I recently discovered Douglas Rushkoff and his 2009 book Life Inc: How the World Became A Corporation and How To Take It Back and I was struck by his work in dissecting the totalitarian nature of mega-corporations over every aspect of our lives. It reminds me of Thomas Merton‘s cultural critique in his book ‘The Springs of Contemplation’:

Renew Your Mind

Be transformed by the renewing of your mind... (montage: J Fowler)

“We’re living in a totalitarian society. It’s not fascist in a political sense, but in the way that it’s economically organized. It’s organized for profit and for marketing. In that machinery there’s no real freedom. You’re free to choose gimmicks, your brand of TV, your make of car. But you’re not free not to have a car. In other words, life is really determined for everybody…” [p.129]

“…Moses and the chosen people had to get out of the Egyptian structure…It wasn’t necessarily any worse than any other country. But the people had to get out because they weren’t free, because somebody else was telling them what to do, someone else determined their life entirely for them…” [p.131]

“One of the central issues in the prophetic life is that a person rocks the boat, not by telling slaves to be free, but by telling people who think they’re free that they’re slaves. That’s an unacceptable message.” [p.133]

“If we’re going to live up to our prophetic vocation, we have to realize that, whether we’re revolutionary or not, we have to be radical enough to dissent from what is basically a totalitarian society. And we’re in it. It’s not a society that’s coming, it is here.” [p.133]

Now listen to Douglas Rushkoff (from the first chapter of his book Life Inc.) echo these sentiments from a more general viewpont but with a bit more clarity about what he feels is happening culturally in America:

“As corporations gain ever more control over our economy, government, and culture, it is only natural for us to blame them for the helplessness we now feel over the direction of our personal and collective destinies. But it is both too easy and utterly futile to point the finger of blame at corporations or the robber barons at their helms—not even those handcuffed CEOs gracing the cover of the business section. Not even mortgage brokers, credit- card executives, or the Fed. This state of affairs isn’t being entirely orchestrated from the top of a glass building by an élite group of bankers and businessmen, however much everyone would like to think so—themselves included. And while the growth of corporations and a preponderance of corporate activity have allowed them to permeate most every aspect of our awareness and activity, these entities are not solely responsible for the predicament in which we have found ourselves.

Rather, it is corporatism itself: a logic we have internalized into our very being, a lens through which we view the world around us, and an ethos with which we justify our behaviors. Making matters worse, we accept its dominance over us as preexisting—as a given circumstance of the human condition. It just is.

But it isn’t.

Corporatism didn’t evolve naturally. The landscape on which we are living—the operating system on which we are now running our social software—was invented by people, sold to us as a better way of life, supported by myths, and ultimately allowed to develop into a self-sustaining reality. It is a map that has replaced the territory.

Its basic laws were set in motion as far back as the Renaissance; it was accelerated by the Industrial Age; and it was sold to us as a better way of life by a determined generation of corporate leaders who believed they had our best interests at heart and who ultimately succeeded in their dream of controlling the masses from above.

We have succumbed to an ideology that has the same intellectual underpinnings and assumptions about human nature as—dare we say it—mid- twentieth-century fascism. Given how the word has been misapplied to everyone from police officers to communists, we might best refrain from resorting to what has become a feature of cheap polemic. But in this case it’s accurate, and that we’re forced to dance around this “F word” today would certainly have pleased Goebbels greatly.

The current situation resembles the managed capitalism of Mussolini’s Italy, in particular. It shares a common intellectual heritage (in disappointed progressives who wanted to order society on a scientific understanding of human nature), the same political alliance (the collaboration of the state and the corporate sector), and some of the same techniques for securing consent (through public relations and propaganda). Above all, it shares with fascism the same deep suspicion of free humans.

And, as with any absolutist narrative, calling attention to the inherent injustice and destructiveness of the system is understood as an attempt to undermine our collective welfare. The whistle-blower is worse than just a spoilsport; he is an enemy of the people.

Unlike Europe’s fascist dictatorships, this state of affairs came about rather bloodlessly—at least on the domestic front. Indeed, the real lesson of the twentieth century is that the battle for total social control would be waged and won not through war and overt repression, but through culture and commerce. Instead of depending on a paternal dictator or nationalist ideology, today’s system of control depends on a society fastidiously cultivated to see the corporation and its logic as central to its welfare, value, and very identity.

That’s why it’s no longer Big Brother who should frighten us—however much corporate lobbies still seek to vilify anything to do with government beyond their own bailouts. Sure, democracy may be the quaint artifact of an earlier era, but what has taken its place? Suspension of habeas corpus, surveillance of citizens, and the occasional repression of voting notwithstanding, this mess is not the fault of a particular administration or political party, but of a culture, economy, and belief system that places market priorities above life itself. It’s not the fault of a government or a corporation, the news media or the entertainment industry, but the merging of all these entities into a single, highly centralized authority with the ability to write laws, issue money, and promote its expansion into our world.

Then, in a last cynical surrender to the logic of corporatism, we assume the posture and behaviors of corporations in the hope of restoring our lost agency and security. But the vehicles to which we gain access in this way are always just retail facsimiles of the real ones. Instead of becoming true landowners we become mortgage holders. Instead of guiding corporate activity we become shareholders. Instead of directing the shape of public discourse we pay to blog. We can’t compete against corporations on a playing field that was created for their benefit alone.

This is the landscape of corporatism: a world not merely dominated by corporations, but one inhabited by people who have internalized corporate values as our own. And even now that corporations appear to be waning in their power, they are dragging us down with them; we seem utterly incapable of lifting ourselves out of their depression.

We need to understand how this happened—how we came to live for and through a business scheme. We must recount the story of how life itself became corporatized, and figure out what—if anything—we are to do about it…”

As Christians, as followers of Jesus, I believe we are called to what Merton encouraged his readers to in the late sixties:

“…[The Church] needs us, needs charismatic contemplative communities, prophetic communities, people who are not afraid to speak out when they have to, or to shut up when they have to, or to go out into the woods when they have to.” [p.58]

Let me be clear. This is a call to exodus. Not physically for most but maybe for some. This is first of all a call to repentance in how we think about our lives. It is what Paul said to the Christian community in Rome:

“Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.” [Romans 12:2 – NLT]

This renewal of our thinking is a process. But we also must acknowledge that for this Holy Spirit process to take place we must do more than have a steady diet of Scripture reading- we must intentionally unravel from our lives the influences that bind us in modes of living and thinking that are contrary to our devotion to Jesus. What will this look like for you and your community? What do you think about Merton and Rushkoff’s critiques?

J. Fowler

J. Fowler is the website editor and co-founder, along with his wife Pamela, of the Sustainable Traditions project. The Fowlers live with their seven children on a farm near the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.

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