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"The hand that gives is above the hand that takes. Money has no motherland; financiers are without patriotism and without decency; their sole object is gain."
In this setting, all businessmen are some variation of the Corrupt Corporate Executive. To them, swindling customers, abusing employees or even resorting to violence to eliminate threats to their wealth and power simply comes with the job. Either that or it's a nice fringe benefit. Don't expect to find any Honest Corporate Executives. Even if you think you've found one, they'll turn out to be a Villain with Good Publicity.
This trope can be Truth in Television, but just as likely not. While some businessmen are evil, deceptive, and depraved, it is extreme hyperbole to consider all of them to be so. Indeed, it is quite reasonable to argue that evil conduct is (in the long run) bad for a business; would you want to do business with a baby-eating puppy-kicking psychopath?
At times, this trope overlaps with Artistic License - Economics.
You may note that millionaire entrepreneurs do not always fall into this trope. These people are often depicted as independently wealthy Self Made Men who have wits and spirit enough to carve out their empires, and if not, they at least are in charge and take responsibility of them, tied to them in a way a king may be to his realm. Corporate executives, on the other hand, climb in an already established hierarchy, the leadership (thus also responsibility for any wrongdoing) of which is decentralised into some shadowy group, like "the board of directors"; going back to our feudal analogy, they would have more in common with court intriguers.
This trope is incredibly common in Cyberpunk works. Ironic, considering that Cyberpunk Mega Corp. entities were based on the bureaucratic monoliths of 1950's America and the Zaibatsu Corporations (i.e. "preferred merchants") of Japan, which were anything but free market entities.
Oliver Queen was also a subversion, but has gotten out of the game.
Oliver Queen now has an investment firm, but it's really only used to justify the sheer number of arrows he goes through (and the trick arrows, when the writer likes them).
Oliver Queen upheld this trope at least once, when he remade his fortune through "The Gun Run Stock Market Crash", wherein he profited from short-selling on several major defense contractors after first artificially boosting their share price via timed purhcases and then undermining consumer confidence in them through carefully placed rumors. Apparently the writer was unaware that this kind of investment strategy is called 'pump and dump', and is hilariously illegal.
Maxwell Lord, the CEO and founder of Justice League International, used to be a decent guy, albeit arrogant, but he's been retconned into a villain for no apparent reason.
Steve Dayton (aka Mento) is also a subversion. He's a genius with enough wealth to make Bruce Wayne look middle class. His periods as a bad guy have nothing to do with his money and everything to do with the fact that he has some nasty mental illness issues.
This is completely averted by Scrooge McDuck, of course. Is he a stern, demanding taskmaster? Sure. Is he a hard bargainer who doesn't suffer fools easily? You bet. Is he always ready to exploit whatever openings an opponent might leave him? Absolutely. Is he dishonest, corrupt, or evil like his Evil Counterpart Flintheart Glomgold? Not a chance.
...Except for one chapter of The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck, where he Jumped Off The Slippery Slope because he got sick of being the aversion ("Why should I have to be the only honest man in this cockeyed world? ... Why can't I take shortcuts like everyone else? ... Who died and left me in charge of morals?!") Considering that it got him a buttload of guilt and a zombie pursuer for several decades, he quickly learned to accept it.
Although it depends heavily on the quality of the writer, as some minor stories have him commit acts that would, under close (or not so close) scrutiny be considered theft, extortion and fraud. (Hint: Trying to claim a heritage for yourself when legally binding documents state that it belongs to your nephew is not legal.) Usually a sign that the writer didn't do their research.
Characterization Marches On. Scrooge started out as a much more antagonistic character, and many of his early appearances presented him as completely ruthless and downright eager to screw his nephew over at times. He also used to be a foil to Junior Woodchucks, often carelessly polluting the environment and once actively trying to drive a species of bald eagle to extinction to justify an industrial operation in their nesting area.
Subverted to a great extent in the Earth-2706 verse. In both the Ultimate Sleepwalker and Ultimate Spider-Woman series, Corrupt Corporate Executives have expressed their hatred of their honest competitors. According to corrupt executives like Norman Osborn, the Honest Corporate Executives (people like Tony Stark, Brian Braddock, Warren Worthington and Marc Spector) are cowards who hare holding the rest of them back. Guys like Stark and Worthington obviously enjoy the wealth and power that comes with their work, but at the end of the day they're really only interested in running their businesses. People like Osborn and Justin Hammer, on the other hand, actively believe that their wealth and power give them the right to lord over the lower classes and do whatever they want to them.
Peter F. Hamilton deliberately set out to invert this trope with Julia Evans, the young idealistic CEO of Event Horizon in his trilogy about psychic detective Greg Mandel. She keeps most of her industry in Britain to provide work and a strong economy (of course, this also increases Event Horizon's power and influence within Britain) and quashes potentially harmful technologies rather than make a profit from them.
