This should be easy, given how close we sometimes seem to already existing in some kind of cyberpunk dystopian vision of the near future, but I'm having a bit of trouble imagining exactly what the transition(s) to and structure(s) of corporate nation-states, as opposed to our present standard-fare representative governance nation-state, would most plausibly look like, given a starting point of roughly the early 2000s as the earliest possible point of divergence from the history you and I are familiar with as "true."

To be clear, I am talking about a very common trope of Cyberpunk - that nations, such as they are, will be balkanized, neutered little things, largely co-opted by the corporate interests with holdings inside their borders, in the future. That in many places there might actually exist districts, cities - even states with ONLY corporate and/or criminal syndicate power structures in place. It's a wonderful thematic tool for pasting the oppression, corruption, waste, and inhuman bureaucracy of authoritarian governments onto the template of corporations in order to criticize extreme visions of unrestricted capitalism, but is it plausible, and what would it look like?

Subquestions within this overall question that would add to any answer:

  • What would the relationship between corporation and nation look like?
  • What would be the most common relationship between employees and corporations look like?
  • How would corporations change?
  • How would concepts of citizenship, suffrage, and legal representation for individuals and organizations change?
  • Would there be any semi-stable transitional stages from government rule to full-blown corporate hegemony?

I am going to attempt to elaborately answer this question on my own, but I won't be selecting it as the answer unless for some reason it is upvoted the most, and users should also feel very free to criticize/nitpick my answer as a form of contribution.

  • $\begingroup$ If you can get your hands on it you might want to look into the PnP Shadowrun. It's about a world where large companies control big parts of people lives, issuing Identification-Numbers, taxing citizens and enforcing the law (as it is a PnP usually by force). It's cyberpunkish, but you may have to subtract the magic aspects. The wiki contains part of the worlds history, which can give you possible points of divergences. $\endgroup$
    – JFBM
    Commented Dec 29, 2016 at 0:20
  • $\begingroup$ It is a very common theme, to the point I think most would agree it is a trope of the whole cyberpunk genre of SF $\endgroup$
    – Adam Wykes
    Commented Dec 29, 2016 at 0:33
  • $\begingroup$ We passed this point long ago $\endgroup$
    – Innovine
    Commented Dec 29, 2016 at 14:46
  • $\begingroup$ A fair point, Innovine. To some extent, this is a matter of degrees rather than a tipping point. $\endgroup$
    – Adam Wykes
    Commented Dec 29, 2016 at 14:49

4 Answers 4


One way this could develop from current events is from corporate-run "smart cities" such as Avasa in India. There are projects like this at least proposed all over the world, as the ultimate in privatised supply of public services.

The idea is that private company funds, plans, and operates a high tech, fully integrated, city. All the tasks which might traditionally have been performed by local government are instead departments of this private company - transport, power and water supply, emergency and medical services, schools, etc. As a consequence, a large proportion of the residents are in fact employees of this one company - and it's not hard to imagine the city exporting goods or services from yet more fully-owned enterprises. In return, these corporations are able to set the rules of how all these services run - rules which would in any other city have been imposed on them by public bodies before they were awarded the contract.

Now imagine that these cities are a success, and the rest of the country they're hosted in is in a long economic decline. The corporations will accrue ever more money, which they will want to invest in expansion, and the waiting lists for residence of the new cities will persuade the government to allow more cities to be built. Eventually, the corporations will start offering to "bail out" existing cities, converting a depressed slum into the latest branch of their franchise.

As others have pointed out, the key power to take over is the police force, but it needn't be called that. Go into a shopping mall, and you will see uniformed guards, who have the power to evict you based not on the law, but on the rules decided by management. Scale that up to the size of a city, and you might find that a conservative Christian corporation manages to "outlaw" abortion, or homosexuality, simply by firing employees and evicting residents who don't follow its "contract". The surrounding state might allow this as a compromise of getting the investment, or it might simply lack the resources to compel the corporation to comply.

I'm frightened and depressed how plausible this sounds, and now I have to go to sleep!

