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Dec 21, 2009 6:49 pm


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I saw James Cameron’s new movie last night. (And it really is Cameron's movie: he gets sole screen credit not only for direction but for writing, and shared credit for producing and editing.) As with Aliens and Titanic, among the villainous characters is a business corporation and a character who obviously represents the (evil) corporate point of view. What makes the business corporation in this movie so evil? Well, it engages in the following practices: using military force to invade and conquer foreign lands, slaughtering wholesale numbers of the inhabitants and burning their dwellings, all in order to steal their property.

As I was sitting through its 162 minutes, my mind began to wander from the vulgarly eye-popping sights on the screen: Gee, I thought, I can’t think of a single business corporation that engages in those particular practices. Office Depot doesn't, and I'm pretty sure Mircrosoft and Dell Inc don't either. Still, such behavior has been far from uncommon throughout history. I can think of any number of corporate bodies that have, to one extent or another, engaged in these very practices.

When I got home, I consulted my research assistant, Ms. Google, for some examples. What we came up with includes, to give a woefully truncated list: the Kingdom of England, the Mongols, the Russians, the Spanish, Umayyads, the French, the Abbasids, the the Almoravids, Portuguese, the Achaemenids, the Sassanids, the Japanese, the Romans, the Uyghurs, the Macedonians, the Ottomans, the Italians, the Dutch, the Germans, the Shaybanids, the Byzantines, the Khazars, the Bactrians, the Belgians, the Assyrians, the Malians, the the Carolingians, the Merovingian, the Thais, the Swedes, the Khmer, the Avars, the Kanems, the Bulgars, the Akkadians, the Ghanians, the Bagans, the Hyksos, the Visigoths, the the Lydians, the the Ostrogoths, the Hittites, the Armenians, the Carthaginians, the Babylonians, the Aztecs, and the Incas. This is not to mention whole series of Chinese states, Indian states, Persian states, and Egyptian states too numerous to mention. Last, but hardly least, there is of course the United States of America.

These corporate bodies are, of course, all states, or proto-states, or markedly state-like entities. These practices are the sorts of things that states do, and have done for thousands of years, going back almost to the beginning of the neolithic (about 12,000 years ago).

This is a phenomenon I've noticed many times. In trying to express in a satisfying way their hatred of business corporations, in conveying their extreme moral indignation against them, storytellers like Cameron often end up making them sound government-like. Why would that be, I wonder?

This was also posted on my personal blog, "E Pur Si Muove!"

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Boonton - 12/23/2009

It's a given for an action movie that you probably need a villain of some sort. It follows then that even a libertarian minded writer would be inclined to have an evil corporation fill the role. If for no other reason than a libertarian would be inclined to favor a future of smaller, less powerful gov'ts. Well that would mean businesses and corporations would be more numerous and more powerful...which implies a villain will turn out to be privately employed rather than a gov't worker.

I'm not a huge fan of Westerns but how many individualistic centered Westerns made their villains self-employed men (as they did their heros)? Or for that matter simply made the hero a lawman (a gov't worker!!!!) Were they hotbeds of 'statist' domination?


Stephan Kinsella - 12/22/2009

Some individuals commit crime--are criminals. Some corporations commit crime--are mini-states. To depict a corporation as criminal is not an indictment of corporations or capitalism any more than depicting an individual as a murderer implies that all individuals are criminal.


Boonton - 12/22/2009

Also I think the reason why 'evil corporations' show up so much is not because people like Cameron have some type of obsession with being anti-corporate (really, the maker of Titanic is Mr.Anti-Corporation? Somewhere a thousand Woodstock hippies are turning in their graves!). It's that it is their nature as articulated by anyone who studies the theories behind the free market.

Adam Smith said it best, we don't get out daily bread out of the baker's kindness but because he is seeking his own self interest. A corporation, likewise, seeks its profit. If its easier to treat suppliers fairly and respectfully, they will do so. On the other hand, if they can obtain supply by stealing it without suffering any offsetting loss in sales to their customers they will do so too. Hence the Dutch East India Company enslaved the source island of cloves...because that was the cheapest way to aquire cloves and clove buying customers in Europe didn't care.

Now you put that together with the fact that action pics usually require villians of some type and you see why the 'evil corporation' is an excellent story device even for the director who is not obsessed with Ralph Nadar-like anti-corporatism.


Roderick T. Long - 12/22/2009

I can't think of a single business corporation that engages in those particular practices

I can't think of many businesses that engage in those particular practices all on their own. But I can think of plenty of businesses that have either gotten governments to engage in those practices on their behalf (examples range from the East India Company to the United Fruit/Brands Company) or have themselves engaged in those practices on some government's behalf (e.g. Blackwater, DynCorp).


Boonton - 12/22/2009

My main point though is that he portrays the corporation as a state in the course of attacking corporations from a statist point of view: ie., that the philosophical position of the film is incoherent.

Since I haven't seen the movie yet, can you explain this point a bit more. Does the story involve the hero getting some type of gov't to put a stop to the evil corporation's antics? What exactly is the "statist point of view" that he uses to attack the 'evil corporation'? Or are you just assuming Hollywood = Democrats = Liberals = Statists = "I flick my brain on autopilot"?


Boonton - 12/22/2009

As to the fact that corporations can't exist without laws, I have never understood what is supposed to follow from that. Marriages can't exist without laws recognizing them, but what does that imply? That everyone is married to the state?

Actually I brought that up because I'm guessing the first thing people will jump on is the claim that the old trading companies were really state enterprises due to their special legal statuses therefore were technically the more mundane 'evil governments' as opposed to 'evil corporations'.

