Start making cents

By Adam Molner

Author traces roots of corporate crisis, offers alternatives

For about 1,000 years we’ve been asleep. Corporate marketing and advertising, growing ever more sophisticated, has been our lullaby. Now, as a result of the financial crisis, many of us are starting to wake up. Think of Douglas Rushkoff as an alarm clock. Rushkoff is an author, professor, comic book writer, documentary filmmaker and media critic. He refers to his latest book, “Life Inc.: How the World Became a Corporation and How to Take it Back,” as his life’s work.

The book explains how our current troubles started long before the sub-prime mortgage bubble.According to Rushkoff, this whole thing really started in Europe during the “Dark Ages,” which, Rushkoff tells us, really weren’t so dark. This period, thought of as an intellectual and economic void, was actually quite prosperous. The reason for this prosperity was the people’s ability to create wealth and the use of complementary currencies.

In Rushkoff ’s view, it was during the Renaissance, a so-called “Golden Age,” when things really started to go bad. This was the age of the chartered corporation. Aristocrats, fearing that people creating wealth from the periphery would usurp their supremacy, began granting corporations monopolies, which in turn would remain loyal to those who chartered them. Additionally, those in power outlawed all forms of currency other than a central one.

Rather than creating wealth from the bottom-up, it was doled out from the top down. Corporations such as the East India Company (a chartered monopoly) made it illegal for people in India to make salt, a resource that was by no means scarce (remember Gandhi?). The people had to get their salt from the company. This made the people dependent on the company and prevented them from creating value on their own.

In “Life Inc.,” Rushkoff details how corporations took on their own lives and continued to grow and grow, usually with the help of government. As they grew, we became more disconnected from our neighbors and the products we were using. Eventually we weren’t getting our flour from someone in our own town but from some distant corporation. The brand was created to put a face on things. An example from the book is the Quaker Oatmeal guy. Eventually, we became isolated from our neighbors and dependent on corporations for everything we need.

With this latest book, Ruskoff has prepared a rich, well-researched history of just how screwed up our system is. But “Life Inc.” is by no means a nihilist treatise. This isn’t about letting it all come crashing down and rebuilding on the ashes. Rushkoff insists we still need corporations for some things. When it comes to producing computers or cars, a top-down system is much more efficient. But there is a lot more we can begin doing for each other.

This is where the book outlines tangible solutions for today’s economic woes. During a recent phone interview, I talked with Rushkoff about Lansing’s dependence on the fleeing auto industry and our governor’s promise to “bring” jobs to our state.

Rushkoff said this kind of thinking is precisely the problem. We can’t simply wait for some big corporations to come and rescue us; we need to start rescuing ourselves. Instead of trying to lure companies to Lansing with promises of huge tax incentives and a license to pollute, Ruskoff said we should work on creating wealth for ourselves. We do this by figuring out what we’re good at and what value we have to offer, and then, one option, is to create a complementary currency.

This is not a new thing. “A lot of local currencies were developed during the Great Depression, and that’s what really accounted for our ability to get out of it,” Rushkoff said.

In the last 20 years we’ve begun to see a resurgence of these mediums of exchange. The most famous is the Ithaca Hour time dollar started in 1991. Recently, other cities have adopted time dollars, including the Detroit Cheer, a paper currency that can be traded for goods and services. A time dollar can be earned when you perform a service for your neighbor, whether it be cooking, babysitting, car repair, etc. Time dollars come in denominations of hours of time reflecting actual work done. Rushkoff said this levels the playing field and allows local people to compete with corporations. Since the time dollars can only be spent locally, it also keeps money within communities.

“Most people look at it and say, ‘OK, well how are people ever going to trust a complementary currency?’ And the fact is, you don’t need to trust a complementary currency, because it’s real; it’s actual hours of time that you get credited to you as opposed to the currency we use now,” Rushkoff explained. “The faith-based currency is the one we’re using.”

In order to find out what people are good at, we’re going to have to get out there and start interacting again. Community relationships waned as corporations told us we didn’t need our neighbors anymore.

Rushkoff believes working with our neighbors and depending on each other can not only get us through these tough times, but also actually ensure that this doesn’t happen again. Additionally, we gain the experience of human interaction, which isn’t reflected in the GDP. It’s something that is truly priceless, and you won’t need your MasterCard to get it.