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Origin of the Secretly Evil MegaCorp trope?
June 22, 2010 10:01 AM   Subscribe

What was the first evil-with-a-smile corporation in fiction?

I'm asking specifically about corporations, not governments or individuals, with a name and a public persona, that try to portray themselves as not merely good businesses, but acting "for the benefit of all mankind" or some such propaganda. But hiding a Secret Evil Agenda, not merely careless polluters or mistreating their workers or other stuff that any corporation might have done at the time the story was written.

The first I can think of is the N.I.C.E. in That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis in 1945. Are there earlier examples?
posted by straight to Media & Arts (14 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
So I guess you wouldn't count Chaucer's satire of the Church and its system of indulgences and pardons in fourteenth-century Europe? It's portrayed as a multinational, profit-driven organisation which operates on a level above national laws. About as close as you'll get to a corporation six hundred-odd years ago.
posted by him at 10:11 AM on June 22, 2010 [3 favorites]


him, that's an interesting idea. Do you think you can draw a line from stories about Ecclesiastical Hypocrisy to stories about Corporate Hypocrisy? Is Lewis's N.I.C.E. his attempt to secularize an existing trope about The Church pretending to be good but secretly being evil?

(And I think I should have included hypocrisy in the definition -- I think a genuine example of this trope has someone at the top who acknowledges that the propaganda of benevolence is a deliberate lie.)
posted by straight at 10:42 AM on June 22, 2010


If we're talking a capitalist enterprise that claims to help people while exploiting them, I would guess Joseph Conrad.
posted by Joe Beese at 10:53 AM on June 22, 2010


The Workhouse in Oliver Twist springs to mind. I'm sure there are antecedents, though.
posted by Kattullus at 11:13 AM on June 22, 2010


Frank Norris's The Octopus (1901) probably counts. It's definitely one of the first portrayals of an evil corporation, though I can't quite remember all the details. The book portrays a bloody struggle between farmers and the railroad trust monopoly, and I believe that the farmers had initially settled the area in dispute based upon a seemingly attractive arrangement with the railroad trust that supposedly benefited both sides.

What I can't remember is the extent to which the trust in the book portrayed itself as a benevolent image of progress, though that was exactly the real-life image that Norris was trying to undermine.
posted by susanvance at 11:14 AM on June 22, 2010


Oops... I phrased that wrong. The Workhouse in Oliver Twist springs to mind as a direct antecedent, I'm sure there are others, though.
posted by Kattullus at 11:15 AM on June 22, 2010


I don't know enough of his cannon to say exactly how, but I'll be damned if Dickens doesn't belong somewhere in this conversation.
posted by hamandcheese at 11:16 AM on June 22, 2010


...on preview, Kattullus type fast.
posted by hamandcheese at 11:17 AM on June 22, 2010


***British Sense of Humour Alert***

I'm not sure about that British Medical Journal article. BMJ is a top professional scientific medical journal but that's a link to an article in their Christmas edition, which famously has lots of funny and off-the-wall content.

The C.S. Lewis novel with the plot about N.I.C.E. mentioned is real but the article neglects to mention that the book is about interplanetary alien multidimensional energy superbeings taking over the planet (with N.I.C.E as a cover). So this is more of an early X-Files kind of plot.

The writer of the BMJ article probably doesn't mention this angle because his piece is a satirical attack on the real-life British N.I.C.E.- the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (which gives advice for healthy living and disease prevention to the population and also (sometimes controversially) determines which drugs are cost-effective enough to be bought by and made available on the British National Health Service ). Actually, since the more sensible acronym for this institute is N.I.H.C.E., one can assume that the institute was deliberately given the official name of N.I.C.E. as an ironic callback to the Lewis novel - so double British sense of humour alert!
posted by Bwithh at 11:48 AM on June 22, 2010


Do you think you can draw a line from stories about Ecclesiastical Hypocrisy to stories about Corporate Hypocrisy? Is Lewis's N.I.C.E. his attempt to secularize an existing trope about The Church pretending to be good but secretly being evil?

I haven't read the story in question, so I can't really pitch in on this one (although what Bwithh says above is interesting – layers of satire at work). My feeling, though, would be that this particular trope is less about secularising criticism of ecclesiastical wrongdoing as it is about the need to constantly find an appropriate contemporary outlet for a deeply-ingrained distrust of authority (and particularly moral authority). In the late 14th century, it was the Church; when Conrad was writing it was the part-imperial, part-commercial companies that exercised colonial power and effectively controlled entire countries for profit (for which, see the East India Company, diamond & gold mining in South Africa etc.); now, it would be the multinationals with enough clout to intimidate governments.

An interesting question is whether that distrust of authority is a universal human trait or whether it is determined by the particular society and era someone lives in. If Halliburton didn't exist, would it be necessary to create them?
posted by him at 1:01 PM on June 22, 2010


Bwithh: When NICE was created, it did have the most sensible acronym - it was originally just the National Institute for Clinical Excellence. The "Health" wasn't inserted until 2005, and the old abbreviation was retained.
posted by James Scott-Brown at 1:20 PM on June 22, 2010


Probably not the first example, but Dryco in Jack Womack's "Ambient" novels is a classic of the trope.
posted by aught at 1:28 PM on June 22, 2010


this particular trope is less about secularising criticism of ecclesiastical wrongdoing as it is about the need to constantly find an appropriate contemporary outlet for a deeply-ingrained distrust of authority (and particularly moral authority) In the late 14th century, it was the Church; when Conrad was writing it was the part-imperial, part-commercial companies that exercised colonial power and effectively controlled entire countries for profit (for which, see the East India Company, diamond & gold mining in South Africa etc.); now, it would be the multinationals with enough clout to intimidate governments.

Very good points, him. I guess my real question is whether That Hideous Strength is the first example of someone using the multinational corporation version of this trope (which is kind of the default for our era). Yes, the N.I.C.E. is ultimately controlled by demonic aliens, but the way Lewis portrays the corporation, with it's Making Society Better propaganda with sinister undertones is recognizably the same sort of thing as a down-to-earth Evil Mega Corp in any 21st century melodrama in ways that seem distinct to me from Conrad's imperialistic corporations or Dickens's sweatshops. The Railroad Trust in the Frank Norris novel susanvance mentioned might be closer, but I'd have to read it to see.

Lewis's version is pretty over-the-top evil (including a deplorable butch-lesbian-stereotype character), literally demonic, but I've wondered if that was partly because he was the first to try to portray a corporation that way and didn't have any prior versions to allude to. Nowadays readers would automatically assume a fictional corporation called N.I.C.E. was up to no good.

(And yes, Bwithh, I was making a joke by linking to the BMJ article; I thought Google would suffice for anyone curious about Lewis's novel.)
posted by straight at 10:14 PM on June 22, 2010


NICE was a company? I remember it as being a government agency, like one of the national labs in the US.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:14 PM on June 26, 2010


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