Privately-Owned Society

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.
Jump to: navigation, search

In The Future, Alternate History or simply somewhere apart from historical location, there exists a society where virtually everything is privately owned. From the police to the fire department to the national park service, sometimes even to the military and courts, nearly everything is privately owned in this society. Depending on the views of the author on capitalism, this may be presented in a variety of lights, most often an Objectivist/classical liberal/market anarchist Straw Utopia or a communist/socialist/progressive liberal/social anarchist Straw Dystopia.

A common trope in Cyberpunk fiction in general, given all the Mega Corps in charge of everything in many such settings. However, Cyberpunk's general pessimism (and, more frequently than not, anti-market political preferences) lead to a lot of confusion where the State and Mega Corp are intertwined. In general, if a Privately-Owned Society is presented as a Utopia (or at least a generally pleasant place), enterprises and governments will be strictly separated from each other. If said society is presented as a Dystopia, the two institutions might be intertwined with the corporations being best buddies of the government. Of course, this latter situation is closer to Benito Mussolini than Ayn Rand, but some authors often don't let the finer points of political economy get in the way of their Author Tract. Other times, the government is subordinate to the Mega Corp, averting that problem.

One Nation Under Copyright is a subtrope. May be a NGO Superpower.

Examples of Privately-Owned Society include:


Anime & Manga[edit | hide | hide all]

  • Riki-Oh is all about this and why it's a bad idea. In the post-apocalyptic setting, all formerly government run programs from schools to prisons are privately owned. A dystopic example, as corruption and human rights violation abounds. Though considering, the Crapsack World they live in, they probably had no other choice, what with lack of funding due to nuclear holocaust.

Film[edit | hide]

  • As mentioned above, Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky.
  • The town of Harrington in Polly is pretty much entirely run by the title character's aunt. She even controls the preacher's sermons.
  • It's flat-out stated that Omni Consumer Products owns and operates the police department in RoboCop. It isn't mentioned, but it's a safe assumption that most other public services are run by them, too.
    • The plot of the second film revolves around OCP coming to the mayor to collect on a loan. Apparently, if the mayor doesn't pay up, the city of Detroit officially belongs to the company. While the mayor tries to appeal to the citizens, claiming that democracy will be gone, the chairman retorts that each citizen of the new Delta City will become an OCP shareholder and thus have a voice in the company.
    • The third film has OCP try to take over the city by force, firing the police and bringing its own private security force.
  • Back to The Future II Biff owns Hill Valley in the alternate 1985 including the police, who may or may not just be on the take.


Literature[edit | hide]

  • The Satellite in The Supernaturalist was constructed in the midst of an environmental crisis by the Myishi Corporation as a new living space, with land there being sold with restrictive conditions on use to set up a private city state on the Satellite.
  • Some of L. Neil Smith's novels, particularily The Probability Broach.
  • Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash. The American federal government has ceded most of its power to private businesses. Taken to its logical conclusion: gated communities are now FRANCHISED sovereign nations.
  • This is basically the premise of Jennifer Government. Most of the plot highlights the problems with this; for example, it opens with someone being hired to murder a few people for their sneakers to give said sneakers some street cred and drive up sales. Then one of the victims, a little girl, dies because a bystander's attempt to call an ambulance gets delayed by the need to arrange payment. And so on.
  • Robert A. Heinlein was fond of this trope:
    • In The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, the moon is a penal colony, so the government has no interest in providing any services. Education involves the parents (if any) paying someone to tutor their child. Insurance of any kind is generally handled by bookies. There is very little law enforcement; generally crimes are handled by people just deciding to punish someone.
    • The sequel, The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, starts on a space station owned and managed by a private corporation, and we learn that Standard Oil now has its own senator.
  • In The Acts of Caine, all the world's government collapsed years earlier after a viral outbreak, and society was rebuilt by private corporations, with the current rulers of the world being the Leisure Council, a group of the richest few hundred people on Earth. As a result, the society has a very rigid caste system.
  • In the Vorkosigan Saga, Jackson's Whole is like this. It's loathsome.
  • The Space Merchants is this.
  • Rats Bats and Vats has this, springing out of an attempt to create a socialist society Gone Horribly Wrong.
  • In Michael Z. Williamson's Freehold and its sequels, the title Freehold of Grainne is this all over. It avoids being either U- or Dys-topia. Unless you ask happy Citizen Mark Ballanger, but he knows he's partial.
  • John C. Wright's The Golden Age, for the most part.


