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The Corporate Warfare Trope In Sci-Fi, Explained

GameRant 12/2/2022 Joshua Kristian McCoy
© Provided by GameRant

In the modern day, no one needs to convince an audience that billion-dollar corporations are the bad guys. It's just a widely-accepted fact that wealthy conglomerates run the world and do whatever they must to increase their profit margins at the cost of everyone else. Corporations need someone to enforce their will, and that's when they engage in corporate warfare.

The typical real-world ways in which corporations oppress everyone tend to be pretty boring when played out on the screen. It's much more exciting when they use their massive wealth to hire armed military forces to engage in epic gun battles for the fate of their bottom line.

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Corporate Warfare occurs when a private business interest uses its massive power to recruit, hire, or build a military. The company could operate in any field, from science to finance, but its corporate dealings would benefit from some sort of physical force. Maybe there's some sort of resource that could make them a tidy profit, but people need it to live, so they won't give it up without a fight. Maybe workers are getting sick of being ground up into paste for the benefit of those at the top and are threatening to unionize. Maybe a rival company is considering doing away with all the boardroom negotiations and sending a bunch of hired goons to burn down all the competition. Any of these situations and more could persuade a company to expand into the field of private military and crack down on those who dare oppose them.

The sci-fi subgenre that most often lays claim to this trope is unquestionably cyberpunk. Corporations are almost always the villains of cyberpunk stories, and the need for a good action setpiece demands they use something along the lines of corporate warfare. Though there are definitely examples of this trope that predate the cyberpunk subgenre, the one that likely popularized the concept is Neal Stephenson's groundbreaking 1992 novel Snow Crash. The story follows Hiro Protagonist, the typical leather-clad katana-wielding 90s hacker, as he and his edgy pals battle a computer virus. Snow Crash is arguably post-cyberpunk, but its embrace of corporate warfare as a concept is hugely influential. The world of the novel has abandoned the idea of governments, splitting into countless micronations that are each ruled by a corporate overlord. The novel mentions a pair of rival highway construction companies that engage in a never-ending sniper duel while they compete for work. It's corporate warfare at its most outlandish, taking the trope to its logical extreme.

Arguably, the best example of this trope on the big screen is the Robocop franchise. The central villain of the franchise is the textbook megacorporation Omni Consumer Products. OCP owns the city of Detroit, which it rebranded Delta City and immediately set to work suppressing. To enforce their will, they own the Detroit Police Department, which it has fully privatized. OCP uses its cops like an invading military force, but it also turns criminals into soldiers. OCP's Urban Rehabilitators are former war veterans who the company uses to violently evict citizens from housing. Robocop 3 uses this trope more than its predecessors. The citizens of Detroit form an armed resistance to the company, forcing OCP to turn to even more gruesome tactics. OCP eventually brings out robot ninjas in service of the same cause, slightly undermining the social commentary with a very silly concept.

Video games love corporate militaries. They allow the game designers to throw countless armed enemies at the player without demonizing the army of a particular nation. The Borderlands franchise, for example, is set in a universe that is constantly racked with corporate warfare. Atlas, Hyperion, and Dahl are constantly sending incomparable military forces into conflict, with the universe at large frequently suffering in the crossfire. The Pre-Sequel mentions a "Corporate War" that explains the missing central galactic government. Final Fantasy VII takes a more traditional approach to the concept, depicting the SOLDIER program, a subsidiary of Shinra Electric Power Company. The Wutai War demonstrates both the power and the ruthlessness of Shinra's military efforts, as they break a disobedient nation and become the unquestioned ruler of the world.

Corporate warfare is the most visually exciting version of a big company exacting control of the people it owns. It's almost unheard of for a corporate military to be the good guy of a story. This concept isn't uncommon in the real world either. Private military corporations can offer their services to just about anyone, and wealthy companies have historically had a great deal of control over matters of international conflict. Though your least-favorite company might not have its own "peacekeeping" force on staff just yet, there are a lot of examples in the world of science fiction. Companies shouldn't have armies, just trust almost every science fiction writer in human history.

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