The past several years have been witness to any number of distasteful spectacles in American presidential politics as Barack Obama has transformed himself into a hybrid of priest-king and celebrity — caesaropapism as filtered through the sensibility of Hollywood, The Golden Bough meets Us Weekly. The perfect expression of this was Michelle Obama, surrounded by the splendid plumage of her ceremonial military guard, presenting an Academy Award as the assembled Central Committee of Celebrity Inc. prostrated itself before the blessed image. Our ministers of culture like to think of themselves as the bold few who Speak Truth to Power, but in fact they could not be more abject in their subservience to power. And as Sean Penn’s pilgrimage to view the soon-to-be enshrined carcass of Hugo Chávez reminds us, the more naked and brutal the power in question, the deeper the genuflection it inspires.
Mrs. Obama’s move to occupy the Oscars put me in mind of Max Barry’s 2003 science-fiction novel, Jennifer Government, one of the saddest displays of subservience to political power in recent literature. In Barry’s dystopia, the libertarians (or at least a cartoon version of them) have finally won out, and the state has been reduced to a Nozickian nightwatchman. People adopt the surnames of their employers, with the novel’s principal conflict playing out between the heroic field agent Jennifer Government and her wicked antagonist, the sneaker potentate John Nike.
The novel was a success, the production company owned by George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh optioned the film rights, and Mr. Barry said he hoped that Nicole Kidman would be cast as Jennifer Government. The film was never made, but Mr. Barry enjoyed a measure of cultural cachet: Another of his novels, Company, was listed by the business magazine Fast Company among the top ten “people, ideas, and trends that will change how we work and live.” In case his theme has escaped anybody, Mr. Barry currently operates a website called “Tales of Corporate Oppression.”
That the future will be dominated by amoral international (or interstellar) corporations is a constant theme of science fiction and, not unrelatedly, of progressive political thought. The rogues’ gallery includes Cyberdyne Systems (Terminator), Weyland-Yutani (Alien), Omni Consumer Products (Robocop), and Charlton Heston’s friends at Soylent Inc. The gold standard of the genre is the Tyrel Corporation, from Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner, an adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? The film, which is indisputably a visual masterpiece, is much heavier on the theme of corporate dominance than the novel is, which is strange: The corporation of 1982 was a smaller and weaker thing than the corporation of 1968.
At its best, science fiction imagines a future that illuminates the present, but on the subject of the social role of the corporation, science fiction has long been backward-looking, out of touch with the reality it would analyze. The cultural imagination at large shares this error, though it is difficult to say how much this defect in science fiction is a result of the cultural error and how much it is the cause. But it would be difficult to overstate how deeply the specter of the villainous corporation shapes American political thought. The influence is more visible the farther to the left one moves along the political spectrum. Occupy Wall Street was probably at least as much influenced by science-fiction visions of corporate dystopias as it was by any kind of organized political thought. There were unmistakably Maoist elements to Occupy, but the sinister connotations of the very word “corporation” are by no means heard by only those ears attached to the addled heads of committed leftists.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was set in 1992, Blade Runner in 2019, yet here we are, well into the 21st century, and there is still no colossal Tyrel Corporation bestriding the globe, and nothing like the corporate sovereignties of Jennifer Government. As myth, the corporate dystopia remains undiminished in its power. But the function of myths is to illuminate reality, and the reality is that there is no Tyrel Corporation today, and none on the horizon. If you want to know what the corporation of tomorrow looks like, don’t think Cyberdyne — think Groupon.
You would not know it from reading fiction, speaking with Occupy types, or listening to the speeches at the Democratic National Convention, but the corporation as we know it is in decline: The average size of a corporation as measured by personnel has been diminishing since 1975. In 1955 the largest U.S. company, General Motors, employed 576,000 people out of a U.S. population of 166 million; today Exxon Mobil, the largest U.S. company, employs only 82,000 people. Microsoft employs fewer than 100,000 people worldwide; Google employs about 54,000, and Facebook fewer than 6,000.
More significant, the economic footprint of the biggest corporations is contracting. At one point, the market value of U.S. Steel was about 4.5 percent of the U.S. GDP; Exxon Mobil is worth barely half that today. GM’s world market share was about 50 percent in 1960, and its profit was about $8 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars. Today no single automaker has a market share of more than 20 percent in the United States or Europe, and in 2012 there was not one firm in the world with manufacturing profits exceeding GM’s $8 billion level of 1960. The biggest manufacturing-oriented firm in 2011 was General Electric, but half of its profit came from financial services, and at about $5 billion, its manufacturing profit was far less than GM’s was in 1960. In fact, there were only about 20 firms worldwide with larger profits than GM’s 1960 benchmark, most of them technology firms (Google, Apple) and financial groups (JPMorgan, Goldman Sachs).
Only 67 of the firms in the Fortune 500 in 1955 remained there by 2011. And the rate of corporate extinction is accelerating. Corporations are shorter-lived now: In the early 1960s, the average lifespan of a Fortune 500 company was about 75 years; today it is 15 years and declining. It is difficult to imagine building a corporate monument like the Chrysler Building today: Few firms will live long enough to justify the expense. (And if you think that corporate executives live large in the 21st century, consider the curious fact that the Chrysler Corporation never owned the Chrysler Building, though it was headquartered there. Walter P. Chrysler paid the expense of building the world’s tallest skyscraper out of his own pocket, because he wanted eventually to make a gift of the building to his children.)
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.