On Mr. Robot, the Texas power outage, Fight Club, and Corporate America.
What once seemed far-away-fictional storytelling about counter-culture rebels taking on “the man” is now crystallizing into a not-so-far-away reality. For this Boricua, the past few years have really put into perspective how close pop culture texts like Mr. Robot and Fight Club are to reality in terms of their commentary of the small elite that runs and thus controls normative society. This is the same thing hippie and beatnik culture from the 50s and 60s protested and attempted to separate themselves from: the system created in order to benefit the few while taking advantage of the underprivileged many.
The latest glaring piece of evidence, the Texas Power Outage brought on by historic winter storm Uri. As a resident of the state, I’ve gotten many questions about what caused the deadly rolling blackouts that left thousands without power and heat for days during single-digit weather. Interestingly, or perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s the same reason Puerto Rico’s power grid was in such a precarious condition when Hurricane María hit in 2017; islanders were left without power for months and the grid has still not been adequately repaired to the point that power outages are a daily occurrence. It all boils down to one thing: disaster capitalism.
According to Antony Loewenstein in his book Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing out of Catastrophe, “It is profitable to let the world go to hell” (Jørgen Randers qtd. in Loewenstein 1). Randers explains that “Capitalism is carefully designed to allocate capital to the most profitable project” (qtd. in Loewenstein 2). Loewenstein adds that Randers’ “thesis strikes at the heart of why wealth is concentrated in so few hands in today’s world: there is little incentive to advocate for a more equitable planet. The market system has guaranteed unfairness and rewards greed” (2). According to Naomi Klein in This Changes Everything, natural disasters such as “Droughts and floods create all kinds of business opportunities . . . [and] Finding new ways to privatize commons and profit from disaster is what our current system is built to do” (9). This is what happened after Hurricane María in Puerto Rico, as post-hurricane privatization efforts proved, and it’s been happening here in Texas for years.
According to Jeremy Schwartz, Kiah Collier, and Vianna Davila of ProPublica: Investigative Journalism in the Public Interest, “this is not the first time the Texas electrical grid has failed due to severe cold weather.” In 2011, North Texas-based Luminant, “Texas’ largest electricity producer,” was fined $750,000 by state energy regulators because of equipment failures during a severe storm which similarly left thousands without power.
Most recently in 2014, “power plants owned by . . . [the same company, Luminant,] buckled under frigid temperatures. Its generators failed more than a dozen times in 12 hours, helping to bring the state’s electric grid to the brink of collapse” (Schwartz et. al). According to Schwartz, Collier, and Davila, “The report by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation [regarding the failure of Luminant’s equipment in 2011] concluded, among other things, that power companies and natural gas producers hadn’t properly readied their facilities for cold weather, including failing to install extra insulation, wind breaks and heaters,” and “As millions of Texans endured days without power and water, experts and news organizations pointed to unheeded warnings in a federal report that examined the 2011 winter storm and offered recommendations for preventing future problems.” Put simply, “Texas regulators and lawmakers knew about the grid’s vulnerabilities for years, but time and again they furthered the interests of large electricity providers” instead of furthering public interests.
Necessary diagnoses and reparations of the Texas power grid have been repeatedly ignored, as it is more profitable to the powerful few to ignore more immediately costly but ultimately more safe and sustainable solutions. Ignoring sustainable solutions ensures that the power grid will continue to fail thus creating opportunities to drive up prices. According to Joe McGoldrick, an executive with Houston-based CenterPoint Energy, commenting on the effects of the polar vortex of 2014, “This business benefited significantly from increased basis and storage spreads during the polar vortex earlier this year . . . To the extent that we get another polar vortex or whatever, absolutely, we’ll be opportunistic and take advantage of those conditions.” This is an insider admitting on record that private companies such as Luminant benefit from natural disasters and thus do not make the necessary preparations needed to keep equipment safe and functional during weather emergencies because if there is high demand, they can drive up prices.
According to Tom “Smitty” Smith, “a longtime Texas consumer advocate and environmental activist,” “The fault on this one [the power crisis just caused by Winter Storm Uri] is at the feet of the Legislature and the regulators for their failure to protect the people rather than profits, the utility companies, rather than investing millions of dollars in weatherization that had been recommended in review after review of these kinds of incidents . . .”
