Magazine | November 17, 2014, Issue

Return of the Son of the Corporate Villain, Part III

A-listers Ben Affleck and Matt Damon recently announced that they would be pooling their talents to produce a new television drama for the Sci-Fi Network titled “Incorporated.” The series, a futuristic thriller set in a shadowy world where corporations are imbued with seemingly unlimited power, will focus on the courageous efforts of one man to beat the system.

If this premise sounds somewhat familiar, you might be thinking of another Damon project called “Elysium,” a sci-fi thriller set in the shadowy futuristic world of Los Angeles, where a corporation with seemingly unlimited powers produces an array of weapons and murderous robots in an effort to keep millions of potential consumers in a constant state of crippling poverty. Elysium is the story of one working stiff’s courageous efforts to beat the system.

Then again, who knows, it’s also conceivable that you were anticipating the forthcoming Avatar sequels. The original blockbuster takes place on a mysterious planet where a corporation uses its seemingly unlimited power to abuse the indigenous population and strip-mine for a precious mineral named — preposterously enough — “unobtainium.” Avatar is the story of one paraplegic’s courageous fight to beat the system.

Let’s face it, there’s no end to fictional dystopian worlds that feature sinister plutocrats who are compelled to deal with do-gooders stubbornly fighting the system. Not in Hollywood, at least. Audiences don’t seem to mind these banal scripts very much, either. So fictional corporatism isn’t done with us yet. And critics will, no doubt, find Incorporated chilling, powerful, and plausible — because, if you haven’t heard already, America is dealing with a contemporary crisis of unfettered greed.

Everyone is apprehensive about amorphous entities like “Wall Street” or “Big Business” these days. Modern-day Willie Starks warn the nation that the Citizens United decision has freed corporations to purchase democracy outright, that Hobby Lobby will take over your reproductive rights under the cloak of religious freedom, and that oil-and-gas firms are methodically extinguishing Earth for the almighty dollar.

In a recent NBC poll, we find 42 percent of voters hold negative views about New York financial institutions, while a mere 14 percent have a favorable opinion of places that lend them money to buy houses and cars or that care for their pensions and retirement accounts. The Great Recession has intensified an irrational mistrust of all corporations. A mistrust that has created more politicians steeling themselves for battle against corporate malfeasance than there are Matt Damon movies about fighting corporate malfeasance. So, in other words, a whole lot.

Corporations spend billions of dollars every year trying to convince you to trust them, because, unlike, say, the IRS, they lack the ability to coerce you to watch Elysium. And best of all, they spend billions trying to put one another out of business — a mechanism that renders the prospects of any one corporate entity’s lording it over society about as far-fetched as Matt Damon’s playing a mathematical genius. Which is not to contend that Big Business — run by a bunch of flawed human beings — is undeserving of scorn for its rent-seeking, thievery, skullduggery, and other shady behavior. If a little populist sentiment can help contain some of the cronyistic tendencies of corporate America, it can’t be all that terrible.

As things stand, none of that really matters. Any beneficial fixes to the system are overshadowed by an arms race of theatrical, emotion-driven, freshman-year gibberish regarding the perils of capitalism. You don’t have to go farther than presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, who recently told an audience in Boston that Americans should not “let anybody” tell them “that it’s corporations and businesses that create jobs.” No, I don’t believe Clinton is socialist any more than I believe Joe Biden believes his recent semi-coherent rant about hedge-fund-managing “Shylocks” sinking the economy for kicks. These are nothing more than vapid applause lines dropped for the benefit of sycophantic audiences jonesing for a populist fix.

The problem is, that’s basically all we have left. Liberal pundits protested all the attention, arguing that Clinton’s comments were “decontextualized.” As Hillary later explained, in a slew of non sequiturs, her remarks were a “shorthand” to denote the broader problems of “trickle-down economics” and the outsized influence of Big Business. Democrats have increasingly used shorthand that features words like “Koch” and “brothers” to stoke paranoia about the role of corporate America in everyday life. What we really learned from Clinton’s awkward Elizabeth Warren impression is that in the next election cycle she’ll be playing the courageous woman out to beat the system.

Now, granted, a narrative that casts Hillary Clinton, a woman who pulls down six figures every time she gives a talk about a career built on little more than nepotism, as the champion of a fair economy seems a bit too far-fetched. But let’s suspend our disbelief. After all, in this shadowy world in which corporations are imbued with seemingly unlimited power, the president of the United States can hang out at a $16 million Greenwich, Conn., estate owned by a man named Rich Richman and ask donors to pay $30,000 a plate to hear him slam the impending oligarchy. So in politics, as in Hollywood, anything is possible.

