Thursday, March 31, 2005

The Corporation As Psycho Killer
(qest-ce que c'est?)

I just finished reading the fiction book Market Forces on top of the non-fiction The Corporation : The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power. Not the best combination of reading material if you want to have any hope of being able to psych yourself up for ever working for a corporation again.

Unless you're a psychopath.

First, the premise...
As a legal entity, a corporation has as its edict one and only one goal, to create profits for its shareholders, without legal or moral obligation to the welfare of workers, the environment, or the well-being of society as a whole. Corporations have successfully hijacked governments, promoting free-market solutions to virtually all of the concerns of human endeavor.
Joel Bakan makes a reasonably convincing argument for the fact that a corporate entity is treated by our legal system as a human individual. And that if any human being actually behaved the way a public corporation must behave (is in fact legally - even ethically- obligated to behave!), that individual would be considered by anyone to be a psychopath (A person with an antisocial personality disorder, manifested in aggressive, perverted, criminal, or amoral behavior without empathy or remorse).

It was a fascinating read, and while it didn't turn me into an anti-globalism greenpeacenick overnight, the premise and many of the conclusions (if not the remedies) did resonate with my corporate experiences.

Richard K. Morgan takes this premise (although it was not specifically listed in his bibliography of inspirations) and carries it to its natural conclusion in a "The Corporation meets Mad Max and plays Rollerball" kinda way.
Morgan extrapolates a world where commodities trading reaches a brutal pitch and the outcomes of banana republic uprisings are the new market. Now, on the road to success, the brokers of the new economy compete for status and promotions via road rage on the freeways of new London.
Although the backstory unveils slowly througout, I could totally imagine the series of events unfolding to result in Morgan's universe. Hang with me here as I go wide for a tangent and then try to run it back for a score.

Historically, humans were tribal (in fact still are). Let's assume the basic premise laid out in most cultural evolutionary theories (a good example is in Nonzero : The Logic of Human Destiny) that at the Chiefdom level of social organization, chief's were usually selected by challenge and combat. Ambitious males would challenge the current chief for dominance - if they won, they became the new chief. If they lost, at a minimum they slunk back with their tale between their legs and didn't get as many chicks. At the extreme, they died. The Alpha male concept, seen today in most social/pack animal species, from chimps to wolves.

As our social evolution, um, evolved, we constructed more sophisticated abstractions and proxies for this basic instinct. (The reasons vary, mostly having to do with social structures and techniques that work with 60 people no longer work with 6 million, or 6 billion). We invented other forms of competition for power and status that weren't as direct, or usually as terminal. (Although periodically we throw a good war just to remember that it really is all about life and death, in the end).

Fast forward to today. The corporation was the latest invention in social evolution - yet another way to combine individuals into a whole greater than the sum of the parts. And by greater, I mean better able to compete with other social structures for power and status. As described earlier, the corporation of today has grown in legal stature, and now has the rights (but none of the responsibilities) of an individual. Corporations compete with other corporations for power and status, and occaisionally battle in stock tenders and takeover bids.

Fast forward to Morgan's near future. Corporations continued to grow in power and status because they were so unstoppable. Global corporations, after becoming more powerful than any single government, move on to the next level of competition with each other. They shuck the artificially imposed shackles of laws, and any pretense that this isn't a kill or be killed world is dropped in the interest of winning.

I want you to envision a town where the majority of people were psychopaths, each trying to manipulate, beat, and even kill if necessary, everyone else in town. First you'd lose all the "normals" and have nothing but psychopaths. Eventually, I imagine, you'd have left just a few of the strongest psychopaths, and perhaps eventually extinction.

Now imagine our world, filled with psychopathic corporations, just past the point where any of the "normals" had enough power of control to stop them, but sometime before they all killed each other off. This is Morgan's near future.

And while the conclusion seems far fetched, the path to get there is all too easy to imagine.

Let's hear it for Google - "Don't Be Evil".

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