Okay, so if you go back centuries you can find, here and there, business firms that ascend to levels of moral evil that throughout the millennia have been typical of states.

I think you miss that sci-fi tends to be a very conservative medium, despite the sexed up space stuff. It mines the history books pretty heavily. The Dutch East India Company is not a bad analogy for space adventures. In the 1500's, there was extreme riches available from obtaining spices. The easiest way to get spices was to take the few islands that produced them by force. Put the two together and you have an 'evil corporation' that is very nice to its customers on one end, very mean to its suppliers on the other end and has the resources to engage in borderline military behavior.

While today's corporations don't typically have military divisions putting down uprisings in distant parts of the world, I think many people do have a nagging sense that somewhere behind those happy products we buy on the shelves is a lot of nasty stories that never see the light of day. Can anyone really, really vouch for what really happens in China for example?

though I don't think it affects my point, which is that it would convey a garbled message if the point is a statist critique of the corporate way of doing things.

I think what you miss about the motiff of the 'evil corporation' is not that it is a statist critique of the 'corporate way of doing things' but its a critique of statism. The 'evil corporation' is one whose power is so unchecked that it begins to look at act like a state. The 'evil corporation' is simply another flavor of the 'evil state'. It can be bumbling and stupid, arrogant, unresponsive to its stakeholders & uncaring in its use of power. This fits the Trade Federation of Star Wars, it also fits the US Army in "Dances with Wolves".

The critique IMO is a more generalized angst most people have with large organizations of any stripe.


Lester Hunt - 12/22/2009

As far as interpreting works of art, I'm what it called an "intentional realist" -- ie., the work means what its maker intends it to mean. It's usually not easy to apply this idea to movies, since they are typically made by teams of over 100 people who may have conflicting intentions, but here the project is so dominated by one personality that it makes perfect sense to talk about it in terms of what the artist thinks or does not think.

My main point though is that he portrays the corporation as a state in the course of attacking corporations from a statist point of view: ie., that the philosophical position of the film is incoherent.


Lester Hunt - 12/22/2009

Okay, so if you go back centuries you can find, here and there, business firms that ascend to levels of moral evil that throughout the millennia have been typical of states.

You make an interesting point about how such a firm can make a good basis for a sci-fi story -- though I don't think it affects my point, which is that it would convey a garbled message if the point is a statist critique of the corporate way of doing things.

As to the fact that corporations can't exist without laws, I have never understood what is supposed to follow from that. Marriages can't exist without laws recognizing them, but what does that imply? That everyone is married to the state?


Lester Hunt - 12/22/2009

I haven't heard that particular formulation of it, but I think that is basically true. At least it has to be true of American movies because the main intended audience is, in some instinctive, pre-intellectual way, basically individualist. Whether it's true of Russian, French, Japanese, etc., movies -- I'd have to think about that.


Boonton - 12/22/2009

Try the Dutch East India Company:

In 1619, Jan Pieterszoon Coen was appointed Governor-General of the VOC. He was a man of extraordinary vision, far beyond that of the cautious directors at home. He saw the possibility of the VOC becoming an Asian power, both political and economic. He was not afraid to use brute force to put the VOC on a firm footing. On 30 May 1619, Coen, backed by a force of nineteen ships, stormed Jayakarta driving out the Banten forces, and from the ashes, established Batavia as the VOC headquarters. To establish a monopoly for the clove trade, in the 1620s almost the entire native population of the Banda Islands, the source of nutmeg was deported, driven away, starved to death, or killed in an attempt to replace them with Dutch plantations, operated with slave labour. He hoped to settle large numbers of Dutch colonists in the East Indies, but this part of his policies never materialized, because the Heren XVII were wary at the time of large, open-ended financial commitments
(from wikipedia)*

I imagine the history of slave trading would also have some prototypes of the 'Evil Corporation' myth. Recently I just finished The Invisible Hook about the economics of pirates.

The golden age of pirates lasted only briefly but for a while they were essentially a corporation whose business model was theft and violence. If they had a longer period of time, though, its not implausible to imagine a large corporation of piracy. Since sci-fi motiffs of interstellar trade and galaxy wide economies allow a scale big enough for even a massive multi-national to get lost in the big scheme of things the powerful 'evil corporation' seems like a pretty plausible sci-fi stoy line.**

* Please don't play the "they aren't a corporation but a state" game. All corporations exist becaue the state passes laws recognizing them.

** IMO an evil corporation makes more sense than an evil nation in many sci-fi stories. A nation is stuck with the people who are born inside of it. That means low skilled people as well as people who just don't like the gov't of the evil nation. An evil corporation, on the other hand, is free to hire only the best and brightest and its employees can all be said to be willing. IMO it would be quite easy for a 'evil corporation' type entity to develop in the worlds of Star Wars or Star Trek.


Daniel Klein - 12/22/2009

A long time ago, in Reason, I believe, David Henderson coined "Henderson's Law of Movies," which held that invariably the villain, whether a creature from big business, the government, or outerspace, was an initiator of coercion.


Stephan Kinsella - 12/22/2009

Not sure it matters if Cameron "recognizes" that it's a state. He portrays it as one, as you say. It's also not impossible to imagine a future world where mini-states are called, or even evolved from, corporations.


Lester Hunt - 12/21/2009

It is indeed a mini-state, but I know of no evidence that Cameron noticed this, nor how it garbles his lumpen-leftist message.


Stephan Kinsella - 12/21/2009

It's a mini-state or arm of the state. Though I agree, I wish they would have called it that. still, good flick. I mini-reviewed it here.

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