The is also the matter of deregulation. According to Schwartz, Collier, and Davila, “Because Texas operates its own grid, the state isn’t subject to federal oversight by FERC, which can investigate power outages but can’t mandate reforms. Many energy experts say the very nature of the state’s deregulated electric market is perhaps most to blame for last week’s power crisis.” Kate Galbraith of cbs7.com explains:
ERCOT [Electric Reliability Council of Texas] was formed in 1970, in the wake of a major blackout in the Northeast in November 1965, and it was tasked with managing grid reliability in accordance with national standards. The agency assumed additional responsibilities following electric deregulation in Texas a decade ago. The ERCOT grid remains beyond the jurisdiction of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which succeeded the Federal Power Commission and regulates interstate electric transmission . . . Bottom line: Texas has its own grid to avoid dealing with the feds.
As mentioned, Puerto Rico is facing a similar struggle to Texas’ concerning its power grid. Interestingly, since Hurricane María, it seems the island could follow in the state’s footsteps regarding the privatization of electricity. According to Schwartz, Collier, and Davila:
In Texas, a handful of mega-utilities controlled the distribution and pricing of the
power they produced until two decades ago, when the Legislature shifted to a system where companies would compete for customers on the open market. Lawmakers said the change would result in lower power bills and better service, a promise that some experts and advocates say hasn’t been kept.
According to Ed Morales in Fantasy Island, since before Hurricane María, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) was criticized “because of its $9 billion debt and ample evidence of the electrical grid’s deterioration” (Morales 231-232). Therefore, even before the hurricane fully exposed the detrimental state of the island’s electrical grid, the PREPA had “Already [been] targeted for privatization” (Morales 232). The general public thought privatizing electricity among other things would result in lower costs and better customer service because the monopoly would be gone and competition between companies would emerge. Unfortunately, since Puerto Rico has started moving toward dissolving PREPA and “Privatized its phone company, its international airport, the toll collection for its major highways, various municipal medical clinics, and parts of its aqueduct and sewers authority, costs have mostly risen and customer service has not improved” (Morales 232). According to Morales, “selling off public corporations is most efficient at making the public pay for the costs of something like providing consumer electricity while also making it easier for private companies to obtain profits from production and distribution” (233). If Puerto Rico were to move toward the privatization of electricity, there is a chance the island could end up in the same position as Texas.
Privatization thus functions on the illusion of choice and the false promise of equity. This unjust phenomena of capitalism is at the heart of the commentary in Sam Esmail’s Mr. Robot staring Rami Malek. In episode two of the first season, central character Elliot Alderson argues the following:
How do we know if we’re in control? You know, we’re not just making the best of
what comes at us and that’s it? Trying to constantly pick between two options . . . Coke and Pepsi, McDonald’s or Burger King, Hyundai or Honda? Hm. It’s all part of the same blur, right? Just out of focus enough, it’s the illusion of choice. Half of us can’t even pick our own cable, gas, electric, the water we drink, our health insurance. Even if we did, would it matter? If our only option is Blue Cross or Blue Shield, what the fuck is the difference? In fact, aren’t they the same? Our choices are premade for us, long time ago.
David Fincher’s Fight Club also rages against the powerful and manipulative mega corporations. In the film, the narrator’s alter ego, Tyler Durden, convinces members of the fight club to join the new anti-materialist and anti-corporate organization Project Mayhem. The organization goes on to stage increasingly subversive and serious acts of vandalism eventually planning to erase mass debt by exploding buildings that contain credit card records. Mr. Robot similarly plans to explode buildings that contain debt records of the mega-corporation E Corp (Mr. Robot is basically Fight Club 2.0 - Mr. Robot even replicates Fight Club's final scene in its final episode).
Currently, Texas residents are receiving outrageous electricity bills from the state’s top electric companies. According to Schwartz, Collier, and Davila “Texans have already been hit with sky-high bills since last week’s event, with some climbing as high as $16,000, according to The New York Times. At an emergency meeting Sunday, the three-member PUC ordered electric companies to suspend disconnections for nonpayment and delay sending invoices or bill estimates.”
Cut to Apex Clearing Corporation provider of digital wealth management solutions. According to Bloomber.com, “the company offers account and cash management, paperless account opening and funding processing, automated re-balancing, investment planning, portfolio construction, and other back-office services.” Apex recently came under fire for their association with Robinhood, Webull Financial LLC, and the GameStop trading restrictions controversy.
According to my source, the past few months working for Apex have been a nightmare of uncertainty. Once promised a track of ascension, my source now finds himself in stagnant position being led by ineffective and unknowledgeable managers whose “leadership” have left him wondering whether or not the company values him and his optimal work.