Tabletop Games[edit | hide]

  • This is the case in Cosmopol, which is an Objectivist, Dieselpunk alternate future. Virtually every "state" service that exists in our world is owned by Cosmopol's private sector. You can use an express line at the Department of Motor Vehicles if you have a "preferred buyer" card.
  • This runs rampant in Shadowrun, which is no surprise, given its cyberpunk background. Most metropolitan police services were replaced in the 2020s by a private contractor called Lone Star after nation-wide police strikes, and most emergency medical care is run by a private firm called DocWagon (most runners have a contract with them).
    • This is even more true of the Pueblo nation, which actually is a corporation jointly owned by its citizens.
  • In Traveller there are whole planets owned by Megacorporations or Imperial Nobles. While strictly speaking mistreating residents is looked on disfavourably by the Imperium (and extreme versions of such can get a visit by the Imperial Marines), it is possible to conceal something atrocious on such places should the owner be inclined.

Video Games[edit | hide]

  • Second Life could be viewed as a virtual version of this trope.
  • Andrew Ryan's underwater Objectivist project called "Rapture" in BioShock (series). Unfortunately, a combination of Ryan being a Hypocrite, his rival being a power-lusting Complete Monster, and the discovery of an insanely addictive Psycho Serum gene splicing substance named ADAM brought down said project. Some interpret the game as a Deconstruction of Objectivism, but this is denied by Word of God (which states that the game's message is Humans Are Flawed and thus cannot live up to their ideals).
  • The Korx of Galactic Civilizations.
  • The Caldari State, one of the four playable races in EVE Online is a hyper-capitalistic conglomeration of several megacorporations that enforce a strict meritocracy loosely based on Japanese Capitalists taken to the extreme. EVE in general is capitalistic with players going unpunished for scamming each other (it's almost encouraged), an almost completely free market and player organizations being called corporations.
  • Illium in Mass Effect 2 is a prosperous asari colony built purely on the principle of laissez-faire, where practically everything is owned by private corporations, and almost anything is legal as long as it's done under contract - dangerous drugs are OK as long as the label mentions their lethal side-effects and slavery is legal (and called indentured servitude) as long as the slave-to-be is willing to sign their name on the docket. It's essentially a tourist-friendly Wretched Hive with pretty gloss over all the corruption.
    • Illium is actually a pretty accurate reflection of what anarcho-capitalists think would be an ideal society. Including the part about voluntarily selling yourself into slavery.
  • Final Fantasy VII has the Shinra Corporation, which own and runs everything, and we do mean everything. They have the only army in the world (there is talk about a war with a Feudal Japan-style continent in the past), are the only power suppliers in the world, the only space programme ever, and they exert obvious political control over most cities and towns, especially in the first continent you start on. The capital city of Midgar is directly run by them and their HQ is the centre of the city; as the mayor laments to you, his job is just a title. The bosses at Shinra seem to agree with him.
    • Shinra's claim to fame (and dominance) seems to be that they control everything they manufactured in self-investment—which happens to be all the modern cities in the world (Midgar, Junon, Gold Saucer). All other communities tend to be small and largely agricultural. If the company wants to exert its control elsewhere, they have to do it through military might—which is brutally effective in places like Old Corel, but ineffectual to the pre-Shinra Midgar slums, where Shinra's police force is very fearful, runs the trains, and politely asks the player not to cause trouble.
  • Syndicate is set in a future when governments have been more or less displaced by three massive corporations (one European, one American and one Far Eastern) - but the consequent absence of any real law enforcement has allowed those companies, in turn, to be taken over by the eponymous criminal gangs.
  • The Druuge in Star Control live in this sort of society. Absolutely everything is owned by the Crimson Corporation, which runs a meritocracy based on how profitable an individual Druuge is. Getting fired is a death sentence, because if you're fired, you become guilty of stealing company resource (because you're breathing their air) and are put to death.


