Dystopian stories are full of evil corporations that rule the world. But writers seldom explain how they rose to power in the first place. Could an amoral mega-corp really exist? We talked to a couple experts to find out. The good news: It probably couldn't happen. Bad news: We may already be getting something worse.
First let's be clear what we're talking about: Our Faceless Evil Corporation That Might Or Might Not Exist In Real Life is an entity that has superseded government functions, runs all public and private services, and exercises direct and enforceable control over a civilian population with the sole aim of making a profit. That's your textbook evil conglomerate. And in comics and films, they hardly ever miss a step, switching from controlling the media to beating down the revolution with private armies. In real life, the more parts a conglomerate has, the harder it becomes to make sure they're all moving in sync. You think Obamacare faces some challenges now? Imagine if it was run by Apple, who was also trying to sell you the iPhone 6 and maintaining its own army of weaponised MacDroids to quell dissent.
This state of affairs would constitute "a return to central planning similar to where Russia was doing in the early 40s and 50s," says Mike Shedlock, an economist and investment advisor. "The state owned literally everything, and it was inefficient and collapsed on itself. I don't think we're going to see those kinds of conditions."
Not a good investment
A corporation could always buy its way in. The current US deficit sits at around $17.6 trillion dollars — what's to stop a group of corporations getting together, pooling resources, and then effectively owning the government? Well, aside from the fact that we're talking about a number with the word trillion after it, which is out of reach of even the biggest corporations, it would actually be a pretty poor investment.
Buying something doesn't mean you know how to run it, and if you can't, it'll start to lose money fast. Shedlock says that the best example of this actually happened the other way round - with a government assisting a corporation. When the US government bailed out General Motors during their Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing in 2009, they never attempted to take it over. It wouldn't have made sense to.
But what about that nifty private army, with its sleek uniforms and sinister facemasks? The existence of entities like the security firm Blackwater, famous for its operations in Iraq, show that private armies do sometimes have their uses, when a country's own troops are increasingly overstretched.
But Blackwater on an industrial scale? Locking down the population of an entire country at the word of the corporate overlords? Any budding Roxxon or Omnicorp would have to write — and keep writing — some huge checks. "How long can you have that before the whole system implodes on itself?" Shedlock asks.
Bottom line: It doesn't make financial sense for a single corporation to control everything. It would be too big, too inefficient — and would almost lose money and split into smaller components. Think of companies like CitiGroup, which failed Federal Reserve Stress Tests in 2012 and 2014, and hasn't been the same since. OmniCorp might have control of just about everything in the Robocop universe, but engineering the economic conditions to make themselves sustainable is a hell of a lot harder than building a working cyborg cop.
Now for the bad news.
It's hard to imagine a single corporation in charge of absolutely everything. But it's very, very easy to imagine a single all-powerful corporation in software. And another in healthcare. And yet another in arms manufacturing. Now imagine what starts happening when they start to work together.
These kind of partnerships difficult, and fraught with all sorts of complexities, but it's a lot easier than separate corporations trying to merge to become something like Resident Evil's Umbrella Corporation. US antitrust legislation prevents this, up to a point — as Microsoft and AT&T found out — but corporations have deep enough pockets, and powerful enough lobbyists to win over legislators.
The obvious candidates to become the Big Evil — Google, Apple, Exxon — are actually the least likely. The ones that you should be really scared of are the corporations you don't see. Take Serco, an outsourcing conglomerate with 120,000 employees, which has been described by the Guardian as the "biggest company you've never heard of." Or the Industrial & Commercial Bank of China (ICBC), which has a market value of $215 billion, and tops Forbes' list of the world's biggest public companies.
In fact, on that list, six of the top ten companies are banks, and the top three are all Chinese banks. If you're looking for a Roxxon or an Omnicorp, you'd make a good bet by picking a bank.
"The big, evil corporation might be someone like the BIS (Bank for International Settlements) - the banker's bank!" says Shedlock."
The secret to creating a compelling evil corporation
Steve Englehart — the man who created Roxxon, which first appeared in the Captain America comics in 1974 — says that corporations have enduring appeal as a bad guy, especially in the United States. "Americans all have the idea that they're going to get rich someday, but nobody trusts their boss," he says. "The idea that corporations are not in it for your benefit has been around for a long time."
Making a memorable evil corporation, Englehart says, means writing about the faces behind it: "It wasn't just the corporation - it was the people that ran the corporation. They were the embodiment of the evil, and they expressed the evil thoughts about what they wanted the corporation to do. The corporation becomes memorable because the people who represent it become memorable. Roxxon tapped into something a lot of people agreed with, and it became the prototype for everybody's free-floating anxiety."
What sets real-life corporations apart from their fictional analogs is that they aren't necessarily evil. If a corporation makes more money by doing good things, it will do them. Ditto for bad things. The bottom line matters. ICBC and its ilk have one major advantage: they don't exist in a world where the Chitauri invasion of New York costs $160 billion to fix, a figure calculated by the real-world disaster analysis firm KAC.
That being said, you might want to start investing in construction companies like Balfour Beatty or Carillion. You know, just in case.