Jennifer Government by Max Barry (2003) (read in 2019)
Published by marco on
Disclaimer: these are notes I took while reading this book. They include citations I found interesting or enlightening or particularly well-written. In some cases, I’ve pointed out which of these applies to which citation; in others, I have not. Any benefit you gain from reading these notes is purely incidental to the purpose they serve of reminding me what I once read. Please see Wikipedia for a summary if I’ve failed to provide one sufficient for your purposes. If my notes serve to trigger an interest in this book, then I’m happy for you.
This 2003 book is the story of a world in which many of the current capitulations to corporatist rule were still at-least partially in the future. The Government is an entity whose power has been severely restricted. Local police is for-hire only. They only pursue cases for which victims can provide a budget.
Hack Nike works for Nike (everyone takes their employer’s name as their last name). He is roped into a murder contract by John Nike. It is part of a marketing campaign to sell sneakers to stupid teenagers. Marketing rules supreme, people are nearly perfect consumers, ethics is a thing of the past. Hack lives with the unemployed Victoria, who is working on a virus that can kill any IT system.
Buy Mitsui is a broker who loses faith in the system. Claire is Violet’s socialist sister. The eponymous Jennifer Government is a former marketer turned federal agent, hot on John Nike’s tail, with whom she shares a past.
The main thread of the book is that most corporations are banding together into two factions, roughly delineated by the two prevalent rewards programs. The corporations and various alliances act more and more as independent states, with their own militaries (e.g. the NRA). Everything is a negotiation, everything is a transaction, money is God, all in the name of a bizarre notion of “freedom”.
There is no difference between corporations and nation-states. In fact, the book generally depicts corporations acting as the worst of the nation-states do today. Even those individuals who think they can game this system are wrong. The point is that contracts aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on if they can’t be enforced. If there is no overarching authority, then criminals do what they want. Only the worst people win.
There are echoes of Fight Club and Office Space and maybe even Mr. Robot. It’s interesting to see these ideas having been written down 15 years ago, before many of its ideas were confirmed—or vastly superseded by the system we have today.
Barry does bring us a happy ending of sorts, but only for a handful of characters—the world itself is largely unchanged, even if corporate power is slightly restrained. The base philosophy hasn’t changed, so the same problems will come back.
“Companies were getting a lot tougher on labor contracts these days; Hack had heard stories. At Adidas, if you quit your job and your replacement wasn’t as competent, they sued you for lost profits.”
““I think I’m going to take a look,” Buy said. “You should leave it to mall security,” the dealer said. “I know first aid.” Not many people did; there was too much risk of being sued.”
“He bit his lip. “You sure you don’t want to come? Since, I mean, you killed that guy…” “You want me to defend myself against a murder charge with two hundred dollars?” “But it was self-defense. It doesn’t matter how much money—” “Don’t be naïve,” Violet said. “Look, if my demo goes”
This is already where we are.
“come out owing them for food and board.”
The language is dying
““It’s a good deal,” Calvin said, overtaking a Chrysler. “It’s not like I actually spend more. I buy what I would have anyway, but from US Alliance companies.” “Mmm,” Jennifer said. “You buy your computer from IBM, your gas from Shell, use AT&T for calls… soon you’re getting gift vouchers, for like, fifty bucks. And if you buy a car—” “I don’t like loyalty programs.” “Well, you could go with Team Advantage,” Calvin said. “But US Alliance has twice as many companies that are number one in their industry.” “What is that, from their brochure?””
““No more talking. I’ve offered you a deal, you say yes or no.” “Fuckers!” Jesus shouted. “The fucking nnnnn-nnnnn—” “Quiet!” Jennifer said. “All right,” Billy said, feeling hope drain away. “Get me out of here.” She held open the door. He left the cell, feeling like he was sinking deeper and deeper.”
People keep getting offered choices that aren’t choices. Shows quite well how such a system ends up working. How it does wok.
““And ten years later we have US Alliance and Team Advantage, and there aren’t more than five major companies in the world that haven’t signed up with one of them. The more companies joined in, the more customers signed up, and so the more companies want in. At the end of last month, US Alliance had five hundred million subscribers. T.A. has two-ninety million.””
Peanuts compared to FaceBook and co.
“People were going to say he’d cracked, that he’d been grief-stricken. But that wasn’t it. The truth was simpler: nothing Buy could ever do would be as important as saving that girl Hayley’s life. He couldn’t watch a girl bleed to death and then go make 3 percent off stock trades. The idea was monstrous. So Buy was finished as a productive member of society, unless he managed to lose so much perspective that margin calls began to seem important again. Either way, Buy was prepared to put a gun in his mouth and pull the trigger.”
““To begin, I shall tell you of a program belonging to our friends at IBM. They are rewarding customers who bring in a competitive product and submit it to their in-house crushing machine. It smashes it in-store, you see?” “Yes, I see—” “A most brilliant strategy, to relegate the competition to the status of junk and garbage. You must understand, it is difficult for we Japanese to think along these lines of head-to-head competition. This is why we are now finding ourselves running behind our energetic American friends. But the times they are a-changing, are they not?””
“The easier your job, the more you got paid. John had suspected this for many years, but here was the proof: pulling down five hundred bucks an hour to sit in the afternoon sun on top of an L.A. office tower. He was wearing a suit and shades, reclining on a deck chair while a light breeze blew in from the bay. John thought he might have found the perfect job.”
