Cyberpunk megacorps are feudal hierarchies… or at least they’re close enough that we can map one to the other. My brain wandered into this realization a few months ago, and now I can’t stop thinking about cyberpunk stories and fantasy or historical fiction through this lens. If I’m stuck with it, I might as well share it with you.
A set of feudal class assumptions are baked into many cyberpunk stories; the corporate elite, the people running the mega corps are just a renamed set of feudal lords. This lends itself perfectly to the preservation of power within the corporation’s systems. Story-wise, this parallel makes the corporate power politicking easier to understand. We can simply hold onto our assumptions about feudal nobility, swap the words in the marquee, and get a rough idea of whatever is going on.
Is the mapping perfect? Not quite. Some power structures are a little different. Some power is passed differently from one generation of leaders to the next than it is / was in feudal nobility. Transitions of power are probably less bloody.
But the same class divide is still there, separating those with rank in the megacorp (nobility) from the have-nots. The nepotism is often still there. The same sense of inbred privilege and power is there. The same social expectations still reign supreme—a scion of the corporation owes their loyalty to the corp, and will obey the CEO their liege. Power flows down through the hierarchy, and the ultimate responsibility of any person in authority is to contribute the power they create to the corporation’s (the kingdom’s) bottom line.
Most of the same caveats apply too. Maybe someone plans to make a power play, attempting to supplant a current member of the C-suite or the Board. They still need to create a strong enough claim to that position, garner influence and support, etc., before they attempt any sort of uprising. People in a cyberpunk megacorp who make a play for a higher position and fail are likely to suffer consequences, from a slap on the wrist to firing to pressing criminal charges (with whatever repercussions those charges might have).
Honestly, I could go further, draw more parallels with other systems: the key, as far as I can tell, is how each system embodies kyriarchy (a power structure built around assumptions of domination). I’ll leave it here for the moment.
As with many other elements of cyberpunk worldbuilding, I think this connection between semi-feudal social dynamics and corporate hierarchy was frustratingly prescient. Advocates for neo-feudalism exist now (usually with ties to one or many of authoritarianism, the Dark Enlightenment, white supremacist movements, accelerationists, and extreme adherents to the Gospel of Wealth-style capitalist meritocracy myth). Our society’s continuing concentration of power, privilege, and access to wealth and its benefits further stratifies the population and creates a new form of aristocracy, breaking down the egalitarianism that strengthens democracy. All this—the way in which our world continues to develop in strange parallel with the dystopian warnings of cyberpunk novels—gives us another perspective on how to map historical or fantasy feudalism and corporate feudalism onto each other.
I don’t have more here at the moment. I’ve just had this brainworm gnawing at my thoughts for a while. That’s why I’ve been dreaming up feudal fantasy versions of cyberpunk stories and cyberpunk versions of classic tales of medieval nobility. There could be something fun done with the Fisher King in a cyberpunk setting, right?