Rebuilding Value in Our Lives

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in SuperConsciousness on 1 December 2009

It was Christmas Eve when award-winning author and documentarian Douglas Rushkoff was mugged in front of his “hip” Park Slope neighborhood apartment in Brooklyn while taking out his trash. He immediately did what any responsible neighbor would do: Warn his fellow residents as to the location and description of the assailant through the neighborhood’s email list.

Instead of sympathy and thanks, what he received were angry emails chastising him for broadcasting information that “could adversely affect all our property values.” Shocked from both the experience and his neighbors’ reactions, Rushkoff’s evolved his philosophy and he began to question his own complicity as a resident within a neighborhood more interested in buildings than the people who inhabit them. His investigation into how “corporate metrics” have replaced fundamental human values was recently published in the best seller, Life, Inc. How the World Became a Corporation and How To Take It Back.

Douglas Rushkoff is a visionary thinker and elegant communicator, able to distill and successfully articulate concepts without polarization or alienation. SuperConsciousness Magazine was pleased to speak with Mr. Rushkoff about the pervasiveness of corporatism, how the corporate mindset interferes with our natural tendencies towards altruistic behavior, and what we can do to rebuild our neighborhoods.

SC: How did your conceptualization of your book, Life, Inc., change after the Park Slope mugging?

DR: Before the mugging I had a more abstract relationship to the material. As a media theorist, I understood that people were mistaking the medium of money for something real and that they didn’t realize that this was just one kind of money created at a particular moment in history. To most people, money was just money, so I intended to write a book that explored the medium of our money - its biases and original intentions - through the lens of a media theorist.

I had already embarked on that process, writing a book proposal and sending it out to various editors to obtain an advance. The economy hadn’t crashed yet, but my views had already become increasingly anti-corporate or anti-market, in a real but abstract sense. And then I got mugged in front of my apartment.

The angry emails from people in the neighborhood were bizarre to me, because I realized instead of people wanting to actually make their neighborhood better, they wanted to protect the “brand” of Park Slope, at the expense of real people. Other neighbors were getting mugged too and I found that this was really common and that the cops saw it as a big problem. And even though a lot of it has to do with gentrification and really awful race relations, the minute you bring up the reality that there’s awful race relations, you get accused of being some kind of a racist: “What are you saying? That it’s black people that mug and white people don’t?”

What was really going on was that a huge population of residents was way over their heads in debt. They needed the real estate prices in their neighborhood to go up, not because they want to sell, but because they need to refinance their debt at a better rate, and the only way to do that is if the total property is worth more. People were behaving like corporations!

SC: What kind of impact does that thinking have on a neighborhood?

DR: People’s homes become valued as a real estate asset rather than as part of a community and the neighbors are no longer human beings. If they’re neighbors and you are going to call them friends, it’s because you want them to be wealthy so that your neighborhood is wealthy. You want your neighbor to keep his job so that he keeps his house up, so that your house is valuable, and this is seen as some kind of enlightened self-interest, when it is a completely dehumanized way of looking at the world.

I would argue that starts with debt. When you’re indebted, you are enslaved to a certain kind of mentality. That’s what the whole [Old Testament] Bible is about. For instance, in the story of Exodus, Joseph taught the Pharaoh how to indebt people, which turned them into slaves. They eventually got away and the first thing they did was to write a series of laws: Every seven days, you get to rest. Every seven years all debts are forgiven. That was created to prevent this kind of situation from occurring again.

SC: How does the mentality of indebtedness interfere with our natural tendencies towards altruism?

DR: In my grandparents’ generation, when you made it good, you would get the wing of a hospital named after you. When I was growing up, that was the height of having “made it.” It’s very real and very local - like Macy’s throwing the parade for the town that keeps them in business. So, you build a hospital wing and you want your name on it, you want credit, because you·re a human being, and who cares? I mean, serve the ego if the ego is going to serve humanity. l’ve got no problem with that.

But today, we relate to one another through products and brands and consumer choices and people exercise their altruism through these abstract entities. You join Greenpeace or Sierra Club, or this thing or that thing, but it’s very hard for people to re-engage with an on-the-ground reality by joining these organizations that have had to adapt a style of traditional corporate branding in order to compete for your attention.

