It seems like the Dark Ages were not perhaps so "dark?"
Yes, I think that's disinformation. I'm not usually a conspiracy theorist about these things, but I think the reason why we celebrate the Renaissance as a high point of western culture is really a marketing campaign. It was a way for Renaissance monarchs and nation-states, and the industrial age powers that followed, to recast the end of one of the most vibrant human civilizations we've had, as a dark, plague-ridden, horrible time.
Historically, the plague arrived after the invention of the chartered corporation, and after central currency was mandated. Central currency became law, and 40 years later you get the plague. People got that poor that quickly. They were no longer allowed to use the land. It shifted from an abundance model to a scarcity model; from an economy based on annual grain production to one based on gold released by the king.
That's a totally different way of understanding money. Land was no longer a thing the peasants could grow stuff on, land became an investment, land became an asset class for the wealthy. Once it became an asset class they started Partitioning and Enclosure, which meant people weren't allowed to grow stuff on it, so subsistence farming was no longer a viable lifestyle. If you can't do subsistence farming you must find a job, so then you go into the city and volunteer to do unskilled labor in a proto-factory for some guy who wants the least-skilled, cheapest labor possible. You move your whole family to where the work is, into the squalor, where conditions are overcrowded and impoverished -- the perfect breeding ground for plague and death!
How does idea of the individual fit into these other developments?
Corporatism, with its promotion of competition between individuals over scarce resources and money, laid the ground for individualism and for a heightened concept of the self. I'm a media ecologist, I look at media and society as an ecology in which changes in one area reflect changes in another. The notion of the individual was invented, re-invented, in the Renaissance. This is part of why it was a re-naissance, a re-birth of old ideas, the rebirth of Greek ideals. The the Greek notion of the individual, which was always "the individual in relationship to the state," the citizen, was recast as "the individual."
The first individual in Renaissance literature was Dr. Faustus, who represented the extreme limits of greed. This was the new man, not a citizen of the city-state but an individual who has his own perspective on the world. We get perspective painting in the Renaissance, which meant the individual was a self-sufficient being whose point of view is important; we get reading in the Renaissance, which meant that a man can sit alone in his study and have his own relationship to the Bible, instead of gathering in the town square or the church, having the Bible read to him by a priest, as part of a congregation. So on the one hand it was this beautiful celebration of individual consciousness and perspective, but on the other it was all in the context of a new economy, one in which individuals were in competition against one another for scarce jobs, scarce resources, scarce land, and scarce money.
Everyone is going to ask, but what about the artists? So: what about the artists?
Historians say that one of the great things about the Renaissance were the patrons who could patronize a great artist. But before the Renaissance you didn't need a "patron" in order to be an artist! You could actually live in a town and do some stuff and be a great artist. The Renaissance model of commerce and arts was not a pre-existing condition of the universe. Yes, the Vatican could commission some basilica to be painted, but . . . I'd be interested to see what Leonardo da Vinci or Michelangelo would have been like had they not been part of a centralized bureaucracy, but instead been independent little homespun artist guys. They might have been better artists, you never know.
So now we have individuals and corporations as we know them.
The king's currency, centralized currency, is monopoly currency; demurrage currencies were declared illegal by the king. Why? First, centralized currency is easier to tax. Second, the king could remove gold from the currency whenever he wanted, he could basically suck the value out of it at will. And finally, because this is a currency based in scarcity, everyone has to compete for it. It's a way to help people who have money be powerful just for having money -- not because of what they can spend, but because of what they can hold.
So money becomes a resource.
It becomes a resource in itself. Actually it's a resource once-removed, literally a derivative, the first derivative. Centralizing turns money from a representation of something real into a derivative asset class. We live in this derivatives-based economy today, it has trickled down to us in the form of central banking. Now most people believe that the way to fuel an economy is for a bank to inject money, and the way to start a business is by borrowing from the bank. The way that money comes into existence is it is literally lent into existence. But for every dollar that is lent into existence, for every dollar you earn, there's a negative on the balance sheet somewhere.
The money supply has to grow as a function of interest. The rate at which we do business and make profit is actually driven and determined by the debt structure of the company rather than supply and demand. This is what Adam Smith was actually talking about. Adam Smith was NOT a free market libertarian, he was not a corporate industrialist the way the Economist or the Wall Street Journal likes to paint him. Smith said that economies only work in scale, they only work locally. He was living in a world where everyone was a farmer, and he hated corporations as much as he hated central government, because he knew that an interest-based economy does not ultimately work. And that is because debt is not actually a product! There's nothing there. Nothing. Yet that's what it was made for. The debt-based economy was invented so that people with money could get richer by having money, that's what it's FOR. I'm not saying it's evil, it was an idea. But, it doesn't actually work. If the number of people who want to make money by having money gets so big that there are more people existing that way than actually producing anything, eventually the economy will collapse.
What kind of stuff?
Sitting with a friend . . . OK, I'll sit with a friend as long as I have my Paxil or something, because it's almost like we've been acculturated to be desocialized.
We have been!
I can spend time with you because we're doing work, right?
Right, it's productive.
Productive -- and we can measure it on the tape! Is it still turning? [yes]
You're saying money is not value-neutral.
