Neuromancer remains one of the most influential science-fiction books I’ve read. It’s the kind of book that influenced me even before I had read it by influencing books and TV shows and movies that I then read or watched. However, it’s not William Gibson’s imagination of cyberspace that sticks with me. Rather, it’s his vision of a future dominated by corporations, one where governments are atrophied entities and one’s life and prosperity are dependent upon feudal loyalties to these transnational mega-corporations. Whereas the initial cyberpunk renderings of cyberspace and virtual reality seem very quaint thirty years on, corporate statehood remains a viable and fearsome proposition.
Life Inc is a non-fiction exploration of the power that corporations have and the means by which they hold onto power and gain more. Douglas Rushkoff looks at the historical antecedents of the modern corporation, exploring how corporatist philosophies developed out of old-style mercantilism. From there, he factors in the rise of individualism in the twentieth-century. Ultimately, he aims to show how corporations are alternatively self-reinforcing and, occasionally, self-defeating, but how our short-sightedness has allowed them to gain more power than they should have.
If I had read this back when I first heard about it in 2009, then I probably would have been more impressed. Since then my feelings about capitalism have changed. Whereas before I was more optimistic about the ability for regulation to rein in the excesses of capitalism, I’ve since become more radical. Now I view capitalism as an inherently unethical system that reinforces inequity, so let’s burn it all down. Rushkoff doesn’t go quite so far—he acknowledges that regulation is unlikely to be effective, at least by itself; but he isn’t in a rush to reimagine our entire system. About as far as he’ll go towards that radical end of the spectrum is to point out that we shouldn’t suffer from tunnel vision. Just because we currently have a centralized currency doesn’t mean we must always have one, for example.
As far as economic arguments go, Life Inc is a little bit all over the place. Rushkoff seems split over a chronological or thematic organization to his argument … so he kind of goes for both. Each chapter is loosely based around a theme, and then from there he delivers a historical perspective on that theme. In some cases this works fine—the first chapter, for example, is very informative. In other cases it can be confusing or repetitive. The book is also extremely American in its perspective and tone. I mean, that’s to be expected—but it’s always amusing, as a Canadian, reading an American’s writing and seeing very plainly the biases that inform it. Even as Rushkoff talks about how people too easily assume that this is the way it has to be, he’s making assumptions based on an American society that has laboured under the myth of the American Dream for over two hundred years.
The book is front-loaded, generally proceeding downhill towards its resolution with ever-dimininshing returns. The last two chapters, in particular, I skimmed. After dedicating a great deal of time to discussing how corporations, and in particular the self-help industry, target people by singling them out as individuals, Rushkoff ironically does the same: “I believe it can. And more important, you can.” And then there’s this gem:
Likewise, each tiny choice we make to take back our world leads to a long chain of positive effects.
Oh, I get it. Power of positive thinking … wait a minute. That sounds awfully similar to the Secret or those other self-help scams you were talking about earlier, Douglas.
Critiquing capitalism is easy. Coming up with solutions is hard. And to be fair, some of these community-minded solutions that Rushkoff includes are probably worthwhile ventures. But again, so much here assumes a kind of homogeneous, middle-class, white privilege in the reader: “You are an upper-middle class white guy with a university degree and a steady but not amazing income. You might be married or about to get married, and you want to make your community a slightly less corporatized place.”
I guess what I’m trying to say is that there is very little fire to this book, because like it or not, Rushkoff has benefitted a great deal from the way our society is currently set up. That’s one of the largest differences between a book written by a member of the dominant group and a book written by someone who has experienced more oppression—both books can be accurate critiques, but one is going to be more dry and academic and the other will necessarily have more passion. Rushkoff delivers a lot of fact and a lot of opinion, but it’s the same kind of opinion I largely have on these things: opinion formed from careful and reasoned judgement and study rather than lived experience. While that doesn’t make our opinions less valuable, I think sometimes it makes them less interesting.
So like I said, if I had read this in 2009, I’d be all over Life Inc. If you are just getting started in questioning capitalism or corporatism, Rushkoff is going to walk you through it. And this is such an important issue. So you could do much worse here.
Nevertheless, there’s just so much that this book isn’t that it could have been. While there are plenty of gems, accurate criticisms, and interesting historical tidbits, you have to wade through a lot that isn’t so interesting to get to them. Life Inc reminded me of all the many reasons I’m not fond of corporatism, and it gave me some fresh perspective on some of the reasons corporations are as powerful as they are today. But it’s a long way from becoming any kind of bible on the subject.