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.