A History of the Evil Corporation: from Abstergo to Umbrella

Evil corporations are a classic fixture of videogames and modern film-- but distrust of powerful, unfeeling companies actually dates back hundreds of years, to some of Europe's earliest big companies.

Umbrella Corporation. Abstergo Industries. Aperture Science.

These organizations share a few things in common: they manipulate governments, crush ordinary people, and have killer logo design. They’re flagship examples of the Evil Corporation, a trope that’s familiar to any gamer.

As staple of genre fiction, the Evil Corporation seems like an invention of the modern world. After all, most of the criticisms people have about corporations stem from concerns relating to globalism or wealth accumulation -- that companies are getting too big and unaccountable, and care nothing for the common man. But in fact, the urge to question corporations dates back centuries, and reveals much about how people at the time viewed economics and trade -- meaning that the Weyland-Yutani of Alien fame reaches back to the Roman Empire.

The British East India Company: The Original Evil Corporation

The first corporate-style structures emerged in India around 800 BCE, but the first mention in western Europe comes from the legal code of Roman Emperor Justinian (527-565 CE). Justinian’s laws allowed groups of people to form an entity (a corpus, or body) that could make contractual agreements, own property, conduct business, and both sue and be sued. This concept carried down to medieval Europe, which incorporated guilds, religious orders, and even municipalities like the City of London. These were corporations at their most basic level: groups of people who banded together in order to achieve an outcome.

This idea evolved in 17th century, when European governments chartered joint-stock companies to further colonial expansion and trade. In this joint-stock model, individuals invested in the company in exchange for a paper share certificate that guaranteed them a cut of future profits. And because these shares were transferable, investors could trade them at stock exchanges based on their fluctuating value.

The seal of the East India Company, which was granted a charter to operate in 1600. The seal of the East India Company, which was granted a charter to operate in 1600.

Of the many ventures that emerged during this time, the most successful was the British East India Company (EIC), which even today ranks as the richest -- and most powerful -- corporation in world history.

Formed in 1600 by a Royal Charter from Queen Elizabeth, by 1612 the EIC had gained a foothold on the Indian subcontinent and began recruiting local troops to guard its trading posts as they amassed cotton, indigo, silk, dye, tea, and saltpeter. The company raked in profit for itself and its shareholders over the next century, meanwhile building up a private army of Indian troops trained and drilled in European warfare. This force proved its mettle during the Seven Years War, when an EIC army of 3,000 Indian troops defeated the French at the 1757 Battle of Plassey, booting rival colonial powers off the subcontinent and setting the stage for a violent expansion across India. By 1778, the EIC had expanded its troop count to 67,000, allowing them to overthrow unfriendly rulers while turning others into client kings. By the end of 1803, the Mughal Emperors themselves were “under the protection” of the EIC (i.e. prisoners) and the company’s army numbered 260,000 men -- twice the size of the British army. One of the most populous nations on earth was, in effect, being governed by an unregulated company and its mercenary force.

Given their penchant for war crimes, bribery, and wanton looting in the name of the empire, the East India Company attracted more than a few detractors back home. In 1788 Parliament impeached the EIC’s head officer on charges of looting and corruption. Legendary orator Edmund Burke headed up the prosecution, asserting that the EIC had become so corrupt and powerful that its officers could easily buy their way into a seat on the House of Commons. This was no rhetorical device, either -- much like the modern US Congress’ relationship with lobbying firms, there was a revolving door between the British Government and the EIC.

“Today the Commons of Great Britain prosecutes the delinquents of India,” fumed Burke. “Tomorrow these delinquents of India may be the Commons of Great Britain.”

The impeachment failed, but after the EIC’s native troops rebelled in 1857, temporarily wresting control of India back from the company and slaughtering British citizens, the government finally decided to draw the line. The rebellion had been bad enough, after all, but the EIC’s subsequent repressions churned the stomachs of even the most bigoted colonial bureaucrats. East India men butchered tens of thousands across the country, sometimes executing rebels by strapping them across the mouths of cannons and blowing them in half. The British government had always cultivated a sort of chummy blindness to EIC abuses, but the butchery on both sides demanded answer. They nationalized the EIC’s Indian possessions and dissolved the company, turning India into a formal crown possession rather than a corporate playground.

The South Sea Company's seal on a shipping label. The South Sea Company's seal on a shipping label.