Not only is money not value-neutral, but our money is not money-neutral. Our currency is not the only money. There are other kinds of money, just like there are different kinds of media out there, and they all encourage different behaviors. Computers encourage certain kinds of behavior, television encourages certain kinds of behavior. A gold-based money encourages certain kinds of behavior, a centralized currency encourages certain kinds of behavior, and a demurrage local grain-based currency encourages certain other kinds of behavior. The kind of behavior that our money encourages, intentionally, by design, is: hoarding. This is currency that earns interest over time so you want to hoard it and not spend it. And that's OK if you need that tool.
Did the rise of PR just happen, or did they have to do that in order to prevent things from getting out of control?
They had to do that in order to prevent things from getting out of control. The significant points in the development of public relations were all at crisis moments. For example, labor movements; it's not just that labor was revolting but that people were seeing that labor was revolting. There was a need to re-fashion the stories so that people would think that labor activists were bad scary people, so that people would think they should move to the suburbs and insulate themselves from these throngs of laborers, from "the masses." Or to return to the Quaker Oats example, people used to look at long-distance-shipped factory products with distrust. Here's a plain brown box, it's being shipped from far away, why am I supposed to buy this instead of something from a person I've known all my life? A mass media is necessary to make you distrust your neighbor and transfer your trust to an abstract entity, the corporation, and believe it will usher in a better tomorrow and all that.
It got the most crafty after WWII when all the soldiers were coming home. FDR was in cahoots with the PR people. Traumatized vets were coming back from WWII, and everyone knew these guys were freaked out and fucked up. We had enough psychology and psychiatry by then to know that these guys were badly off, they knew how to use weapons, and -- this was bad! If the vets came back into the same labor movement that they left before WWII, it would have been all over. So the idea was that we should provide houses for these guys, make them feel good, and we get the creation of Levittown and other carefully planned developments designed with psychologists and social scientists. Let's put these vets in a house, let's celebrate the nuclear family.
DISCRETE FREEDOM RALLY DISCRETELY CONTROLLED
In high school when I needed to do a research project, I would go to the library to find a book. I couldn't help but see the 20 other books on the shelf nearby, I had to read 20 spines before I found mine. And in reading those 20 spines I would see stuff I wouldn't have found otherwise, and I might get ideas for my paper randomly -- not by predetermined choice! I would see them by virtue of the fact that some librarian who was alive before me made a decision, by virtue of legacies and input and real life messiness. Whereas when I'm in the digital realm and I know the book I want, I type it into Google, and it's there. And nothing else.
This discrete freedom of choice sounds like a very controlled environment. I wonder how much real freedom that is?
Right, what are my range of choices? And who's giving me that range? People are utterly unaware of that. So when I look at technology I say well great, people have the ability to write online, but they don't, most of them, have the ability to program. In other words we can enter our text into the little blog box, but we aren't thinking about the biases built into a daily blog structure, which are towards short, daily thoughts, not introspective . . .
Or look at online communities. I'm going to become friends with another person who owns a 2004 red Mini with a sunroof, like mine, rather than with my neighbor who happens to have a different car; I'm going to look for that perfect affinity. But that's not a real relationship, that's my digital relationship, which is discrete! Discrete communities end up groping towards conformity of behavior really quickly.
That's why it's a consumer paradise, because it really does celebrate the idea of increasingly granular affinity groups, increasingly granular product choices.
An over-arching theme I found in the book is how the common-sense stuff of our reality, the economy and money and shopping and working, is really science fiction; we don't live inside a "natural" economic structure -- we made it up.
It gets very much like Baudrillard in a way. We lived in a real world where we created value, and understood the value that we created as individuals and groups for one another. Then we systematically disconnected from the real world: from ourselves, from one another, and from the value we create, and reconnected to an artificial landscape of derivative value of working for corporations and false gods and all that. It is in some sense Baudrillard's three steps of life in the simulacra.
So by now, as Borges would say, we've mistaken the map for the territory. We've mistaken our jobs for work. We've mistaken our bank accounts for savings. We've mistaken our 401k investments for our future. We've mistaken our property for assets, and our assets for the world. We have these places where we live, then they become property that we own, then they become mortgages that we owe, then they become mortgage-backed loans that our pensions finance, then they become packages of debt, and so on and so on. We've been living in a world where the further up the chain of abstraction you operate, the wealthier you are.
So since this is a system we created, we can create something else?
Right, that's what open-source was supposed to be about. I believe that every realm of human experience and design is ultimately open-source if we choose for it to be. That's why I got interested in religion and money, because those seemed to be the two areas that people would not accept an open-source premise. Religion -- of course it isn't, those are sacred truths! But I would argue that Judaism was actually intended as an open-source religion. I've written a book about that, called Nothing Sacred, which was and still is controversial. Because if the Torah is open for interpretation, if it's this beautiful, myriad, hypertextual, hyperdimensional document that it is, then the whole thing is up for grabs: what happens to the real estate, the Israeli state?
Money of course is the other big area, it's still the one thing they won't let you print.
To order the book, see when Douglas Rushkoff might be speaking in your area, and access videos, podcasts, and tons of other stuff, check the Life Inc. website.
Peggy Nelson is a new media artist and writer. Her work has appeared in Litkicks, Hilobrow.com, The Brattle Theater's Film Blog, and OtherZine, a journal about experimental, avant-garde, and outsider cinema