by Douglas Rushkoff
As highly corporatized people, it’s only natural for those of us interested in addressing our social and environmental rehabilitation to do so from within our roles as employees, consumers, and maybe shareholders. We rarely relate to one another very directly as it is, so it’s a bit much to expect us to engage together in a pursuit as foolhardy as the reinstatement of the social fabric.
Instead, like corporations, we tend to prefer to express our charitable and community impulses from afar. Lord knows there are plenty of people who need our help, and their advocates seem quite happy to accept our donations in whatever denominations we have to offer. So, like Oprah Winfrey setting up a private school for girls in Africa insteadof in her native Chicago, we are more ready to write a check for literacy in the ghetto than to go to the projects ourselves and teach a kid to read. We’d rather send a donation to a Middle East peace fund than engage directly with violence-endorsing extremists at our own place of worship. We prefer to PayPal our support of a homeless teen folksinger with a great pitch on his Facebook page than approach those homeless kids we keep seeing in the grocery-store parking lot.
People who actively participate in addressing these problems are considered heroes because their selfless contributions reach far beyond our own capacity to act. Doctors Without Borders volunteers donate their time and risk their lives to fly to war zones, disasters, and refugee camps to save lives. Computer hackers started an organization called Free Geek to wire up schools and refurbish cast-off computers for underprivileged communities. VolunteerMatch connects people with communities that require their skills to repair infrastructure, provide child care, or deliver meals to the homebound. Thank goodness for all of them, but most of them are either wealthy enough, young enough, or simply inspired enough to make such extraordinary efforts.
The rest of us just don’t have the time, the energy, or the commitment to take a hands-on approach to anything but work and maybe family. We want to do right by the environment, but we still want to take two adults and two children to Disneyland for under a couple of thousand bucks. The best among us buy some carbon offsets online, as if to compensate for our addiction to oil the way an OxyContin addict snorts a line of speed when he gets to work. By the time we’ve used the Visa card to buy the offsets, we’ve involved a dozen corporations with their own biases and agendas in the offsetting of a branded Disney vacation that was itself planned to offset a desocialized and unfabulous life at home.
By donating to charities in the same manner as our corporate equivalents, we succumb to the proxy system that desocializes in the first place. Yes, sharing our cash with the needy is a great thing. If we’re lucky enough, we might even end up contributing to the creation of an infrastructure that—against all odds—actually helps people address their basic needs through their own independent activity.
But such steps do not address the more basic problem of our own disconnection from the real world, and the way that disconnection perpetuates the corporatist drive to disconnect us all further. Some innovative approaches to charity have emerged that provide money where it is needed while still catering to this impulse for disconnected giving. Kiva.org lets donors lend money to entrepreneurs from the developing world. Visitors to the site can scroll over pictures of crafts people, bakers, and fishmongers from Mali, Togo, or Bolivia, read their stories, and lend money in twenty-dollar increments. The micro-loans really go to the fledgling business people who need them, and the donor gets a sense of connection to a real human being without ever getting up from the laptop.
Is this good for the developing world? On its own, of course it is. But the whole, heartwarming, electronic process caters to a lifestyle characterized by rushed and disconnected activity. It doesn’t stop the way the donor’s day job might be causing the problem; it only mitigates a bit of the effect and assuages a bit of the guilt.
DonorsChoose.org has achieved terrific success getting money to classrooms that need it. Teachers post requests for supplies and visitors to the site can choose which pleas to answer. While it’s less efficient than simply taking donations and doling them out, first come first served, it gives donors the experience of picking the priorities, objects, and faces that appeal to them. More constructively, DonorsChoose lets users search by location to find out what might be needed in their own or a neighboring community. Still, even local needs are kept at a distance. When I searched for my neighborhood on the site, I found a teacher somewhere in the county looking for funds to start a comic library at her elementary school. I have a few hundred comics I’d like to donate. But because the site keeps the requesters’ identities anonymous, I’ve been unable to figure out who she is.