“Is it my fault that was the best way to do it? If the Government had the muscle to enforce the law, it wouldn’t have made economic sense, but they don’t, and it did. This is the world we live in. If you don’t take advantage of the rules, you’re a sucker.””
“She felt the air go out of her. “No way am I going to do that. No way.” “You have a lot of money at stake.” “You—you owe me that money whether I help you or not.” “Be realistic,” Holly said. “No!” Violet heard her voice tremble. “I’m not going anywhere near John Nike! You get that?” She slung her bag over her shoulder. A man stepped into the doorway, blocking it. He was wearing a Police soldier uniform. His nametag said: ONE. “Maybe I made this sound too much like a request,” Holly said […]”
The point is that contracts aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on if they can’t be enforced. If there is no overarching authority, then criminals do what they want. Only the worst people win.
“She felt the air go out of her. “No way am I going to do that. No way.” “You have a lot of money at stake.” “You—you owe me that money whether I help you or not.” “Be realistic,” Holly said. “No!” Violet heard her voice tremble. “I’m not going anywhere near John Nike! You get that?” She slung her bag over her shoulder. A man stepped into the doorway, blocking it. He was wearing a Police soldier uniform. His nametag said: ONE. “Maybe I made this sound too much like a request,” Holly said, and Violet started to cry.”
““We’re the Government,” she said, just in case there had been some misunderstanding. “We are arresting three people on suspicion of murder.” “No, ma’am. You are on General Motors property and you will comply with GM orders.””
There is no difference between corporations and nation-states. In fact, the book generally depicts corporations acting as the worst of the nation-states do.
“She said quietly, “You’d better be very sure your employer can protect you from the Government.” “I’m very sure.” She felt her heart twist. To her people, she said, “Let them go.” The NRA watched them all the way to the van.”
““We came here in good faith, to talk about solutions.”
“John’s voice was piped through the hall, so it sounded like he were right in front of you.
““But the Government didn’t. This morning, it conducted raids against us. It targeted our companies, only because we’ve been successful at providing products people want to buy. It trespassed on our private property and assaulted some of our executives.””
““By this action, the Government has proved that so long as it exists, none of us are truly free. Government and freedom are mutually exclusive. So if we value freedom, there’s only one conclusion. It’s time to get rid of this leftover relic we call Government.””
“US Alliance has had enough of being persecuted for the crime of making money. From this moment, we no longer recognize them as an authority. It’s time for a brave new age. I hereby declare the end of Government. And you, sir, are out of a job.”
“You announced that US Alliance is a criminal organization.”
“Criminal,” he said. “What is that, anyway? Just someone the Government doesn’t agree with.”
“Don’t play games with me, John. Our organization exists to gain market share from Team Advantage. The Government is peripheral.”
“How can we fight Team Advantage with the Government as referee? The Government is the major obstacle to our goals. We can’t ignore them, Alfonse. They’re coming after us. We had to send them a message.”
“He parked and went into the Nike building, nodding to the receptionist. He felt more energetic these days, much more confident. He was friendly to people he previously hadn’t had the nerve to talk to. The funny thing was that his boss thought Hack had become dynamic and effective, when Hack was doing less work than ever before. In fact, he was hardly working at all.”
Echoes of Fight Club and Office Space and maybe even Mr. Robot.
“Okay, so everyone’s a little surprised about the jet thing.”
Snorts of outrage. The McDonald’s Liaison looked like she wanted to leap across the desk and slap him.
Alfonse said, “John, in case you haven’t already gathered, we’re here to vote on your expulsion from US Alliance. If this vote carries, UA and its member companies will disown any responsibility for your actions. We will deliver you to the Government and negotiate compensation for the damage you’ve caused.”
“So I was right,” John said. “It is the United Nations.”
“He doesn’t think he’s done anything wrong,” the IBM Liaison snapped. He was an older man with white hair and a dark blue suit; John had never met him. “Look at him. He’s turned the world’s most distinguished corporations into criminals and he’s smirking.”
“I’ve given you a world without Government interference. There is now no advertising campaign, no inter-company deal, no promotion, no action you can’t take. You want to pay kids to get the swoosh tattooed on their foreheads? Who’s going to stop you? You want to make computers that need repair after three months? Who’s going to stop you? You want to reward consumers who complain about your competitors in the media? You want to pay them for recruiting their little brothers and sisters to your brand of cigarettes? You want the NRA to help you eliminate your competition? Then do it. Just do it.”
“She cried and hated herself. This wasn’t meant to be her, this small, beaten girl. She was meant to succeed. Other people had taken it all away from her.”
“It was amazing, he thought, how everyone bitched about corporations but no one was willing to risk pissing them off. Hack was disappointed at the level of motivation among this society’s counterculture.”
“I used to think I was cynical about people. But then I realized you can’t be too cynical. People will do anything to get ahead. They’ll do terrible things.”
He looked at her. “That is true.” He stuck out his hand. “I’m Buy.”
She smiled. “Violet.” They shook hands. “I guess we have a bit in common.”
“I guess we do,” Buy said, and laughed.
“There was a mall across the road, with a McDonald’s on one side and a Burger King on the other. In between the two was a riot. A bunch of kids in baggy clothes were looting the Burger King: pulling down posters, smashing cash registers.”
“His words were lost in one of the loudest sounds Jennifer had ever heard. The Police had mounted a machine gun on the Burger King counter and it was chewing up the McDonald’s store. Shreds of red and yellow plastic spiraled into the air like confetti.”