Life, Inc.

June 6, 2012

The ground rules of our society—which we largely take for granted as natural, neutral, and immutable—in fact came out of specific historical moments to serve particular agendas.

Douglas Rushkoff was mugged on Christmas Eve in his neighborhood of Park Slope, Brooklyn. But when he warned his neighbors about the incident on an online message board for residents, he was met not with concern but outrage from neighbors concerned about the effect his post would have on their property values.

Baffled, Rushkoff came to wonder what had happened to us, what could possess people to be more concerned about their property value than their own safety and that of their neighbors. He sets out in Life, Inc. to provide the answer:

In short, instead of acting like people, we act like corporations. When faced with a local mugging, the community of Park Slope first thought to protect its brand instead of its people. (xvi)

Engineered Behavior

If the book had one central idea, it’s the one I’ve tried to capture above, that many of the things we take for granted as “just the way the world is” were in fact engineered by specific actors in the past for their own ends. A case in point dear to my heart is that of commuting. I’ve always naively assumed that people naturally live and work where they want to and that train companies run lines to where those people are in order to serve them. But the history tells a different story:

Transit tycoons shifted their emphasis from providing good transportation for people to manipulating the value of undeveloped farmland. They built rail lines to the subdivisions they owned, while passing over those of their competitors. They never even intended for their rail services to be profitable; tracks were a loss leader for the real-estate sales they enabled. Neighborhoods and commuter lines were not natural phenomena that sprang up around the needs and activities of people. They were master-planned developments aimed at delivering land-speculation profits. (52, emphasis mine)

It’s like how in Plato’s Republic where nobody thinks to ask who put the chains on everyone. Everything about the world was already created before each of us got here–mostly by people looking out for themselves, not us.

And, of course, some of them were racist:

Urban-planning masters such as Robert Moses developed highway schemes intended to keep undesirable people from traveling into desirable neighborhoods. In just one of many examples, Moses built highway overpasses with only nine feet of clearance in order to prevent buses from getting through. This was intended to keep poor black people from traveling from the city to new suburbs, while also making the purchase of a car a prerequisite for residence. (54)

Like mass transit and the highway system, single-family housing follows a similar story. After World War II, the federal government granted Levitt and Sons a chartered monopoly on housing for veterans and a discount rate on government-purchased land. “As a return on its investment, the federal government got to dictate the basic template for all the houses. The FHA used this opportunity to design houses and communities that reinforced the nuclear family while discouraging the congregation of larger groups.” The Levittowns which resulted served as the template for suburban development through the present day. But this arrangement had an agenda:

Long after the partisan origins of this arrangement have been forgotten, its values persist:

[Today,] the middle-class white inhabitants of Levittown are among the first to put out yellow ribbons in times of war, and remain staunch supporters of conservative economic policies. Virtually unaware that their own home ownership was made possible by a huge government intervention, they do not seek welfare for themselves or support it for anyone else. (63)

What can we do?

After all this, Rushkoff’s call-to-action isn’t for revolution or even more regulation of corporations (though I doubt he’d object). Instead, he argues that the root problem is that we’ve grown disconnected from our communities.1 It’s cool and all if you’re one of the handful of people buying carbon offsets to make the family trip to Disney more sustainable, but the problem is that you’re so alienated from your community that your dreams can only come true at a corporate theme park a thousand miles away. (This is harsh, Doug. Do you really mean this?)

The idea that we can throw money at things–even when doing so really does help–is the problem. It’s well and good to donate to charities in Africa, but if we don’t help the hungry within our own communities, it’ll lead to crime and other factors that further alienate us.

Here is where he ties it all together: corporations seek to mediate our lives, to make us believe that everything we want we can get only through them (since that’s what they profit from), and to that effect all their organization and ad dollars go to convincing us of this. But we don’t need them. Our dependence on them, like so much else, is manufactured.

  1. “Home” used to mean one’s home town, not one’s residence. It’s a sign of how individualized we’ve become that home is now a private thing.