Fittingly, the first example of a website configured to let potential donors choose between the causes they wanted to support came from the satirical corporate activist group ®™ark in the late 1990s. Exploiting a “market system” made up of activist “mutual funds” and individual “projects,” the agitprop performance group let users anonymously support real and imaginary guerrilla activism of sometimes questionable legality, such as raising money to disassemble the Statue of Liberty and send it back to France, or organizing people to shout at movie screens while advertisements play. The distance created between “investors” and pranksters was deliberately calculated to protect donors from repercussions, and to satirize the way the Internet promotes social action by proxy. To the surprise of ®™ark’s founders, serious social-action networks have adopted their market-driven methodology as a valid form of participation. If people are given the power to choose their causes, the most important ones are supposed to naturally rise to the top of the heap.
Those of us content to work through proxy certainly have plenty of options available to us. We can vote with our dollars or donate to the political-action groups who we think might restore the social balance. Today’s brands will have us believe that we save the rain forest through our choice of cereal and preserve endangered species with our choice of parka. Websites and magazines teach us how to consume our way to a green world, without acknowledging that their promotion of consumption is itself the core problem. And all of these options offer us the vicarious thrill of contributing to an effort we believe in without disrupting the underlying structures maintaining the status quo—or our own busy schedules.
Political candidates, however boldly they promote change, brand themselves as meticulously as Madison Avenue brands soap powder. We join their movements to help them get elected, and then sit back and wait for them to deliver. Movements, as such, encourage less solidarity than they do individuality. Like brands, they communicate to the masses as individuals, encouraging them to develop what feel like personal relationships with the hero or mythology at the top. When populated by real people willing to take to the streets, they can effectively address or at least publicize collective social causes, from civil rights to AIDS. But in their current form, as media campaigns, consumer tribes, or Internet discussions, they are not an antidote to corporatism.
Too often, the product or candidate hovers above the group, directing all attention toward the distant ideal. Instead of representing our will in the legislative process, they substitute for our true participation in the social and political process. We come out once every four years, get very upset when our plan to change the world by proxy doesn’t work out, and then go back to our regularly scheduled programming. Not a great plan for reconnection to the things that matter.
Charity, environmentalism, and politics are all worthwhile endeavors. But practiced this way, they don’t change our relationship to ground, people, and values from which we have become untethered. They do nothing to help us disengage from the myths through which we abdicate responsibility, nor do they help us reclaim our roles as living participants in the creation of the society in which we want to live.
We may not have as much time as we’d like to figure it out. As of this writing, personal bankruptcies, home foreclosures, environmental meltdowns, energy prices, job losses, the national debt, the trade deficit, plant closings, health-care costs, the numbers of uninsured adults, forced evictions, corporate corruption, credit defaults, and school dropouts are at or near record highs. Most of our biggest corporations will be fine; many are already moving operations and assets offshore just in case domestic financial markets take longer than expected to recover, and they’re enjoying tremendous tax benefits for their trouble. Even bankruptcy is just a means of “protection.” The company gets to reorganize and see another day, free of obligations to health plans and retirees. The only ones in trouble are the humans they leave in their wake.
Widespread pessimism about the state of our economy and social fabric has led to an almost counter- phobic fascination with disaster. Recommendations from local authorities to store a week’s worth of water, food, duct tape, and medical supplies call to mind long forgotten Twilight Zone episodes in which families fight over access to bomb shelters. Nightmarish movies in which human survivors hole up in abandoned buildings to weather zombie or vampire pandemics feed the paranoid fantasies of a growing survivalist movement. Websites and radio shows instruct us to buy gold for savings, and smaller silver denominations to trade for food after the economy completely collapses. (Plus a handgun for self-defense and maybe a motorcycle to cut through the traffic jams surrounding our metropolitan areas.)
For many, the apocalypse is less a looming fear than a secret wish. Like Y2K enthusiasts, who predicted that planes would fall from the sky when computers attempted to register four-digit years, we’re almost giddy at the thought of our dehumanizing infrastructure crumbling under its own weight. One well-targeted electromagnetic pulse and our debts are erased along with our credit scores. No more Black-Berries. What a relief ! We can all go back to the simple life. There’s only one catch: all of a sudden, essential skills from which we’ve been so long disconnected—how to grow food, how to find water, how to build a shelter—will be at a premium. For better or for worse, real people would be called upon to create real value.
