Industrial complexes are one of five important disruptors affecting everyone and everything on the planet, interacting with each other in intricate ways, for better and for worse. These complexes arise when a specific industry and its proponents or lobbyists become fully enmeshed in social and political systems at local, state, and federal levels. In most cases, industry insiders profit at the expense of outsiders and society in general.

Ike Said it First

The term military-industrial complex was first used by U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower in his farewell address to the nation on Jan. 17, 1961. Eisenhower warned that the U.S. must “guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence…by the military-industrial complex,” which included members of Congress from districts dependent on military industries, the Department of Defense (along with the military services), and privately-owned military contractors. Eisenhower believed that the military-industrial complex tended to promote policies that might not be in the country’s best interest (such as participation in the nuclear arms race), and he feared that its growing influence, if left unchecked, could undermine our democracy. 

Ike was right, and not just about the military industrial complexes but so many others that have flourished in the nearly 60 years that have passed since his farewell speech. 

Two Things to Remember

There’s two initial things to keep in mind regarding industrial complexes. First, they’re clearly not a “household phrase.” I’m guessing the topic seldom comes up at your dinner table, your coffee chats, or the casual banter that usually kicks off a work conference call while the host waits for a critical mass of attendees to show up.

Second, industrial complexes often “hide in plain sight.” They touch our lives each day (some more painfully than others). We see and feel their impact, but we don’t usually “connect the dots” between our daily experience and the forces and local, state, and national players behind the scenes who are driving the impact. 

Think Big

This blog is already long and would be even longer if I did an exhaustive survey of all the industrial complexes that I think are at play today, so I just want to draw your attention to the ones that I find most concerning. I use the descriptor “Big” for each one because that’s common media “jargon” and an easy way to remember the particular industrial complex. I’ve included a lot of links for you to dive into for further learning as you see fit.

All these industrial complexes impact us in different ways, but are united by a common thread: industry-advocating lobbyists and corporate leaders exerting undue influence upon politicians at multiple levels, which leads to state and federal legislation and policies that do not always serve the common interest. Here they are, not necessarily in any particular subjective order of importance:

Big Oil and Big Energy. The behaviors of the world’s largest publicly traded oil and gas companies  and our nation’s biggest gas and electric utility providers are not the only dynamics that significantly accelerate climate change, but they’re certainly among the biggest. Not only are oil, gas, and power companies (who’ve know for decades the link between grids and greenhouse gases) rapidly damaging our ecosystem, but local and regional power providers corner markets and keep costs rising for consumers. There’s growing discussion by these companies on how they want to help curb climate change, but will they follow through or are they just telling us what we want to hear? Follow the money; see which politicians accept the most campaign contributions from these Big Oil and Energy companies.

Big Health Insurance. Ever notice there’s often a disconnect between what your doctor thinks you need, what you think you need, and what your health insurance company (if you’re lucky enough to have health insurance) is willing to cover? You can thank the health insurance companies, pharmaceutical firms, and the politicians they influence. The lack of adequate coverage for those who have insurance, combined with the reality that 13.7 percent of Americans at the start of 2019 did not have any health insurance, is an economic and moral problem that makes the U.S. an outlier among industrialized western nations.

Big Real Estate. The housing and rental market continues to boom, and both home builders and landlords–who are increasingly becoming one and the same–are doing quite well. And yet, home purchases and even rental payments grow farther out of reach for many Americans with each passing year. Commutes to jobs in large or medium-sized cities are getting longer because it’s harder to find a place to live that’s near your work location, and all this extra driving isn’t helping to slow down climate change. Dynamics such as shortages in housing inventory, housing labor, and high land costs play a big part in the continued escalation in home prices and rents–but so do rising interest rates, fueled by a mix of private banking practices, government policies, and the national debt. Again, follow the money and you’ll see how much money Big Real Estate is contributing to political campaigns–and how it cuts across party lines. 

Big Banking/Finance. If you’re at least in your late 20s, you probably remember how much the “Great Recession” of the 2008-2009 time frame led to massive layoffs, the housing market crash, mass foreclosures, and a big plunge in the stock market, followed by high government spending and new regulations in the waning days of the Bush administration and the early months of Obama. Today, the job market is strong, the market is still on steroids…but it’s more expensive than ever for the average person to afford a home, a new car, or college tuition for their kids. What’s the deal? This article says it all, concerning the grotesque accumulation of wealth at the expense of all Americans having a shot at a decent quality of life: “In the years since the financial crisis, the nation’s biggest banks have grown substantially. All in all, the top 15 largest banks now hold a combined total of $13.7 trillion in assets. For a sense of the vast scale of that wealth, $13.7 trillion is enough to buy everyone on Earth a 13-inch MacBook Pro, with a little left over for accessories.” I’m not sure if Sen. Elizabeth Warren will secure the Democratic nomination for President in 2020, but I can certainly understand why she’s so pissed.

