Author note: This review was first published here in July of 2009 at FrontPage when Life Inc. was released in hardback. (Incidentally it was my last piece as a freelance contributor to FrontPage before I started full time at the Freedom Center in August of 2009.) Life Inc. is now out in paperback with additional material and can be purchased here.
It’s hard to imagine any conservative ever picking up media theorist Douglas Rushkoff’s newest book.
They’ll see the title and immediately walk the other way: Life Inc.: How the World Became a Corporation and How to Take It Back.
And they would not be doing so without due cause.
Since the formation of the New Left in the ‘60s the attack on the corporation has been a staple of the radical assault on freedom. “Muckraking” journalists make their living going after corporate scandals and corporate evils, always while demanding one solution: more and more government regulation to come crashing down on these enemies of the people, these greedy “fat cat” CEOs.
We see it most prominently in the films of Michael Moore (catch the new one this fall!) and the books of Naomi Klein. In both cases, though, the critique is not truly of the corporation but of capitalism itself. The corporation is just the lowest-hanging fruit. It’s far easier to slam the faceless corporate behemoth than the small businessman just scraping by to feed his family.
And so conservatives have been on the defensive, continually having to justify the rights of corporations to engage in the free market. The Right does this, though, because it’s ultimately pro-freedom and pro-capitalism, not pro-corporatism. There could be no greater proof of this than in the Conservative Movement’s harsh response to the current culture of government bailouts for corporations. When confronted with the news that the Big Three automakers will go under without government assistance, few can respond better than Indiana congressman Mike Pence: “Economic freedom means the freedom to succeed and the freedom to fail.”
Is it possible to critique the idea of the corporation while still advocating capitalism? While rarely happening, yes, in fact it is. And Rushkoff shows us how in his fascinating new book.
Rushkoff’s book is wide-reaching, incorporating economics, history, sociology, cultural analysis, current events and even memoir. The book is perhaps at its most touching when Rushkoff argues his central claim: the corporatist approach has spread not just outward but inward as well. Rushkoff argues that people behave like corporations, acting for the short term, individual profit at the expense of their own long term good for themselves and their communities.
The central example to describe this is personal. Rushkoff describes how he was mugged at gunpoint outside of his Brooklyn home. His wallet and cell phone were stolen. Afterwards, concerned for his community’s safety and hoping for some expression of sympathy, he posted about what happened on the Park Slope Parents list, which he describes as “a rather crunchy Internet community of moms, food co-op members, and other leftie types dedicated to the health and well-being of their families and their decidedly progressive, gentrifying neighborhood.”
The first two responses he got were from people mad at him for disclosing the exact location he was mugged! Didn’t he know that the news of a mugging could lower their property values? Rushkoff writes,
I was stunned. Had it really come to this? Did people care more about the market value of their neighborhood than what was actually taking place within it? Besides, it didn’t even make good business sense to bury the issue. In the long run, an open and honest conversation about crime and how to prevent it should make the neighborhood safer. Property values would go up in the end, not down. So these homeowners were more concerned about the immediate liquidity of their town houses than their long- term asset value—not to mention the actual experience of living in them. And these were among the wealthiest people in New York, who shouldn’t have to be worrying about such things. What had happened to make them behave this way?
They were behaving like corporations. Their behavior was neither “liberal” nor “conservative.” It was corporatist. They were valuing short-term profits over long-term stability and greater profits.