Our morbid obsession with doom may hint at something entirely less apocalyptic—something that we hope to gain from a world suddenly devoid of corporatism. If the complex supply chains and economic schemes we use to feed, clothe, shelter, and care for ourselves stopped working, might we possibly develop the ability to provide even some of these basic needs for ourselves and one another? Are we good enough friends with a farmer to ask him for some crops? Do we have anything, as members of his extended community, to offer in return?
The current financial meltdown brings such scenario planning out of the world of fantasy and into the realm of possibility. Financial websites are already advising consumers how illiquidity could affect the ability of a supermarket chain to stock its shelves, a gas utility to keep heating fuel in the pipes, or a medical insurer to make good on its promised reimbursements. Having grown so absolutely dependent on corporations and their debt for our daily functioning and sense of continuity, it’s not surprising that our first reaction to Wall Street’s implosion is to fund the companies in trouble. So, the public borrows more money from the central banks in order to feed the private sector’s credit-vanquished corporations. Instead of merely having value extracted from us in the present, we volunteer our future earnings to keep the system running. Either that, or let the other shoe drop and expose the credit-based, artificial economy and its faulty premise of infinite expansion.
The debate on whether or not to refund the corporate sphere has so far fallen along familiar battle lines. Conservatives see themselves as free- market advocates, and adopt a posture of nonintervention. Regulation and impediments to free trade are what hampered corporations’ ability to stay profitable in the first place, they argue. Those arguing for government bailouts and federally sponsored work programs, on the other hand, see this crisis as the opportunity to return corporations to public control, offer funds in return for more socially beneficial products, keep people employed, and restore the corporate sphere to health. They believe the free market has finally been “disproved.”
But the distinctions are false. The free market is itself already sloped—highly regulated, in a sense—toward the interests of corporations and away from labor, small businesses, and local activity. If conservatives got their open marketplace and maintained a truly hands-off approach, most of the corporations they seek to liberate from government control would cease to exist. They couldn’t survive on a level playing field, because corporations are themselves a byproduct of government regulation. Meanwhile, liberals who promote government investment in corporate debt might as well be arguing for privatizing Social Security. Bailouts, even in the form of recoupable investments, just tie us further to the fortunes of the corporate sphere. We end up with a stake in restoring their future ability to extract value from our society while providing as little as possible in return. These supposedly polarized policy positions are mirror images of the very same corporatism.
The alternative is to let government and business continue their debate about how to mitigate the most painful effects of the speculative economy’s cyclical nature. In the meantime, we use the financial stalemate—however long it lasts—as an opportunity to identify the disconnections inherent in our overcorporatized society and try out some new strategies for rebuilding it from the bottom up. The corporate sphere ill serves human needs even when it’s working as it’s designed to. As corporate insolvency, home foreclosure, and unemployment increase, our financial system may prove incapable of providing us the essentials we need at prices we can afford. Through what mechanisms might we do this for one another, instead of depending on the distant companies who took this responsibility away from us before failing themselves?
We don’t all need to move to communes or planned communities; we needn’t stake out turf in the mountains for a dream chalet with solar panels. Extreme shifts like that only produce more consumption, waste, and trauma. Nor can we all suddenly quit our jobs working for corporations, sell all the depressed stock in our 401(k) plans, or completely stop using the existing fiscal system to conduct our business. We are dependent on corporations right now, and—however much influence they may lose in the short term—they’re not going away anytime soon. We may not even want them to.
But we can’t ask corporatized institutions from the private or public sectors to fix this mess for us, either. Just as Malcolm X rejected the help of white liberal groups, understanding that his community needed to learn to help itself, we humans cannot depend on entities biased toward repressing us to assist us in our quest to regain agency. Corporations can’t save us, and we have more important business to attend to right now than obsessing over how to save them.
Instead, we can look to those who are reclaiming territory, creating value, and reconnecting with others in ways that we might actually be able to try ourselves. Small is the new big, and the surest path to global change in a highly networked world is to make an extremely local impact that works so well it spreads. This may amount to a new form of activism, but it is one without slogans, heroes, or glory. The efforts, and the rewards, are scaled to human beings.
