Monday, January 10, 2011

Allotments are not enough

Book Review from the January 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

Life Inc. By Douglas Rushkoff. Vintage Books 2010

One Christmas Eve, the media theorist and author Douglas Rushkoff was mugged outside his apartment in Brooklyn, New York, but when he warned his neighbours about the crime via a community website, he received not thanks nor sympathy but a tirade of abuse. His neighbours were angry that reports of crime in the neighbourhood would drive down property prices. How did it come to this? How did our neighbours come to be more concerned with the market price of their house than with the wellbeing of the community they live in? How did people come to act more like corporations – concerned only with the value of their assets – than like human beings? Those are the questions Rushkoff sets out to answer.

The problem, according to Rushkoff, is ‘corporatism’. By this he means the rise then global dominance of big corporations, and the suppression of every aspect of life that comes into conflict with the need of those corporations to make profits. This dominance then became so total that we internalised corporate values and came to treat life itself as if it were a corporation, with no right to exist or say anything unless whatever it was doing or saying brought home the dollars. Rushkoff’s argument is wide-ranging and detailed, sweeping from the origin of the corporation in the 16th century to modern-day consumerism, the globalisation of finance, individualism, New Age spirituality and the cult of home ownership. The book is full of arguments socialists will perhaps already be aware of, but with plenty of new and interesting details, including some entertaining journalistic investigations into the attitudes of those who run corporations, and the delusions of those who are their most desperate victims. Rushkoff gives an excellent account of how the world went mad, and is particularly good at showing how an abstract-sounding historical analysis actually plays out at the level of individual human lives.

He even touches upon the concept that would have made his book better still – capital. But because he does not define or develop or investigate this key concept, his book all but ignores the most important part of the story. Like so many utopian thinkers before him, he proposes to lop off the bits of society he doesn’t like, without considering whether these might be socially necessary aspects of the normal functioning of capital – the functioning of which is to be left intact while the reformer goes about his business. In other words, Rushkoff does not consider whether the real cause of our problems might not be the corporation as such, but the circulation and accumulation of capital, of which the corporation is merely a form that has proved to be particularly useful. To use Rushkoff’s own words from a slightly different context, our problems are “everything to do with excess capital’s need for a place to grow”, with “the needs of capital”. The corporation meets those needs perfectly. Just not human needs.

This may seem like nitpicking, but the full political importance of the criticism emerges when Rushkoff comes to his proposed solutions. He says he has no problem at all with ‘commerce’, for example, and if he has a problem with the circulation of money as capital, then he doesn’t mention it. (His analysis of money in the book doesn’t make it entirely clear, but he seems to associate the circulation of capital with ‘saving’, which he sees as necessary and good, but in need of being separated from money’s role as means of circulation.) But these are the key forces that give rise to the corporation and to the problems Rushkoff quite rightly wants us to rebel against. He is therefore urging us to swim against the tide, when it might be more sensible instead to climb out of the water.

There is a strange contradiction in Rushkoff’s argument. He insists that he is not interested in building a ‘utopian’ nor a centralised, political movement for social change. Resistance to the system is, he says, ‘futile’, because the flexibility, ingenuity and sheer power of corporations will always defeat any opposition. This certainly has some truth to it: any oppositional movement must take extremely seriously the power of capital to flee – or better, incorporate and sell – rebellion. But Rushkoff proposes instead a series of measures that are equally doomed. He says we must take the power back by buying from local organic shops, patronising local cafes, growing our own veg, making our own local money, using less petrol in our cars, coaching our own children for the local football team, and so on. Every one of these acts, according to Rushkoff, is “another nail in the coffin” of the system. But he’s already shown us in the rest of the book that the wealth and power in society is concentrated in a very few hands, and defended by the state.

It’s not at all clear why the all-powerful corporations that can brush off mass movements for social change as a minor irritant should tremble and topple if we plough what little spare time we have into an allotment. Nor does he seem to realise that the very enterprises he wants us to support rely on working-class wages – wages that are earned almost entirely from working all day in big corporations or for the state – to survive at all. Never mind the clever green sales pitch: small business enterprises are as dependent on big capitalism and big corporations and state subsidy as the rest of us.

The problems we face as a society are too big and too systemic for these kind of small-scale, easy answers, and any proposed solutions must be as inevitably political as they are social and economic. The fact that even brilliant, big thinkers such as Rushkoff fight shy of these obvious facts, even while they are forced by the reality of their investigations into all but admitting them, reveals a great deal about the ideological victories of the past thirty years – and of where the most important political battles remain to be fought.

Stuart Watkins