Corporations are people, my friend,” former Gov. Mitt Romney shouted over hecklers at a campaign event last August. They groaned and his eyebrows shot up, “Of course they are. Everything corporations earn ultimately goes to people.” They let loose a loud raucous barnyard laughter. He patted the air as if taming a wild animal, “People’s pockets — human beings my friend.”
They cackled as he went on. Hearing a rich man say money flows directly from businesses to people after Walls Street crashed the economy was just too much. But more than lived experience was behind the guffaws. An American counter-narrative exists that says, no, corporations are not human and neither are those who work for them.
In films, we repeatedly see Big Business as a malevolent entity that Borg-like destroys the individual. In 1973’s Soylent Green, in 1987’s RoboCop, in 2005’s The Island, in the Alien franchise and most recently in 2009’s District 9 and Avatar; the hero is transformed into food or a monster, an alien or cyborg by corporations. American cinema repeats the old Marxist idea that we are shaped by labor. And often the films end with the lesson that only when we become something other than ourselves can we destroy the system that created us.
“You going to be a bad motherfucker,” mid-level executive Bob Morton says to RoboCop, who stomps into the chaotic streets of Detroit to bring law and
order. The Detroit in that film is a Republican wet dream. It’s a city gone bankrupt, taken over by a large corporation that replaces workers with tireless machines. But the message of the film is not a simple endorsement of a corporate city-state, or even just a masculine revenge fantasy.
We can locate the truth of the film by paying attention to the traumatic “real” that wounds the protagonists. And the word “real” is key. The history that’s repressed from our social narrative returns in the form of fictionalized horror or fantasy. It is the “real” not as ontological fact but as the reality that cannot be symbolized because it contradicts our ideology. In The Pervert’s Guide to the Cinema, cultural critic Slavoj iek said, “If something gets too traumatic, too violent, even too filled with enjoyment, it shatters the coordinates of our reality we have to fictionalize it.” He went on to say, “The first key to horror films is to imagine the same story but without the horror element, this gives us the background.”
If we strip RoboCop’s fantastic elements of a cyborg cop, we get the story of a civil servant traumatized by his transformation into an alienated being in order to keep his job.
In Alien, Ripley learns that The Company, a vast interplanetary corporation, had them stop at an alien infested planet in order to get them impregnated and sneak the Xenomorphs back to their bio-research division. Again if you take away the horror element, the trauma is of workers forced to be vehicles for the production of surplus profit. Same thing in The Island, District 9 and Avatar — no one completely owns themselves.
But what if there is a second step? What if the cyborg, the alien chest-buster or the blue Navi puppet body become where workers overcome their alienation? The transformation leaves them stranded between two bodies, two lives. In this worker-turns-into-Frankenstein genre, the protagonist tries to return to their previous lives. But they can’t. The change is irreversible.
What is left is that their alienation gives them the tools to destroy the system that created them. And along the way, some corporate character that represents the whole system gets killed. RoboCop shoots a CEO out of the window before reclaiming his former name “Murphy.” Ripley in Alien: Resurrection is now a clone with Xenomorph DNA who destroys the Queen before she unleashes her hordes on earth. In Avatar, Jake Sully is transformed into a blue Navi and in his new body can defeat the Resources Development Association that is ripping apart Pandora. Again and again, the films show workers who challenge the corporation that traumatized them only after being alienated into a new self.
So when Gov. Romney said, “Corporations are people, my friend,” the crowd laughed because they knew a business is not a person. But if Hollywood is at all effective in making the trauma of capitalism into fantastic imagery, the lesson is that human beings can’t survive in the corporate world without being transformed. Sometimes, as iek pointed out when he wrote that a turn to fascism is a failed revolution, they become monsters. But sometimes, like in the Occupy movement, they become heroes.