The movie The Interview caused quite a stir lately. The low-brow comedy has become a geo-political high-drama. The movie and the alleged North Korean response have elicited polarized responses, one of which is the championing of “freedom of speech” for the corporate right (even if they fictionalize assassinations of a real dictator). While I too agree with artistic freedom and expression, I also posit that this tension between the corporate and the nation-state presents a critical moment to consider a more complex and looming dilemma beyond a rallying cry for artistic freedom.
Before going further, allow me a quick detour. I am admittedly an old fantasy gaming-geek. As such this whole fiasco seems to harken back to a science-fantasy setting in the late eighties and early nineties titled Shadowrun—a cyber-punk dystopian fantasy setting situated in the near future where corporations function as governments. Shadowrun (Weisman et al. 1989) represented a deeply stratified future of Orwellian proportions. Cyberpunk, as the genre of science-fantasy has become known, was a rather popular setting by the early nineties. Of course most of us never imagined that a scenario that resembled Shadowrun would emerge in the real world; that geo-politics would be so overtly affected by entertainment such as movies. The point is that Sony, the company the produced The Interview, may have been attacked by a nation-state. Are we peering into a future landscape where corporations are equivalent to nations—their boundaries becoming increasingly blurred in conflicts over intellectual property? Or are we seeing instead a conflict purely about liberty against the oppression of a foreign nation? Shadowrun was a fantasy setting where corporations were governments and went to war like governments.
I admit that most of the complexity of North Korea escapes me. I am as guilty of bias against what I understand of the totalitarian state as the next Westerner. It does seem, however, that in those moments of profound moral agreement—like artistic and individual expression—that more complex ethical questions emerge for the critical thinker. These moments offer a type of crisis through which to reflect on larger or perhaps more peripheral concerns surrounding issues such as Hollywood versus a nation-state. Are we seeing the very first stirring of a corporate war?
Enter the double-movements of Karl Polanyi’s (1944) The Great Transformation. Polanyi considers the evolution of liberal (contemporary free-market) governance during geo-political developments internationally leading into the mid-twentieth century. He argued that contemporary liberal governance relied on two primary premises; that of free-market assumptions and protectionist government initiatives. Perhaps through Polanyi’s double-movements, we can consider the dialectic nature of liberal governance. This dialectic between free-market economics and protection of the most wealthy class of intellectual property contributes a fundamental contradiction. We see this through US-sanctioned politics favoring particular interests, Sony in this case. Will artistic expression invert the hierarchy between investment firms (transnational corporations) and nation states?
Additionally, liberal rhetoric applied to corporations further reifies the ideological power held by corporations. In other words, when we describe corporations as having the same inalienable rights that individuals possess under the philosophy of liberalism, we further cement their ability to extend the reach of capital accumulation. For instance, such discussions of rights and personhood were central to perhaps one of the most important Supreme Court decisions in U.S. history—the overturning of the McCain-Feingold provisions (Citizens United v. FEC). In this case, the Court determined that since corporations were to be treated as people, they are afforded the same rights as individuals—including freedom of speech. Money was then considered to be a form of free speech. Therefore, limitations on the ability of corporations to donate to money to politicians is an obstruction of their free speech. In other words, liberal notions of “freedom of speech” further extend the political influence—and therefore, the power—of corporations.
While I celebrate the notion of releasing art in lieu of oppressive state-level objection, I also reflect on the opportunity to consider larger implications. That is the nature of critical scholarship. Not to go against the grain for criticisms sake, but to utilize a moment of profound collective agreement for a glimpse into a wider-view of latent potentials between corporations and countries for a new tomorrow. What international precedents are being left to the shadows between the nation-state and the corporation? Are we living through the beginning of the kind of corporate conflict that formed the foundation for late eighties cyber-punk fantasy settings? We live in a complex time between the hypermobility of capital and the dissolution of the nation-state. It seems that the rallying cry for the freedom of speech of corporations could once again be leaving the critical nature of individualism in the shadows.
Kansas State University
Cohen, Luc and Alicia Avila. 2014. “Sony’s ‘Interview’ draw U.S. moviegoers who trumpet free speech.” Reuters, December 25. http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/12/25/us-northkorea-cybersecurity-youtube-idUSKBN0K210520141225
Polanyi, Karl. 1944. The Great Transformation: the political and economic origins ofour time. Beacon Press: Boston.
Weisman, Jordan, Bob Charrette, Paul Hume, Tom Dowd, L. Ross Babcock III, Sam Lewis, Dave Wylie. 1989. Shadowrun. FASA Corporation Publishing: Chicago.