Exclusive: All the World’s a Corporation… But It Doesn’t Have to Be

Our friend Douglas Rushkoff‘s new book Life Inc. is about how corporations have come to dominate all aspects of our lives (it goes back to the Renaissance, folks) and what we can realistically do to even the playing field. After the jump, he talks with Flavorpill about how to settle a neighborhood without destroying it, what you can do to regain control over corporatism, why there’s no such thing as a “cultural consumer.”

Flavorpill: In your introduction, you make some good points about the side effects of the gentrification of Brooklyn. You also point out that artists are usually the first people to move in to these communities because of the low rents. Most artists are poor. What are they supposed to do?

Douglas Rushkoff: You mean, should artists see themselves as an advance guard of inevitable further gentrification, and refrain from moving to low-rent neighborhoods? I’d have to say no. I mean, what artist has time, money, or energy to worry about their effect on a neighborhood? Most real artists are just trying to stay alive without totally selling out.

But I think artists can “settle” neighborhoods in ways that are less destructive than seems to happen now. By engaging with an existing community rather than insulating themselves from it, by taking longer term leases rather than just passing through, by supporting local businesses (where they exist) and supporting local schools rather than exporting kids to other districts. That’s a start.  

The real problem is that the current urban populations are renters. Once the artists improve the apparent quality of life (or simply make the place more hip) the rents go up, displacing those who live there. Resistance may not be futile, but it’s pretty hard.

And when the artists are really parent-supported college kids getting their first studio apartment as a gift, you end up with something more like the worst features of Williamsburg than the best parts of, say, Bushwick.

But the easy rule would be that as you do make more money, invest in the neighborhood itself rather than insulating yourself from the neighborhood. The distinction seems subtle at first, but then quite real.

FP: You grew up in Queens and you only recently moved out of New York City. Is there any location in America (or the world) where you think people have a better chance of fighting corporatism in their daily lives? Or is this problem bigger than geography?

DR: Well, it’s definitely bigger than geography because we are bigger than geography. There’s too many people for us to all exist in a small-town, agrarian life. The cities we live in would not be possible without commerce, industry, and manufacturing on a scale that only large corporations can support. In many senses, the city is a result of corporatism: the centralization of commerce and banking, the enclosure of farm lands and exile of former peasant farmers. People had to go into the towns to get work, and then the towns got larger.

It’s definitely easier to “disincorporate” if you have some connection to the land. Growing food is half the battle. Or at least being somehow connected to the chain of supply. Making energy (ideally solar) is next. And then you’re pretty much okay. Sell some of the extra food and you have money for taxes, public school, and the stuff you can’t make or trade for. It’s easy.

But not all of us can live that way, anymore. We don’t have enough land to spread ourselves out. A great number us do and will continue to depend on Big Agra, trucking, sewage treatment plants and long distance water supplies. And in those cases, it’s more a matter of starting small. Looking at where and how your food is sourced, considering whether to buy locally rather than through giant chains, supporting public school, looking at alternatives to driving. Each little step ends up creating many more opportunities. Just starting is the only thing a person needs to do. The rest is quite fractal.

FP: Many people complain that all of  New York City looks like a shopping mall these days — not just Times Square. But we’re told over and over again that things are safer now. Is that just the government/media pushing an agenda?

DR: I think we need to distinguish the aesthetic argument from the socio-economic one. Many people dislike Times Square and its extensions because they’re a Las-Vegas-like strip of the most vapid, mainstream media tourist-centric plastic consumer culture. And while it’s fair to dislike it for these reasons, the argument doesn’t get any traction because it’s based on aesthetics and maybe some underlying, unarticulated sense of dis-ease.

When you look beneath the surface, you see that the method being used to weed out pornographers or undesirable businesses also weeds out pretty much any small business. Zoning and taxes favor the mega-corporations, who are the only ones who can meet the requirements — not just for signage and construction, but leases and financing. So we end up with a monoculture as cultivated as that in a shopping mall. The city becomes a series of storefront/landmark/advertisements for distant conglomerates.

Now, you have to accept that on a certain level fascism leads to safer streets. And the more scared people can be made of one another and their world, the more likely they are to accept fascism as the answer to their problems. Particularly if they can hold their noses and just celebrate the beauty and brilliance that is The Little Mermaid.

But the construction that is so false is this one:

Fascism is safe
Safety is good
Therefore fascism is good.

That’s not really true. Death is safe, too, and it’s not really good.

FP: So many American heroes — Henry Ford, Robert Moses, even Abe Lincoln — are revealed in your book as corporatists. Is there a way for us to make a shift as a society when our mythology is so entrenched in these ideals? And if so, who can we look to as role models?

