Hail, Hydra! Immortal Hydra! We shall never be destroyed! Cut off a limb, and two more shall take its place! We serve none but the Master—as the world shall soon serve us! Hail Hydra! (The Hydra Oath)
Our daily lives are dominated by organizations. This was not always the case. For example, the European system of estates only included a few organization-like entities. Our contemporary age, in contrast, is characterized by a profusion of this type of social system.
The new dominance of organizations is also reflected in our shared social fictions, in which they increasingly assume the role of protagonist. It is almost possible to speak of an ‘organization narrative’, which is particularly prevalent in science fiction films. Here, organizations have assumed the role of the villain, who is no longer an individual. Even if they are embodied, by necessity, in their individual representatives, organizations like the Tyrell Corporation (Blade Runner), the Mirando Corporation (Okja), Abstergo Industries (Assassin’s Creed) or the Data Recovery Foundation (Biomega) have become the adversary of the hero figure. The future anxieties associated with ‘being organized’ are also more evident in the scifi genre than elsewhere, in which the imminent global domination of organizations – or in the worst case, that of one particular organization – is presented as something to be feared.
Because organizations are usually presented as economic enterprises, they are not particularly interested in the good of humanity but solely in that of the organization; and ‘good’ is defined in this instance as financial gain (‘profit’). They act more ruthlessly in their pursuit than any super-rogue whose self-conception is still rooted in an – however monstrous – ‘ideology’. In the film Deepwater Horizon (USA 2016), the consequences of this profit-driven thinking lead to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the greatest environmental disaster of this kind in our time. The remarkable career of ‚CSR’, the idea of an organization’s institutionally implemented ethical self-regulation, has been quickly adopted by the scriptwriters, appearing in the movies and novels as a way to both distract the public and guarantee returns in the form of reputation.
The preoccupation with the new power of the organization can even be found in comedy, where it is also imagined as evil:
“In modern day America, the corporations run our lives. But one man is prepared to take our country back.” Pootie Tang trailer (USA 2002)
The Catholic church, particularly as it existed during the Reformation when it was forced to assert its monopoly over other religious organizations (or to put it more simply: during the period of the witch trials), appears to provide a model for many of the later sinister fictions about organizations. Hence, it is simply consistent when Francis Ford Coppola uses it in The Godfather: Part III (USA 1990) to drive Michael Corleone, who is seeking public recognition, even deeper into the clutches of the criminal world from which he is trying to break free. The message here is that organized crime has nothing on organized religion (although the church in The Godfather is infiltrated by another occult organization, a Masonic lodge: indeed, nested structures are by now a standard narrative component of organization fictions).
But organizations whose operation is understood as being driven by political decisions also feature prominently in these fictions: surveillance bureaucracies like the NSA and CIA, whether hijacked or not, and private security companies. Long before Edward Snowden, a surveillance scenario in which the NSA plays the main role became a reality in Public Enemy No. 1 (USA 1998).
The ‘selfhood’ of organizations enables Hollywood to substitute them for the individual villain, the super-rogue. Even James Bond no longer goes head to head with an individual Dr. No, Goldfinger or man with the golden gun these days, but an organization – Spectre, the Special Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion – although it is led by an uber-villain, of course. Someone must ultimately make the decisions. In the film Captain America: The Winter Soldier (USA 2014), Captain America does not fight Nazi Germany, a state, or the Nazi party or the SS, although collateral damage does arise, but against Hydra, an organization that is independent of Hitler and has infiltrated a ‘good’ organization: S.H.I.E.L.D. – another example of the aforementioned nested structures. (Again, Marvel made this organization into the hero of a television series, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., in which the formal-informal reality of the organization is also acknowledged; leadership battles and the constant conflict with politics are a central element. In one of the last seasons, the formerly virtuous members of S.H.I.E.L.D. end up as loyal members of HYDRA in a virtual world, something that enables the series to find remarkable manifestations of the ambiguity – temporary disloyalty – familiar to us all from the experience of being processed as employees. What is remarkable is that the series has already reacted to current social developments, for example when the director refers to the design of the “media, corporate S.H.I.E.L.D. machine”.)
