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I have an idea for a story set in a not-too-far future where the political lines of the world map have been redrawn, not by nation-states like France or Belgium but by corporations like MacroCorp, Branson Genetics and The Co-Operative. Huge industrial conglomerates literally control entire nations as our governments do now. Elected governments still exist but are as much figureheads as the monarchs of the 20th-21st century; in practice they are totally beholden to the CEOs and executives that have all the actual power over writing laws, international diplomacy and so on.

I think that a pessimist would already see the signs that this is happening, between the hefty power of corporate lobbyists, politicians with investment portfolios that betray clear conflicts of interest, creeping privatisation of public services like hospitals and police forces, and international trade deals that erode governments' ability to oversee corporate collusion (TTIP lets corporations sue governments for endangering their profits!).

But what I'm looking to brainstorm is some kind of big historic event that marks the dividing line between our world and this one. Something on the scale of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the USSR or 9/11. Creeping government legislation to permit this will definitely have happened, and is certainly a huge factor, but I want something that the citizens of this world can point to and say “It sure hasn't been the same since X.”

It's possible that this was some big bit of international law that allows a corporation to legally purchase a city (because I like the idea of referring to cities as business assets; and The City of London Corporation is something that already exists), but even that doesn't seem revolutionary enough for this level of societal shift. Perhaps over several decades our mega-corporations became more powerful than the biggest world governments in terms of GDP, intelligence services, military might etc., and the big watershed was some kind of civil war between some major G7 nation and UberCorp PLC that the government lost, and was overthrown. After this the other corporations realised that they could easily do this too, and the governments of the world fell in line when they realised they couldn't stand up to the business leaders. But this might be too simplistic, or too jingoistic, or not nuanced enough - just an idea to start off with.

Also, if anyone has any recommended reading for fiction that has done a similar thing, I'm all ears. Brave New World kind of skirts this line (Thank Ford) but has a very different focus. I know books have probably been written about horrible corporate dystopias but I'm not exactly sure where to find them.

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    $\begingroup$ One acronym: TTIP (independent.co.uk/voices/comment/…) $\endgroup$ – Whelkaholism Dec 7 '15 at 16:46
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    $\begingroup$ Also, Snow Crash is set in a world where states are corporate entities. $\endgroup$ – Whelkaholism Dec 7 '15 at 16:46
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    $\begingroup$ "...a pessimist would already see the signs that this is happening..." Yup, and so do a couple big universities: telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/10769041/… $\endgroup$ – cobaltduck Dec 7 '15 at 21:22
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    $\begingroup$ "I think that a pessimist would already see the signs that this is happening" I think you have to be an optimist to only see the signs. A pessimist would say: "Looks like a documentary..." $\endgroup$ – Bounce Dec 8 '15 at 10:35
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    $\begingroup$ FYI, two relevant dystopian books are The Space Merchants (big corporations, esp. advertising) and Gladiator at Law (big Companies and lawyers), both by F. Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth. Interestingly, the third book in their quasi-series, The Syndic, is (a) more utopian than dis -- and organized crime ends up being a force for good. Social commentary ;-) $\endgroup$ – Catalyst Nov 30 '16 at 15:03

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You're asking for a single, large event to cause the shift, which makes sense as the end game. However, I think it's probably more important to establish a series of events and circumstances which set up the situation such that it will culminate with corporate takeover.

Presently

Globalization is the word of the day. Large corporations have become international entities with no real ties to their country of origin. They are interested only in the bottom line, and scoff at having any sort of civic responsibility, or really supporting human rights (except when the cameras are trained on them - look at present day Apple factories in China).

Look at the US, for an example of "rabid capitalism": corporations are legally considered "individuals", which allows them to lobby government. They blatantly manipulate politics, and influence major decisions in many areas. This is true all around the world in some way, shape, or form (by having politicians, or their families be involved with said corporations, and thus act in their favor, etc), however in most places corporations don't legally have that kind of power. Thus, it's unrealistic to suggest that corporations would, in one fell swoop, take over the world - or even just the Western countries. People would resist, the military may even rebel. What you need is a good combination of legislation and circumstances.