Once these organizations enter that abstract realm, it’s really almost impossible for people to distinguish between the big, top-down communication behavior of a nonprofit and the big, top-down communication of any other for-profit corporation or even a nonprofit that’s working against their very causes. It’s so hard to judge, and people feel overwhelmed by the information and the communication: Who’s real, who’s not real? People end up becoming cynical and just withdrawing. It’s very hard to parse information from the disinformation.

Altruism is not about what web site petitions you sign and the You Tube videos you make, but about engaging with the real world around you in a more real way.

SC: You suggest that altruism begins by getting involved locally?

DR: What l’m talking about is kind of a fractal activism. If the core problem is that we are disconnected from the real world because we have started thinking and acting the same as multi-national corporations, then the activism in which we engage must be activism that reacquaints us with the real world. It’s simple stuff. We not only kill two birds with one stone in that way, but we can be way more assured that what we are doing is real, that it’s true.

Instead of donating money to “,” then shopping for your own food at the A&P, join a CSA, a community-supported agriculture program. What happens is you find out who the person is that’s growing your food and you’ll know if the farmer is really using organic practices and doing proper land management instead of buying Del Monte “Naturo,” or whatever Certified Organic “big agra” brand that has declared itself as such. We can get food cheaper that is also healthier and more nourishing. It’s good for the environment, good for my neighborhood, good for my local commerce, and it helps me meet other people in a way that’s actually meaningful and educates me and my kids about our food.

SC: How would this bottom up approach to building and enriching neighborhoods apply to other universal problems like health care?

DR: What would be the local CSA equivalent of healthcare? What if we provided for 90% of our healthcare needs from the bottom up rather than through the AMA? It’s scary to people to even think about it, but if we regularly visited our local neighborhood chiropractors, homeopaths, nutritionists for primary care, we might not actually need the catastrophic care of “Big AMA.”

SC: What you’re talking about is people reclaiming their own power and right to live a healthy life in the first place instead of paying $300 a month to ensure that you’re not going to die from cancer.

DR: The current view of western medicine came up at the same time as centralized currency, at the same time as the charter monopolies, at the same time that what we would call “women’s crafts” were made illegal and rendered superstition and folklore. They were wiped off the map because they had a tendency towards people actually creating value for one another.

That’s why we have to look at the history. We’ve got to understand this stuff, because during the Renaissance, it was a few rich people who were really afraid of losing their control over the world as the middle class developed the ability to create and exchange value between each other. It’s the fact that you and I can create and exchange value in a way that doesn’t help them get richer. We need to understand and see that all of these simple mechanisms for health have been systematically removed in order to force our dependence on top-down mechanisms for survival. And the more we move into survival mode, the less likely we are to see the efficacy of any alternative.

SC: Then. building new social systems based on value exchange becomes the strong foundation in which we give to and help others, correct?

DR: The main thing is that it really needs to be done on a human scale, and I don’t mean personal scale, necessarily, but a human scale - something that is scaled to the actual human body, the human form, to our voices. even if you don’t create the web site that saves humanity. The idea of becoming the American Idol of activism or altruism is shortsighted and ultimately self-destructive.

When we act at the organizational level, we fall into the “Adam Werbach” trap. He was the head of the Sierra Club and was their bright and shining star. Wal-Mart ends up hiring him to be kind of “Chief Environmental Officer.” It is his belief that because of Wal-Mart’s scale, the corporation can be used to change all sorts of things, but the only kinds of things they’re changing is making their workers drive differently, basically asking their work force to behave differently in their own lives, in the way they get to work or park their cars. That becomes a distraction from the fact that it’s the way and scale in which Wal-Mart operates that is itself the problem.

Getting a million people to do something different is cool and all, but just the fact that you can extend an order to make a million people do things differently is intrinsically corrupt. I would respect any activist that helps one town replace the commerce that has been extracted by Wal-Mart in order to restore its own economy. Doing that for one town of 3,000 people becomes more valuable than helping Wal-Mart do something for ten million.

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