Andrea Phillips: The Corporation As Tool

I’m often wont to say that plot is Soylent Green — it’s made of people. Meaning, people make decisions, and that’s what forms an overarching plot or story, not some external hero’s myth, not some skeletal framework of A to B to C. And that’s in narrative, yes, but it also translates to the real world. Science and history are both driven by people — their decisions, their choices, their observations and recordings. And here, Andrea Phillips — with her new novel, America, Inc. out this week — talks a bit about the idea of the corporation, and how it relates to the individual:

***

My name is Andrea Phillips, I think corporations get a bad rap that they don’t entirely deserve. I even wrote a book called America Inc. that’s about a corporation running for president of the U.S. — and they’re the good guys. See, I think the corporation is just a tool, and like every tool, it can be used for good or for evil.

In the beginning, corporate personhood was a great idea. The whole point was to legally separate a business from its owners. That way they wouldn’t be ruined if something went wrong and the business went under — say a ship was lost at sea, or the shop burned down.

Recognizing the business as a separate legal entity created a shield that meant the people the business owed money to couldn’t come after the owner’s house, couldn’t take all of their life savings, couldn’t take the lollipops from the mouths of their children. That doesn’t seem so bad, right?

So why do people hate corporations today? That tool fell into the wrong hands. They’ve taken the legal and financial shield and applied it to other areas of responsibility. It’s become a moral shield, too.

When Deepwater Horizon spilled hundreds of millions of gallons into the Gulf of Mexico, we blamed BP. When researchers discovered diesel cars cheating their way through emissions testing, we blamed Volkswagen. When the 737 Max turned out to have gone into service with fatal flaws, we blamed Boeing.

But each one of those incidents is the result of decisions and actions taken by individual people — and not just one or two, but a cascade of people all choosing to do the wrong thing.

This also applies to business practices. It’s easy shorthand to talk about Amazon’s monopoly power or Wal-Mart’s decision to underpay their workers. But Amazon didn’t decide anything. Wal-Mart didn’t, either. In a very concrete way, neither Amazon nor Wal-Mart even exist. You can’t touch them, and you certainly can’t throw them in a jail cell. Every one of those actions is a choice that some asshole made — some asshole who took on the mantle of the corporation to shield him from the consequences.

The corporation isn’t the problem. The problem is a cultural and legal structure that absolves individuals of moral and criminal culpability for the choices they’ve made. The problem is letting those assholes run things without consequences.

It doesn’t have to be like that.

OK, fine. Sometimes, in the most egregious of cases, we’ll throw a few assholes in jail. Sometimes, though, the people who wind up in hot water aren’t the ones who made the original decision; they’re just water-carriers following orders for the people who sign their checks.

We could be doing a lot more. We could be exercising punishments for corporate malfeasance with more bite than skimming off a fraction of a percent of profits in fines. We could and should create a criminal framework that punishes both businesses and decision makers for their antisocial, anti-environmental, anticompetitive choices.

Creating sweeping change like that is hard and slow. In the meantime, all of us have to operate within this corrupt system. There’s no escaping it. But that doesn’t mean we have to be corrupt ourselves.

Individuals have much more power than they realize. Every day, we make choices, and our little choices can add up ripple by ripple to become a great wave of change. We’ve seen it in #MeToo, where each person calling out the instigator of their harassment emboldens others to share their experiences and enforce a new cultural acceptance that that kind of shit isn’t okay. We’re seeing it right now with Black Lives Matter, where years of tremendous work of Black activists has finally stirred even apathetic white people to protest and to support massive changes in police use of force, disciplinary processes, and funding.

I’m not saying that little by little we can change the complicated international financial-legal system on our own. But in your own workplace, you can be a sticky cog, finding ways to prevent evil and ways to do good. Every business that sent out an email supporting Black Lives Matter did that because an individual at that company made a choice — a moral choice. We can all find ways to try to make our workplaces less racist, or less exploitative, even if it’s just by example.

Me, I’m just a reclusive author. I can’t press my employer to, say, make Juneteenth a paid holiday because I don’t have one. So for my part, I’m donating 15% of net profits from sales of America Inc. to Common Cause, a nonprofit that works to protect voting writes in the United States.

Be the change. It’s got to start somewhere. And once you start, you just might discover you’re not as alone as you thought.

***

Andrea Phillips is an award-winning immersive experience designer and author. Her short fiction includes the critically acclaimed novelette The Revolution, Brought to You by Nike. America, Inc. is its novel-length sequel. Her other books include Revision, The Daring Adventures of Lucy Smokeheart, and A Creator’s Guide to Transmedia Storytelling. She also created the Serial Box LitRPG project Alternis, and co-authored Bookburners and ReMade. You can find her on Twitter at @andrhia. I mean, if you like that sort of thing.

Andrea Phillips: Website | Twitter

America, Inc.: Buy Now