Before her talk at the prestigious 2007 TED conference (an invitation-only event where industry leaders and visionaries talk to wealthy ticket holders about technology and design), an environmental activist from the South Bronx approached Al Gore. She wanted to know how activists like her were going to be included in his campaign to promote the environmental agenda. He responded that he was developing a grant program. She calmly explained that she wasn’t asking for funding—she was making him an offer to come to the table and participate in the decision-making process.
The woman, the environmental activist and MacArthur-grant winner Majora Carter, has the direct experience of revitalizing her own polluted ghetto and its forgotten community. Through her group, Sustainable South Bronx, she created opportunities for people to grow vegetables at home, to get paid to do environmental cleanup, and to work through local government to stop New York from using the neighborhood as a dumping site for 25 per cent of the city’s waste. Her main innovation was to develop a new method of rooftop gardening that provides high yields of organic vegetables for urban dwellers and local restaurants.
Carter engages in sustainable, bottom-up activism, through which ex-convicts, gang members, and the elderly work together to lower asthma rates among children, strengthen the local economy, and reduce residents’ exposure to toxic materials. Once trained in landscaping, ecological restoration, green-roof installation, or hazardous waste cleanup, they can find work elsewhere doing these necessary jobs. Perhaps surprisingly, people who go through the program and then find gainful employment do not move out of the neighborhood. They become the next set of teachers and investors in the Sustainable South Bronx community.
Efforts like these scale up in two ways. First, they are shared with or copied by other groups in other communities around the world. Rooftop gardens can work in any city to lower energy bills and clean the air while providing food and jobs. Sharing the wealth is not a matter of Sustainable South Bronx franchising patented techniques to other cities—there’s enough work for them to do in the South Bronx, and they don’t need to extract value from other cities in order to achieve sustainability for themselves. By modeling what they do for others, they develop a network through which they too can learn new techniques.
More significantly, the impacts of their highly local efforts trickle up in profound ways. Less pollution means fewer children with asthma, lower medical and insurance costs, and more time in school. Good job opportunities for convicts and gang members means less recidivism and expensive jail time—as well as lower profits for the corporations now providing prison services and less speculative investment encouraging incarceration. Pushing toxic waste out of one neighborhood forces the dumping corporations to find a new place for it; prices on processing garbage go up, and corporations are encouraged to make less trash in order to preserve their bottom line.
While rooftop agriculture may not feed our entire metropolitan population, plenty of other opportunities exist for those seeking a more direct connection with the people and places making their food. Community-supported-agriculture groups, or CSAs, let typical food consumers become members of their local agricultural community. Instead of buying Big Agra produce shipped long distances to the supermarket, people make a commitment to buy a season’s worth of crops from a local farm and then either pay up front or by subscription over the course of a year. Some farms require their members to work a few hours during the growing season, others let members work in lieu of payment. In 1990, there were just fifty CSAs in the United States. By 2008 there were over one thousand.
With the commitment of a local population, small farmers can better coordinate against legislative and financial attacks by Big Agra concerns, maintain the environmental integrity of their soil, and promote the efficacy and health benefits of sustainable and organic methods. Members, meanwhile, insulate themselves from the influence of speculators on food commodities’ prices, eat a range of foods planned by a farmer and nutritionist rather than a highly lobbied government subsidy, and restore the long-severed connection between urban and agricultural communities. The more demand there is for CSAs, the less there is for mass-produced, highly processed, and long-distance vegetables.
Moreover, it’s fun. Members meet people from their community whom they may not already know. They participate in creating value with their time, their hands, or even just their money. Their kids understand that a carrot comes from the ground, not from a plastic bag with a bunny on it. Instead of paying for a convincingly authentic family vacation, they go to the farm and do something real.
The closer we get to the process through which food is grown and cattle are raised, the more direct experience we have of why grass-fed beef is better for all concerned, how rotating crops saves the topsoil, or whether limits should be placed on genetically altered seed. Instead of depending on the latest questionably sponsored news report (or camouflaged public-relations video segment) for our understanding of the issues determining the future of agriculture, we draw on our own successes.