The Set Up

There's several aspects which need to be staged:

  • An economic/security crisis which make people desperate
  • Increased corporate rights and freedoms
  • Government ineptitude in handling the above crisis

These conditions will be met slightly differently in the US and Europe.

Europe

To address the first condition, simply extrapolate current European events: the immigrant crisis of Europe takes a heavy toll on socially generous countries such as Germany, France, and other Northern European nations. Terrorist incidents shake the public's trust in the judgement of their governments (they let the immigrants trample across borders unchecked), as well as their ability to keep them safe (a lot of arrests are made, but dozens of terrorist attacks still occur). This situation sparks a wave of racism and Islamophobia which sweeps many European nations, and which results in many demonstrations and acts of violence against Muslims, and their places of worship - this in turn fuels even more violent acts on the part of their extremists.

As a result of the unstable security situation, the EU's economy suffers greatly. In an effort to bring the economy back on track, and under heavy pressure from the private sector, the EU grants corporations rights similar to those of US based entities. There are groups which protest this, but the average citizen is desperate for a job, and to feed his/her family: they just don't care anymore.

The US

The economic downturn brings a lot of people to desperation. Robberies and violent crime rates rise, as does the aggression with which police deals with the heavily armed (Second Amendment, yay!) perpetrators. Racial tensions rise, with each police shooting, and violent demonstrations and riots take an even greater toll on the US economy. Public trust in the government's ability to keep them safe, and run the country, drops.

In Both

Large global corporations band together and announce a US-EU public service project on a massive scale. They begin opening large community centers in the hardest hit European and US cities, and publicly pour a large amount of money (but only a fraction of what they have, not to mention also receiving government funding) into making these a success. They offer employment services, open food banks, child care services, etc. - all while providing jobs for the locals.

To protect these community centers, they set up safe-zones which are protected by private corporate security. They - very publicly - succeed:

  • Europe: in stopping several planned terrorist attacks against these centers
  • The US: in stopping riots from sweeping over their safe-zones, which keep thousands of women and children safe as rioters rip the city apart around them

Public opinion on the abilities of corporations to keep the peace skyrockets.

As Draco has already stated, corporations already have access to an unprecedented level of information, as well as basically owning the Western media. By carefully manipulating the media, and going so far as to manipulate/edit popular internet sites and forums etc., corporations build a truly impeccable image for themselves, with any incidents involving corporate security violence being swept under the rug, or being very well handled by their PR departments.

All around the US and Europe municipalities ask the corporations to expand their security zones to include schools, hospitals, and other civic buildings. The corporations agree, but request a greater degree of freedom in managing those areas.

The Grand Finale

As stability returns, so does prosperity. Municipal governments already work very closely with corporations, while at a higher level (US federal, and EU government levels) lobby groups are keeping just the right people funded and in power.

After yet another major government fuck up (many troops dying in the Middle East, etc.), which corporations are careful is played up in just the right way in the media, a seemingly "grassroots" movement is sparked:

"The people", clearly seeing that corporations can better manage their countries than their failed, war-mongering governments, demand that these same corporations which have restored their cities take over greater government functions, including foreign policy.

This whole thing is carefully manipulated via social media by the corporations in question, while the alphabet agencies (CIA, NSA, CSIS, Interpol, etc.) have their leashes yanked by corrupt politicians, or other well placed corporate puppets.

After massive referendums across the US, Canada, and the EU, this massive global corporate conglomerate is elected as the managing entity for the Western world. The corporate leaders become public figures of incredible importance.

Each country's military/police force/spy agencies, while technically not falling under corporate rule, now depends on them for funding. Needless to say, the takeover is fast and merciless, with public opinion being manipulated all along the way.

Note: As Avernium points out, corporations are a bit like cats: they compete, not work well together. You would have to also cover how major corporations would initiate this massive effort. No wand-waving required as far as you keep in mind that what they all really want is money. You can imagine a company such as Amazon buying Walmart, then merging with Microsoft/Google/Facebook/Ebay, and becoming a behemoth of unparalleled influence and financial might. Once they have that much power they can bully any other company into bowing down to them (weapon manufacturers, pharmaceutical companies, etc.). Other companies would offer to join their alliance simply to stay on their good side.

