From 1970s paranoia to contemporary satire, popular culture has used the evil corporation trope to criticise the greed and destruction of capitalism – but not without contradiction.
Montgomery Burns, a recurring villain in animated series The Simpsons, is the embodiment of corporate greed. Since Mr Burns’ introduction in 1989, the robber baron – as Matthew Josephson dubbed such corporate moguls – has abused his staff, defrauded the government and initiated disastrous schemes, including attempting to block out the sun to drive energy consumption for his nuclear power plant. Burns is undoubtedly evil, and yet he wants the public to respect his business acumen.
In the episode A Star in Burns, he tries to soften his public image by sponsoring a “slick, Hollywood-style picture to gloss over my evil rise to power”. He is inspired by the film Schindler’s List, which shows how German industrialist Oskar Schindler saved his Jewish workers from the Nazis. But when it’s pointed out that Schindler is a heroic figure, unlike the despicable and despotic Burns, he does not see the profound difference between them. From Burn’s perspective, his war profiteering was simply good business; a client wanted a product, and he made sure his company provided. This scene highlights a dark truth about the fundamental amorality of capitalist enterprise. Corporations exist for a singular purpose: the relentless pursuit of profit.
This ethos of money above all else has implicated corporations in some of the worst criminal acts of modern times. They subvert democracy, engage in price gouging, dispossess entire communities, privatise common goods and mislead the public about the harms posed by their products. IBM and Siemens helped organise and build Nazi death camps, and many multinationals traded with the apartheid regime in South Africa. In modern times, fossil fuel companies are implicated in causing the climate crisis while they sponsor a global warming denial propaganda campaign.
What’s truly disturbing, though, is that organisational evil is not motivated by personal hatred but the clinical pursuit of profit, causing incalculable catastrophe and misery for other social classes.
Sinister office towers
The news media often portray corporations in relatively positive terms, praising the entrepreneurial prowess of chief executives and the social responsibility apparently shown by big business. An oligarch such as Bill Gates, who turned Microsoft into a global monopoly by ruthlessly crushing smaller competitors, has rebranded himself as a benign philanthropist.
But pop culture noticeably holds out on such positive depictions. Films, television shows, novels, comic books and video games regularly portray corporations as Evil, Incorporated. They are represented by elitist villains based in sinister, brutalist office towers and headquarters, plotting to destroy the world for a quick buck.
Fictional evil corporations have attempted to pacify audiences with mind control (Videodrome) and released dangerous, untested weapons on an unsuspecting public (Robocop). Others have privatised air (Total Recall), massacred indigenous aliens on distant planets (Avatar), and caused zombie outbreaks (The Resident Evil series) and nuclear war (Terminator 2: Judgment Day) while performing terrible experiments on their workforce (Sorry To Bother You). Evil corporations are a staple of global entertainment culture, from Japan to South Africa.
But their existence reveals an internal contradiction, as these fictional narratives are themselves corporate products, funded and distributed by media conglomerates. Capitalism, it would seem, can market anything, including anti-corporate sentiment. It allows us to rail against the evil of big business in our fictional stories, while denying us the ability to meaningfully challenge them in real life. It is the ultimate commodification of dissent.
Corporations are aware of their villainous reputations, which they try to defuse through public relations and image management.
Google, a corporation that has been implicated in dystopian forms of mass surveillance, once had “Don’t be evil” as its company motto. Such whitewashing is regularly parodied in pop culture. In the cartoon Futurama, 30th-century Earth is dominated by the ruthless Momcorp, whose misanthropic chief executive pretends to be a caring, maternal figure in public.
The fact that ruthless corporations produce anti-corporate material shows that these narratives are popular with a mass audience. If there wasn’t a potential profit in them, they wouldn’t be made. Right-wing conservatives say anti-corporate fiction is politically dangerous as it could cause audiences to question the validity and morality of capitalism entirely.
The fictional trope of the monster corporation can then also be viewed as a mirror, reflecting popular fears and disgust around white-collar crime and growing social inequality. These stories offer an exaggerated expression of the reality of capitalism, serving as ethical judgements on real-world events. But how then can the leap be made from screen to streets, popcorn to protest, rather than these narratives serving as easily digestible entertainment?
The idea of the evil industrialist has roots in the 19th century. Leftists used imagery derived from the popular gothic fiction of the time to critique the exploitative nature of early capitalism. Karl Marx described capital as “dead labour, which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour … the vampire will not lose its hold … so long as there is a muscle, a nerve, a drop of blood to be exploited.”
But for much of the 20th century, fiction was more concerned with the dangers posed by authoritarian state power. In a world of global wars, colonial violence, fascism and totalitarian governments, corporate power seemed a less immediate threat.
This began to change from the 1960s. As corporations increased their influence over global trade and mass culture, the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal highlighted the power private business interests could exert over governments.
