Are there good real-world justifications for what TVTropes calls “Nebulous Evil Organizations” [SPECTRE, Hydra, Cobra]? They’re invariably portrayed as people with enough status and resources to be running the societies they attack, but instead they keep confronting them directly with terrorism and low-level crime. They’re built like Bain Capital but behave like al-Qaeda. Are there realistic explanations for why they’d do this, instead of just using lawyers and lobbyists like a normal plutocrat?
Not really. The closest you’ll see is in the real world are organized crime (which TVTropes already bundles off as, “The Syndicate”), and state sponsored terrorists or intelligence operations. Though, things do get a little more complex, so, let’s pull this apart and talk about why this is so useful in fiction, because almost none of it translates to reality.
Every story needs an antagonist. This doesn’t need to be a distinct character, it can be an aspect of the protagonist’s psyche, or even just some existential anxiety, but you need something to press against.
A nebulous evil organization is a natural foe. You don’t need to have plan, or even any idea what they’re doing. They can simply be your bad guys while you work out the details. They will always remain a serious threat, no matter how much your protagonist learns and grows. For a buzzword, it’s “infinitely scalable” evil: The villain who will always fit your story, no matter how big or small.
These kinds of organizations exist, “beyond time,” in the sense that you can compact or twist the chronology as much want and the organization could still, credibly, be there. if you have normal mortal villains, you can’t simply ask them to sit down and wait for years while your protagonist goes and has an existential crisis, undergoes a training montage, or engages in three hundred filler adventures.
That last bit was supposed to be a joke, but it is someplace these antagonists fit very well. Nebulous evil organizations are a godsend for episodic stories. The antagonists can be custom tuned to the individual episode without worrying about whether it makes sense in the larger metafiction. They can even be disposed of if it fits the episode, without worrying about the long term consequences.
In extreme examples of the beyond time comment above, you have ancient conspiracies (which TVTropes categorizes separately) which allow you to have antagonists who can exist at any point in history. This can also allow you to coopt real historical events or figures and re-contextualize them into your story.
So, what’s real about all of this?
There are plenty of organizations which have been around for a long time. Depending on your job, it’s entirely plausible you work for a company or organization that’s older than you are, and in some cases you’ll still see family traditions going back a couple generations (though, this is not as common as it used to be.)
This does extend to criminal organizations, corporations, and NGOs. In every case, the organization will be more important than the individuals, so the basic structure of a nebulous entity has some real grounding.
One of the greatest challenges for law enforcement dealing with the Italian Mafia in the mid-20th century was that the organization as a whole was designed to insulate the leadership, while the street level, rank and file personnel were expendable.
The street level crime component is, entirely, a narrative conceit. It’s there to make to make it easier to introduce the organization into a story, and allow easier access for knowledgeable characters. In an episodic structure, it helps plug the organization into places where it, otherwise, wouldn’t fit.
Street level operations make sense in one context: organized crime. If your organization is engaging in racketeering, then that street level crime is their foundation. They need that or they cease to exist.
The problem is that street level crime is pocket change compared to what someone could achieve with the resources. Even just something like limited patent trolling could make the cashflow from city wide racketeering operations look downright anemic. There is so much more money to be made in white collar crime, it’s not funny.
The reason you don’t see a lot of this in fiction is because it’s hard to grasp. If you have concrete visible villains, that’s easy, but financial investigations are complex beasts.
Let’s use the example above: Patent trolling is about getting a patent issued specifically with the intention of carving out a chunk of existing technology and then collecting royalties from companies that depend on these systems. This can (and has) included things like basic CPU architecture, or even the use of a “shopping cart” system on retail websites. This can be further supplemented by the purchase of existing patent portfolios (collections of current patents), which are then used to leverage payments from other business, or protect against the same.
Now, which is easier to understand and more sympathetic? Exploiting intellectual property laws to extort massive corporations in a courtroom, or mobsters mugging people?
The irony in all of this is that these nebulous organizations pattern themselves off of organized crime, but when it comes to criminal activity, organized crime is picking at the crumbs. They’re built on a foundation of street level operations that will never generate the revenue streams of a corporate raider.
