So, I recently experienced a wonderful reoccurrence in my life. Since sarcasm travels poorly via screen, I’ll let you in on the fact that the above is incredibly sarcastic. My feet are of a poor configuration. Due to an inward turn to my large toes and a particular fold of skin at the cuticles, I chronically suffer from deep and painful ingrowths from time to time. Compacted by the fact that I’m diabetic, it means I have a zero tolerance policy of them when they come around. As a result, the podiatrist took his pound of flesh so to speak (closer to an ounce) and a sliver of nail, and as a result I had quite a bit of couch time to cruise about Netflix whilst keeping my foot raised.
When I watch Netflix, I’m typically going about one of two pursuits: catching up on television, or watching documentaries. I indulged the latter whilst recuperating. In doing so I watched a particular documentary called ‘The Corporation.’
It was about what you’d expect. It’s primary focus was on the negative aspects of the corporate phenomenon of which there are many. But, one of the more amazing aspects was that they broke down several of the less redeeming features of corporations and compared them with known psychological symptoms. When you list all of these symptoms and run them through the paces, you get an almost textbook definition of an oft mentioned but not always understood (or even strictly defined) diagnosis: psychopathic behavior.
It’s not far off really. Inability to maintain relationships (downsizing regularly, closing plants), disregard for one’s environment (pushes for deregulation, pollutant dumping), not caring about consequences of their actions (ignoring important testing results; Flint, Michigan), uncaring in the face of suffering (what happens to the company town when the mine closes). Psychopaths have no care for other’s well-being. They only care about doing whatever it is they want to get what they’re after, usually power, money, influence, or a combination of the three. They narrowly focus on their goals at the expense of anyone else and have no compunction about how to get to what they care about.
Filter a view of the corporation through that data using the examples above and you find some shocking similarities between corporate action and psychopathic behavior.
It kind of outlines why it is that in my fiction, corporations are often an antagonistic presence even on their best days. It’s perhaps a bit of a broad statement to say that they are the perfect villain.
Hypocritical of me to say though, isn’t it? I work for one. Odds are, you do too. Just about everyone does, and if you don’t, they’re touching your lives in other ways. They cannot be escaped in this day and age unless you want to retreat to the ever-shrinking wilderness and live without any on-grid presence.
But, when you break a corporation down to its essence, it’s not a person. It doesn’t have empathy or conscience, even if the thousands of people who make it up do. It can’t be psychopathic because that’s a label we use for people. Yet the similarities are uncanny insofar as behavior goes when looking at how a corporation behaves and how a psychopath behaves.
Bearing that, in fiction, one can definitely see a corporation as villain. Not that you can’t in real life mind you, but in fiction you can easily make it an antagonist, a villain in its own right. The cyberpunk founders (God bless you, Bill Gibson) certainly saw it. Faceless, uncaring, distant organizations, untouchable by the common man, relentlessly finding and taking what they want behind the face of branding (more on this later). Much like the Terminator, they are without empathy, pity or remorse. They keep on mission until they are destroyed. Makes for a fantastic bad guy.
To toss into the kitty, they also present a dichotomy. These organizations, easily lending themselves to at best amoral and temporal ends, are composed of individual components who do possess humanitas, who have wants aside from power, or its lesser more mercurial cousin, money. These people who serve as the lifeblood of the corporation have their own goals, some just as amoral, but others quite not. The average salaryman wants his check of course, but he usually is looking for his family’s well being, his own causes, his own spirituality; largely, they keep an eye towards a larger, more holistic, picture unlike the artificial armature of which they make up a part. The cogs may be a part of the machine – but they are greater in their individuality than the machine they comprise in all of the human qualities. They have something corporations can never have, yet are inimical, essential, to the function of the corporation. That gives the villain a much needed hook – something to like inside of the villainous package. Well, other than the occasional paycheck. It could even make the idea of the corporation as a tragic figure; good people perpetuating an unfeeling agenda of acquisition.
Lastly, it is easy – incredibly easy – for protagonist or reader alike to hate a corporation. When you present it to a protagonist or reader as a foil, one sees only the armature’s public façade. It’s the only thing the corporation wants people to see typically: The Brand. Marketeers have seen to that. Brands are inherent to the corporation as they were a vital component in embracing a new model of externalization efforts throughout the past three decades. It plays into a wonderful, unexpected kind of villainy once you take the time to look at it through that lens. The façade is one of the most important steps to characterizing the corporation as more than the artificial construct it is, it allows you to almost look at it as something alive. This lets an author use it like a person, even though it is most definitely nothing of the sort. In a twist of irony, you can turn that very concept of the brand into a negative image.
To close though, this article is not meant to say that all corporations are evil. It’s not to say that their pursuit of cash allows them to simply walk over anything in their way. But, you can see in reality that many do, have done and will continue to do the amoral and antagonistic well into the future. And from that reality, you can pull good villains and stories. Art imitates life after all, and to miss out such a grab bag of drama seems wasteful.