The farmer running my CSA wanted to provide his members with an easy way to sign up for shifts and make special requests for their weekly food shares. An unemployed web designer I knew from the neighborhood built a site for the farmer that offered all this and more—in return he earned a year of crops.
These activities are the most remarkable, however, for the way that they cut out the middleman. People create value for one another directly, rather than paying the corporations that we work for. No one is extracting value from our engagements, separating us from our competencies, or distancing us from one another.
The one exception, of course, is the money we are still using to pay one another. When we aren’t coding websites in return for kale, we are cutting the Federal Reserve and its network of banks in on every transaction we make. This extractive force is a drag on the system, particularly at times when speculation or banking-industry incompetence has made money too expensive to get a hold of, or too unstable to use as a means of exchange.
A tiny organic café in my town called Comfort decided to expand to a second, larger location. John, the chef and owner, had been renovating the new space for a year, but—thanks to the credit crisis—was unable to raise the cash required to finish and finally open. With currency unavailable from traditional, centralized money-lending banks, he turned instead to his community, to us, for support. Granted, this is a small town. Pretty much everybody goes to Comfort—the only restaurant of its kind on the small strip—and we all have a stake in its success. Any extension of Comfort would bring more activity, vitality, and commerce to a tiny downtown (commercially devastated in the 1970s by the chain stores and malls on the auto- friendly main strip).
So John’s idea was to sell VIP cards, or what I helped him rename Comfort Dollars. For every dollar spent on a card, the customer receives the equivalent of $1.20 worth of credit at either restaurant. If I buy a thousand-dollar card, I get twelve hundred dollars’ worth of food: a 20 per cent rate of return on the investment of dollars. John gets the money he needs a lot cheaper than if he were borrowing it from the bank—he’s paying for it in food and labor that he has in ample supply. Meanwhile, customers get more food for less money.
But wait, there’s more: the entire scheme reinvests a community’s energy and cash locally. Because our money goes further at our own restaurant than at a restaurant somewhere else, we are biased toward eating locally. Since we have a stake in the success of the restaurant in whose food we have invested, we’ll also be more likely to promote it to our friends. By using its own currency, a local business can even undercut the corporate competition. It’s not complex or even communist. It’s just local business, late Middle Ages style.
Local currencies are now used by several hundred communities across the United States and Europe, giving people the chance to buy and sell goods and services from one another no matter what the greater economy might be doing. Instead of favoring large, centralized corporations, local currencies favor businesses and the community members who own them.
There are two main types of local currency employed today. The simplest, like Comfort Dollars or the BerkShares created for the entire Berkshire Hills region in Massachusetts, have exchange rates for regular dollars. The BerkShares themselves can be spent only at local businesses that accept them, which keeps the currency circulating close to home. Local currencies such as these encourage local buying, put large corporations with no real community involvement at a big disadvantage, and circulate much more widely and rapidly through a community than conventional dollars. Further, the nonprofit bank issuing BerkShares is not an extractive force; no one needs to get rich or pay anyone back. Businesses that refuse to accept the local currency do worse than just brand themselves as apathetic to local development; they cut themselves off from a potential source of revenue.
Townspeople with their own money systems still need conventional currency. The three automobile repair shops in Great Barrington that accept BerkShares must still buy auto parts from Mopar or BMW with U.S. dollars. But they are willing to break down their bills into two separate categories, selling parts at cost in U.S. dollars, and markups and labor in the local currency. The object is not to replace centralized currency altogether, but to break the monopoly of centralized currency and the corporations it supports over transactions that keep money circulating locally. This is why many advocates now call local currency “complementary” currency—because it complements rather than replaces centralized money.
It’s not as anarchist as it might sound. Larger businesses have begun to embrace alternative currency systems as well. In October 2008, as the credit crisis paralyzed business lending, companies started signing onto barter networks in droves. One system, called ITEX, which allows businesses to trade merchandise, reported a 37 per cent increase in registrations for the month of October alone. Utilizing more than two hundred fifty exchange services now available through the Internet, companies can barter directly with one another, or earn U.S.-dollar-equivalent credits for the merchandise they supply to others. According to Barter News.com, business-to-business bartering already accounts for $3 billion of exchanges annually in the United States. As the credit crisis continues, this figure is growing exponentially.