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    $\begingroup$ +vote for the intense depth of information supplied here. I gave the same basic answer, but I didn't have nearly this level of detail at my fingertips. Marvelous. $\endgroup$ – Draco18s Dec 7 '15 at 16:38
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    $\begingroup$ Fantastic answer, thanks! I never expected that the actual corporate takeover would boil down to a single historical event, just that it might be represented in the public imagination by one (even though the process itself involves a series of events and circumstances that gradually drive the shift over time). Your points about public opinion voting the corporations in gives me a lot to think about. Of course they'd need the support of the people, at least at first, and however engineered it might be. I'll definitely be looking back at your writeup a lot as I flesh things out. $\endgroup$ – adb Dec 7 '15 at 17:08
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    $\begingroup$ There is no invasion happening in Europe. $\endgroup$ – phresnel Dec 8 '15 at 11:27
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    $\begingroup$ @AndreiROM: I think this is more a matter of fact than of opinion. Would there be an invasion in Germany, I would probably receive a letter by the Bundeswehr to stay tuned and in reach. Whether I look into german dictionaries or english ones, none of them mentions that "invasion" is a peaceful event. People who proclaim "invasion" just fuel the xenophobia here around. $\endgroup$ – phresnel Dec 8 '15 at 16:34
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    $\begingroup$ @AndreiROM: The one is completely disjunct from the other. Is the current situation (and I don't mean just the refugees and the reasons for them fleeing their homelands) problematic? Hell yes. Is it an invasion? Hell no. The American settlers were more of an "invasion". Using words like that to exaggerate the situation has worked quite well for a certain man and his party of nutcases about 80 years ago... $\endgroup$ – DevSolar Dec 8 '15 at 19:07
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The question could be rephrased as, "what kind of historic event would eliminate the difference between corporations and government?"

There are several significant differences. For example, a government can issue money and levy taxes; a corporation can't. A government can pass laws and enforce them; a corporation can make rules that apply to its employees, but its ability to make rules and enforce them is limited by the laws of the place(s) in which it does business.

If a corporation tried to do things that are generally considered the exclusive province of governments, it would incur the wrath of the government, which would bring down problems upon their head in the form of financial penalties, law enforcement, or possibly military action, depending on the severity of their transgressions. To be able to get away with this, they would need to be able to withstand such wrath and come out on top.

Therefore, what would be the tipping point? Corporations beginning to successfully field their own law enforcement and military forces.

One scenario I've seen in which this occurred in fiction is in the Shadowrun backstory. Essentially, during a time of serious unrest due to food shortages, there was a train traveling through a major American city, filled with toxic waste. Rumor got around that it was actually filled with food, being shipped off to rich people while the common man starved, and a riot ensued, with people trying to storm the train. (It's heavily implied that the rumor was seeded deliberately by corporate interests to precipitate this exact chain of events.) Heavily armed private security on the train fought to defend it, killing many rioters.

The company that owned the train ended up in court, for unlawful military action. They presented the defense that if the rioters had successfully stormed the train, they would almost certainly have contaminated a large part of the city and caused millions of deaths and severe injuries, and that the guards' work in protecting it was a massive public service. The courts ruled in their favor, and this set a precedent: corporations can have their own armed forces to protect their interests. And it was all downhill from there.

There are other ways it could play out, of course, but finding some way of legitimizing corporate military is the most likely single tipping point.

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A conglomerate of Private Military Corporations (PMCs) defeats ISIS/its descendants.

The Setup

Donald Trump gets elected in 2016, and with Congress, passes laws alienating most of the Muslims in the US and most Western nations. France, the UK, and several other major nations follow suit. ISIS ranks swell, and terrorism flourishes around the globe. Voters demand action, but are unwilling to send their sons and daughters to fight and die in the Middle East. Meanwhile, PMCs like Blackwater/Academi win bigger and bigger contracts for providing security in these increasingly dangerous areas.

