We have met the enemy

In Douglas Rushkoff’s lively new book, “Life, Inc.,” corporations are seen as insidious villains bent on destroying every human being’s inner life and installing, instead, a programmed consumer subconscious that will purchase branded goods.

Rushkoff, who teaches at New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program and who founded the Narrative Lab which explores the relationship of narrative to media in an age of interactive technology, is also an award-winning documentary filmmaker.

Rushkoff is right, of course. Corporations are killing us, tearing off bits of our consciousness and willpower, then feeding each bit to the maw of consumption, thereby destroying the environment and wrecking democracy through the medium of lobbyist money.

But the problem is this: Nobody has to drink corporatist commodified water at $2 a liter, then throw away the plastic bottle. After all, good clean water is free from the tap, while the plastic bottle manufacturing process alone consumes two liters of water. Nobody has to wear a T-shirt advertising Gap. Nobody has to buy a Hummer. Everyone could plant a garden, buy locally, avoid Wal-Mart, recycle, downsize, save, economize and cancel their cable.

So, who’s the enemy? Corporations or ourselves?

“Life, Inc.” traces the long capitalist journey that began in the Middle Ages with small free-market fairs and the growth of Hanseatic cities, a journey thoroughly documented in Fernand Braudel’s classic “The Rise of Capitalism.”

Although somewhat superficial, Rushkoff’s history of chartered monopolies, the invention of centralized currencies, banking, and, finally, the birth of the modern corporation — and later, advertising — does present an adequate overview of how we got where we are.

The central section of “Life, Inc.” examines the power of corporations over our individual selves, a power abetted for the last 50 years by a government enamored of so-called free market enterprise and, most lately, a government that stands aside while the entire system is ravaged by greed and stupidity.

Rushkoff is particularly compelling when he examines the hidden persuasion involved in market research and advertising. For example, retail architects have developed a subspecialty called “atmospherics,” the science of manipulating shoppers’ senses to make them buy more. These architects have discovered that obscuring the time of day leads consumers to spend more time in the mall. Forcing people to make three turns when walking from the parking lot into the mall leads them to forget in which direction they parked their cars. Without this sense of an anchor, customers walk around more aimlessly.

By the 1990s, retailers were exploiting more than just the five senses. They delved into the specific science of manipulating teenagers, using bigger sales counters to make people feel sensitive about making “only one” purchase. Did you know that people tend to move right when entering a store? The film director George Romero satirized such behavior in his great horror film “Dawn of the Dead.” But is it satire when it’s utterly true and not an exaggeration?

In Rushkoff’s book there is much to learn about huge agri-businesses promoting corn as a source of energy and how such government-private initiatives drag our economy and our environment toward destruction. Rushkoff examines the world of branding, personal choice, Big Energy and Big Health Care, discovering the same dismal prospect ahead — zombie-like dependence on “things,” alienation from our neighbors and friends, a wrecked world.

Sadly, “Life, Inc.” fails to fulfill its stated promise of showing us the way to take back the world. There are a few half-hearted suggestions involving the Internet and a call to action on the individual level. But, after all, isn’t taking back the world a daunting goal anyway?

During the 1930s and ’40s, the great enemies of human freedom were the systems of totalitarian control represented by fascism and communism.

These days the enemy of freedom and love is something else again, something represented by the presently sinister down-whorl into permanent war, climate change, economic dislocation and despair.

That something is not the corporation, even though the corporation (especially those mega-corporations in banking, finance, agriculture and health care) is a dangerous foe. That something is us.

That something is the guy who buys bottled water for two bucks and chucks it in the trash where it will head for the landfill and remain forever.

Gaylord Dold is a professional writer living in Wichita.