How the ‘Evil Corporation’ Became a Pop-Culture Trope

Seventy-five years of American films and novels have articulated deep-seated fears of the power of business.

RoboCop asks what happens when when public servants become corporate employees. (Reuters)

In the dystopian imagination, corporations reign supreme. It’s become so cliche to have faceless, heartless, and soulless corporations conspiring against their employees and consumers that the concept is considered simple and digestible enough for inclusion in children’s movies. 2008’s Wall-E, for example, revels in such tropes to warn against the catastrophes caused by unlimited greed: The film’s uninhabitable Earth, viewers learn, is the result of Buy n Large, a conglomerate that spans the globe, taking over all sectors of business and government.

Contemporary corporations are more than familiar with these accusations: Google used “Don’t Be Evil,” as its official motto (recently dropped by its new parent conglomerate, Alphabet, which decided on “Do the right thing” in its stead). Whatever the consequences of corporate power are in reality, these dystopian narratives have largely been fueled by the popular imagination. The evil corporation is so deeply embedded in the landscape of contemporary culture—populating films, novels, videogames, and more—but how did ill intent become the expectation?

To answer that, it’s useful to consider a time when the pop-cultural imagination was more fixated on the state than the private sector. In the ’50s, popular culture still largely imagined the state as the enemy of the citizen, as fiction such as Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 or Philip K. Dick’s short story “The Minority Report” suggest. It’s easy to see where these fears came from: In the aftermath of World War II and the wake of the Cold War, anxieties over authoritarianism flourished. Postwar culture worried about dystopian states legislating the end of personal freedom; corporations were merely a supporting player in the war against individualism.

That’s not to say that, at that time, corporations didn’t have their critics as well, as public intellectuals such as C. Wright Mills and John Kenneth Galbraith warned against the rising political influence of private enterprise. And so too, the corporation lulled workers into collective conformity, as described in William Whyte’s 1956 book on management, The Organization Man. While America once valued individualism, he argued, the new class of American worker was now committed to “groupthink,” a term Whyte coined in a 1952 article for Fortune magazine. Corporations transformed workers into mere cogs in the system, unable to think for themselves or to take responsibility for their own actions. Accordingly, most of the literature of the period reflects these anxieties, as Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road chronicle the white-collar worker’s dissatisfaction with corporate culture.

The corporation might have been soul-sucking, but it also held a certain (if fringe) appeal when contrasted with the power of the state. Take, for example, Ayn Rand’s 1957 bestseller, Atlas Shrugged, in which a dystopian state all but destroys American freedom through economic regulation. In Rand’s world, government creates oppression and corruption as the nation declines without its captains of industry at the helm. Arguing for privatization’s importance to society, Atlas Shrugged fantasized about corporate CEOs as heroic leaders. Rand’s belief—that business should be left to, well, mind its own business—offers an idealized portrait of an unhampered economy, in which corporations act nobly through their commitment to free markets.

This sentiment seems slightly more sinister when removed from Rand’s romance and placed within the context of Milton Friedman’s 1962 book, Capitalism and Freedom. As Friedman argued, “there is one and only one social responsibility of business”: to make money for its shareholders. Anything else, Friedman suggests, would be irresponsible. His insistence upon shareholder value mostly ignores anything other than the financial interests of corporate owners, but it’s worth noting though that his argument is slightly more nuanced than the “greed is good” mantra that has become cultural shorthand for neoliberal economics. At the heart of Friedman’s argument is the belief that corporations are indeed not people, but a group of executives and employees working to maximize the profit of their shareholders. Like Adam Smith before him, Friedman believed that individuals act in self-interest, creating an economy that is mutually beneficial to the individual and society.

Friedman’s argument requires faith that individuals will “do the right thing,” but he emphatically believed that companies could not be expected to behave that way (no matter what Alphabet may say). Friedman had few reservations about corporate managers adding to the coffers of their owners, but he did fear placing power in the hands of corporations themselves. By letting executives—rather than their owners—decide what constituted social responsibility, corporations would also threaten the autonomy of individuals and would instead lead to potentially dangerous corporate states.

Much has already been said about the effects of Friedman’s own argument in practice, but it’s the imagined consequences that have proliferated in popular culture in the several decades since. Movie upon movie, the question seems to be: What happens when Friedman’s argument is taken to its logical conclusion?

Science fiction, with its emphasis on technological development and the future, provided a rich site to explore this dystopian question. And so, the evil corporation was born. Consider 1973’s cult classic, Soylent Green, in which right and wrong become distinctly blurred when corporate interests are at stake. In one of the film’s early scenes, William Simonson, a member of the Soylent Corporation’s board of directors is about to be killed by a hired hand because, the assassin says, his knowledge has become a “risk” to the company’s interests. After delivering the explanation to Simonson, the befuddled killer asks, “Then this is right?” “No,” Simonson responds, “necessary.” It’s the same response that the Soylent Corporation would give. A threat to the success of its newest product, Simonson must be eliminated.

However extreme, Soylent Green’s suggestion that corporations conspire against the broader public good was undoubtedly motivated by real concerns over the effects of unregulated corporate power. Released only three years after the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency, Soylent Green depicts a dystopian future (it’s set in 2022) in which industrial capitalism has left Earth overpopulated, overheated, and underfed. Meanwhile, the Soylent Corporation profits from its access to the resources the rest of the population is denied.

The Soylent Corporation acts as a benevolent supporter of both life and death, providing large portions of the world’s food supply as well as a modern euthanasia clinic for those too tired with the world to go on living in it. An oasis of cleanliness and air conditioning, the clinic promises a few painless, beautiful final moments to give its patients glimpses of the world it has robbed from them.