  • $\begingroup$ Some more examples and discussion I don't have time to fully digest: mobile.nytimes.com/2015/03/17/opinion/… $\endgroup$
    – IMSoP
    Commented Dec 29, 2016 at 1:04
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I like this answer the most so far, though I might venture that I am one of those "conservative Christians" you are scare mongering about, lol... But really it's quite plausible no matter what side of the debate you're on. However, why do you say this must take place in a period if economic decline? Would not an international corporation NOT expand investment into a contracting market? $\endgroup$
    – Adam Wykes
    Commented Dec 29, 2016 at 1:07
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ I picked those examples of "laws" precisely because some would see them as good and others as bad - the key point is that they would not be decided by any form of democracy. The economic decline of the surrounding state is necessary for the private cities to be desirable to live in, and for the state to be willing to cede power in exchange for their creation. Corporations need consumers, so have an incentive to create a captive market, so they too are more likely to risk the project if the surrounding economy cannot sustain them. $\endgroup$
    – IMSoP
    Commented Dec 29, 2016 at 1:17
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Maybe I'll edit in some more on that another day, then. Put simply, for the new powers to rise, the old ones need to fail - people have got to want these new lubing arrangements, despite the sacrifice of freedom. Since this whole vision is a capitalist one, it seems logical to me that that desire would be an economic one, i.e. better conditions inside than outside. $\endgroup$
    – IMSoP
    Commented Dec 29, 2016 at 1:23
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I think what he means is that while the overall country is in a state of decline, the privatized cities flourish because they only allow certain people to live there. I personally like this answer best (with some additions from some other answers). This could lead to several competing privatized city franchises. Also, imagine the slums outside of those privatized cities filled with the people kicked out by the corporations. They would likely be hired as the miners, or grunt labor outside the clean cities. +1 $\endgroup$
    – BaseHobo
    Commented Dec 29, 2016 at 17:22

Historical Precedents

The East India Company

The East India company basically ruled India. They directly competed with other East India companies, sometimes violently, and enjoyed a monopoly on trade in the region sanctioned by the English crown. Thus while they were propped up legally by the English, the company itself often held sway in India proper. The nature of the power structure seems fundamentally to have been one in which the company posed as an intermediary between the west and the various regional principalities of India, controlling their governments by monopolizing the income available to them and pitting them against each other to keep them in check. They loaned the British government significant sums of money, essentially propping up Britain in dire straits and profiting immensely from its monopoly so bought in times of relative prosperity, where its products were readily consumed by the British public.

The BEIC marshalled and directed its own navy and army in campaigns and garrisons, with personnel drawn primarily from the native population whose lands it owned. These forces were used to enforce Company directives among the native governments. This force made the BEIC kingmakers. Such arrangements with local governments ensured the company did not incur the costs of governance - inimical to profits, especially when tasked with ensuring the compliance of native populations. This was fundamentally possible due to the power vacuum ensuing the fall of Mughal greatness by the rise of the Marathas and other Hindu groups in India - regional hegemony was in the hands of no one in particular.

Company profit was extracted at the expense of sustainability, to put it lightly. Regional stability and rule of law suffered consequently; India was in that time a nation ruled by a company and the thugs who did not get in its way.

Its corporate lobby was responsible for things like the Tea Act, which precipitated the emergence of the USA - and the undermining of Chinese rule of law via international opium drug trade.

Fundamentally, the BEIC was a joint-stock company insured by the British government and capable of almost unhindered operation throughout the subcontinent and much of the high seas. It was dissolved ultimately by an act of the British government in the wake of rebellion on the subcontinent which saw the company's military control of government there falter.

The BEIC was basically everything anyone could want of a horrifically omnipotent, octopoid, corporate stand-in for government.


These large Japanese business interests get disproportionate mention in Cyberpunk, probably fueled by western fears in the 1980s, the decade in which we may say the genre was born. Fundamentally the amalgamation of a private holding company, industrial conglomerates, and a wholly-owned and backing banking organization, Zaibatsu basically ran Japanese economics, including tax collection, especially prior to WWII. Their differentiation from criminal Yakuza is sometimes hazy, and they also ran political organizations and engaged in quite a bit of military-industrial complex-ing. Their employees expressed considerable devotion to zaibatsu interests likely stemming from a cultural background encouraging such behavior. Their dominance came to an end with the fascist government of the 1930s and 40s nationalizing many of their assets.