During the winter storm that ravaged Texas last week, Apex directly contacted all but a few employees to ensure their safety and offer assistance such as locating and paying for hotel rooms. My source was not contacted directly until the tail-end of the storm on Wednesday the 17th and made to feel guilty when voicing his concerns.
My source had managed to message his coworkers and employees and let them know of his situation when he lost power Monday the 15th. By the time he was contacted by management, my source had already spent three days without power or heat; he had to evacuate his home because pipes burst finally leaving him with no power, heat, or water. The only lodging nearby, a Motel 6, did not have hot water and would not take over-the-phone payments. So, by the time Apex tried to help, it was too late. Fortunately, a friend who lives near my source offered refuge.
When my source questioned his managers about what had happened and why he was not contacted, Apex management deflected all blame and suggested my source had been purposefully ignoring communications; my source has documented evidence that proves otherwise. My source then communicated his concerns to Human Resources which not only deflected the blame, but also shifted it to my source which was without power during the entirety of the storm. The callousness with which Apex handled this situation with a dedicated employee that was in a state of emergency/crisis situation suggests the company does not care about it’s employees.
My source is like Fight Club's unnamed narrator, tired of his pointless white-collar job which only benefits the already powerful. Apex Clearing recently announced that they would be going public. According to Nicole Casperson of Investment News, “Digital custodian Apex Clearing is going public through a merger with Northern Star Investment Corp. II, a publicly traded special purpose acquisition company, in a deal that puts the combined company’s value at $4.7 billion.” Casperson continues, “Apex is expected to become a publicly listed company on the New York Stock Exchange under the ticker symbol APX, according to the announcement Monday.” The dangers here for my source and other employees of Apex are potential job loss and even more impersonal treatment, as the priority of publicly traded companies is above all else profit making. If my source was concerned about how he was valued and treated before the storm and before the company announced it was going public, he understandably has cause for concern now.
While the capitalist system in place has made it seemingly impossible to combat the manipulative ultra-rich, it’s important to realize how the rest of us continue to assert our power and agency in small but significant ways. Writing this article is in itself and act of resistance and protest meant to call out the powerful entities that for decades have, as Elliot Alderson says, predetermined our choices to ensure they remain in control. All past movements intended to destabilize and change the system have left their mark, hence pop culture texts like Mr. Robot, Fight Club, V for Vendetta, and countless other films, shows, literature, and music that focus on counterculture, anarchy, and insurrection. Ultimately, perhaps Elliot is right:
What if changing the world was just about being here. By showing up no matter how
many times you get told you don’t belong. By staying true even when we’re shamed into being false. By believing in ourselves even when we’re told we’re too different. And if we all held onto that, if we refuse to budge and fall in line, if we stood our ground long enough, just maybe the world can’t help but change around us.
“Apex Clearing Group Bloomberg.” Bloomberg.com, n.d.,
www.bloomberg.com/profile/company/0516781D:US. Accessed 23 Feb. 2021.
“Apex Clearing Revenue, Growth & Competitor Profile.” InFact, 15 Feb. 2021,
incfact.com/company/apexclearing-dallas-tx/#. Accessed 23 Feb. 2021.
Casperson, Nicole. “Apex Clearing to go Public via SPAC in $4.7 Billion Deal.” Investment
News, 22 Feb. 2021, https://www.investmentnews.com/apex-clearing-to-go-public-
0%244.7%20billion.&text=Both%20companies%20have%20since%20left%20Apex%20to%20build%20their%20own%20custody%20platforms. Accessed 23 Feb. 2021.
Galbraith, Kate. “Texsplainer: Why Does Texas Have its Own Power Grid?” CBS7, 17 Feb.
2021, www.cbs7.com/2021/02/17/texplainer-why-does-texas-have-its-own-power-grid/. Accessed 23 Feb. 2021.
Klein, Naomi. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. Simon & Schuster,
Loewenstein, Anthony. Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing Out of Catastrophe. Verso,
Morales, Ed. Fantasy Island. Bold Type Books, 2019.
Schwartz, Jeremy et. al. “‘Power Companies get Exactly What They Want:’ How Texas
Repeatedly Failed to Protect its Power Grid Against Extreme Weather.” ProPublica, 22 Feb. 2021, www.propublica.org/article/power-companies-get-exactly-what-they-want-how-texas-repeatedly-failed-to-protect-its-power-grid-against-extreme-weather. Accessed 23 Feb. 2021.