Big Pharma. Pharmaceutical companies sell patented drugs, generic drugs, or both, and the largest companies such as Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, and Merck (see this link for the top 10 American pharma firms) sell both–with patented drugs comprising the largest share of revenues. The global market for pharmaceuticals hit $1.2 trillion last year, up $100 billion from 2017. Unfortunately, consumers spend more on prescription drugs than ever before while Big Pharma companies receive substantial government assistance. As with many of the industrial complexes cited here, an increasing amount of our income goes toward trying to solidify the bottom rung of Maslow’s hierarchy: basic survival needs such as food, health, clothing, and shelter.

Big Food/Agriculture/Farming.  The U.S. food industry, dominated by large companies such as Anheuser-Busch, Nestle, Tyson, and PepsiCo, is a cash behemoth. According to this Forbes article, the top 25 companies in the sector generated $749.3 billion in revenue in 2018 and $137 billion in profit. Big Food’s social and economic impacts are both positive and negative; for fantastic summaries of the negatives, read this and this. While our country benefits from ubiquitous access to food, there’s a clear connection between socio-economic status and the quality of food that is purchased and consumed–and the growing obesity epidemic is one of the outcomes of this disparity, not helped by government policies influenced by the largest food companies. The other industrial complexes cited in this blog help contribute to this income and lifestyle gap. I don’t have space here to go into how farm workers are treated within this industrial complex, and you can look at my blogs on climate change and biotechnology for some insights regarding how agriculture and food production are contributing to a lot of climate change acceleration. 

Big Data/Tech. There’s lots of tech companies that one could point their finger at and say, “You’re part of the problem,” but when it comes to the aggressive and complex manipulation of our personal and professional lives, with big data algorithms as their chief instruments of both mass service and mass distraction, look no farther than Google, Amazon, and Facebook. The government, with its usual mixed motives and reactionary tendencies, is struggling to figure out how to best regulate the tech industry. This recent podcast from Seth Godin is quite enlightening on this topic.

Big Media. Collectively, six large corporations with (on the low end) at least $90 billion in market capitalization each, own most of the large and medium-sized media companies providing the news and content that flows at us from all directions and devices. Keep in mind that the federal government approves or denies such mergers, and government leaders are human beings being influenced by special interests. Have you ever paused to contemplate how that consolidated ownership influences the news you get, the ads that are pushed to you, and the content options you receive? Does that feel like a free market and free speech economy? Godin has also noted in other podcasts that Big Media is especially talented at producing a constant glut of “breaking news” that alarms us and intensifies our innate desire to resist change and argue with each other….which keeps society as a whole from getting better for everyone.

Big Military. This ties back to Eisenhower’s 1961 warning. In a nutshell, defense companies (e.g., Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman) and their well-funded contractors lobby the government for big contracts. These contracts, and the defense products that result from them, influence foreign policy decisions. Foreign policy decisions also influence what kinds of deals politicians seek to make with defense companies in order to get more said products. Foreign policy decisions are sometimes good, bad, or indifferent. Things get really bad when undue influence from a defense contractor motivates a political foreign policy that leads to an aggressive action….and results in both Americans and citizens of other nations dying. War, it turns out, is big business.

Big Prisons. The U.S. loves incarceration as a method for addressing deep societal problems. You may or may not know anyone serving a prison sentence that feels way out of whack compared to the crime for which they were convicted (often, a non-violent drug offense, and a conviction in the form of a plea deal they struck with prosecutors because they couldn’t afford a good private attorney). But there’s a clear link between prisons and the prison lobby influencing the draconian federal prison sentence guidelines we have today, the construction of more and more prisons, and the incarceration of more and more inmates–most of them black males. Read Michelle Alexander’s devastating The New Jim Crow and Piper Kerman’s memoir Orange is the New Black (which goes into far more detail than the popular Netflix series of the same name, regarding Big Prison and the systematic problems driving incarceration) for a deep dive into this topic. And I don’t even have the space to touch upon how the criminal justice system in general screws poorer people, and a disproportionate number of people of color, due to excessive court fees and related costs.