It would make far more sense for a nebulous evil organization to play the stock market, rather than starting from street level crime. However, that also makes the organization less accessible. From the perspective of a writer, it means you have fewer options for how to insert them into a story, and requires more creativity. To be clear, I don’t think requiring more creativity is a bad thing, but I do understand that will make the author’s job harder.
If you had an organization like this, it would make sense for them to have some street level operations, but not criminal ones. Petty crimes would open the organization up to law enforcement scrutiny for, again, pocket change. From a risk/benefit perspective it’s just not worth it.
Terrorism is a different situation. There’s a lot of money to be made in playing the stock market around a terrorist attack. If you knew it was coming you could manipulate the situation to your advantage. This also extends to things like construction or defense contracts. This kind of behavior already occurs opportunistically, so it’s not implausible to suggest a corporation would try to foment wars in order to boost their bottom line. Whether that’s selling weapons, supplying PMCs, or even just trying to get access to the natural resources of one of the countries in the aftermath of an invasion.
Sponsored terrorism has real potential for a sufficiently amoral group who wants to “kick the sandbox,” so they can exploit the resulting chaos.
I can’t cite any specific examples of someone backing terrorists for financial gain. (Though, the US backing of what would become the Talaban in the 80s does come close.) The closest example that come to mind is the overthrow of Mohammad Mosaddegh in ’53. Mosaddegh was the Prime Minister of Iran from 1951 to ’53, when he was ousted in a coup backed by the CIA and MI6. This comes back to British Petroleum.
Prior to Mosaddegh’s rise to power, most oil production in Iran was controlled by foreign (mostly British) interests. To put it mildly, the contracts with the Iranian government were not particularly equitable. The newly elected Prime Minster set about nationalizing Iran’s oil production. This caused British Petroleum (at the time they were called the Anglo-Persian Oil Company) to go to the British government, and ultimately MI6. MI6 went to the CIA. The CIA had been looking for an opportunity to experiment with regime change, and dispatched Kermit Roosevelt Jr. (Teddy Roosevelt’s grandson) to Iran with the goal of finding someone they could install. Roosevelt chose to go with a monarch, Shah Palavi, and the ’79 revolution leading to the Islamic Republic was a direct consequence of BP’s greed.
I’m glazing over a lot of details here. There are entire books written on the ’53 coup and ’79 revolution. Short version, yes, terrorism or other forms of aggressive regime change can be very profitable. However, this can also be hard to follow, and doesn’t give your protagonist an easy entry point.
Okay, let me explain that last point: The value of a street level threat is it gives you a low stakes entry point. If you’ve got an organization that is simultaneously operating at street level and plotting to use weapons of mass destruction, you can transition from the low stakes conflict to the high stakes political intrigue. You can even do this naturally through a single investigation. This almost never happens, reason being, it’s incredibly dangerous for the organization to be operating in both worlds.
Again, I have a real world example, but I’m going to be very brief. In 1972, Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were investigating a break in at the DNC’s offices in DC. What they discovered were connections that linked the burglary to Richard Nixon’s reelection campaign, and eventually lead to his downfall.
Like I said, this almost never happens, and here’s why. If you’re operating at street level and making political power plays, that street level exposure is a real vulnerability. It can be used against you, and can destroy your organization.
The other real world example is the Mafia (and other organized crime.) Again, street level exposure is their major vulnerability. They don’t tend to transition into more sophisticated criminal behavior, (like stock manipulation), and while I could speculate why, I don’t have a concrete answer. It probably comes from many different issues working together.
Having said all of that, even on the terrorism front, your organization is safer using lobbyists and lawyers to get what they want. Problem is, that’s not “exciting,” so many writers skim over that and go straight for the overt behavior that says, “hey, these are bad guys,” even if what they’re doing doesn’t make sense.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t use nebulous evil organizations. They’re a very effective and versatile tool for a writer. Saying they don’t make sense is only problem if your reader stops and thinks about it. At worst, I’d say, “get ahead of the curve,” and think about how they could achieve their goals in more subtle (or at least creative) ways. So long as your world is interesting enough, your readers are less likely to nitpick. The biggest danger is, simply, getting lazy, but that is always a risk.