Eclipse Phase – on “hypercorporations”

Eclipse Phase is a fun setting, especially if the players have enough moxie points to overcome their frequent failures with the dice. However, there are a couple places where the setting is open to wildly different interpretations.

The Planetary Consortium is one. From what the books say, it’s a conglomerate of “hypercorporations” that form a politically-autonomous unit. It’s also one of the go-to “bad guys” of the setting; if someone with a lot of money sent a super-cyborg to kill you and steal your MacGuffin, it’s likely the Planetary Consortium or one of its constituent hypercorporations (if the assassin isn’t genetically-modified, it would be the other baddie, the Jovian Republic).

What Eclipse Phase doesn’t explain, though, is what it means to be a corporation after an apocalypse where explicitly all the old national governments died. There is, as per the setting, no equivalent of the “Free French” in WWII where the Canadian Minister of Natural Resources and a bunch of displaced bureaucrats pretends that Canada still exists on a tiny patch of the moon or Mars. I believe it’s in the Sunward sourcebook that it’s intimated that the Planetary Consortium actually killed those folks off during the “Fall” (the great apocalypse) to ensure that didn’t happen.

“Corporations,” as we understand them, are creatures of law as defined by a government. Limited liability, corporate personhood, and the vagaries of agency law are all defined by a government that exists separate from (although perhaps suffering from regulatory capture by) the corporations themselves.

In my mind, this leaves three major options for playing the Planetary Consortium:

1) “Hypercorporation” as feudal government run by MBAs

After the Fall, the businesses acted like their corporate rules still held, but this is a lie. While the labeling is modern corporate-speak, the lived experience is no different than in the middle ages. Ownership of a certain percentage of a firm is basically like the old acreage of a Japanese daimyo; it’s how much you can tax, and how much influence you have over your subordinates. In a feudal hypercorporation, C-level executives might be able openly order the death of non-management employees at will, because the corporation itself has power over life and death.

Similarly, in each corporation power flows downward from the shareholders in a feudal manner. “Vice presidents” are like dukes, middle managers landholding knights, down to the peasantry that toils in the offices and factories. The Consortium itself is like the Holy Roman Empire; unified only to the extent that the different counties’ interests are aligned.

An important thing to note here is that feudal hypercorporations won’t act like economic actors; they’ll act for their owners’ political or idiosyncratic interests first, then for the bottom line. As a result they will be more externally aggressive.

Pop culture example: The Genom Corporation from Bubblegum Crisis. It did whatever Quincy wanted it to do, even if it was crazy, criminal, or money-losing, and suffered no repercussions when, for an example from the original series, a rogue android took out its vengeance on Genom by firing space-based particle weapons into various major world cities. No one then said, “huh, maybe we should investigate Genom.” Nope. Business as usual.

2) “Hypercorporation” as Gilded Age robber baron

In this view, there is an overarching Planetary Consortium government nominally independent from the hypercorporations, but it is quite weak and corruptible. So, in theory, you could buy stock in a hypercorporation, but the corporation can dilute it. Direct Action might have made a “wrong airlock” mistake when it machine-gunned the living tar out of your habitat, but no judge will hear your case against them.

That said, as bad as things are, the nominal government creates principles so that any hypercorporation has to at least pretend that it’s not too corrupt or cruel or destructive. While it’s acceptable for a hypercorporation to have its security folks shoot someone in “self defense,” there will be political repercussions for sending a squad to level an orphanage.

Example from pop culture: the remake of Robocop with Michael Keaton as the head of OCP. In this movie, OCP is so closely tied with the government that it basically takes not only the head of the company holding an innocent woman hostage on the top of a building for the government to disavow its connection to OCP, but the death of that executive as well. Otherwise, OCP employees can murder and conduct questionable activities to their hearts’ content.

3) “Hypercorporations” as modern deregulation taken to an insane extreme

In this situation, the Planetary Consortium has an independent, semi-representative government with actually not that horrible rule of law; you have rights against the government suppressing your speech or jailing you indefinitely.

The difference here is that “the government” is maybe ten people who, apart from deciding foreign policy, mostly issue business licenses and arbitrate inter-corporate commercial disputes. Everything else, from food to national defense, is subcontracted to one of the hypercorps. Your police are Direct Action mercenaries. Your mail is Planetary Express. Your continued existence depends on being able to conduct commercial affairs with most of the major companies, and if they turn on you, you may not have the time or resources to get what a judge would eventually award you.

Here, the hypercorporations act most like businesses first, and less based on their owners’ personalities. Evil things that happen tend to be the result of lazy thinking, corner-cutting, or hiding mistakes from supervisors or the public rather than an overarching intention to do evil by the head of the company.

Example from pop culture: the original Robocop. Remember how the CEO of OCP had no idea that the head of the ED-209 project was killing people and making deals with street criminals? But then, when he found out, he fired the guy responsible instead of standing behind all that criminality as the cost of doing business?