Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Tired Tropes: The Fascist Corporation (Borderlands 2)

After muddling along for the past few years with a laptop that belched more hot air than Washington DC politicos and loved to crash its integrated graphics array for no apparent reason, I've finally bought another computer. Yay, right? Well, in doing so I've made a dangerous discovery: My new machine can play current-generation video games. Suddenly blasting bad guys during lunchtime seems more appealing than reading op-eds in The Wall Street Journal. I've also learned that electronic entertainment has changed from when I was a kid. Take Borderlands 2, a title that's part old-school roguelike and part slick first-person shooter, meaning it has all the super-detailed graphics and whiz-bang action you'd expect while randomly generating a fair amount of the content. Unfortunately, though, it also has on display one of the tiredest tropes in science fiction -- the fascist corporation.

The game's basic setup won't surprise genre fans. The action takes place on Pandora, a mineral-rich planet that contains something more than ore. It also houses an ancient alien vault, and rumor says it contains boundless wealth or heretofore-unknown technological marvels. Those whisperings have drawn scads of intergalactic treasure seekers (a.k.a. Vault Hunters) to the dusty little planet like binge eaters to a Sizzler's salad bar. The first game ended with the protagonist opening the vault to discover not riches, but an eldritch horror with lots of tentacles and a taste for consuming worlds, which led to an understandably large battle.

Now fast-forward five years. The alien baddie is dead, a mysterious substance called Eridium has sprung up all over Pandora, and a new wave of Vault Hunters has once again begun to arrive, drawn by news of a second vault. But the intro reminds us that they aren't the only ones interested in finding out what's inside:
[Eridium's] appearance attracted many, including the Hyperion Corporation. They came to Pandora to mine Eridium and bring order to the savage planet. Through their excavations, Hyperion uncovered evidence of an even greater vault. Their leader vowed to find it, to use its power to civilize the borderlands once and for all.
Hyperion's head is the suave, sociopathic Handsome Jack, and he plans to purge every Vault Hunter from Pandora by any means necessary.

Okay, okay, you can probably tell that Borderlands 2 doesn't go in big for story. The real emphasis is on shooting and looting. Major plot points get about as much screen time as Claptrap the beatboxing, dub-step composing robot. (The game's writers seem to have attended the annoying-is-funny school of humor, which means that most players will think that Claptrap needs to promptly perish in a fire.) But what story there is deserves discussion because of that trope I mentioned earlier, namely that the future corporations will be bigger, badder, and more powerful than actual governments. My first encounter with the convention came from William Gibson's early cyberpunk novels and short stories. In them, we encounter Ono-Sendai and Maas Biolabs, Hosaka and Tessier-Ashpool S.A., multi-national entities that dominate entire economies, possess their own armies, and engage in both clandestine and open warfare. Knowing Gibson's ideological commitments, it makes sense that he swelled private enterprise into something monstrous. But it makes no sense to grant the trope prima facie status in futuristic fiction. In fact, the science of profit seeking makes it virtually impossible.

In Basic Economics, Stanford University scholar Thomas Sowell catalogues a dizzying array of once-dominant companies that quickly faded into obscurity. The A&P grocery chain (once the largest in the U.S.) succumbed to Safeway's cost-cutting innovations, and Safeway has since largely fallen to the even thriftier Wal-Mart. Where The New York Daily Mirror once claimed a daily circulation of a million readers in 1949, it disappeared by 1963 due to the rise of television. In fact, it seems as though most print media may soon be supplanted by online content. Early 20th-century mail order retailer Montgomery Ward succumbed to Sears, which has since given ground to Amazon.com. Why do massive corporations tend to follow this pattern of expansion and extinction instead of rising into permanent power? Sowell explains:
In short, although corporations may be thought of as big, impersonal and inscrutable institutions, they are ultimately run by human beings who all differ from one another and who all have shortcomings and make mistakes, as happens with economic enterprises in every kind of economic system and in countries around the world. Companies superbly adapted to a given set of conditions can be left behind when those conditions change suddenly and their competitors are quicker to respond. Sometimes the changes are technological, as in the computer industry, and sometimes these changes are social or economic.
Size alone may prove a hindrance rather than a help, as Sowell points out in a latter discussion of economies of scale:
Economies of scale are only half the story. If economies of scale were the whole story, the question would then have to be asked: Why not produce cars in even more gigantic enterprises? If General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler all merged together, would they not be able to produce cars even more cheaply and thereby make more sales and profit than when they produce separately?

Probably not. There comes a point, in every business, beyond which the cost of producing a unit of output no longer declines as the amount of production increases. In fact, costs per unit actually rise after an enterprise becomes so huge that it is difficult to monitor and coordinate, when the right hand may not always know what the left hand is doing.
See where I'm going with this? When corporations make money, the draw competitors to their field. Corporations are conglomerates of people, not independent intelligences. People make mistakes, and as you get more of them together, they tend to come to decisions slower. Knowledge is money in business, and a sluggish pace often equals decline. In getting bigger, companies often grow themselves right out of existence.