Zaibatsu represent a blurring of the lines between family, corporation, government, and the individual, enabling remarkably stable and potent power structures to exist within a more powerful government.

Banana Republics

When you have a country whose economy is based on the profits of a few or even just one company, you have a banana republic. While in a large and complex way one might consider the BEIC's rule over India a kind of very large and powerful Banana Republic, the Latin American examples of history provide a more recent and plentiful set of stories to draw inspiration from.

Banana Republics expose salient features of corporations which assume features of the nation-state: effective monopoly on trade and the backing of a foreign power more potent than the government in whose lands they are doing business.

Organized Crime

In a very literal sense, organized criminal activities constitute nothing less than the unsanctioned operation of a "government and corporation" within the borders of one or more nation-states. Whereas these organizations are forced by the extralegal nature of their operations to utilize security enforcement and legal codes of their own design in place of the systems they subvert, such groups are immediately to be considered candidates for cooperation with corporations wishing to extend their influence within jurisdictions these groups exert influence upon. These mafias often arise most powerfully in the presence of disadvantaged identity groups which help to guarantee the loyalty and trust which transcends loyalty to and trust in the governing organizations they supersede. In situations where these organizations face no real pushback from existing governments, they themselves become the government.

The Transition

Considering the above, it seems most likely to me that transition from modern customary representative nation-states involves the arrival of various converging states of affairs in a single jurisdiction:

  • Superior foreign backing
  • Local power vacuums
  • Corporate monopoly of trade
  • Displacement of trust and loyalty in the population from their governments to their employers and/or local crime syndicates.

Interestingly, some of these seem to precipitate the others. If you have a corporate monopoly on trade and/or a large crime syndicate, local governmental power will ebb, leading to a power vacuum which makes it more likely a corporation backed by any number of more powerful foreign states could impose corporate rule over an area and win the short-tern trust and loyalty of a local population.

I foresee a transitional period during which increasing income disparity and the instability of a maturing global market dominated by disruptive technological innovators leads to widespread disparity in the well-being of nation-states around the world. Such variation makes it possible for corporations to pick and choose nations willing to back them which may also be more powerful than nations in which these corporations which to do business, enabling them to easily play upon local power vacuums to get their way. Initial deficits in enforcement would be handled either by mercenary/criminal partnerships or by proxy government forces as already modeled in our historical record.

There are not many clues about what kinds of corporations would be most apt for this kind of existence, but we may assume that both private and publicly-owned firms are liable. Ideally they will be international and liquid, capable of making large investments in new markets at the drop of a hat to take advantage of local imbalances. Conglomerates will be better positioned to take advantage of opportunities to establish monopolies on trade in a variety of areas. Unique company cultures with strong team-building aspects will probably also be prevalent among the early adopters of this company-as-nation move.

One thing that is really only inferred from the above investigation, yet which I believe will also be fundamental, is a breakdown in international law. This is a somewhat surprising conclusion, since it had often been assumed that Globalization would make transnational conglomerates with immeasurable wealth and influence more common and therefore more likely to take advantage of smaller nations, but I believe that larger governments are too able to intervene in such affairs so long as the international community generally agrees on the legal aspects of such behavior. For a company based out of China to exert undue influence in a small African nation, for example, the world community of nations must not hear the voice of that small African nation or be interested in coming to its aid. How such a breakdown in international law would occur is a speculation more suited to an entirely separate question and will not be further investigated here.

The Stable Final State

The transition reaches stable equilibrium when no governments or government coalitions stand which are capable of or interested in toppling corporate nation-states, and such nation-states are ingrained into the fabric of the societies they do business in. There can be no Economic Singularity, since this destroys the concept of a corporation, so it seems that for such a future to exist we might/must assume widespread proliferation of monopolies resulted in siloed, proprietary knowledge economies without significant to-market contributions.