The Event

ISIS decides that to instigate the apocalyptic battle it fervently desires, it must target the heart of Capitalism. It organizes sleeper cells to kill family members of major corporations, including Facebook, Apple, Google, and Microsoft. Mark Zuckerberg's wife and child are gunned down by agents who have pledged loyalty to ISIS, and Zuckerberg himself vows revenge. He buys Academi in a trade executed entirely with shares from his charitable LLC, and nobody in the media raises a finger in protest. Marissa Meyer's young child is also murdered by ISIS, and she convinces others with a similar plight to also buy out the largest PMCs. Veterans from former wars swarm to sign up with the PMCs, who are now flush with cash and offering large recruiting bonuses.

Even though the world gov'ts are hamstrung by electorates unwilling to send their militaries into the fight, the PMCs have both the freedom and the economic power to do so by themselves. Zuckerberg forms an alliance with Larry Page, Nadella, Tim Cook, and Mayer to send in a combined force to wipe out ISIS once and for all. Jeff Bezos offers to help with militarized drones converted from his delivery network. Fighters come from Somalia, Kenya, Burma, Malaysia, Albania...every conflict zone from the last 3 decades, all in search of money and glory.

NATO and Russia at least offer air power to neutralize the biggest threats, but their commanders are otherwise forced to look on as the PMCs engage in the biggest fight of the decade. From their war room in Silicon Valley, the tech giants of the world unleash the biggest volley of privately controlled weaponry in history. After a bloody but quick battle, ISIS is not just defeated, and demoralized, but eradicated. Many of the mercenaries commit war crimes against ISIS fighters in a brutal display of bloodlust and revenge, but there are no calls for ICC tribunals, as Apple's production team pushes propaganda videos around the clock showing the innocents being slaughtered by ISIS in the initial strike.

The Aftermath

Now that private corporations have formed a huge fighting force, it becomes apparent that they actually have the largest military in the world, outranking even the US and China. And, fueled by the righteous anger of victimhood and revenge, Zuckerberg and friends promise to protect the world from any menace that may arise, anywhere, at any time. Bezos and Elon Musk launch anti-satellite and ballistic penetrators using Falcon and Blue Origin rockets. Together, it is clear that the Corps now call the shots, and it really doesn't matter what any gov't has to say about their actions. Since they are initially viewed as the saviors of mankind, their actions are tolerated, at first...but power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely...

Some elements of this can be seen in the latest Call of Duty game.

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    $\begingroup$ Haha, this is great. $\endgroup$ – adb Dec 8 '15 at 11:21
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This is the site for building neat fictional worlds, not for stringent historical analysis. With that in mind, here are some options:

  • In a major western nation, a corporation publicly threatens to move their corporate headquarters to another country unless the newly elected government resigns immediately. The government complies. The press conference and the hours leading up to it are the "where were you when ..." moment.
  • A mid-sized newly industrialized nation declares that they cannot pay their debt. Corporations sue in trade arbitration courts and win. After some behind-the-scenes wrestling, a highly improbable coalition of national governments invades the defaulter to collect the debt. They go in, loot the central bank, museums, etc. Either the declaration of war or the news reports from the invaded capital are the "where were you when ..." moment.
  • A trade arbitration court declares that a decision by the US supreme court is invalid because the SC doesn't have jurisdiction. (A similar scenario in the EU would be less traumatic, people are used to the ECJ taking national cases.)
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  • $\begingroup$ These are great. Just what I was looking for! $\endgroup$ – adb Dec 7 '15 at 19:48
  • $\begingroup$ I feel like a lot of the posts here do relate to forks of Earth (present-day and otherwise). Historical|futuristic fiction is also a thing. $\endgroup$ – Blacklight Shining Dec 8 '15 at 13:44
  • $\begingroup$ @BlacklightShining, the original poster asked for "a story set in a not-too-far future" so the answers are centered on that. $\endgroup$ – o.m. Dec 8 '15 at 16:59
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My (least) favorite answer would be:

Nothing

The world is already going that way and it would take doing something significant to avert that future. Google and Facebook collectively know more about us than the NSA does, selling that information to advertisers in order to brainwash us into buying NERPS, and we're complacent enough to go along with it: Afterall, any pleebian who isn't buying doesn't know what it's like to really live a comfortable life.