The Dogs of War by Frederick Forsyth is pretty anvilistic about the role business interests played in various bloody African wars. The bitterness the mercenary protagonist feels over this is a major reason behind his Face-Heel Turn at the end. It's also at least partly Truth in Television, as the plot is an allusion to the role that European mining interests played in the Katanga Rebellion in the Congo.
The Phantom of the Opera: In the original book by Gaston Leroux, this is the reason Erik (the eponymous phantom) could maintain his reign of terror: In Parisian society, itís not what you do, itís who you know. Therefore the executives at the Opera and the police are not only corrupt, but Stupid Bosses who donít care about how to do their job better but only how to practice politics and be discreet about all their problems, making them the perfect victims of Black Mail.
Everybody, without exception, in a Jasper Fforde novel. Occasionally he'll drop in a Seemingly Very Nice Corporate Executive, but you only have to read two or three of his books before you no longer fall for it. Every corporate executive is evil, and worse, so is every corporate employee.
Blood Over Water featured Clyde Spendelworth as a Corrupt Corporate Executive. In the novel remake, it's revealed that he was only intending to use the company he inherited the CEO position over as a front for his illegal activities. However, it is revealed that his predecessor was unable to make a very large profit. So the company had to choose between a corrupt CEO or an inept CEO.
The most benevolent big business seen in Buffy the Vampire Slayer was Doublemeat Palace, and they were concealing something (albeit something relatively innocuous) from their customers.
Also on Buffy, the demise of the reptile demon Mokita led to bankruptcies and suicides among a few corporate executives as his magic failed them.
Angel, of course, revolved around Wolfram and Hart's villainy (though they were lawyers instead of industrialists) and regularly implied awful things about the firm's various corporate clients. (He even described season 5 as going from a small business to the morally gray environment of the corporate world.)
And then there's Firefly and the Blue Sun Corporation...
Interesting in that, due to the notoriously short run of Firefly, we were given minimal info on Blue Sun, other than a small tidbit on the Commentary, and the fact that River didn't like them. But everyone knowsthey weren't going to be nice people...
And then there's the Dollhouse with Rossum Corp. who provide daily Mind Rape services for the rich and powerful, and that's the least corrupt thing they do.
The show Leverage pretty much runs on this trope. Half the episodes are about some evil executive(s) or entire corporations abusing their power. What's sad is that the show's staff has pointed out that many of their 'ridiculous' plots about corporate evil were in fact drawn from real life, only toned down.
There have been notable subversions - the president in "The Top Hat Job" seems to be a decent guy, and an executive is their client in "The Lonely Hearts Job".
In fact, Nate believes this trope whole-heartedly, and has problems wrapping his head around the subversions.
J.K. Robertson in the movie Time Chasers was not at all deterred from proceeding on the Time Transport project, even after its inventor returned from a second visit to the future to reveal that the future had changed to one of anarchy as a result of the Time Transport being used as a weapon. In fact, he has the inventor and his love interest arrested, and later pursues them into the past, killing the love interest and murdering his own reluctant companion.
To be fair on the first score, he thought knowing about the future would enable him to prevent it (surely anarchy isn't good for business after all), which makes sense because the future had changed once already in the film.
Waitaminute, is this Time Chasers as in the MST3K film? Because if so ... well, that kind of explains any and every characterization fuckup fairly instantly...
Without exception, every single person on the corporate side of UBS in Network is an amoral, money-grubbing monster. The film ends with the main character being shot by a hitman hired by UBS, the voiceover stating that he was killed due to his show's failing ratings.
Even most of the Marxist terrorist gang are greedy capitalists! One of the main executives gives a speech about how Communist nations are run the same as large American corporations.
TRON: Legacy had an infamous scene with the Encom boardroom, where they're boasting about their latest and greatest operating system. The only subversion in the room points out that they're charging schools and non-profits a fortune - what are the customers getting in return? The idiot CEO shrugs and says "it has a 12 on the box..." This is meant to demonstrate that the company has fallen from its innovative times under Walter Gibbs and Flynn Sr. while cementing sympathy for Sam's annualpractical joke.
Pretty much every executive at Clamp Enterprises in Gremlins 2: The New Batch is a complete amoral a-hole except, ironically, the C.E.O. Daniel Clamp who's aloof but otherwise a nice guy. He does do one really douchy thing near the end, but it's to Forster who's a jerk anyways.
Shadowrun lives and breathes this trope, since the player characters are the tools the corrupt and supremely powerful Mega Corps use against each other.