The other prominent Marvel hero, Iron Man, is also a ‘boss’, in this instance of Stark Industries, the corporation he inherited from his father (USA 2008). He is a capitalist in the strict sense of the word, the owner of means of production, which he no longer uses, however, to generate profit but to produce his iron suit and save the world – the ‘added value’ here lies in the moral, selfless component of his action. The fact that the suit ultimately only came into being through exploitation is concealed – it would be possible to refer to latency here.
‘Teams’ as embodied most significantly by the A-Team (USA 1983-87) represent a special case in this new type of fiction. Particular characteristics of the team include its project-focus, the associated independence of organizations – in the words of Peter F. Drucker: “they work with a company, not for a company” – as well as the idiosyncratic individuality of the individual members, which no organization could be expected to accept in this form. The excessive acting-out of this individuality and the high price paid for it are justified by the specialized expertise and knowledge associated with it. All calls for role-conformity are dashed in the face of this expertise, which calls to mind, among other things, the concept of genius in aesthetics.
Organizations are perfectly suited to generating tension through contrast effects: the individual pitted against the ‘anonymous’, inhuman machinery, whose engine is concealed from him. A certain social unconditionality (innocence) is often imagined on the part of the hero; the conditionalities are located on the side of the organization. It is the organization that ties, enchains and processes the individual through the wastelands and unbending rigour of the same old bureaucratic procedures and rituals. It replaces the ‘system’, that is modern society per se, which – as seen clearly in a late western movie like Lonely are the Brave (USA 1963) – cannot be defeated because it cannot even be addressed. In Miller’s film, modern society is represented by police bureaucracy. Those who cannot be processed by bureaucracy don’t exist.
Officer 1: Identification?
Officer 2: He hasn’t got any.
Officer 1: You mean to say you got no identification at all?
Jack: That’s right.
Officer 1: No draft card, no social security? No discharge, no insurance, no driver’s license, no nothing?
Jack: No nothing.
Officer 1: Look young boy, you can’t go around with any identification, it’s against the law. How are people gonna know who you are?
Jack: I don’t need a card to figure out who I am, I already know.
This spectre of state bureaucracy continues to assume a key role in these fictitious worlds – it plays on our fear that we could wrongly fall under the ‘wheels of justice and end up being ‘processed’ as is the fate of the protagonist in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (USA1985) or the real-life experience of German-born Turkish citizen Murat Kurnaz.
Does this dark perspective on organizations reflect reality? It would appear so at times. The mass media, for example, are convinced that a dark, dystopian data company called Cambridge Analytica gave the world Donald Trump and, moreover, used military methods to effect mass sentiment change (winning ‘hearts and minds’). Tamsin Shaw, an associate professor of philosophy at New York University, fears the worst: “To have so much data in the hands of a bunch of international plutocrats to do with it what they will is absolutely chilling.” And the commitment shown by Google, Cloudflare, Spotify, Facebook, Godaddy, Paypal, AirBnB to oppose Nazi propaganda on the internet demonstrates, above all, the new power of these organizations; the flow of information in society is no longer controlled by the political sphere but by them, a matter of great concern to the mass media: “This power can be used not only against right-wing radicals. The civil rights organization Electronic Frontier Foundation draws attention to the fact that right wing groups are already trying to classify the Black Lives Matter movement as a ‘hate group’ in retaliation – and companies could again be pressurized into opposing the latter’s online presence.” The fears of imminent world domination are also confirmed to a certain extent by empirical analyses, for example those carried out by Autor et al. (2017) which draws attention to the “rise of superstar firms” in the USA – the fact that market concentration has increased in basically all broad industrial categories – and link this market dominance with growing inequality: the employee share of national income is falling while the share accounted for by organizational profits is growing. Blogger Noah Smith is scared that “monopoly power could potentially become Public Enemy #1 for economists” (Smith 2017).
As we have seen, it is already the number one enemy in Hollywood.