Rating: ★ ★ – – –
Market Forces is set in 2049, in a grim future where unfettered capitalism rules the world. The few international regulators and overseers that do still exist have barely any power to check corporate behavior. It is a neoliberal’s dream—and a barbaric nightmare for the vast majority of the world’s inhabitants.
The icky world and the unscrupulous characters Morgan has created are also so repellent that much of the time it is difficult to keep turning the pages. No one is likable. Every interaction, every conversation is a competitive power play; everybody is always angling for some kind of advantage. It’s inhuman and depressing.
In this novel, corporations based in the developed world (which in this book includes primarily the U.S., Britain, and Japan) have taken over the foreign policy role formerly played by governments, with a free-market twist: any semblance of diplomacy or lip service to human rights is gone, and corporations are free to pursue “investments” in conflicts in the developing world in a completely bold-faced, profit-driven way. They provide capital support in the form of arms and surveillance technology to rebels and dictators alike—whichever side they think will bring them the greatest ROI. Whenever they feel they are not getting a good deal, they switch horses; their recipients’ political stances are irrelevant.
The CIA, too, has dropped all pretense of objectivity and has turned itself into Langley Contracting, a fee-for-service military contractor, for hire by anyone. (They are also unabashedly known as “the premiere distributors of illicit narcotics in the Americas.”)
The result of all of this is an exaggeratedly unequal world. The rich, developed countries call all the shots, while the developing countries scrabble for whatever deals they can get, usually brutally repressing their own people to appear to be the safest gamble possible.
And even within the developed world, populations are divided between tiny groups of lavishly-paid executive elites living in gated and armored enclaves, and the bulk of the populace living in the “zones:” crime-ridden, education- and health-care-free tenement districts where life is short, brutal, and hopeless.
And the violence inherent in the system inevitably touches all classes one way or another. Even the executives and partners at the wealthy firms all earn their rarified positions through ruthless driving competitions to the death. If you want a promotion, you file a challenge against someone whose job you want (and that you are qualified to have), and, with luck, you pulverize them on the highway or drive them off a cliff—in front of an ever-present media audience, of course—and take their job. Competitive battles for lucrative contracts between corporations are decided the same way.
These road-warrior battles are waged by the toughest of the tough corporate gladiator-drivers. These guys live the high life, with enormous salaries and bonuses, beautiful houses, and women at the ready. But they also live knowing that they may have to defend their lives from challengers at a moment’s notice. (It’s a little bit ridiculous that these guys would be good both at lethal driving and savvy investment management, but that’s how Morgan has set it up.)
Market Forces’ main character, Chris Faulkner, is one of these gladiators. At the start of the book he has just defeated a couple key opponents in gruesome road battles, and as a result has just been hired away from his previous company to the most ruthless, most high-flying firm of them all, a London firm called Shorn Investments. Shorn assigns him a key position in their “Conflict Investments” department. His co-workers are the hardest of the hard-hearted: his frenemy peers Mike Bryant and Nick Makin; his backstabbing boss, Louise Hewitt, and the sociopathic senior partner, Jack Notley. It would be hard to imagine a more unappealing group of supporting characters.
The only thing that keeps Chris from being a full-on cold-blooded killer is his wife Carla. She loves him intensely. She is his mechanic, and makes sure his car is armored to the teeth to try to keep him alive. But she also is the daughter of passionate left-wing human rights activists, hates everything Shorn Investments stands for, and lets Chris know it.
The thing is, Chris is torn. A very large part of him loves the money, the security, the glamor, and the power that come with his job. And yes, often, he has to admit, the thrill of the kill. But something deep inside him is simultaneously repelled by the bloodshed and the cruelty. It is what makes him refuse to carry his company-issued pistol and what makes him hesitate, every time, before actually killing one of his opponents. And Carla tries to reinforce that part of his conscience every time she can.
But Chris gets pulled farther and farther into Shorn’s hard-drinking, hard-drugging, legalized-murdering, porn-star-love-affair-having corporate culture. The world Morgan presents is violent, whiskey-ridden, and sometimes gets so disgusting it is often hard to turn the pages. And the world drives more and more of a wedge between Chris and Carla.
Chris’s rage escalates and he eventually finds himself almost uncontrollably beating a series of street hoodlums, wife beaters, and corporate clients to bloody pulps. With every kill, he receives more accolades from his firm, the media, and female hangers-on… and more of his soul is destroyed. Any chance he has for a low-key, ethical life starts falling to pieces, and the book becomes a close-up view of Chris getting torn apart by the warring desires in his head.
In what is perhaps a last-ditch subconscious effort to save his own soul, Chris agrees to help his co-worker Mike Bryant with a situation in Colombia where Shorn’s current investment, a brutal tinpot dictator named Echevarria, is turning out to be far more trouble than he is worth. Chris’s advice is to switch Shorn’s support to Echevarria’s opponent, an inspiring revolutionary named Barranco who models himself after Che Guevara. And Chris finds himself being swayed by Barranco, liking him, genuinely wanting him to succeed. Barranco really is a smarter business decision, which is how Chris justifies it to Bryant, but truly believing in a populist movement is a terribly risky thing in his job.
And, in time, Chris finds out that someone in his own corporation has it in for him and is going to take advantage of his many weaknesses and mess-ups to wreck him unless he can stop them. It finally (blessedly) all comes to a head (and an end) in one final road battle to the death.
The frustrating thing is that throughout the whole book you really want to like Chris, in spite of it all. You want him to step away from the foul Shorn Investments life and make up with his wife. You want him to redeem himself. And for an incredibly long time Chris tries to fight it—sort of—by trying to keep to some kind of vague, idealized samurai code. Carla also tries to give him a way out, using her parents’ contacts.
But he backslides one too many times, and eventually Carla gives up on him. And, eventually, you have to, too. You have this depressing feeling that the pull of absolute power is going to get him in the end (as it does). He is trapped. The more violent he becomes, the more there doesn’t seem to be any solution but more violence.
And Morgan constantly reminds us, through snarky incidents and commentary from supporting characters, that this is the way the game is played in real life, too. As one of his co-workers reminds Chris when he has a tidbit of remorse after a kill, “a practicing free market economist has blood on his hands, or he isn’t doing his job properly.”
And, as the senior partner in his firm explains when Chris shows signs of believing in the hope offered by Barranco:
“Do you really think we can afford to have the developing world develop? You think we could have survived the rise of a modern, articulated Chinese superpower twenty years ago? You think we could manage an Africa full of countries run by intelligent, uncorrupted democrats? Or a Latin America run by men like Barranco? Just imagine it for a moment. Whole populations getting educated, and healthy, and secure, and aspirational. Women's rights, for Christ's sake. We can't afford these things to happen, Chris. Who's going to soak up our subsidized food surplus for us? Who's going to make our shoes and shirts? Who's going to supply us with cheap labor and cheap raw materials? Who's going to store our nuclear waste, balance out our CO2 misdemeanors? Who's going to buy our arms?”So that’s really heartening.
The book seems to end with Chris’s assimilation into the world of violence and addictive indulgences and unfettered greed. But I like to think that Morgan left open the possibility that Chris might actually be a Trojan horse: that Chris surrenders himself to the lifestyle, but that he will use his position to bring more money and power to Barranco, and leaders like him, so that they may succeed in their corners of the world. That Chris will have sacrificed his own soul so that those with stronger wills can have a shot at winning in the end.
It’s a troubling book, to say the least, but if I rationalize the ending that way, it doesn’t eat at me quite so much.