What would the relationship between corporation and nation look like? It would be, in most cases around the world, one where a single corporate entity used the government as a proxy, or - as it might see it - a unique subsidiary public relations and regulatory asset. In other regions, government might have broken down completely; in these cases we would probably see corporations either pull out, leaving "criminal" enterprise to fill the power vacuum, or else very large corporations like the BEIC would operate as the government themselves at great expense - presumably for some correspondingly large profit.

What would the most common relationship between employees and corporations look like? While some corporations seeking intense loyalty might end up employee-owned in a bid to devise some kind of representative citizenship with suffrage within company structures, the zaibatsu model seems the likely stable structure which would obtain, notably only after it had been incentivized for some time by the existence of and hiring practices used in large, stable monopolies which would encourage such shifts in loyalty. A more in-depth analysis of this question in light of the rising contractor economy is probably worthwhile, but suffice it to say a traditional cyberpunk future dominated by massive all-owning corporations that for all intents and purposes own their employees as well is probably somewhat off the mark. More likely the majority of employees would be bought and sold as a commodity off the government to which they ascribe - perhaps yet another staffing firm or one of the largely relict nation-states. A small remainder would be salarymen, bound like samurai to their corporate houses.

How would corporations change? Largely answered in the preceding questions, but of significant importance (and not yet broached) is the corporation's relationship with regulations. Without governments and non-profit regulatory agencies backed by governments to devise and promote market regulations, regulatory work must be done by corporations - especially considering most large markets would be made up of people basically working either for you or another competing conglomerate. Interfacing your Business Operating System with those of your trading partners would be a key concern, and would expand to include care for and build-out of infrastructure, as seen in some cases with the aforementioned banana republics. Many conflicts in such a future would surprisingly stem from disagreements over things like what file format to conduct purchase orders in, how to handle currency exchanges, what constitutes legal incorporation in a given jurisdiction, etc.

How would concepts of citizenship, suffrage, and legal representation for individuals and organizations change? In such a future, citizenship is equivalent to employment by a company or perhaps consumption of its products at a distant remove. Suffrage is to be equated with stock holdings, and legal representation, while perhaps conducted in the form of a government court, is in fact dependent on the business relationships which obtain between the stakeholders in a case and may in fact devolve into outright violent confrontation where these stakeholders do not understand the power dynamic between them.

Would there be any semi-stable transitional stages from government rule to full-blown corporate hegemony? I think that in fact such a future would represent a sort of semi-stable transitional stage in itself. It seems inevitable that such a future would sooner or later collapse into the functional equivalent of state capitalism as local monopolies completely supplanted all over forms of control in a region - the only twist being that instead of the usual modern case in which a government operates a company, instead a company would operate a government or governments.

Fundamentally, the typical cyberpunk future we envision is predicated on and exists entirely within some modern equivalent of the Dark Ages - a massive power vacuum left in the wake of a prior system's collapse.


Here is how I see the progression:

Corporations Step up their involvement with local Law Enforcement There are already privately run prisons. Cash strapped municipalities may start outsourcing law enforcement as well, perhaps after a flurry of lawsuits endanger the municipality. This gives the corporation the right to use deadly force, and that is the biggest key. It sets precedent in our legal system, which is very powerful. The carry along effect will also be that the Corporation will now have a very important lever over the local governmental structure. Bribery can also be backed by outright extortion.

Corporations start getting involved with State level politics this will be more of a financial thing. the goal will be to increase the absolute rights of security on land owned by the corporation. See the above precedent in a corporation using deadly force. At this point we can kiss about half of the bill of rights goodbye.

The Balance of power Shifts in individual states This is going to start causing some problems at the Federal level, impacting revenues. this weakens the Federal government until our pals the lobbyists offer to bail it out, on terms, of course.

the Federal Government is effectively neutered at this point the Corporations would have pushed property rights, and what they can do on them to the point that the nation no longer has any sovereignty left at all.