Conservatives have long lamented Hollywood’s leftist depiction of capitalism as a fountain of demonic monopolists and little else. One imagines that stories about the peaceful, voluntary exchange of goods and services between people with free will just don’t have the same cinematic punch. Granted, even I have a difficult time completely discounting the ugly depictions of corporate America, mostly because studios seem to have unlimited power to produce films with the same plotline in perpetuity. Our political debate is, evidently, destined for a similar fate.

– Mr. Harsanyi is a senior editor of the Federalist.

David Harsanyi is a senior writer for National Review and the author of First Freedom: A Ride through America’s Enduring History with the Gun

In This Issue

Articles

Politics & Policy

Jurassic Cards

The business card seems to be surviving the speedy displacement and long death of print media, but nobody knows exactly why. Already a relic before the 20th century began, an ...
Politics & Policy

The Ike Theme Park

After a federal planning board rejected his unpopular design last spring, architect Frank Gehry downsized his proposed national memorial to Dwight D. Eisenhower in Washington, D.C. In October, both the ...

Features

Politics & Policy

Empty Integrity

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “integrity” in part as “soundness of moral principle; the character of uncorrupted virtue, esp. in relation to truth and fair dealing; uprightness, honesty, sincerity.” This ...

Books, Arts & Manners

Politics & Policy

Touched by the Divine

Someone who wants to understand why conservative Protestants don’t vacate the public square now that their kind of religion seems to have been so completely routed — can anyone think ...
Country Life

In a Dry Season

The mountains upstate are the tap, the fire hydrant, the wellhead for the city. Decades ago the thirsty megalopolis bought land to serve as gigantic offsite gutters and rain barrels. ...
Politics & Policy

A Vanished Breed

‘Republican in name only,” “country-club Republican,” “establishment Republican”: These are the terms grassroots conservatives use to attack their moderate Republican opponents, whom they consider “squishes” and elitists — people who ...

Sections

The Long View

Memorandum

TO: New-Business Teams, Both Dem and Rep FROM: Media Team RE: Signing up new clients for Campaign Cycle 2016 Hi all . . . As we all digest the midterm results, we’ve got to ...
Politics & Policy

Poetry

MORE SPACE An anthropology of space? A Cape May Scenario: porches, hammocks, flags; lawns Without stone ornaments, small windows That are bow-shaped for the sea wind, Mail boxes with salt-air-withered signs, The pavements narrow enough for ...
Politics & Policy

Letters

The Inherent Danger of SWAT Teams Regarding Jay Nordlinger’s piece “A Job Like No Other” (September 22): I certainly sympathize with the police in general. It’s a necessary and difficult job. ...
Politics & Policy

The Week

‐ President Obama’s credit card was refused. From force of habit, he shut down the Washington Monument. ‐ Two in Canada, one in Queens: The end of October was marked by ...
Athwart

It’s Ineffable

If you wanted to change minds and win hearts about the issues that face women today, of course you’d take cute little girls who embody the sweet joy of innocence ...

Most Popular

Culture

‘Epstein Didn’t Kill Himself’

It was just one more segment to fill out the hour, and thereby fill the long 24 hours of Saturday’s cable news on November 2. Or so it seemed. Navy SEAL Mike Ritland was on the Fox News program Watters World to talk to Jesse Watters about trained German shepherds like the one used in the raid that found ... Read More
Politics & Policy

ABC Chief Political Analyst: GOP Rep. Stefanik a ‘Perfect Example’ of the Failures of Electing Someone ‘Because They Are a Woman’

Matthew Dowd, chief political analyst for ABC News, suggested that Representative Elise Stefanik (R., N.Y.) was elected due to her gender after taking issue with Stefanik's line of questioning during the first public impeachment hearing on Wednesday. “Elise Stefanik is a perfect example of why just electing ... Read More
Film & TV

The Manly Appeal of Ford v Ferrari

There used to be a lot of overlap between what we think of as a Hollywood studio picture (designed to earn money) and an awards movie (designed to fill the trophy case, usually with an accompanying loss of money). Ford v Ferrari is a glorious throwback to the era when big stars did quality movies about actual ... Read More
White House

Impeachment and the Broken Truce

The contradiction at the center of American politics in Anno Domini 2019 is this: The ruling class does not rule. The impeachment dog-and-pony show in Washington this week is not about how Donald Trump has comported himself as president (grotesquely) any more than early convulsions were about refreshed ... Read More
U.S.

What Happened to California Republicans?

From 1967 to 2019, Republicans controlled the California governorship for 31 of 52 years. So why is there currently not a single statewide Republican officeholder? California also has a Democratic governor and Democratic supermajorities in both houses of the state legislature. Only seven of California’s 53 ... Read More
World

China’s Holocaust of Children

Using the aggressively bland term “one-child policy” is a bit like saying that 1942 Germany had restrictions on Jews. You may never have thought much about how a huge nation enforces a limit of one baby per family, but the horrifying details of China's Holocaust of children emerge in a powerful documentary ... Read More