DR: Well, I don’t know that we can do it with role models. Because role models end up so easily co-opted by one side or another. I mean, Adam Smith is a role model for corporatists, even though he despised what we would today call a corporate conglomerate or centralized corporation. Once you use a role model — particularly some dead mythic one — you have disconnected yourself from the real world, the immediate challenges, and your own best sense of what works and what doesn’t. While we can model the strategies employed by one person or another, we really must dispense with the role model, which may as well be a spokesmodel at this point — wearing GAP jeans or using an Apple computer.

I think we have to use one another as role models, instead. The whole celebration of the individual as hero is a Renaissance ideal, anyway, invented along with most other dislocating institutions as we replaced collaboration with competition.

FP: Do you ever feel like a brand or inadvertently “brand” yourself?

DR: Not really. I find other people doing it — labeling me a Marxist or button-holing me as a cyber-guru. I get really uncomfortable with that kind of thing, and have since I was a very young child. It’s more a psychological thing for me, most likely, than a truly thought-out idealism, though. I just hate when people relate to some fixed idea of me rather than me.

But my refusal or inability to brand myself has really cost me a lot in terms of who and how many people I reach. I was just at Seth Godin’s house the other day — and he sells more copies of each one of his books than I’ve sold altogether, my entire life. By a factor of ten, I’m sure. And he was drawing this little chart on the wall, showing me how I end up preventing wealthy people from turning my books into bestsellers. And I could see that he was right — that I don’t make it clear how the ideas in my books could actually help them make more money or run smarter businesses. But I have an internal block to reaching out in that direction. I suppose I could do it as some kind of bait and switch, but I fear that my real audience would misinterpret it entirely.

FP: You had an interesting line in the book about the Internet becoming an adjunct to the media market rather than its competitor. How would you imagine that working?

DR: You know, I can’t remember the line but it sounds true enough. A lot of it has to do with what we see as the product here. What’s abundant and what is scarce? When there’s forty news vans parked outside Britney’s house, it means there’s a supply glut. I think we could very accurately and dimensionally cover Britney with just three or four reporters dedicating their lives to the way she enters or exits her home.

The Internet gives us a way to spread out news coverage a bit, and absorb some of the over-supply of people wanting to write and report it. They can go micro-local, or even micro-interest — and thanks to the non-local quality of the Internet, reach people around the world with that interest.

Meanwhile, newspapers — physical objects — can re-ground themselves in slightly wider but non-generic distribution paths. New York Metropolitan area. The Bay Area. The Twin Cities. It’s a matter of recognizing the strengths, weaknesses, and biases of a particular medium rather than forcing it to serve all markets for media.

News departments, meanwhile, can distribute stories to the appropriate media as well. I think news services like AP and Reuters will do really well through this transition, and I don’t know that having just a few really good, well-staffed news agencies around the world is a bad thing.

FP: Most of my readers are cultural consumers. How do they incorporate the idea of bottom-up activism into the way they choose to entertain/inform themselves? Does alternative currency come into play?

DR: Most of them may think of themselves as cultural consumers, but that’s just a role they’ve surrendered to. There’s no such thing as a cultural consumer. Culture isn’t consumed, it’s lived. Like the culture growing in a petri dish — it’s a living, growing, mutating thing. You are either in it or you’re not.

So I think the way they begin to incorporate some activism into what they do is to realize they are already active participants in a culture. They are activists, whether they are conscious of it or not. So the things they decide to do, places they decide to go, people they decide to do it with, all really effect change. To begin with, how about finding activities that don’t cost money to participate in? What does that do? It changes everything. Every second you are not consuming or producing, you are hurting the GNP — you are refusing to have your wealth and value extracted just because you want to enjoy another person. Enjoying another person can really be free.

Or sure, start looking at gift economies, alternative currencies… These are really easy to do, and there are links all over the place. In NY it’s the TINY.  So if you start using alternative currency for your entertainment activities, you are supporting your community rather than having your resources drained to Hollywood or some DVD manufacturer or liquor distributor.

FP: We know you’ve worked with some smaller publishing houses in the past. Did you have an internal debate about going with a large publisher like Random House for this book?

DR: Not really. I mean, on a personal level I still need normal cash. Just because I can envision us all living less tied to corporations doesn’t mean everything we do should be divorced from corporate activity. I can still give my book to people in PDF form for free, while distributing the physical book by a major conglomerate. In today’s world, it’s really the only way to get a New York Times review, attention from a wide audience, coverage on NPR, and distribution through all the other top down networks.

This doesn’t mean I can’t distribute it through bottom-up ones, as well. These two realities co-exist. Or can. It’s just that the top-down one owns the landscape and writes the laws right now. That’s what has to change.

View the trailer for Life Inc. below.