The relevant force here is the division of labor, with firms growing ever more specialized in their core functions, farming out secondary and tertiary tasks to other specialized firms. The division of labor is the story of human social progress, but it is difficult to make an opera about it, to say nothing of a space opera.
The one major exception to the trend — oil-and-gas companies — is notable in that the global energy trade is dominated by state-run firms, such as Saudi Aramco, and their partners and subcontractors. Normal corporations are increasingly ad hoc collections of people, processes, and capital, but firms that are united with states are more like government agencies, a fact that highlights the fundamental difference between market processes and political processes. Petróleos de Venezuela produces fossil fuels, and is a fossil itself.
The fetishization of the political through regulator-heroes such as Jennifer Government relies on the point-counterpoint of corporation and state; without the threat of the monolithic, immortal, all-powerful corporation hovering silently in the cultural background, the rhetoric and philosophy of (for instance) Elizabeth Warren is faintly ridiculous. Which is not to say it is entirely indefensible in every particular — Senator Warren is right in demanding to know, say, why nobody at HSBC has been charged with a crime as a result of the bank’s money-laundering case, which involved such worrisome entities as Mexican cartels and Saudi financiers of terrorism. (Senator Warren might think about addressing some of her questions to the president rather than browbeating his underlings at a politically safe arm’s length.) But the overarching narrative — if not for the far-seeing, brave, and selfless heroes of the political class, we’d end up living in the world of Jennifer Government — is a fantasy, and a childish one at that.
Literature helps to distill the complexity of life into a more usable approximate understanding, but the literature of the corporation is outdated. There is a rich, deep vein of skepticism of political power that runs from Aesop’s fables to the poetry of Ted Hughes, but we have in the main lost the thread when it comes to the relationship between business and politics. A few writers have groped their way toward an understanding of those complexities, for example David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and its humorous conceit of “Subsidized Time” — the calendar years of the future do not have numbers but instead corporate sponsors, beginning with the Year of the Whopper, the Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad, and the Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar and culminating in the Year of Dairy Products from the American Heartland, the Year of the Depends Adult Undergarment, and the climactic Year of Glad. William Gibson gave us some very standard corporate dystopias in books such as Virtual Light, but in his more recent work — which is, not coincidentally, set in the present or the indistinguishably immediate future — he more deftly describes our multipolar, anarchic world, one in which governments and corporations are players, but so are obscure marketing companies, fashion entrepreneurs, celebrity cults, freelance terrorists, drugs, container shipping, and a thousand other factors.
Technological and social change can flummox even the most insightful observers. No less a reporter than the great Tom Wolfe had readers throwing their shoes at him in frustration when, in the course of I Am Charlotte Simmons, he had sophisticated and well-to-do college students equipping their dorm rooms with fax machines — in 2003, a year in which the typical college freshman had probably never seen a fax machine.
It is hard to keep up, but it is important to do so, because technological and economic changes are reshaping important aspects of our shared social lives. The dozen or so major media outlets that dominated American political and social life for a generation are increasingly irrelevant, while bestselling books increasingly come up outside the reach of the major publishing houses, with conventional publishers trying to grab a piece of the next big thing as it passes them by. Hugh Howey, the author of the popular Wool science-fiction series, was offered a six-figure advance by a major publisher at a time when he was already making that much every month selling his work through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing platform.
And while conventional firearms makers worry about the impact of new regulation, a nonprofit is distributing plans for using the increasingly cheap and accessible technology of 3-D printing to create 30-round Kalashnikov-style magazines — and they’ve mockingly dubbed the design “the Feinstein” after the enthusiastic California gun-controller. Colt’s Manufacturing Company will comply with whatever new regulations come down from the Hill — but a few million Kalashnikov enthusiasts with access to 3-D printers will practically ignore that law out of existence.
The antagonism between the monolithic corporation and the heroic regulator-god is an attractive scenario for progressives (and for conservatives hostile to globalization), because it keeps alive the delusion that the world can be controlled. But that is not reality — not today, and not in the future, and there is nothing that the messianic pretensions of Barack Obama and the political tendency he represents can do about that. The far-off year of 2019 is going to be a lot more unpredictable, and a lot more interesting, than Ridley Scott ever imagined.