Now all we need to do is watch as cybernetic implants become commonplace and wait for magic to emerge once again into the world. I love Shadowrun :) But hey, even if Magic doesn't return, you have a hapy little dystopia to play in


I look forward to seeing your answer on this subject :)

I will attempt to give my two cents on each of the questions posed, but first, I would like to mention that there is a concept that is much like what you are talking about that currently exists (to a lesser degree). It's known as the military industrial complex https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Military%E2%80%93industrial_complex. This might lead you to some inspiration in this world you're putting together.

Basically, the government needs weapons, which in turn pay the corporations to make them, which in turn spend money (lobbyists, and campaign donations) to get more contracts from the government, and this process self perpetuates. If the system is allowed to continue unchecked, I could easily see how the corporations could ultimately gain control.

- What would the relationship between corporation and nation look like? Basically, the nation has some powers in terms of taxing the people, keeping peace (using corporation weapons of course), and some social laws. Since the corporations effectively 'own' large swaths of the government (through large campaign donations ensuring their candidates win), they allow themselves freedoms from pesky regulations and oversight that might get in their way. It could ultimately lead to the government turning over more power to corporations, and might ultimately lead to them passing all power over. This would likely only come from collusion between a few large corporations, or one very large monopoly company (a la Umbrella from Resident Evil). The lack of regulation would also open the door to criminal organizations and drug rings.

- What would be the most common relationship between employees and corporations look like? My guess is that since there are only a few large corporations, or a single massive monopoly, the company owns you. There would probably be a few extremely well paid and wealthy people in the bureaucracy, and many poor people. I imagine very middle class people in this society. Education would largely exist to find the cream of the crop for company purposes.

- How would corporations change? Probably very little over time. Monopolies tend to not change in terms of structure and strategy. Let's look at Motorola, a company that effectively owned the cellular phone market. Smart phones were introduced, and Motorola failed to adapt, and they basically disappeared due to this lack of change. Disruptive technologies could lead to a rise in new corporations, but structural power or the existing large corporations would keep that to a minimum. Imagine if Motorola didn't have antitrust laws: they could have just purchased any disruptive technologies and then developed them themselves, or not at all.

- How would concepts of citizenship, suffrage, and legal representation for individuals and organizations change? My guess is that there would not be much care for the individual. There might be some basic rights that exist in the shell of a government that is left, but they would largely be symbolic. Organizations would either be largely immune to outside influence, or be able to pay to get rid of the problems (Mafia Style).

- Would there be any semi-stable transitional stages from government rule to full-blown corporate hegemony? Probably. The transition would likely take a long time, and probably come with a prolonged period of international tension (requiring the purchase of weapons), fear among the people (which leads them to give away rights for safety), and a lack of need to stop monopolies (maybe the company was beloved by the people for some reason, but has since become corrupt as it gained power).


I could easily see how, with some changes in governing in recent history, our society could have become one which was controlled largely by corporations. In fact, you might even argue that is currently is controlled largely by corporations. There is simply enough anti-trust activity, and enough varying motivations among companies, that no one is able to gain enough power. Imagine if Standard Oil, U.S. Steel, and other monopolies of the past had colluded to gain more power in the government. It could be pretty different.

  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for reminding me of the military industrial complex and the fear of that which has shaped american politics, if not politics in other regions I am less familiar with as well. However, I feel like it is an oversight to imagine that corporations would remain basically the same as they are now. When corporations are the ones enforcing the rules, even through the proxy of a puppet government, aren't they going to need to adopt larger policy arms to deal with extending their aims to all points of the legal/civil code? $\endgroup$
    – Adam Wykes
    Commented Dec 29, 2016 at 2:19
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @AdamWykes I apologize for the misunderstanding. I didn't mean to say that corporations wouldn't change from how they are now. I meant that once established, they wouldn't change very quickly from a stable position. You likely wouldn't see sweeping organizational change for example after power was established. $\endgroup$
    – BaseHobo
    Commented Dec 29, 2016 at 16:28
  • $\begingroup$ Ah, gotcha. Yes, that makes sense given what I know of monopolies $\endgroup$
    – Adam Wykes
    Commented Dec 29, 2016 at 16:54

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