How does “power” sustain itself? Force is not enough, as the power of its “subjects” to topple power through rebellion is always greater than that of the ruling elite to exercise control, as the Tunesians are currently demonstrating to their escaped and arrested rulers. Power needs the buy-in of its subjects, and one of its strategies to maintain itself is to create myths supporting its brand of centralized control that its subjects believe and buy into.
In a talk at the Pivot 2010 Conference, Douglas Rushkoff gives us fascinating insight into the struggle between democratic strivings and the interests of power from a marketing perspective. Branding, he explains, has no place in the social conversation. It is nothing but an instrument of power to intervene in the social process of value creation, and an aid to taking wealth from the real economy and concentrating it in the hands of the dominant class.
Rushkoff sees the bazaar as an early iteration of social value creation. Real people came together in a marketplace in which conversations about useful ideas (memes) were had in the process of exchanging goods and services directly with each other for the purpose of increasing their common well-being. In Rushkoff’s historical analysis, feudal power elites began to experience their superfluity (as a class that created no value in itself), in a world in which the emerging peer-to-peer economy functioned adequately without them. Social networks were a threat to power already in medieval times, so power interests looked for ways to reassert centralized control through intervention in the social dialogue. The two instruments through which they were successful were a centralized currency, and the creation of the chartered corporation to subsume productive work, making hierarchy the defining form of the last few hundred years of human society.
Power today is facing a new challenge from social conversations and democratic interaction. The productive, content-based social conversations happening on new bazaar platforms like E-Bay, Craigslist and Twitter are exposing brands as the myths of power they are, and threaten to cut out the intermediating functions in which power interests have created their base.
In the service of their corporate employers, marketing departments are making valiant efforts to redirect conversations in the network from topics of real interest that are taking place between people, to customers paying attention to brands by putting the brands between people in social conversations.
But Rushkoff says that these attempts are futile and ultimately harmful to the products of the company (to the extent the company has retained any focus on useful products at all). The whole purpose of human conversations, he says, is to enable us to move to a next level of human awareness (in the social mind). We need and look for helpful products and services as we explore, and are happy when we find them.
Part of our search for useful facts involves undermining and toppling the myths which stand in the way of our progress. I would conclude that companies to succeed need to put themselves in the service of our development. Those that fail to provide us with genuine value on our path, or that even get in the way of our process by using brands to try to reanimate myths of power, will soon not have much reason for being.