Deconstructed with Horizon, a media and PR Mega Corp. based out of Los Angeles. Ever since bursting onto the scene in the wake of Crash 2.0, Horizon has made its name as "the personable company". Employees are actively encouraged to be involved in community events, sports teams, and other personal projects. They are given handsome benefits and free time. The company's business practices are downright respectable compared to the strip mining and law shredding of other major MegaCorps. The online shadow community (which provides running commentary throughout the sourcebooks) has worked themselves into apoplectic fits trying to find some dirt on Horizon and coming up empty. Any dirt. There is absolutely nothing anywhere to suggest that Horizon is anything other than a personable, respectable company, but that fact is driving Shadowland to distraction, since there has to be something underhanded about them, and the fact that they can't find it is downright creepy. After a Shadowland hacker quit his job there and reported on his observations, Horizon's CEO emailed him to thank him for his service, offer him his job back anytime he'd like it, provide up-front answers on various questions the hacker had been looking into, and show his willingness to help him and "his friends" out however he can in the future. Creepy.
The Horizon tie-in fiction in the 20th Anniversary Version of the 4th edition core rules does show that Gary Cline, Horizon's CEO, is very likely a sociopath. Seeing as how when a former executive from a rival megacorporation burst into his office intending to kill Cline for ruining his career by getting the better of him in a business deal and took Cline's executive assistant hostage, Gary Cline's response was... to tell his assistant that Gary had been upset with the way his assistant had fumbled a recent project anyway, that he had outlived his usefulness, and Cline then killed his secretary himself. He then congratulated the gunman on his assertiveness and planning skills, and offered him a job with Horizon. The story vignette ends with the guy asking Cline if Horizon has a good vacation plan. And the professional-salesman's smile never left Gary's face the entire time.
And then there is Columbian Subterfuge, where after you get many prisoners out of an Aztlan POW Camp, it turns out Agent 211983 had executed the prisoners and make an extremelysensationalist version of the event. While the atrocities without tampering will be sufficient to incriminate Aztlan, this would had given Shadowland (now Jackpoint) some fuel to discredit Horizon with. And then there was the friendly fire incident... But given how War Is Hell...
Storm Front has made it explicitly plain that Horizon actually is no Deconstruction at all — they were merely Villains With Good Publicity all along.
Syndicate. There may have been aversions during the corporations' initial rise to power over the governments, but after the syndicates took over the corporations using such upstanding methods as bribery and murder..
If you're an extreme left wing socialist, you might believe that all capitalism is inherently sociopathic (systemically evil, not individually, duh). Because of differences in aforementioned flavors, the socialist may differ in whether this means capitalism must be banned, or not personally practiced, or moderated with extensive ethical rules in a social democracy. Very few socialists will considersocial democrats one of them.
Beyond the pejorative "extreme", it is indisputable that the purpose of any capitalist enterprise is to generate profit, by whatever means possible. This, as centuries of experience makes entirely apparent, renders executives, by their inescapable nature, amoral at best.
Even Karl Marx recognised that capitalism isn't entirely without value. He saw it as necessary transition from feudalism to socialism. Several other left-leaning thinkers have added the deal plenty of more shades of gray.
Indeed, Marx extensively praised capitalism in The Communist Manifesto. However, Marx's definition of capitalism was pretty broad and basically covered any economic system where machines and factories were the primary means of making more stuff, and said machines and factories were not collectively owned. This definition, in and of itself, doesn't actually require any corporations in the first place.
Also, one does not have to be anti-capitalist in order to subscribe to this trope. Joseph Schumpeter, a classically liberal (and hence proĖfree-market) economist, believed that the corporate, bureaucratic economies (which were run on a mixture of Keynesianism and Corporate Statism, rather than laissez-faire free markets) of 1950s America were going to destroy free markets by strangling the Entrepreneur and the Innovator under a blanket of institutionalized stagnation.
You'll find a lot of conservatives and libertarians who aren't any fonder of Big Business than they are of Big Government (which is to say, not very).
More generally, this trope tends to be directed at big multinational corporations as opposed to smaller mom-and-pop stores or collectively owned co-ops. A recurring theme both in fiction and reality is that of large businesses and big-box stores like Wal-Mart wiping out smaller, more local economies and businesses. For all that the owner of the local restaurant or coffee shop is himself an entrepreneur, he tends to be depicted more positively than the owner of a large multinational firm. Of course, most mom-and-pop coffee shops don't require their employees to do the Wal-Mart cheer every morning...
It was quite similar in medieval Europe. The church initially condemned as banking and trading as evil and against Godís will. People would thus often blame the merchants for natural catastrophes including disease, floods or famine as a punishment to the community from God. Lending money with interest (usury) was considered particularly sinful, and was thus (initially) left to non-Christians, particularly Jews - which sadly only added fuel to anti-Semitic sentiments. As in China, Screw the Rules, I Have Money! came into effect. Also, the upper classes eventually realized that trade and banking were useful for expanding the economy and providing money for wars, and thus merchants eventually became more accepted, and a lot more influential in the late Middle Ages.