An even more promising variety of complementary currency, like the grain receipts of ancient times, is quite literally earned into existence. “Life Dollars,” such as those used by the Fourth Corner Exchange in the Pacific Northwest, are not exchanged for traditional currency. Instead, members of the Fourth Corner Exchange earn credits by performing services or providing goods to one another. There’s always enough money, because money is a result of work exchanged, not an existing store of coin. There can’t be too much money, either, since every service provided is a service someone else was willing to be debited for.
These local or complementary currencies, and many others, are as easy to begin as visiting the websites for local economic transfer systems (LETS) or Time Dollars. A local currency system can be as informal as a babysitting club, where parents earn credits for babysitting one another’s children, or robust enough to serve as the primary currency for an entire region or sector.
In 1995, as recession rocked Japan, unemployment rose and currency became scarce. This made it particularly difficult for people to continue to take care of their elderly relatives, who often lived in distant areas. Everyone had time, but no one had money. The Sawayaka Welfare Foundation developed a complementary currency by which a young person could earn credits for taking care of an elderly person. Different tasks earned different established credit awards—bathing someone earned more than shopping, and so on. Ac- cumulated credits—Fureai Kippu, or “elderly care units”—could then be applied to the care of one’s own relative in a distant town, saved for later, or traded to someone else. Independently of the centralized economy—which thanks to bad speculation and mismanaged banking was no longer supporting them—people were able to create value for themselves and one another.
Although that particular financial crisis has passed, the Fureai Kippu system has only grown in popularity. At last count, the alternative currency was accepted at 372 centers throughout Japan, and patients surveyed said they like the care they get through the Fureai Kippu system better than what they get from professional service agencies. Thanks to the success of the Fureai Kippu and other pioneering models, close to a thousand alternative currencies are now in use in Japan.
Complementary currencies make it easier to record and administrate value exchange in an increasingly decentralized marketplace. They initiate the process through which local regions or specific sectors learn to create value for themselves instead of having it drained unnecessarily by an artificially chartered monopoly entity. They remind us that some of the things we have in abundance are still valuable, even though markets have not yet been created for them. And they give us a way to transact business during a recession or depression, when central banks and treasuries are more consumed with their own solvency and that of the speculative economy than they are with our ability to conduct the basic transactions through which we take care of one another.
Local currencies are just one possible step in the slow subordination of market activity to social activity, and corporate behavior to human behavior. After all, we don’t spend time volunteering in our public school because we want to earn local credits; we do it to make the place better for our kids. The psychological hurdle to cross is the inability to accept that ten thousand dollars’ worth of one’s time spent making a local school better will create more value than thirty thousand dollars of one’s money spent on a private school. The money guarantees a great education for our own kid; the time improves the school for everyone’s kids. Still plagued by internalized competition and self-interest, most of us are not quite ready to choose the better path, or to convince our neighbors to join us in the effort. Luckily, a desperate lack of funds and employment opportunities can help nudge us toward the more socially beneficial choice.
But the more social we get, the more one voluntary act will encourage another one, and so on. We learn it’s more fun and less time consuming to provide real help to our local elementary school than to take on an extra corporate job to pay for that private one. We reverse the equation through which we calculate how much money we’ll need to insulate ourselves from the world in which we live, and instead how much we can get from and give to that world with no money at all. Reciprocity is not a market phenomenon; it is a social one. And when the market is no longer functioning properly, it is a necessary life skill.
This is where the Internet might even be of some help. Instead of just giving existing fringe groups the imagery and anonymity they need to reinforce their secret cynicism, these networks can also connect those looking to reinforce their sense of hope and connection to others. We can share new models that work, collaborate with like-minded members of other communities, and build decentralized constituencies to fight our common battles. Beneath all its flashy, ad-based social networks, the Internet is still a communications medium, after all. We can use it to find the people and ideas deemed unready for corporate media’s precious prime time.
