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 editor of the Federalist and the author of First Freedom: A Ride through America’s Enduring History with the Gun, From the Revolution to Today

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