I was excited when I first picked up Douglas Rushkoff’s book, Life Inc.: How the World Became a Corporation and How to Take It Back. I confess I expected it to articulate ideas and feelings I had, hopefully better than I could, and also flesh them out so they were more substantial. Yes, I was doing something I complain others do: looking for opinions that affirm my own rather than challenge them.
In many ways, the book does all that. I also think it’s an important book, at least its thesis is important: that corporatism has so ingrained itself in our lives, in our very thinking and seeing, that we’ve become corporations ourselves. At least, we see the world through corporate defined eyes. Whether others agreed with this idea or not was irrelevant, in a sense. I thought it important to see the world from this perspective because we seldom stop and think about why we live and think as we do and what its meaning might be.
But the book’s tone undermines all that. As Publishers Weekly puts it, “An engaging history of commerce and corporatism devolves into an extended philippic on how increasing personal wealth and the rise of nuclear families constituted a failure of community—whose services are now provided by products and professionals.”
Each chapter starts well, but a strident, proselytizing tone soon creeps in and it is off-putting, to put it mildly. I also found myself questioning some of the interpretations and conclusions. If the book were a Wikipedia entry, I think there would be a number of places where the note, “citation needed” would appear. In some cases, there were supportive footnotes but in others, no – they were just conclusions Mr. Rushkoff drew having interpreted information a particular way.
Overall, the book is pretty humourless and annoyingly earnest. And that means the book’s good points – its research, the information it provides, its fundamental argument – all get lost in its obvious politics.
I’ve not completed the book – I’m probably three quarters of the way through – but I’ve not seen (as I can recall) alternative explanations or, if something not supportive of the argument appears it is quickly dismantled and dismissed. Or it’s turned inside out and offered as an example of how something that appears one way is actually the opposite. There is a paranoiac quality to it all, a bit like those people who find passages in the Bible to justify anything.
There is also Mr. Rushkoff’s fundamental argument about the focus on the individual moving us away from the idea of community. It appears reasonable except when it’s put almost exclusively in terms of a kind of a corporate conspiracy to separate us and transform us. Are there no other possible reasons for the individual focus? For the disappearance of community? Have we lost the notion of community or is the idea of community a much broader one? I know many people who would find the elimination of communities a dubious assertion. And I’d question the example of unions as community (some seem pretty corporate to me). I think Mr. Rushkoff’s definition of community is a very limited one.
I suppose I’m saying there is an imbalance in the book. There is also the unstated belief in some kind of golden age when we had it right, whatever “it” is. It feels as if the argument was decided upon then material was gathered to confirm it, rather than explore whether or not it held water. The book becomes more polemic than anything else.
My biggest frustration, however, is in the feeling that what is of value in the book is lost by the tone and approach. When young people (or anyone) worry about personal brands, when corporations and everyday schmoes are involved in charities as ways to support their brand or when (to use Mr. Rushkoff’s example) we’re more concerned about our property value than our personal safety … surely something ain’t right?