BOOK REVIEW: Life Inc.

Life Inc: How the World Became a Corporation and How to Take it Back

Douglas RushkoffLife, Inc.

Books lamenting the all-powerful corporation, the preeminent status of the market and the general social shortcomings of capitalism are hardly thin on the ground. Yet few are as persuasive as Douglas Rushkoff’s nuanced and well-reasoned critique of a system that seeks to commoditize almost every aspect of our lives. This is no left-wing polemic against the foundations of contemporary trade, indeed Rushkoff champions the best aspects of capitalism, but his target is the institution of the corporation that, when supported by free-market libertarianism, reduces everything to the impact on bottom-line profit. In the process, people – labour costs one moment, customers the next – are trapped in a cycle of work and consumption, all geared towards the narrow agenda of shareholder returns.

The point is certainly well timed, not simply because of a consumer credit crisis that exploded into a full-blown recession, but with the billions of gallons of black, viscous evidence that large companies rarely consider the public good unless sufficiently acceptable revenues have been generated. In the meantime, inequality in both wealth and opportunity is a necessary by-product, while good deeds are a matter for the marketing department.

“We are deep in the thrall of a system that no one really likes, no one remembers asking for, yet no one can escape,” says Rushkoff, as he seeks to explain how that system came to dominate and how self-defeating it renders many of our lives. Not that his remedies are as clearly expressed as his diagnosis, and few people of sound judgment ought to be unaware of the necessity of community action and reduced materialism. One hopes that the stark picture he portrays will prompt enough people to begin a lifestyle reassessment – even if it relies on the same individuality as the problems that got us here.

Life Inc.: How the World Became a Corporation and How to Take it Back, Douglas Rushkoff, The Bodley Head Ltd (2009)

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