We're happy to turn our social lives over to a cloud service, let our actions be dictated by our devices, and expect instant gratification from everything. If it takes longer to download a movie than make popcorn, we throw down the remote and find something else.

Would you like to supersize that?

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    $\begingroup$ While I agree with your sentiment, I think what you're saying could be rephrased as "history keeps unfolding in line with current trends" - while this is probably true, I think it's more interesting to discuss the events that would exist in that history, if you know what I mean. $\endgroup$ – adb Dec 7 '15 at 17:15
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After trying to come up with some interesting major historical events that might precipitate this situation, it has become increasingly clear that no single event could be responsible. A tipping point might be identifiable, but in every scenario there is a multitude of events that need to happen to reach your destination. Here are a few of the reasons why:

  1. As of the present day, the majority of citizens in western nations are ideologically against corruption. More fundamentally, they are against unequal influence (particularly the opaque type) of government officials. Given that business interests are often a prime motivator for corruption, any single event that allows a visible shift in governance from elected officials to corporations would probably not be accepted peacefully by the populace.

  2. A large-scale destabilization of federal governments would result in a retreat toward smaller local governments where citizens can more easily hold officials accountable. This is a big problem for a lot of scenarios, because a loss of trust in government is unlikely to allow corporations to swoop in as the good guys. The highest risk of destabilization would be with a single high-profile event, whereas many smaller events over a long period won’t disrupt the status quo.

  3. There are many, many corporations within each country. For nation states to be replaced by corporate states, you would need to either have most western countries subdivided into smaller states ruled by individual corporations or certain regions (such as Silicon Valley) would just erupt into chaos as the biggest corporations vie for violent or financial takeover of each other until one comes out on top.

  4. Few, if any, corporations are diverse enough to govern a region. Currently, the most profitable companies in the world only specialize in a few specific areas (relatively speaking). If they attempt to acquire companies across the full spectrum of services they will become too slow and lumbering to adapt to changing markets and they’ll be at risk of collapse. These companies also don’t employ militaries for defense. While private military contractors certainly do exist, it would be beyond suspicious for your typical Google or Amazon to acquire one of these companies. And bear in mind: whatever they plan to do with those soldiers, the soldiers are ultimately citizens who may or may not agree with what they’re told to do. When you ask too much of a soldier, “orders” no longer becomes enough of a justification.

  5. For corporations to function, human beings must be employed. Automation will replace some jobs, but large companies will continue to employ large numbers of people and doubly so if one of them is governing a region. Using force to get employees to come into the office isn’t going to be practical — you need people to do it willingly, which takes a buildup of either trust or dependence, both of which take time. If a corporations employees don’t come into work — whether it’s due to an ongoing revolution, general distrust, or something else — it will not function.

As a result, the so-called “slow boil” is not only going to be the most believable scenario to present-day readers, but it’s probably the most likely.

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  • $\begingroup$ #5 is actually a relatively easy problem for the corps to solve: Corp Script. By paying employees in a currency that can only be spent at the corporation, the employee is both supplying the work and prevented from distributing their income to competing interests. Essentially, the employee becomes a slave. Helps if #4 is also true, in that the corp has a horizontal monopoly. $\endgroup$ – Draco18s Dec 7 '15 at 16:50
  • $\begingroup$ @Draco18s I agree. None of these should be seen as insurmountable challenges -- they simply require great care and a long series of well-orchestrated events to reach the proposed destination. $\endgroup$ – Avernium Dec 7 '15 at 16:53
  • $\begingroup$ Also a great answer. I have possible "solutions" (contrivances) to most of these, but they're an excellent way to add some depth to the world and its history. Mainly I'm expecting there to be a bunch of mergers and acquisitions that tie a bunch of smaller (but still enormous) corporations into the diverse states that end up ruling the world. Especially love the idea of corporate-backed currencies - it makes surface sense when compared to existing national currencies, but is more sinister and very appropriate. $\endgroup$ – adb Dec 7 '15 at 17:18
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The Second Great Depression

An economic event like the great depression hits the world economy. Huge numbers of businesses are floundering. You might think this would hurt the power of corporations, but that's not how things worked out:

Some businesses are bailed out by the government. But when things don't get better, they come back for more and more bailouts. Soon, the businesses are taking government funds just becomes part of doing business. If anyone objects, its pointed out that the business provides a necessary service, if it were allowed to go under, we would all suffer.