In popular culture, it inspired a wave of so-called paranoid thrillers, Hollywood films that reflected a deep fear of the new status quo. In 1974’s The Parallax View, Warren Beatty goes up against the Parallax Corporation, which trains assassins to kill politicians to alter world events for corporate benefit.
The Parallax View defined the visual aspect of the evil corporation. “That dehumanised modernist aesthetic is now emphatically associated with corporate inhumanity,” writes William Beard. The physical environment of corporations was presented as sterile and menacing, “reflecting their indifference to human suffering”.
Yuppies in space
In the 1980s, this aesthetic became ubiquitous. Science fiction films like Blade Runner (1982), Robocop (1987), The Running Man (1987) and They Live (1988) showed bleak futures where power was concentrated in these exact kinds of sterile boardrooms.
This mirrored a rapidly changing global economy. Ultra-capitalist politicians like Ronald Reagan implemented neoliberal policies that allowed transnational corporations to expand rapidly. For theorist Mike Davis, fiction merely extrapolated from existing trends. “Pop apocalypses and pulp have been more realistic, and politically perceptive, in representing the programmed hardening of the urban surface in the wake of the social polarisations of the Reagan era.”
It was accompanied by a cultural greed-is-good ethos that celebrated the consumerism and wealth typified in the emergence of the yuppie, a young corporate elitist who lives for ostentatious displays of money.
The yuppie caricature became a go-to villain in 1980s film, perhaps best typified by the odious Carter Burke (Paul Reiser) in Aliens (1986). Burke is an ambitious henchman for Weyland-Yutani, a space corporation obsessed with turning the terrifying Xenomorph aliens into biological weapons. It is a plan that, of course, goes horribly wrong.
The film’s hero, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), compares the instinctive violence of the Xenomorphs to the calculating corporate greed of Weyland-Yutani, saying, “You know, Burke, I don’t know which species is worse. You don’t see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage.”
These depictions filtered into children’s movies and television cartoons. In Tim Burton’s Batman Returns (1992), Christopher Walken plays a despicable tycoon, clearly modelled on Donald Trump, who at that point was best known as a crass property developer.
The events of 9/11 lead to a new global “war on terror”. This conflict greatly benefitted corporate interests, from the oil companies who profited from the invasion of Iraq to the rise of shadowy new private mercenary armies like Blackwater. This exemplified what author Naomi Klein called “disaster capitalism”, in which multinationals such as Halliburton exploited war and natural calamities for financial benefit.
Pop culture showed how capital worked to maintain a state of permanent war. In the 2004 remake of 1960’s thriller The Manchurian Candidate, defence corporations use a brainwashed, right-wing, populist presidential candidate to launch a stealthy coup against the United States government.
Evil South African military corporations appear in Johannesburg-based District 9 (2009) and Chappie (2015) from director Neil Blomkamp. In the first film, weapons manufacturer MNU (whose sinister office tower is located in the Carlton Centre in Joburg’s central business district), brutally administers prison camps for an alien species stranded on Earth. This echoes how many real-world refugees find themselves trapped in privately owned detention centres, in often appalling conditions.
In the late 2000s, the world plunged into a new Great Recession. The crash exposed decades of financial graft and corruption by banks and corporations. In response, film and television increasingly satirised the failings of corporate capitalism and mocked the personal entitlement and narcissism of the super-rich, as well as the employees who enable their bad behaviour.
In 2010, director David Fincher’s The Social Network gave a deeply unsympathetic portrait of tech titan Mark Zuckerberg. In the same year, Adam McKay’s The Other Guys used comedy to deliver a pointed message about the root causes of the economic crisis.
McKay would continue to satirise the corporate oligarchy as producer of Succession, which won this year’s Emmy Award for Outstanding Drama Series. Succession focuses on the conglomerate WayStar RoyCo and the (frankly awful) Roy family who own it. Based on real-life corporate dynasties such as the Murdoch family, the Roys fight with each other while manipulating media and politics for personal benefit.
Roman Roy discusses his dream of being “owning a private army in New Zealand rich”. This directly references how plutocrats like Peter Thiel have bought land in that country, in the belief that it will protect them from the worst effects of the climate crisis, a crisis caused overwhelmingly by the ultrawealthy.
But the Roys, and their various hench people, are shown to be uniformly petty, miserable and thoroughly undeserving of their vast wealth and status. In the recent past, a character like eldest son Kendall Roy may have been shown as a brash, superyuppie. But here he is portrayed as a pitiable, broken person.
From the yuppie villainy of the Reagan years to the pointed satire of the 2010s, the evil corporation remains a powerful symbol of anti-capitalist sentiment within mass culture. It suggests that – despite what chief and marketing executives may tell us – there is a monstrous greed inherent in the corporate structure, a terrifying and inhuman void that lurks behind bespoke office furniture and gleaming skyscrapers.