Perhaps more important, by restoring our connections to real people, places, and values, we’ll be less likely to depend on the symbols and brands that have come to substitute for human relationships. As more of our daily life becomes dictated by the rules of a social ecology instead of those of a market economy, we will find it less necessary to resort to the behavior of corporations whenever things get rough. We might be more likely to know the names of our neighbors, and value them for more than the effect of their landscaping on our block’s real estate prices.
I’ve offered a few suggestions here, but the ones you’ll find will be more particular to your life, your neighborhood, and your situation. That’s the whole point: one size does not fit all. Although corporatism offers itself up as a universal answer to our needs, it really just reduces the myriad complexity of human need down to individual selfishness. This monolithic approach to society and its recovery is antisocial in intent, dehumanizing in effect, and, dare I repeat it, fascist in spirit.
It’s also entirely temporary. We will either arrest corporatism, or it will arrest us.
Instead of fighting corporations with corporations of our own, or working through corporations to reduce their negative impact on our society, we’re better off reinventing ourselves as humans. We live on a terrain and in a dimension they can pollute but to which they will never belong. By working on this human-scaled landscape instead, we can create the changes in our own lives and communities that stand a chance, in aggregate, of trickling up and changing how the big world operates as well.
We can’t look for those kinds of changes overnight. The grand expectations we have for ourselves and our achievements are really just the false promises of consumerism, brand culture, and the politics of revolutionary change. This is the ideological heritage of the Renaissance, and what brought us into the cycle of utopian hopes and alienated cynicism we’re churning through today.
We’d each like to launch a national movement, create the website that teaches the world how to build community from the bottom up, develop the curriculum that saves public schools, or devise the clever anti-marketing media campaign that breaks the spell of advertising once and for all. But these ego trips are the artifacts of the strident individualism we were taught to embrace. The temptation to save the whole world—and get the credit—comes at the expense of steps we might better take to make our immediate world a more fruitful, engaging, sustainable, and satisfying place. A successful movement depends on getting attention from media and institutions that are dead set against recognizing our ability to create value ourselves, and for its own sake. The minute they find out what we’re up to, it’s their job to dash our hopes and return our attention to the false idols they’re selling us.
We’ll run into obstacles soon enough. A friend of mine—from the genuinely activist culture fighting to stay in Park Slope—is building bicycle lanes throughout Brooklyn and has fought with enough legislators for zoning changes that he now knows his way around City Hall. A collective in the Midwest outfitting their homes with solar panels is in a battle with the utility company to be permitted to sell the electricity they create back through the power grid. Parents in Pennsylvania got themselves elected to the school board so that they could give themselves permission to teach computer skills to their own public school teachers, whose union originally resisted teachers’ being forced to get online. Once we start reinvesting in our local reality and reaping the returns, the corporatized institutions accustomed to extracting this value at our expense—be they private or public—will do their best to stall our progress.
Finally, we must fight the notion that redirecting our concerns in this fashion represents a retreat into provincial self-interest. The efforts may be local, but the effects are global. Every gallon of gas we don’t burn is a few bucks less going to exploit someone in the Middle East. Every student we educate properly has more potential to create value for us all. Every plate of chard we grow is another patch of topsoil saved, another square foot of room on a truck, and another nail in the coffin of Big Agra. Every Little League game we coach is an assault on the obesity epidemic, every illiterate adult we teach to read may become one fewer welfare case to fund, and every hour we spend with friends is that many eyeballs fewer glued to the TV. The little things we do are big, all by themselves.
The best reason to begin reconnecting with real people, places, and value is that it feels good. Happiness doesn’t come from the top down, but from the bottom up. The moment we think of ourselves as part of a movement, instead of real people, will be the moment we are much more susceptible to being disheartened or sidetracked by the business page, the terror alert, and the never-ending call to self-interest.
But real people doing real things for one another—without expectations— is the very activity that has been systematically extracted from our society over the past four hundred years through the spectacular triumph of corporatism. And this local, day-to-day, mundane pleasure is what makes us human in the first place.
[Thank you Douglas for suggesting using the last chapter of your book here]
The writer is the author of Life Inc: How Corporatism Conquered the World and How We Can Take it Back, from which this piece was excerpted (in the book it is entitled ”Here and Now: The opportunity to Reconnect”). His site is http://rushkoff.com