But while EIC was the archetypical Evil Corporation -- a malicious entity with its own army and a thirst for domination -- it was by no means the only one. Opening British markets to the concept of stock trading led to a major financial crisis known as the South Sea Bubble, where the public, seeing EIC’s profit margin, bought massive amounts of stock in a similar company that was to conduct a similar enterprise in South America.

The only problem was that that the South Sea Company never made a penny, yet kept artificially inflating its share price -- even agreeing to take on the government’s debt so it would be too big to fail. Yet fail it did, nearly tanking the UK’s economy. The experience led to a massive public backlash against corporations, and a slew of regulatory laws that forbid forming new companies.

In other words, one of the world’s first experiences of corporate investing was a traumatic one, cementing the corporation’s reputation as an uncaring structure.

The Era of Deregulation, Labor Clashes, and the Patriotic Corporation

After the 1720 South Sea mess, forming corporations remained the sole jurisdiction of the British government. But as industrialization gained steam in the early 19th century, Parliament began to see the economic benefits of privately formed entities that could help facilitate business ventures.

Between 1825 and 1855, Parliament gradually rolled back the prohibition on corporations imposed after the South Sea crisis, first allowing their formation under a royal charter or private act (1825), then allowing joint-stock companies (1844), and eventually the limited the liability of shareholders, so they couldn’t be sued for more than their initial investment (1855). These rollbacks led to a temporary boom in industries like railroad construction, but the “Railway Mania” again led to a South Sea-style bubble and bust, causing corporate implosions and job losses.

The Dickens character Montague Tigg (standing), who embodied the public's attitude toward small-time corporate scammers The Dickens character Montague Tigg (standing), who embodied the public's attitude toward small-time corporate scammers

As a result, the British public often associated corporations with fly-by-night scammers like those in Charles Dickens’ novel Martin Chuzzlewit, where the villain Montague Tigg runs a classic Ponzi Scheme (the name of Tigg’s venture, “The Anglo-Bengalee Disinterested Loan and Life Insurance Company” calls back to both the colonial riches promised by the EIC and South Sea). Meanwhile, Anthony Trollope’s novel The Way We Live Now viciously satirized the Railway Mania as a hotbed of deceptive con artists. In contrast to the East India Company, the Evil Corporation had gone small-time.

Across the Atlantic, the US continued to distrust corporations so thoroughly (Jefferson considered them a form of aristocracy) that until the 1890s state governments heavily restricted corporate wealth and power, and usually required the legislature pass bills in order to even found a corporation. As a result, most of industrial titans of 19th century America -- like Carnegie Steel Company and Rockefeller’s Standard Oil -- eschewed the structure in favor of organizing as trusts. But while this organizational dodge mollified the law, the public still saw both corporations and trusts as “big businesses” that squeezed ordinary workers.

To conceptualize how bitter these feelings could be, look no further than the Homestead Strike of 1892. The trouble began when wage negotiations broke down between the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers (AA) and Carnegie Steel executive Henry Clay Frick, who was under orders to break the union. When AA declared a strike, Frick locked workers out of the plant and fortified the property with barbed-wire fences, sniper towers, and pressurized water cannons that shot boiling liquid. Enraged, the union men and their supporters launched an armed occupation of Homestead in an attempt to repulse any strikebreakers.

Things came to a head when Frick hired Pinkerton Detectives to break the siege on the plant, precipitating a firefight that killed 12 people and wounded 23. With the Pinkertons repulsed, the Pennsylvania State Militia took matters into their own hands, peacefully clearing the strikers and putting the town under martial law.

Henry Clay Frick Henry Clay Frick

The crackdown made national news, and Frick’s hardline tactics horrified the country. However, public opinion turned against the strike when anarchist Alexander Berkman barged into Frick’s office in an almost comically bungled assassination attempt, failing to kill Frick even after putting a bullet in his shoulder and stabbing him three times. (Berkman’s attempt to commit suicide by chewing a dynamite capsule likewise failed.) Worst of all, even though Frick was not part of the strike, he’d tarred AA with his actions -- the strike lifted.

Homestead and similar incidents fouled the reputation of big business, casting it as both uncaring about the suffering of ordinary people and strangling the free market via monopolies. Indeed, much of Teddy Roosevelt’s popularity came from his reputation as a trust-buster. In the years before WWI, the US government broke up several major companies -- including Standard Oil, which was responsible for 90% of petroleum output -- in order to increase competition. These were not so much anti-corporate as they were anti-monopoly, an effort to keep the biggest players from forcing out hungrier, more entrepreneurial organizations. But a second global conflict was about to kill that conversation dead.

