The past several years have been witness to any number of distasteful spectacles in American presidential politics as Barack Obama has transformed himself into a hybrid of priest-king and celebrity — caesaropapism as filtered through the sensibility of Hollywood, The Golden Bough meets Us Weekly. The perfect expression of this was Michelle Obama, surrounded by the splendid plumage of her ceremonial military guard, presenting an Academy Award as the assembled Central Committee of Celebrity Inc. prostrated itself before the blessed image. Our ministers of culture like to think of themselves as the bold few who Speak Truth to Power, but in fact they could not be more abject in their subservience to power. And as Sean Penn’s pilgrimage to view the soon-to-be enshrined carcass of Hugo Chávez reminds us, the more naked and brutal the power in question, the deeper the genuflection it inspires.
Mrs. Obama’s move to occupy the Oscars put me in mind of Max Barry’s 2003 science-fiction novel, Jennifer Government, one of the saddest displays of subservience to political power in recent literature. In Barry’s dystopia, the libertarians (or at least a cartoon version of them) have finally won out, and the state has been reduced to a Nozickian nightwatchman. People adopt the surnames of their employers, with the novel’s principal conflict playing out between the heroic field agent Jennifer Government and her wicked antagonist, the sneaker potentate John Nike.
The novel was a success, the production company owned by George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh optioned the film rights, and Mr. Barry said he hoped that Nicole Kidman would be cast as Jennifer Government. The film was never made, but Mr. Barry enjoyed a measure of cultural cachet: Another of his novels, Company, was listed by the business magazine Fast Company among the top ten “people, ideas, and trends that will change how we work and live.” In case his theme has escaped anybody, Mr. Barry currently operates a website called “Tales of Corporate Oppression.”
That the future will be dominated by amoral international (or interstellar) corporations is a constant theme of science fiction and, not unrelatedly, of progressive political thought. The rogues’ gallery includes Cyberdyne Systems (Terminator), Weyland-Yutani (Alien), Omni Consumer Products (Robocop), and Charlton Heston’s friends at Soylent Inc. The gold standard of the genre is the Tyrel Corporation, from Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner, an adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? The film, which is indisputably a visual masterpiece, is much heavier on the theme of corporate dominance than the novel is, which is strange: The corporation of 1982 was a smaller and weaker thing than the corporation of 1968.
At its best, science fiction imagines a future that illuminates the present, but on the subject of the social role of the corporation, science fiction has long been backward-looking, out of touch with the reality it would analyze. The cultural imagination at large shares this error, though it is difficult to say how much this defect in science fiction is a result of the cultural error and how much it is the cause. But it would be difficult to overstate how deeply the specter of the villainous corporation shapes American political thought. The influence is more visible the farther to the left one moves along the political spectrum. Occupy Wall Street was probably at least as much influenced by science-fiction visions of corporate dystopias as it was by any kind of organized political thought. There were unmistakably Maoist elements to Occupy, but the sinister connotations of the very word “corporation” are by no means heard by only those ears attached to the addled heads of committed leftists.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was set in 1992, Blade Runner in 2019, yet here we are, well into the 21st century, and there is still no colossal Tyrel Corporation bestriding the globe, and nothing like the corporate sovereignties of Jennifer Government. As myth, the corporate dystopia remains undiminished in its power. But the function of myths is to illuminate reality, and the reality is that there is no Tyrel Corporation today, and none on the horizon. If you want to know what the corporation of tomorrow looks like, don’t think Cyberdyne — think Groupon.
You would not know it from reading fiction, speaking with Occupy types, or listening to the speeches at the Democratic National Convention, but the corporation as we know it is in decline: The average size of a corporation as measured by personnel has been diminishing since 1975. In 1955 the largest U.S. company, General Motors, employed 576,000 people out of a U.S. population of 166 million; today Exxon Mobil, the largest U.S. company, employs only 82,000 people. Microsoft employs fewer than 100,000 people worldwide; Google employs about 54,000, and Facebook fewer than 6,000.
More significant, the economic footprint of the biggest corporations is contracting. At one point, the market value of U.S. Steel was about 4.5 percent of the U.S. GDP; Exxon Mobil is worth barely half that today. GM’s world market share was about 50 percent in 1960, and its profit was about $8 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars. Today no single automaker has a market share of more than 20 percent in the United States or Europe, and in 2012 there was not one firm in the world with manufacturing profits exceeding GM’s $8 billion level of 1960. The biggest manufacturing-oriented firm in 2011 was General Electric, but half of its profit came from financial services, and at about $5 billion, its manufacturing profit was far less than GM’s was in 1960. In fact, there were only about 20 firms worldwide with larger profits than GM’s 1960 benchmark, most of them technology firms (Google, Apple) and financial groups (JPMorgan, Goldman Sachs).
Only 67 of the firms in the Fortune 500 in 1955 remained there by 2011. And the rate of corporate extinction is accelerating. Corporations are shorter-lived now: In the early 1960s, the average lifespan of a Fortune 500 company was about 75 years; today it is 15 years and declining. It is difficult to imagine building a corporate monument like the Chrysler Building today: Few firms will live long enough to justify the expense. (And if you think that corporate executives live large in the 21st century, consider the curious fact that the Chrysler Corporation never owned the Chrysler Building, though it was headquartered there. Walter P. Chrysler paid the expense of building the world’s tallest skyscraper out of his own pocket, because he wanted eventually to make a gift of the building to his children.)