A science fiction theme that cyberpunk raised to the status of a standard trope is the megacorp, a business firm that has become so big, rich, and therefore powerful that it rivals - or usurps - the powers of sovereign states, even Great Powers. Here, by popular demand, is everything you need to know about them.
As commenter Mr. Blue pointed out in the thread linked above (on rebel colonies), megacorps tend to have a somewhat ill defined business plan:
1) Do teh Evulz.The need to be a little more explicit in Step 2 should be familiar to us, because this business plan closely resembles the standard economic model for space development:
1) Reach the Moon/Mars/Asteroids/Outer Planets/Stars.This makes space a natural environment for megacorps. Elegant parsimony can be achieved, with one form of, well, unobtainium explaining everything, from why we reach the stars to why no saints are on the passenger list.
Indeed, in spite of its somewhat iffy reading on the plausimeter, the familiar standby of space mining works pretty well here. Resource extraction industries tend to have a bad reputation; think of the oil industry today. One reason is that vital commodities are commodities: You don't buy gas because gasoline is such cool stuff, you buy it because you need it to drive anywhere.
Yes, you also need a car, but cars can be and are sold for their intrinsic appeal. The same applies to less tangible commodities, such as broadband service - everyone loves their iPhone (except, it appears, the iPhone 4), but hates AT&T, because one company embodies the value of the technology while the other embodies its costs.
Commodities from space, orbital solar power or Helium 3, would likely fall into the same category, unloved necessities supplied by unlovable firms.
Unlovable not least because extractive industries also have a history of bad labor relations - consider here not only a basic commodity, coal, but its glittering crystalline allotrope, diamonds. Underground mining was and is difficult, dangerous work, often done in remote places where the mine is the only industry, meaning that the mine operator dominates the community. And, since so much of that community works in the mine, labor solidarity is also strong; hence mining has been legendary for its strikes.
Before you rush off to Outland, note that the oil industry has no such colorful labor history. John D. Rockefeller is said to have dynamited rivals, but he didn't often call in labor goons; the only major strike in the (US) oilfields was in 1917. The labor force is relatively small, specialized, and well paid - characteristics we might also expect of extraction industries in outer space.
On the third hand, the oil industry doesn't have much equivalent to company towns, except perhaps Houston. So while union busting management thugs may not be a given, they are certainly plausible, for any values of 'plausible' that include space colonies in the first place.
A setting dominated by megacorps would seem to be inherently a lefty wank. Corporation itself is a hiss word, and at least in the tech industry it has been duly replaced by enterprise, evoking not John D. Rockefeller but Captain Kirk. But 'Murrican science fiction has long had a somewhat ambivalent relationship with megacorps.
A theme going back at least to Asimov's original Foundation books is Free Traders (though TV Tropes calls them intrepid merchants). In and of themselves they are far from megacorps, but inevitably they band together in trade federations, which amount to megacorps writ big (gigacorps?), complete with fleets of space battlecruisers. Trade federations retain some of the panache of their Free Trader progenitors, and are not infrequently shown in a positive light - Poul Anderson's Polesotechnic League is a notable early example.
Anderson was libertarian, and Trade Federations work well as a libertarian wank. So can more recognizable midfuture megacorps - I can't cite an example by title off of hand, but I seem to recall books that played them this way. It would be a natural fit for Baen Books.
This gives me a handy pretext for noting that actual business people have a somewhat 'complex' relationship with free market theory - eager to evoke it in order to resist unwanted government regulation, but honoring it in the breach when businesses want government regulation - say, when Disney wants copyright endlessly extended or the MPAA wants it ruthlessly enforced. And in their relations with one another major firms behave in a thoroughly political way - think of Apple, Google, and Microsoft as rival Great Powers with distinct ideologies and grand strategies.
The more a megacorp finds itself cast as a political entity, the more it will act like one. If it raises an army it will have to be concerned with the loyalty and reliability of its troops. Mercs have a poor reputation in this regard, as Nick Machiavelli famously pointed out; people fighting for a paycheck want to live to collect it, and have a marked tendency to let discretion be the better part of valor.
A subtler and more intriguing question is the relationship of a megacorp with its own stockholders. Corporations are structured as oligarchic republics, one vote per share, but usually even large shareholders have little interest in actively exercising their franchise - if the stock is going up they have no complaint with management, and if it is going down they have a simpler option, bailing out of the stock. Contested elections for a corporate board, AKA hostile takeover bids, remain an exception, though at times a spectacular one.
A hostile takeover bid on a megacorp could be even more spectacular, and more problematic - not just a matter of gathering a lot of proxies and showing up at the board meeting. Neither side can simply call in the sheriff to enforce their rights, or what they claim as rights - not when the sheriff is an employee of the megacorp.
The politics of megacorps might thus develop along a time honored line of cleavage, between the monarchical principle of CEOs and the oligarchic principle of major investors. The CEO would seem to have the upper hand, as boss-in-chief of the company, including its army. But if large investors have any class solidarity they will try to forestall this by cutting CEOs down to size, mere functionaries with limited formal authority (and probably limited tenure in office, to restrain their informal authority).
In this dispute the true coin of the realm is legitimacy, the tacit acceptance that someone has the right to give orders and have them obeyed. If a polite request and a gun are better than a polite request by itself, a polite request, a gun, and a badge are better still. Legitimacy is also the ultimate coin of the realm for the megacorp itself - the greatest force multiplier for troops is not having to call them out.
Without legitimacy, political life will be colorful, providing ample story material. It will also be nasty, brutish, and short - think Renaissance Italy, in both respects. But even Renaissance Italy had a few exceptions, notably Venice, a stable oligarchic republic that had some characteristics of a proto-megacorp. Ordinary Venetians had no direct say in their government, but for the era they had considerable civil freedom and a sense that they were, if not shareholders, at least 'stakeholders' in its fortunes.
Megacorps will be successful, in the long run, to the extent that they succeed in legitimating themselves in the eyes of their customers, their workers, and the communities in which they operate themselves.
The image at top comes (for a change) from Wikipedia, not Atomic Rockets. The Space Merchants is in some ways a precursor of cyberpunk, but was written at a time when people were particularly fascinated by the ad business - an era now evoked by the TV show Mad Men, set a decade after the book was written.
Bonus Trope Critique: History, unlike SF, does not need to be plausible.
Let's start with the bad guys. Battalions of stormtroopers dressed in all black, check. Secret police, check. Determination to brutally kill everyone who doesn't look like them, check. Leader with a tiny villain mustache and a tendency to go into apopleptic rage when he doesn't get his way, check.