The advent of WWII largely choked off popular skepticism of corporations. Industrial giants that might’ve been targeted with criticism years before instead turned into heroic cogs in the Allied war machine. Standard Oil fueled American tank offensives in North Africa. Ford Motor Company churned out B-24 Liberator bombers instead of cars. Corporations weren’t completely exempt from bad press -- a few employees at Carnegie-Illinois Steel Company sold the government inferior steel and pocketed the difference -- but the war’s patriotic undertone gave most a free pass.

But that window wouldn’t last long, because the world was about to get its first, and most influential, Evil Corporation.

The 1980s: The Golden Era of Evil Corporations

The modern concept of the Evil Corporation emerged in 1961 with the publication of Ian Fleming’s Thunderball. Worried that the Cold War would end before the novel released, Fleming swapped out the Soviet enemies with fictional criminal group known as SPECTRE. In Thunderball, SPECTRE organizes itself on a corporate model, meeting in boardrooms to plan for-profit intelligence operations. Unlike the world-domination organization depicted in the films, the literary SPECTRE only exists to make money through revenge, terrorism, and extortion. They have meeting minutes and apportion tasks like a business. Blofeld acts less like a charismatic leader, and more the world’s nastiest CEO.

Fleming’s idea had steam -- evil corporations were the perfect villain for the late 20th century. Faceless and merciless, corporations could act as the boogeyman for almost any issue, from income inequality, to offshoring jobs, to globalization. The trope also has artistic advantages, since it allows artists to call out the worst excesses of capitalism without making the audience uncomfortable by questioning the system itself. Besides, it ensures an endless supply of villains -- when the head man dies, a successor just takes his place.

This trope came to new prominence during the 1980s, as laissez-faire economics, deregulation, union busting, tax cuts, and globalization came into vogue. In the Reagan-Thatcher decade, the worry was less about corporations taking jobs and abusing workers, and more about companies simply taking over. In the United Kingdom, Margaret Thatcher privatized formerly government-owned ventures including British Telecom, Britoil, British Aerospace, and British Petroleum. In the US, Ronald Reagan flirted with privatizing the US Postal Service, Amtrak, and the Air Traffic Control System. And this privatization discussion imprinted itself on the science fiction films of the period.

In the Alien franchise, the EIC-like Weyland-Yutani Corporation has taken control of interstellar exploration, settlement, and the military. Robocop imagined a private corporation taking over the Detroit Police Department -- an option some actually advocate. Blade Runner provided the Tyrell Corporation, a group that creates living, sentient beings and dooms them to truncated lives of warfare and sex slavery. Terminator gave us Cyberdyne Systems, who aren’t evil exactly, but who let greed blind them to danger. The subtle Japanese flavor of several of these corporations -- Weyland-Yutani and Blade Runner especially -- reflected a societal worry that Japan would “take over” America through investment. This slate of movies left and indelible mark you can still see on the movies and video games of today.

But given this legacy, and seeing how much these “Evil Corporations” reveal about the societies that make them, we should probably ask ourselves what our corporate villains du jour say about or own moment in time.

First off, judging by the Evil Corps in our games, our society is clearly concerned with the mass employment of private military contractors. But in addition to that, we also have the slow drip of corporate scandals sending the message that big businesses are immune to punishment, provided they’re willing to pay a token fine or settle out of court. Though corporations might not release the T-virus in a city, they will collapse its economy via layoffs or accidentally blow up an oil rig off its coast. They may not rifle through your genetic memories, but they’ll track your location and sell your search history to advertisers. And we try very, hard not to think about the factory conditions where our lovely smartphones get made, where the raw materials come from, and where our tech goes once we abandon it.

As we dance this odd dance with corporations -- getting much, but giving much in return -- perhaps its only natural for us to project evil onto faceless organizations. But we sometimes forget that much of the evil companies do, they do on behalf of their customers. After all, if we know what evil the EIC does, are we not evil for wearing India cotton?

But c’mon, it’s so comfortable.

Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Hong Kong. His articles have appeared in Zam, Vice, The Escapist, Playboy and Slate. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp