When corporations rule the world: A review of Max Barry’s Jennifer Government

Gautham Shenoy September 22, 2018

“John Nike was reading a novel called The Space Merchants; it had been reissued and he’d seen a review in Fast Company. They called it ‘prescient and hilarious,’ which John was having a hard time agreeing with. All those old science fiction books were the same: they thought the future would be dominated by some hard-ass, oppressive government. Maybe that was plausible in the 1950s when the world looked as if it might turn Commie. It sure wasn’t now.

In The Space Merchants, the world was dominated by two advertising agencies, which was closer to the truth. But still, there were so many laws the companies had to follow!…it was turning into a sly, anti-free market statement, and irony irritated him. There was no place for irony in marketing: it made people want to look for deeper meaning. There was no place in marketing far that either.”– Chapter 34 – Competition, Jennifer Government.

The world of Jennifer Government: United States Federated Economic Blocks (green), Non-United States Federated Economic Blocks (Yellow) and Fragment Markets. (‘USA, United States and Australia are registered trademarks of US Government Pty. Ltd.’)

In the not-too-distant future, the world is not under the control of governments but governed in all but name by giant corporations. People take on the on the name of their employer – like the aforementioned John Nike. If you work two jobs, you have to hyphenate your second name to fit the names of two companies in. If you’re a student, you take the name of the company that is running the corporate educational programme, like Haylee McDonald’s, who studies at a McDonald’s-sponsored school (where teachers still use folders unlike the fancy Pepsi schools where everyone has notebooks). In very few backward countries – where the government isn’t privatized, like France – people still pay something known as a tax, but elsewhere taxes, especially corporate taxes, are illegal. The army is outsourced, and the police are privatized and at the service of those who can afford it, like most other services. If you want an ambulance, you have to swipe your card first. Insider trading doesn’t exist, because it’s been re-branded as ‘smart trading’, which is legal. Everyone is tax-free and happy, especially the few companies that run the world.

Welcome to the free-market paradise of Max Barry’s 2003-novel, Jennifer Government, which 15 years later still remains one of the funnier fictional takes on serious topics, mostly by not taking itself too seriously.

Also read: When advertising agencies take over the world: The Space Merchants, a huckster’s utopia of the future

Left: ‘Brilliant and hilarious’, says Naomi Klein, author of No Logo, on the cover of Jennifer Government. Right: Max Barry.

It all begins when Hack Nike, a lowly merchandising offer at Nike in charge of the distribution of its posters and beach towels is misled into signing a killer contract by John Nike from the Guerrilla Marketing Department, and John Nike’s boss, John Nike, the VP of Guerrilla Marketing, Nike. Hack’s contract literally involves killing (marketing can be murder!) as part of a campaign aimed at increasing the sales of Nike’s newly-launched shoes by increasing its ‘street cred’ (the best kind of campaigns!). Once he finds out the murderous intent of the contract he’s signed and the mess he is in, Hack turns to the police for help. The police – now privatized – do indeed help, by offering to fulfil the contract on his behalf. For a fee of course, because the police won’t do anything unless they’re contracted for it. And what they do in this case, is further sub-contract the National Rifle Association (NRA) – a for-hire mercenary organization with its own militia – to carry out the ‘marketing campaign’.

Enter Jennifer Government – who, as the name suggests works for the government – investigating a spate of recent killings, intent on bringing the perpetrators to justice. Even if she does know who the mastermind is, she probably cannot prosecute him because the government – also privatized and working towards profits – can only take action if the families of the victims are willing to pay the fee involved in taking any action. Of course, she is also driven by a personal grudge against her ex, John Nike.

Meanwhile, Hack Nike’s life takes a nosedive that is in direct proportion to Nike’s rising sales graph (thanks to the contract he signed), loses his job and is out for vengeance by any means. John Nike, safe in the knowledge that he is safe, uses this opportunity to put in motion an ambitious plan – to bring down the government, or what’s left of it. In the background, two of the most powerful entities in the world – US Alliance and Team Advantage – are battling it out for world domination, and that includes a monopoly on political power. These two, if you must know, are Loyalty Programmes – with Nike, IBM, Pepsi, McDonald’s and the NRA being a part of the US Alliance while Team Advantage members include the Police, ExxonMobil, Burger King, and Apple amongst others.

Superman – as Clark Kent – reading Jennifer Government in Action Comics #838 written by Kurt Busiek.

Caught up in all this is a cast of other characters, each have their own role to play, which probably explains their getting caught up: a stockbroker who works for Mitsui and who once changed his first name to Buy, Buy Mitsui; Hack Nike’s unemployed hacker girlfriend Violet (no second name due to employment status) who creates a virus that could tip the scales in the literal corporate warfare between the two loyalty programs, and Billy Bechtel, who after getting laid off from Bechtel is just Billy now but who decides to go on a skiing trip and ends up being Billy NRA.

Short chapters – almost cinematic in their narration and progression – each shifting from the point of view of one character to another detail out various strands of the story, each seemingly tangential to the next one until they all come together to deliver a denouement that is in keeping with the spirit of the novel.

Jennifer Government is a clever, cynical look at consumerism, a satirical take on the free market run amok, capitalism shorn of all shackles with its handmaiden, Marketing, truly unleashed. It may seem a tad dated in some details given it was published last fifteen years ago, but at the same time, many events in the past decade-and-a-half only help bring some of the details of the book into sharp focus. And 14 years since I first read it, Jennifer Government remains an entertaining read with uncomplicated prose, and what it lacks for in-depth or characterisation, it makes up for in being a rollicking, fast-paced read that is almost thriller-like in its hurry to climax. Speaking of which brings me to the end of this edition of New Worlds Weekly. I hope to see you here at FactorDaily again next weekend, for yet another edition of this column as we further explore SF. Live long and prosper!


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