Putting the crisis in books

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There’s nothing new about corporate greed. Organized plunder can be traced back to the very beginnings of the modern era, when princes first began to charter monopolistic corporations in order to grab wealth generated by new kinds of trade.
So says writer Douglas Rushkoff, at the Boston Public Library on Tuesday night to talk about his new book “Life, Inc.: How the World Became a Corporation and How to Take it Back.”

"The problem for monarchs in the Renaissance was, how do you govern people when they become too rich to control," Rushkoff pointed out. "They weren't about to take their rings off. Instead, they empowered the richest people they could find to take the value created by others in commerce and make it their own."

Fast forward four hundred years and you have the credit crisis, in which government regulations written to preserve power rather than protect the interests of society failed to stave off a historic meltdown.

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It took a crisis to create a climate for reflection. While talk show hosts berate the stock pickers and politicians seek quick remedies, there are new books that, like Rushkoff's, address the challenges of the Great Recession with moral rigor and practical intent.

Matthew B. Crawford's “Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work” examines the cultural toll taken by a half century of meritocracy, in which we've pushed our young people to choose stultifying lives in a corporate neverland over the humbler certainties of the trades. A political philosopher and a motorcycle mechanic, Crawford makes a powerful case for the rewards of manual work – in which the pursuit of perfection ceases to be a marketing slogan and is renewed in the rigors of making.

Where Crawford explores production, Deyan Sudjic takes a look at products in “The Language of Things: Understanding the World of Desirable Objects.” According to Sudjic, the collapse isn't only the result of greed and aspiration, but was also fueled by an unquenchable desire for consumer products. In Sudjic's estimation, desirable objects – steam-jetting espresso machines, curvaceous SUVs, laptops of brushed aluminum – speak a language of desire that our brain's pleasure centers find irresistible.

Now that it's all come tumbling down, what's to be done? Like Sudjic and Crawford, Rushkoff doesn't recommend revolution, but a gentle rebirth of the ways of life that have always served humans well: share burdens like child care and food production rather than selling them to the lowest bidder; make things we can be proud of; learn to decode the idioms of power and desire.

"Real people doing real things for each other," Rushkoff writes, "is the very activity that has been systematically extracted from our society over the past four hundred years." If the economic downturn brings about the rediscovery of such principles, then maybe it isn't a crisis after all. Instead, maybe it's the end of one.

Matthew Battles is a writer living in Boston; follow him on Twitter.

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