Western Animation[edit | hide]

  • Spoofed in The Simpsons episode You Only Move Twice, where Homer gets a job for the fictional Mega Corp Globex Corporation and the family moves to Cyprus Creek, a town owned and operated by Globex Corp. for its employees, with its own school, shopping centre and boardwalk amongst other things, and presumably all public services are run by the company. The spoof part is that the Benevolent Boss Homer works for, Hank Scorpio, is actually a James Bond-style supervillain, so Cyprus Creek also has its own private army good enough to take-on the United States military and a doomsday device apparently capable of destroying France (or Italy, but no-one ever chooses Italy over France). By the end of the episode, Scorpio has seized control of the East Coast and not only buys Homer the Denver Broncoes, he has the entire team shipped to his front door.


Real Life[edit | hide]

  • This kind of society is promoted by adherents of at least two ideologies, Objectivism and right-libertarianism (also called Classical Liberalism). These ideologies have a continuum, though, as objectivists and right-libertarians do often vary somewhat on the level of government they believe will be optimal. Most Objectivists and moderate right-libertarians do think there should be a government, but it should be limited to providing at least the police, courts and military (thus not really fitting the trope). Some Objectivists and radical right-libertarians, known as Market Anarchists or Anarcho-Capitalists, would replace even the law system with private, contractual equivalents such as private courts or arbitration, police or security agencies and militaries.
  • Gaelic Ireland was like this for a millennium, between 650 and 1650, when it was conquered by the English. Though society was more based around a hierarchy of extended families, clans and tribal kingdoms of various sizes, rather than corporations in the modern sense. Admittedly, groups could adopt members and even merge together when it was in their interest. Also they were not based on territory, but overlapped in operations as businesses do.
  • The Icelandic Commonwealth, which lasted from 930 until 1262, when the church bought up all the godards (defense agencies), creating a monopoly in defense and the Norwegian kingdom annexed them.
  • Roger Williams' early Providence, Rhode Island, between 1636 and 1648, though it maintained a very minimal government even after forming the colony of the "Providence Plantation" with three other Rhode Island towns.
  • Albemarle, between the 1640s and 1663, when England included Albemarle in the mammoth Carolina land grant bestowed on a group of eight feudal proprietors.
  • Holy Experiment Pennsylvania, between 1681 and 1690, when John Blackwell was appointed in an unsuccessful attempt to impose an English governmental system and was roundly ignored by Quaker settlers.
  • British Hong Kong, in its later years, came to be quite like this trope, and still is today.
    • This is very debatable. The international sectors of the Hong Kong economy are indeed very laissez-faire, but the domestic economy is heavily cartelized and dominated by favored merchants. Arguably the domestic economy is Mercantilist or State-Corporatist rather than laissez-faire in the proper sense. See Joe Studwell's Asian Godfathers for more on the topic.
  • King Leopold II of Belgium owned what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo and considered it a business investment. (That's right, he personally owned a country well over twice the size of Texas.) The DRC is ... not doing so well now. To be fair, it didn't exactly do well back then, either. About that bad or worse—in 1900 the population was roughly half that estimated for 1800, after only fifteen years of his private rule in the "Congo Free State." Every hundredth slave had their hands cut off for an "example" of what happened if you stole from the mines. That, plus mercenary troops burned and killed whole villages who resisted, along with the brutal slave trade. It ended in 1910 when Anglo-Irish diplomat Roger Casement exposed these atrocities, which prompted Belgium to nationalize the colony and making it better, though still bad. Sir Roger was awarded a medal by the King (ie. the British King George V; not Leopold, obviously) for his work and ironically he later got hanged for treason after his leadership role in the 1916 Easter Rising against British rule of Ireland.
  • Many ancient political systems ran like this. Roman politicians had to discharge the duties of their office (except a few covered by the State treasury) with their own money, recouping the losses with plunder from military campaigns in the provinces. This worked fine when Rome was a single small city-state, it proved rather more problematic as the Empire expanded leading to civil war and the end of the Republic.
  • The country of Somalia qualifies, if only because there is literally no government (at least, one that is capable of extending its writ beyond the capital city). Most of the country is de facto controlled by warlords and religious militias, and disputes are settled by the Xeer, an ancient tribal custom based on property rights.
  • Did you know that the prison system in USA is privatized? And that Americans have the highest convicts-to-population ratio in the world? That apparently more funds is spent for a single convict than a single student? This is also the country that legally treats corporations as people, make of that what you will.
    • More accurately, part of the prison system is privatized. The states still run their own prison systems, as does the federal government.