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In cyberpunk genre, we often see commercial companies (Big Scary Corporations) engaged in military conflict against each other. This can be seen in videogame "Syndicate" and other media, for example.

But would it actually make sense in real life? What needs to happen in order for this to begin? What kind of companies are needed for this to happen? What benefits are there for even starting this sort of thing?

The only thing obvious for me here is that companies need to have more power over order and law, than the government.

By "military conflict" i mean companies openly attacking their competitors factories and offices, assassinating valuable employees, destroying prototypes, deploying spies, etc.

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  • $\begingroup$ It's not clear to me what the advantage is for open, attributable warfare, as opposed to covert sabotage or proxy forces -- apart from the intimidation factor of declaring war. $\endgroup$ – Catalyst Dec 14 '16 at 17:58
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    $\begingroup$ Would something like British East India Company work for you en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… $\endgroup$ – MrMister Dec 14 '16 at 18:49
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    $\begingroup$ You may want to read Steven Pressfield's The Profession (2011)... $\endgroup$ – AlexP Mar 13 at 16:17
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Yep, we have a history of just that:

The American Mafia during Prohibiton

To have corporations engage in military conflict, you need:

  1. Powerful market interest in the corporations goods (alcohol, soylent green)
  2. Competition between corporations to provide the same goods.
  3. No less expensive (in time and money) method to handle dispute resolution.

The reason Apple doesn't storm Samsung's offices with tommy guns and silly speech impediments is because they have a (dis)functional court system and patent system to resolve disputes. The lawyers hash it out, sometimes spectacularly, and in the end somebody will get what they want and somebody will lose it.

Gangsters during Prohibition didn't have any such system. Sure, they eventually built "The Commission" and set up their own form of governance, where disputes could be resolved, preferably without violence.

You can see it today with drug cartels. They can't sit down and mediate disputes over territory, distribution rights, land ownership, because their enterprise exists outside the legal system.

In your cyberpunk society, the Corporations don't need to necessarily have more power than the government... they just need to have no other means of dispute resolution. If the Government always sides with the side that gives them the most money, or if the courts are so busy that no business cases are ever decided, then I can see a dystopian corporation deciding that they should spend the millions of dollars they currently pump into the legal and bribery department into a private militia. Get things done quick, and probably cheaper.

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  • $\begingroup$ I love answers that demonstrate that something that sounds ridiculous is actually plausible. $\endgroup$ – Jason Clyde Mar 13 at 15:59
  • $\begingroup$ I'd argue that this was also the norm prior to the 20th century. Just look at the history of the British and Dutch East India Companies, and the fur trade in the Americas. $\endgroup$ – Ynneadwraith Mar 13 at 16:23
  • $\begingroup$ @Ynneadwraith, you're spot on. When a corporation is the size of a country, it tends to act like a country. $\endgroup$ – Zoey Boles Mar 14 at 16:49
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Monopoly on Violence

The key point here is 'monopoly on violence.' In the modern world, governments have a monopoly on violence. There are plenty of places where that is not true (South Sudan, Somalia, Syria, Libya, etc), but in general those places have either never had any sort of working modern economy (Somalia, South Sudan) or their modern economy has been completely wrecked by an all-out civil war (Syria, Libya).

What you want is a place where the government does not have a monopoly on violence, but there isn't an all-out civil war.

The most obvious comparison in the Middle Ages. There was no government monopoly on violence and many minor lords entertains squabbles and feuds that broke out into low grade warfare. They were enabled to do this by their fortifications, which made it too costly for a king with a superior army to defeat them (after all, sieges cost a lot of money). Another apt comparison was the 'Wild West' and its equivalent in the Russian expansion through Siberia. In those places, people just came and went as they pleased and distance made establishing state control difficult. In order to control violence on a local level, people had to band together in 'corporations' (of cattlemen, brigands, sherrif's posses, etc) to deter violence. Two 'corporations' meeting in that context was basically the showdown at the OK Corral.

So to get a similar scenario, you have to have a world where there is limited government oversight and difficulty in enforcing claims of violence monopoly on the corporations either due to a. the corporation's ability to withstand a siege from government forces or b. the distance from government control.

If either criteria is met, then you can expect corporations to act just like feudal barons and Western gangs.

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Today governments are contracting private security firms to guard assets and conduct paramilitary operations. The privatization of war is big business. The US in particular relies heavily on private military companies. Firms like Blackwater in Iraq and G4S with the Dakota pipeline come to mind. So we already see private contractors engaging in military operations and government reliance on such to an increasingly pervasive degree: http://www.strategic-culture.org/news/2016/08/19/private-military-contractors-fighting-us-wars.html All it takes is for two governments on either sides of a conflict that rely on private contractors for this scenario to occur.

If governments collapse due to some economic crises or environmental catastrophe one can imagine a dystopia where only corporations and private security contractors survive. In the absence of government, corporations would turn to private security firms to protect their assets and secure resources. People might turn to them to protect them as the only available option. In such an eventuality, those corporations might clash over resources and assets just as governments do today.

For further reading: http://www.globalresearch.ca/the-privatization-of-war-mercenaries-private-military-and-security-companies-pmsc/21826

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  • $\begingroup$ This kind of privatization isn't new. Mercenary fighters were common in ancient times too. $\endgroup$ – Charles Burge Dec 14 '16 at 20:57
  • $\begingroup$ I'm sure it was, but like everything else nowadays it's accelerating to a whole new level. $\endgroup$ – HyperNym Dec 14 '16 at 22:22
  • $\begingroup$ Notoriously, Italian states in the Renaissance fought many mini-wars between them, almost exclusively using mercenary companies. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Mar 13 at 16:16
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You need a weak state that can't enforce rule of law and strong organizations that failed to assemble a cartel to manage their disputes. Just look to the life of Pablo Escobar and the Gentlemen of the Cartel of Cali to see how your corporations would deal with each other and to the life of El Chapo and Miguel Angelo to learn how one can win these disputes and create a funcioning system.

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