The number of businesses able to donate to election campaigns shrinks. Politicians are more desperate to get those campaign donations, leading them to be more in the pocket of businesses than before.

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Game theory as a dark art - Take one: evil plutocrat.

You are an evil plutocrat who wants to get your pet bill - let's say a law that makes evil plutocrats tax-exempt - through the US Congress. Your usual strategy would be to bribe the Congressmen involved, but that would be pretty costly - Congressmen no longer come cheap. Assume all Congressmen act in their own financial self-interest, but that absent any financial self-interest they will grudgingly default to honestly representing their constituents, who hate your bill (and you personally). Is there any way to ensure Congress passes your bill, without spending any money on bribes at all?

Yes. Simply tell all Congressmen that if your bill fails, you will donate some stupendous amount of money to whichever party gave the greatest percent of their votes in favor.

Suppose the Democrats try to coordinate among themselves. They say “If we all oppose the bill, then if even one Republican supports the bill, the Republicans will get lots of money they can spend on campaigning against us. If only one of us supports the bill, the Republicans may anticipate this strategy and two of them may support it. The only way to ensure the Republicans don't gain a massive windfall and wipe the floor with us next election is for most of us to vote for the bill.”

Meanwhile, in their meeting, the Republicans think the same thing. The vote ends with most members of Congress supporting your bill, and you don't end up having to pay any money at all.

It not only can happen, it is slowly happening, because many voters (in USA) cannot be bothered to learn real facts, and rely on biases and misinformation (financed by the same plutocrats).

Requirement of democracy is informed electorate. Oops.

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Not wanting to get all political (I'm not even American), but here is a scenario.

Donald Trump is elected president, and with a house and senate majority, immediately starts to deliver on his promises to reduce the size and cost of government and invigorate business by outsourcing all of the Government's functions, eventually including (for sound economic reasons of course) the legislature, the judiciary and finally, the executive.

As part of this push laws are passed giving corporations enhanced rights and powers where it is needed to fulfill their functions. For example, private police forces need to be able to carry and use weapons, and so are exempted from prosecution for such. Of course, the legislation was developed by corporate "advisors" in the legislative branch and is full of loopholes and exceptions advantageous to them, such as allowing the corporations to engage in asset forfeiture and keep the proceeds.

With this power over the running of the USA, and the various binding trade agreements in existence, other nations are forced into similar situations. Those resisting are sidelined via by multinationals wielding their immense economic power.

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  • $\begingroup$ it's worth pointing out that in the latest Republican Presidential Debate, Carly Fiorina reportedly stated that "help from the private sector should be sought to fix an "incompetent" government". (Ref: BBC, Cliff notes at the bottom of the article). What's scary is that this isn't remotely far-fetched... $\endgroup$ – Ieuan Stanley Dec 16 '15 at 9:18
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If general opinion becomes in favor of a big company rather than the government.

  • Imagine a series of terrorist attack of nuclear proportion and the government unable to react.
  • Than for example a google pinpoints the exact location of the terrorist cell. Sends also some androids there to eliminate them.
  • Attacks stop. Google posts its actions on youtube.
  • Upcoming election I would vote google.
  • Next thing you know, there is a giant google tower in middle earth with a chrome logo on top.

Just kiddin, google, we love you

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Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun (attributed to Mao, I think). You need an event that allows the corporations to have their own armed forces. Perhaps, a constitutional amendment in the US privatizing the armed forces for cost savings. Or a stronger second amendment allowing individuals and corporations to keep and bear any weapon they like, including nuclear weapons. These are unlikely to happen elsewhere in the world but US corporations may slowly take over the world with their armies.

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