Privately Owned Society
"Privatize everything, privatize the sea and the sky, privatize the water and the air, privatize justice and the law, privatize the passing cloud, privatize the dream, especially if it's during the day and open eyed. And finally, for the embellishment of so many privatizations, privatize the States, surrender once and for all their exploitation to private companies through international share offering. There lies the salvation of the world... and, while you're at it, privatize your whore mothers."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. Depending on the views of the author on capitalism, this may be presented in a variety of lights. A common trope in Cyber Punk fiction in general, given all the Mega Corps in charge of everything in many such settings. However, Cyber Punk settings often do not explain the precise laws used in their respective societies, so it's not always clear if everything is actually privately owned or if corporations just act as if they own everything, laws be damned. In many cases, the government is simply not mentioned, so it is not known if one exists, and if it does, whether it owns anything or has any power. Usually, it is a Straw Dystopia created by a nationalist, modern/social liberal, conservative, socialist, communist, social/communitarian anarchist, or otherwise not anarcho-capitalist/classic-liberal/libertariannote author. More rarely, it can be Mary Suetopia created by a classic-liberal/libertarian, 'Objectivist', capitalist-anarchist, or otherwise pro-corporate author. One Nation Under Copyright is a subtrope. May be a N.G.O. Superpower.
—José Saramago, Cadernos de Lanzarote (1994)
open/close all folders
Anime & Manga
- 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.
- Back to the Future Part II: Biff owns Hill Valley in the alternate 1985 including the police, who may or may not just be on the take.
- 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 (1987). It isn't mentioned, but it's a safe assumption that most other public services are run by them, too.
- The plot of RoboCop 2 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.
- RoboCop 3 has OCP try to take over the city by force, firing the police and bringing its own private security force in.
- As mentioned above, Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky.
Live Action TV
- 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, particularly The Probability Broach.
- Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age and Snow Crash. There aren't really that many state governments around and they don't have any real power. Instead private companies and other non-profit organizations have their own gated communities all over the world, inside of which they have complete territorial sovereignty.
- This is basically the premise of Jennifer Government in which government's power has been so limited that it can only investigate crimes against life and property and only for those who can pay. 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 eponymous 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.
- The short story Transaction by Redfern Barrett takes place in a world where every interaction involves a automatic financial transaction - from violence to breastfeeding. Needless to say, Crapsack World.
- In Star Bridge by Jack Williamson and James Gunn, the entire human-occupied universe is essentially a Company Town for the Eron Corporation, which thinks it controls the secret of the Tubes, the "star bridges" of the title.
- In the Hostile Takeover (Swann) series, Godwin and Proudhon cities are two different flavors, with Proudhon being a Company Town where everything is owned by the PSDC, and Godwin a Wretched Hive where everything is owned by whoever can keep it.
- This is the case in Cosmopol, which is an Objectivist, Diesel Punk 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.
- Extropia in Eclipse Phase is an anarcho-capitalist asteroid habitat, the same with other Extropian habitats throughout the Belt and Outer System.
- Second Life could be viewed as a virtual version of this trope.
- Andrew Ryan's underwater Objectivist project called "Rapture" in BioShock. Unfortunately, a combination of Ryan being a Hypocrite, his rival being power-lusting, 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. They got exterminated in the second game, so the position of Privately Owned Society in the third game gets taken by the Iridium Corporation, which is at least somewhat more moral than the Korx were.
- 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 an independent Asari colony just outside the borders of Citadel Space. It has easy access to pretty much all the goods and services one finds in Citadel Space, but none of the laws and regulations. On the street you can hear people openly talking about large shipments of drugs, buying military weapons to join mercenary companies well known for their criminal activities, and buying stocks based on exploiting humanitarian disasters. All the advertisements from the loudspeakers either include health warning, unless it is urgent recalls of products which of course never posed any danger to customers but need to be returned immediately. It's a Wretched Hive of Scum and Villany, but it is clean and sophisticated. Interestingly, in the third game, Illium's massive wealth does have a good result: the planet's elite are able to raise and equip a staggeringly powerful mercenary army capable of fighting the Reapers off for weeks, which is something that only the turians could boast of doing. In contrast, Earth and Thessia were already on the ropes after only a few days of Reapers laying siege...
- In Final Fantasy VII, the Shinra Corporation own and runs everything, and we do mean everything. They have the only army in the world (there is talk about a war with Wutai 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.
- General Resource and Neucom, who have replaced all governments in Ace Combat 3: Electrosphere.
