Isaac Asimov - Foundation | American History: From Empire to Plutocracy

Isaac Asimov Foundation

Isaac Asimov was more than a sci-fi writer. He was also a historian, a futurist, a thinker. With Foundation, Asimov considered the broad scope of American history along with speculative technological development. But Asimov's purpose for writing Foundation was foremost an exploration of the major iterations of American history.

Isaac Asimov's Foundation and Alternate History

Isaac Asimov's classic book functions as a short history of the United States in alternate history form. It goes through all the major iterations of the American democratic experiment, ending with the rise of an American plutocracy made possible by corporate wealth & power. Each change in the Empire's political structure is marked by a Seldon crisis--"Each crisis, each Seldon crisis, marks an epoch in our history. We're approaching one now – our third" (Foundation 135).

Nation-States and Empire 

The history of the modern nation-state has traced a move from controlling empire to corporate control of assets using sovereign powers to ensure political and social stability. British Empire of the 18th and long 19th century mastered the control of colonial territory--indeed, the sun never set on the British Empire for over 200 years.

But the sun did set. World War I marked the end of the British Empire and, though the United States and Russia would Empire build for much of the 20th century, the rise of what Asimov calls The Foundation was all the while moving to supplant the power of the modern nation-state.


While the United Kingdom founded the first multinational company in 1600--the British East India Company--that company's interest was intertwined with British interests. At this time, the company--or Foundation in Asimov's parlance--served the state.

The multinationals of late capitalism were entirely different. Bruce Sterling calls them the stacks since they have stacks of wealth and are often headquartered in skyscrapers, structures of stacked steel. The aims of 
multinationals often undermine the traditional power of the sovereign state. In the era of the Foundation, wars are fought to secure resources for multinationals. Nation-states position themselves to host the projects of multinationals, creating tax havens for the vast holdings of multinationals, opening up lands for various development initiatives, including mining and agriculture, and deregulating for cheaper manufacturing costs. Most nations are dead broke, including the United States which has spiraling debts greater than 22 trillion USD. Multinationals keep governments propped up, dictating policy to their own greatest benefit.

The capacity of the multinational company to exist as a shadow government reaches back over a century. Multinationals have long made use of government networks of communication and diplomacy. John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil piggybacked the enterprise of the US government's international agenda. Diplomats were often paid by Standard Oil to see to the interests of the company as well as state interests. Even after Standard Oil's trust was broken up, the break-up was in name only. The multinational corporation lived on. Asimov was aware that trustbusting did nothing to change the course of power and wealth. The future was in the hands of the corporations that controlled the world's resources, technology, and infrastructure.

McCarthy Era

Isaac Asimov - author of Foundation

Isaac Asimov chose the vehicle of the science fiction story for his exploration of history so that he could write what many would consider ideas sympathetic to Communism. Anything that questioned established narratives about American democracy was subject to Senator Joseph McCarthy's censure. In 1954, McCarthy drug every other writer into congressional hearings to out Communist ideologues. By discussing America fictionally, Asimov could comment on the country without running any personal risks.

But Asimov wasn't himself questioning the authority of the United States. He merely understood the inner workings of a new era in the life of American democracy. The new democracy was a plutocracy, and the plutocrats weren't bound by the sovereign borders of any nation-state. 

Many multinationals were founded in America and are still owned by Americans, but their interests aren't necessarily American. And many multinational companies are not headquartered in the US. The US has questioned Russian collusion in the 2016 election but in the 21st century and beyond, all major elections are, as a matter of course, subject to the influence of powerful companies and the puppet countries they control.

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Isaac Asimov's Foundation is in RT's Top 100 SciFi Books list