoff writes,

No, Toyota was lobbying to keep U.S. standards much lower than its own – and to keep GM uncommitted to competing on that score. While advertising its own commitment to energy efficiency, Toyota was actively lobbying to help the rest of the industry maintain worse fuel standards.

In other words Toyota was knowingly sabotaging GM – just helping the corporation tie the noose as it continued to commit economic suicide. Toyota knew that GM would just keep making the same old inefficient cars they were making until the company went bankrupt. And as today’s headlines reveal, they were right.

Another entertaining Rushkoff take-down is when he targets the New Age scheme The Secret:

The Secret is spirituality reconstituted for the “me” generation. As self-contained and utterly artificial as Birkdale Village, The Secret masquerades as a time-honored and diverse set of insights. And like the faux New Urbanist shopping mall, the underlying purpose of the Secret is to make money. Most of the spiritual teachers in The Secret are wealth-seminar leaders who display the book’s logo on their ads and websites.

The critiques conservatives are most likely to appreciate, though, are when Rushkoff demonstrates how the Left has become what it claims to be trying to destroy: a corporation. What good does it do to pay corporations tens of thousands of dollars to advertise on their TV stations? And what if some leftist group can help unveil enough corporate corruption to bring down some “evil” corporation? If the Left somehow helped topple Wal-Mart – dream on! – then Target and Meijer would just assume control. Heck, Target might even secretly fund their activism!

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