But as Detective Thorn (Charlton Heston) investigates Simonson’s murder with his assistant Sol Roth (Edward G. Robinson, in his final role), the two find that such compassionate gestures will inevitably reveal themselves to be hollow, as long as profit-maximization is involved. As Thorn learns, Soylent takes away the bodies from its clinics and processes them into food for the starving masses. With so little regard for its social responsibility, Soylent has no qualms about turning its consumers literally into its products, and in one of the film’s most moving scenes, Roth elects to euthanize himself after learning Soylent’s secret. Soylent Green’s then-shocking revelation has since become more widely known than the rest of the film itself. (So too has it become a truism that people are products, but Heston shouting, “Facebook is people!” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.)

Soylent Green cynically reveals the dangers of corporations that are only committed to profits. The well-being of anyone else matters little, a recurring theme that also informs Jurassic Park’s depiction of the InGen corporation, or the Alien franchise’s Weyland-Yutani corporation. In the Alien universe, the corporation privileges profits over its own employees—lured by the promise of bonus shares in the company—who are ultimately expendable.

As the reach of corporations evolved, so too did their depictions in pop culture. The “socially responsible” corporate state is most dramatically realized in 1987’s RoboCop, a grimly comic critique of the Reagan administration. In RoboCop, Omni Consumer Products (OCP) promises to replace the crime-ridden ruins of “Old Detroit” with a new “Delta City,” run entirely by OCP and without the U.S. government’s oversight. In the interim, however, OCP has privatized public services, including hospitals, prisons, and the police force in Old Detroit.

While OCP benefits from the privatization of services, it’s the public that suffers: RoboCop asks what happens when public servants become corporate employees, as the police union goes on strike—a nod to the 1981 air-traffic-controller strike—leaving Old Detroit in further disarray. Yet if employees can fail to do their duty, they are also easily replaced. When Alex Murphy, one of Old Detroit’s young cops, is brutally murdered by a local crime boss, he’s effectively transformed from an employee into a product. Murphy is reborn as RoboCop, a cyborg officer programmed with three directives: “serve the public trust, protect the innocent, and uphold the law.”

At first RoboCop’s efforts dramatically lower the city’s crime rates, but the film also makes clear that OCP’s activities are criminal themselves. OCP not only profits off of the very crime it is supposedly sworn to combat, but it is also directly responsible for creating that crime: The cartel that orchestrated Murphy’s murder conspires with OCP’s corrupt vice president, Dick Jones, to develop new markets of potential drug buyers, who will build Delta City. From OCP’s perspective, everything and everyone can be turned into an asset.

RoboCop, like Soylent Green, shows how “social responsibility” may be a myth, but it also stresses the way in which corporations act above the law. A classified “Directive 4” is put in place to prevent RoboCop from taking any action against a member of the OCP board. When Murphy (who eventually regains some of his previous human consciousness) confronts Jones with evidence that he is responsible for another executive’s death, he is unable to arrest him. If Directive 4 suggests the limits of the state under corporate rule, the solution to RoboCop’s problem is also necessarily corporate: When the company’s chairman bellows, “Dick, you’re fired,” Directive 4 becomes moot and Murphy is free to gruesomely terminate the evil executive. RoboCop ultimately recognizes the fear of corporate states run amok, but it also imagines their potential appeal, save for a bad egg or two. It’s a system where simple edicts can solve problems while circumventing the state.

The dystopia that RoboCop dreamt up in 1987 seems not so distant today, following real-life Detroit’s filing for bankruptcy in 2013. And RoboCop’s vision of privatized services is all too familiar, following the restructuring of schools in post-Katrina New Orleans. Or, consider the very real Corrections Corporation of America, the largest supplier of private prisons. Founded just four years before RoboCop was released, the company and other for-profit prisons now house close to 20 percent of federal inmates in the United States. RoboCop made OCP a caricature of sprawling corporate enterprise, but time has seen parody turn into reality.

It’s been difficult to anticipate where else the trope of the evil corporation can go now that it has seemingly gained a status that even Friedman couldn’t have imagined, when the Citizens United ruling led Mitt Romney to infamously declare, “corporations are people, my friend” while campaigning in 2012. In this way, the corporation becomes its own kind of irrepressible entity.

This nightmarish vision plays out in 2015’s Ex Machina, an allegorical examination of how corporations have been freed from all forms of social responsibility in the digital age. Ex Machina’s BlueBook—a Google-esque company—freely collects data on the 94 percent of global search traffic that it serves. If the company, founded by CEO Nathan Bateman, is not exactly interested in what is best for society, it is intent on delivering the things that consumers want most, however unconscious these wants may be.

That’s the impetus for Nathan’s new artificial intelligence robot, Ava, which in a test run is programmed specifically to the desires (some more lascivious than others) of Caleb Smith, a BlueBook employee. Ava may have her own developed consciousness, but it also is born out of Caleb’s search history and personal data, mined by BlueBook. In Ex Machina’s world, the company may be playing god, as Caleb and the film’s title observe, but it also excuses the corporation from managing its consumers’ individual fantasies and the dangers that come with indulging them.

Ex Machina’s most pressing question is not just about whether corporations are evil agents conspiring against the individual (although it certainly asks this too), but also about the individual’s complicity in that evil. The problem of the 20th-century corporate dystopia was one in which people can become products, but its 21st-century counterpart asks what happens when products become people, when the non-sentient become sentient, and when CEOs, shareholders, and customers alike allow corporations to take on a life of their own.