A letter to Wes about Private Empire

by gradus22


The geese are flying south for the winter. Breaking Bad is over. All over the country, college freshmen are breaking up with their high school sweethearts. It’s time to come back to Versuseverythingland.

When did corporations become the default villain in American films? The most recent example I can think of is probably Avatar – the James Cameron movie with the eight-foot tall smurfs, not the one directed by M. Night Shymalan – but it’s a trope you can expect to see at least once during the summer blockbluster season. It was to remarkably easy to compare Avatar to Aliens when it came out. Critics (or rather, people with internet connections who tried to take themselves seriously after watching Avatar) liked to point out that Avatar reversed the man-machine fight from Aliens: in Aliens, you were rooting for Ellen Ripley in the robotic exoskeleton; in Avatar, the filmmakers clearly tried to get you to root for Sam Worthington’s CGI alien, even if a scenery-chewing Stephen Lang was twice as entertaining. This role reversal point is a solid observation, and an excellent idea for an eighth-grade research project if you need one, but to me, those anonymous evil corporations are still the most interesting part.

In Aliens, all corporate stooge Paul Reiser needed to do to earn our hate was lock poor Ripley in the same room with the alien hatchling and watch as it tried to kill her. It was cold-blooded, terrifying, understated, perfect for the character and the movie, and from a plausible corporate decision-making standpoint, it  made sense – it kept the company’s investment while preserving plausible deniability. Paul Reiser returned to his life in New York with Helen Hunt, but America never really forgave him. We knew that there was something going beneath that placid, upper west-side demeanor.As the Evil CEO in Avatar, Giovanni Ribisi was asked to do pretty much everything except point to a chart that listed the specific monetary value of human life from the get-go. That part was twice as cartoonish as any of the aliens could have ever been. Compared to the headlines of the day or elaborate conspiracies thought up on the internet, the Avatar corporation barely rated as a villain at all. The nineties version of James Cameron would never have let that happen. Until we can do more testing in a real-time environment, I suggest we use Aliens to evaluate corporate decision-making on a spaceship full of Alien monsters. But I have to ask, how is it that the corporate villain from the last century has a better feel for contemporary corporate culture than anything more current?

It’s no mistake that people say we’re living in a new golden age of corporate power. You’ll find proof of this just about anywhere you look: Citizens United, the growing income gap, examples are almost too numerous to mention and certainly too depressing for me to list here. But how do you trace these symptoms back to the source? How do today’s corporations really act? Private Empire, Steve Coll’s history of ExxonMobil from Exxon Valdez to Deepwater Horizon spill, reads like an unfinished detective novel. ExxonMobil is surrounded by third-world dictators, human rights violations, legal, ethical and scientific questions, but nothing seems to stick. Remember when the Ford Motor Company was setting honey traps for Ralph Nader? Or when cigarette companies discovered irrefutable links between their products and lung cancer, but continued to deny them for years? Those days are gone. In Private Empire, ExxonMobil is shielded between insulating layers of efficiency and doubt. Its scientists are not asked to refute climate change, but to embrace the idea that the research is still incomplete. Lee Raymond, (Exxon CEO until 2005 or so) uses one number in the company press releases and a different one to the SEC, all in a plausibly deniable and perfectly legal way. ExxonMobil’s lawyers promise to pay all damages to earn juror sympathy in the post-spill trials, but when the trial ends, they certainly make use of all their appeals. In the planning stages of the Iraq war, ExxonMobil declines the chance to expand, but only because of poor efficiency. But when the circumstances change, they return; ExxonMobil was perfectly willing to profit from that misguided invasion, but certainly not willing to pay for it. It’s a little like the friend who joins you for dinner, declines to order anything, but happily gobbles up the uneaten leftovers afterwards. And it’s the same story, from Indonesia to Chad to Saudi Arabia to the Deepwater Horizon. The company earns your respect like criminal mastermind – not from the movies of James Cameron, but from the 19th century Dr. Moriarty, Jack the Ripper. Private Empire is the product of four years of research by a Pulitzer Prize winning author and his team of researchers – Steve Coll is such a good journalist that his writing style can suffer as a result – and its conclusions never reach the point of outrage. And all this in a business that must continue to find new oil reserves every year. As a whole, the company comes off as smart, efficient,careful and ruthless. It’s also an interesting window into the reality of international relations in the twenty-first century: ExxonMobil is a company with shareholders all over the globe, but still an American company. What exactly does that mean, now? Does it mean that the company should put American interests first? Second? Should it consider them at all? Don’t ask Lee Raymond that question.

I think we need better metaphors for corporations in this century. The concept of corporate personhood – more popular today than ever before – seems a little inadequate. Reading Private Empire, I found myself thinking about the Frankenstein’s monster, an amalgamation of parts from different people, but instead of the physical parts, a monster with the drive of thousands of successful and ruthless people, the scientific know-how of thousands of successful scientists, the courtroom demeanor of successful tort lawyers, MBA efficiency and JD doubt. I’ve often wondered if the shareholder-employee dichotomy has unintentionally re-created the Milgram experiment across the country – shareholders invest, expect a return but remain ignorant of the company’s methods, employees ignore their ideological qualms and pursue the company’s goals out of sheer professionalism. An oversimplication to be sure, but is that symbiotic deniability – the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing –  another Frankensteinian amalgamation of parts?

I’ll leave you here, slouching towards awkward W.B. Yeats references, waiting to be born. Bleh.