- The world of Borderlands is one. The governments of the planets fell in the Last Corporate War, where all the main weapons manufacturers attacked each other, and ascended to become actual ruling powers.
- 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 center and boardwalk among 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 (who's surprisingly nice to his employees), 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 Broncos, he has the entire team shipped to his front door.
- Objectivism, Anarcho-Capitalism, and Classical Liberalism (aka "Libertarianism" in the USA) consider a society dominated by non-state actors to be ideal. This is because they all believe that property is the most important thing for people to be happy, and that the weak and the sick in society will not be (too badly) exploited if those entities are made to feel wholly responsible for their well-being. That is to say they truly believe that in the absence of a government giving food to starving people and treatment for the sick, private charities and corporations will have the resources and dedication to keep them all from dying. Though the three agree that The Free Market Will Provide (Prosperity For All), that there should be little to no government regulation of society and people's behavior, and no public efforts to save the sick or needy, they squabble over the details. However, Anarcho-Capitalism is the only one to envision a society with no government whatsoever-that being where the whole 'Anarcho' bit comes from-but instead absolutely everything being run by syndicates or corporationsnote . The Objectivists and Classical Liberals think this would be a terrible idea because they're sure that a functional society requires a military and legal/justice system.
- In any society whose statehood is despotism, the head of the state is the only free man and he owns everything within the state. All other people are his slaves. The only law in the state is the word of the despot and/or religious law, if any. While despotisms are rare today, it used to be the dominant form of statehood around the world into the Middle Ages and rise of Feudalism. Needless to say, despotisms tend not to be very stable, easily breaking up into coups d'etat or outright civil wars.
- According to Montesquieu, the difference between absolute monarchy and despotism is that in the case of the monarchy, a single person governs with absolute power by fixed and established laws, whereas a despot governs by his own will and caprice.
- Gaelic Ireland was like this for a millennium, between 650 and 1650, when it was conquered by the English. (Or at least, waves of whichever group-Saxons, Vikings, Normans-was ruling England at the time.) 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 government and was roundly ignored by Quaker settlers.
- British HongKong (and one could add the similar city state of Portuguese Macau, 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 (indeed, all land in Hong Kong is state-owned, hardly a feature of such systems). 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.
- More importantly, Hong Kong actually has an ordinary public government. As does Macau.
- 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 France/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 into 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, making this better, though still bad. Sir Roger was awarded a medal by the King (i.e. 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 police and fire services were also private originally in Ancient Rome. This had the problems you might expect: Croesus, who was one member of the ruling Triumvirate alongside Julius Caesar, got his famous riches in part by essentially extorting slum lords to sell him their apartment buildings when they were on fire. He would then have his slave fire brigade collapse the building (the common means of dousing a fire in those days) and rebuild it later, to great profit.
- 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, religious militias, and pirates, and disputes are settled by the Xeer, an ancient system of customary law that is based on property rights.
- Somalia is interesting because it's often cited by both proponents and detractors of deregulation and decentralization of government to support their respective viewpoints. On the one hand, the Somali economy is doing better than it was a couple of decades ago during the communist period, and better than many other African economies. On the other hand, it's not hard to do better than them when your annual GDP per capita is about $300 and there's pretty much no place to go but up. If anything it's a cautionary tale about the dangers of what can happen when government is overly powerful and oppressive and being overly weak and ineffective.
- The city of Dubai.
- The British East India Company operated in India in such a manner for nearly 100 years, although Parliament did try to curtail its power, stating that the Company's power was not in its own right but on behalf of the Crown. Abuses by the Company led to the British government assuming direct control over India after the 1857 Mutiny and ultimately to the dissolution of the Company in 1874.
- Any Company Town during the height of American industrialization in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
- This was the cornerstone of the feudal system. The king was the one who actually owned the land, the lords were tenants, and the serfs subtenants, both of the latter allowed to use the land in exchange for payment (usually in the form of crops grown on the land, or services provided for the lord, and the lord provided services for the king in turn). In exchange, the lord was supposed to look after their basic needs and provide for their safety in times of trouble. In practice, the peasants tended to get the short end of the stick most of the time. In England it wasn't until 1660 that lords were made private owners of their lands. This was in fact bad for peasants, since it meant they could be evicted at will (previously they could neither be evicted or leave their lord's manor).
- The richest man ever in the Finnish history was the Drots (the highest ranking arbiter of law, think the Supreme Court, if the Supreme Court was one guy) of Sweden, Bo Jonsson Grip (d. 1386). He simply owned the whole Finland.
- Some sources have argued that the infamous Kowloon Walled City was a de facto example of this.