Then there's the question of motivation. All a corporation wants is to turn a profit. Even if it does so unethically, it has no interest in curtailing basic rights or murdering meddlers to "bring order to the savage planet" and to "use its power to civilize the borderlands." Time has shown that Choeung Ek and Perm-36 were not the work of corporations. They owe their grisly history to governments.

(Picture: CC 2012 by jit)


Chestertonian Rambler said...

I suppose there are two points to be made here.

1) Isn't the whole point of the Borderlands series to create over-the-top caricatures of tropes, stripped of any reasonable justification? I mean, the one female playable character is the "Siren" class, for crying out loud. (This isn't necessarily a criticism, just an observation about the game's genre.)

2) Still, I think that a lot of the history of worst government excesses involves them working hand-in-glove with corporations. It's really hard to imagine the Opium Wars if the East India Trading Company didn't exist, for instance. (And of course, the fact that the EITC no longer exists doesn't erase the results of their exertion of power.) Moreover, in our current world, corporations are increasingly able to dictate terms to governments, because they are increasingly international. If America closes corporate tax loopholes in order to even the playing field between the big boys and the up-and-comers, the big boys can just relocate to a nation with a lower tax rate. Most of my libertarian friends are themselves increasingly skeptical of big business's ability to use campaign contributions to control governments--a complaint that G.K. Chesterton made a century ago, but one in which businesses are seen as quite capable of making a profit through "cheating," rather than simply playing fair, being honest, and providing the best product at the best price.

Of course, if you really want to talk about video game treatments of libertarian economic theories, you'd have to look at the Bioshock series--which includes Bioshock Infinite, where authoritarian religious patriotism takes the place of Randian neo-Nietzchian ideology as the role of the prime villain.

Loren Eaton said...

Two responses!

1) Absolutely, at least as far as I can tell. It seems a pretty silly series. But it's far from the only SF title to indulge in the convention. It just happens to be the one that caught my eye.

2) Agreed. In fact, one of the reasons that monopolies occur is because of government intervention in business. Big business will often seek government regulation in order to decrease competition. Your libertarian friends are right about that: Big business is typically against free markets because free markets put them at risk. This highlights the point that it's ridiculous to see so many SF stories with the giant, all-powerful, all-controlling corporation as the antagonist -- at least without being buttressed by some government power.

Post Script: Yeah, Bioshock is interesting. Very well-written. I've only played the first one, though. And it was unique enough that it wouldn't fit in a Tired Tropes series!

Post Post Script: No one should view this as me being pro-corporation (whatever that means). Corporations are made of people, and people are full of dark desires. I do like free markets, though, precisely because they blunt the impact of those desires.

Todd Mason said...

Well, free markets are a goal that is never reached, precisely because pure capitalism is/would be too dynamic (for good and ill). It's rather similar to pure socialism, which would be too fair...and both would require that governments would be gone and would require (to last indefinitely) both responsibility and utmost ethical behavior, so neither ever exist more than very temporarily.

Meanwhile, Lorin, however much you might desire it otherwise, the evils visited upon our world society by various corporations not behaving ethically are collectively vast, when they are in cahoots with government actively or able to control or cow or work around governments, which of course have as bad a record. The ultimate point of a corporation almost invariably becomes, as you almost get at, to survive, and keep its most powerful persons in positions of power, at whatever cost that isn't actually fatal to the decision-makers...welcome to humanity.

Loren Eaton said...


I think you're right in general. Of course, there's a great difference between Adam Smith and your run-of-the-mill anarcho-capitalist. Most serious economic thinkers agree that markets of any stripe require at least property rights and courts in which to enforce them.

Also, the prime goal of this post wasn't to defend free markets per se, even though I like them. Neither was it to defend corporations or to say they're white as the driven snow. (They aren't.) The point is that the SF trope of the fascist corporation is silly from an economic point of view and needs to be reevaluated.

Loren Eaton said...

That should be "pure" as the driven snow. Ah, fatigue, and the typos it causes.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

Postscript about Bioshock: Infinite. It seems a bit smarter than what I played of Bioshock, especially once you get to the ending and have to re-think your understanding of a lot of the game. More to the point, unlike Bioshock....it has colors in it. And characters (including a beautifully dynamic and complex central relationship). In a way it's less about American misuse of military and religious power (though you get a lot of amusing--and sometimes disturbingly accurate--caricatures) and more about the nature of guilt, violence, justice, and morality. It brings the central theme of Bioshock (powerful people and structures tend to corrupt humanity) home in a much more intimate way than the original.

And, as I said above, it's colorful. You don't get eyestrain from staring at green-black shadows all the time.

(Also, it has religious people praying devoutly to Ben Franklin, which would be the funniest joke I could imagine if it weren't so close to the truth of American Civil Religion.)