How the World Became a Corporation and How to Take it Back

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Review of Life, Inc.: How the World Became a Corporation and How to Take it Back  by Rushkoff

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Monday, 10 August 2009 17:26 Alan Roxburgh .

I spent my summer weekend reading books and relaxing amidst the welcomed rain of the Pacific North West. We have been in a high state of alert due to fires because of the dry and very hot summer. The sound of rain was a gift that lured me to coffee and books. One of my students had sent an email recommending Rushkoff’s new book,Life, Inc. How the World Became a Corporation and How to Take it Back, because it connected with a lot of material Mark Lau Branson and I teach in our missional leadership cohort.

I read it in one sitting. A lot of the material is familiar and, yes, he overstates and exaggerates in places where it isn’t needed. Frankly, it’s pretty easy to critique this book at many levels, in part because it tries to tackle a tough piece of social history in a book wanting to communicate with people who don’t have the inside ‘expertise’ of social historians, economists or urban studies. It’s a book that over-stretches by oversimplifying economic developments that are more complex than he wishes to own. All of this being the case, Rushkoff has still written a book that deserves our attention. It would seem to be the vocation of church leadership to read with a critical eye and not simply take everything at face value. There is much in this book that will assist us in framing why it is so hard right now to shape local churches and denominational systems in anything that goes much beyond the latest ‘seeker’ techniques or church growth gift-wrapped in glossy missional paper.

You might ask what this kind of book has to do with the daily work of pastors and mid-level judicatory leaders?  Quite a lot.  In our RMN Blog we’ve talked a lot about the idea that we live in an unthinkable world and are delighted to see that others are picking up on this perspective.  Part of living in an unthinkable world is discovering how to see the ways certain parts of life we simply ‘take for granted’ come out of very specific social histories, now forgotten, that are blinding us not just to the ways we are being shaped but from imagining a different world. In reading Rushkoff we are getting very close to the lived anxieties of the people who come, hungering and thirsting to our churches whom we too often send away empty because we are focused on meeting needs and being seeker friendly.  We see how corporatism has framed a way of living in suburban life shaped by the automobile that isolated people from neighbors and makes us frightened of the very strangers the Gospel calls us to embrace.

I read Rushkoff while also re-reading Brueggemann’s little book, The Theology of the Book of Jeremiah (Cambridge 2007).  Jeremiah lived in a time when the royal religion of Jerusalem shaped people’s imagination (God was on our side, the churches are growing and all is well in the world if we just keep the social contract) to the extent that Jeremiah’s criticism of this way of life was deemed just plain crazy and irresponsible.  I think Rushkoff has quite a bit of Jeremiah running through his veins and that’s what might it hard for a lot of us to appreciate what he has to say.  Throughout the book he is seeking to reconnect us to the larger story of how corporations came into existence and why they are, by nature, the acids that destroy what it means to be human.  He works at inviting us to recover a memory of how all this happened that we’ve forgotten.  At the same time, Rushkoff works to reconnect us with the human scale of the local and the ordinary telling us in a Jeremiah-like way that this is what we’ve forgotten and this is what is essential if we are to recover a human scale way of life.  Even more than this, Rushkoff is passionately arguing that we will never be able to solve the huge challenges facing humanity and its place in the world by trying to fix the existing forms of economic and social life (expressed in terms of corporations, brands and corporatism).  He is convinced that only as we discover together the power of human imagination at the scale of the local will we recover the memory of belonging, of the concrete particular, that is the source of a hopeful future.

I was reminded of Jane Jacob’s comments in one of her last books, Dark Age Ahead where she wrote about cultural amnesia which involves the loss of awareness of our past, the erasure of memory in terms of how our current structures and systems were formed.   When communities lose this kind of memory the world that faces them feel like some kind of unalterable given, a ‘just the way things are’ world with which we can’t do much but cope as best as possible.  Memory of the stories and myths that are now shaping us gives people the resources to imagine a different future.

Some of the book’s best pieces comes from his descriptions of attending a “Wealth Expo” where gullible people eager to make it in a narrative world of positive thinking and more wealth use their credit cards to buy programs that will, ostensibly, teach them how to get rich.  Rushkoff is at his best reporting on how people are selling DVDs all about the Secret (if you really dream hard enough and work at conceiving the future you want – you will get it) to throngs of people longing to get into the health, wealth and happiness dream presented by Tony Robins, Joel Olstein and others.  His sections on the human potential movement and much of the counter culture expose their basic sources in selfishness.

Rushkoff reminds us that the culture change for which we long will not come from the existing organizational systems replete with their experts and professionals.  It comes when ordinary citizens determine that at a local level its possible to make a difference and shape alternative ways of life.  One is reminded in this of Wendell Berry, a Kentuckian whose writing about the local and ordinary points to what Rushkoff is reaching for.

Some friends in Edmonton, Canada are shaping their Christian life by moving back into the neighborhood and seeking to understand what God is up to in the ordinary.  I just received an email from Howard describing some of the life-giving conversations he and others have experienced over recent weeks connecting with others on a similar journey.  He wrote:

We have recently returned from a road trip with 30 of our neighbors to various points in the northwest US.  Four families had a look at what Mark P is doing in Eagle, it was inspiring.  All of us worked at a “gleanings” ministry near Fresno working hard drying fruit.  Our family spent time with an inner city ministry in San Francisco.  The leadership of that ministry put us on to Robert Lupton and his little book, Return Flight, Community Development Through Reneighbouring Our Cities…  The whole trip was very encouraging.

These are a group of ordinary people connecting with and listening to the conversations of other ordinary people who, like them, are sensing a stirring of the Spirit to discover God’s life in the concreteness of neighborhood rather than the ideals of gurus.   This is where the world is transformed.  For too many of us that is unthinkable.

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