Big Tobacco/Vaping. I don’t think I need to explain a lot here. Tobacco companies have been influencing politicians and marketers for decades. Although there’s a lot more constraints than ever before on what can be advertised and how, and cigarettes are taxed more than ever before, there’s still millions of Americans smoking and, more than ever among young people, vaping. Both smoking and vaping pose serious health risks that undermine quality of life; and, because smokers and vapers are less healthy than those who don’t partake, their lifestyle impacts employee absenteeism which hurts companies and economic growth. Political spending by Big Tobacco and their vaping subsidiaries such as Juul (in which Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris, has a 35 percent stake) has dropped significantly, but shame on the lawmakers who still accept contributions from this vile industry.

Big Guns. Although the National Rifle Association (NRA) is considerably smaller than the other industrial complexes mentioned in this blog and doesn’t spend nearly as much (but they still contribute to politicians), they have a powerful  hold on lawmakers at all levels and, as it’s been widely and sadly publicized to the point of desensitization, the ongoing proliferation of guns has led to 283 mass shootings in 2019 alone. Here’s another link listing every domestic mass shooting from 1982 to Aug. 31 of this year. This doesn’t include the thousands more who die each year from gunshots that don’t get media coverage. When will politicians, business leaders, and voting citizens find the collective courage to turn the tide? Do we really think the 2nd Amendment is still an appropriate context for the society we have today?

Big Education. Finally, the cost to send your kids to college grows higher each year. As a result, student loan debt for both parents and graduates continues to escalate. Has the content being taught; the technology being used; the quality of the professors doing the teaching; and the hands-on, resume-building experiences that are available truly improved to a level that justifies the escalated price of a four-year degree? This is not to belittle any of the dynamics in the preceding sentence; I do believe that college environments are more dynamic than ever for preparing future graduates. But I also have a hunch that some of the other industrial complexes cited above–namely, Big Real Estate, Big Banking/Finance, Big Data/Tech, and Big Media, with their lobbyists and cooperative politicians–have worked pretty well together to influence university trustees to spend more than ever (usually while accumulating massive debt) amid their hunger to compete for top students and, therefore, to charge more than ever. And here’s the kicker: Because the federal and state governments are giving so much money to the industries cited throughout this blog, there’s less for it to invest in public higher education. And, therefore, tuition, housing, and fees continue to rise.

Is All Lobbying Evil?

I’d be negligent if I ignored the upside of lobbying efforts in general. Lobbyists have been forces for good in our country’s history, pushing for needed changes to women’s rights, civil rights, gender rights, disabilities rights, and more. And when companies and industries are successful, jobs are created, competition often increases, entertainment flourishes, efficiencies proliferate, and a number of human needs can be more fully addressed. 

But then there’s the cumulative and complex-specific impacts I’ve cited above.

Bottom line? We lack balance between our drive for economic success and the need for every person to have a strong quality of life and enjoy equal freedoms and privileges. For most people this is a “sin of omission,” a realization we struggle to achieve and act upon because we’re so damned distracted and overwhelmed from the cumulative noise and pressures of all the industrial complexes mentioned above and more. 

In general, given that no single governmental entity, company, or philanthropist has the ambition or bandwidth to ensure that any of these industrial complexes begin to atrophy, it falls upon individuals to exert whatever influence we have. More specifically, as this learning community advocates, we need to learn and apply core strengths that can help us be responsive and proactive in the face of these systematic imbalances rather than reactive and overwhelmed. Here’s some tips to get started:


  1. Realizing the totality and inter-connectedness of all these industrial complexes is pretty stressful. Practice daily mindful breathing in order to find some relief in the face of however you’re impacted by one or more of these economic-political systems. 
  2. Reflect more on the different types of people who suffer because of these industrial complexes. Who do you know first-hand who is suffering? Acknowledge their suffering, and show them the compassion of listening to their story–even if you can’t “fix things for them.”
  3.  Consider what lifestyle habits you could change to be healthier, given the costs associated with items cited above such as food, health care, pharmaceuticals, and housing. How could you eat healthier and live more simply?

Learning Agility

  1. Pick two or three of the industrial complexes that most concern you, and research all you can about them.
  2. Be deliberate in the choices you make each day at your job, no matter what industry you’re in. How can you make and influence more conscious decisions that ensure fair and just treatment for both the workers and consumers in your industry?


  1. Vote in 2020 for candidates who refuse campaign contributions from the special interests cited above, keeping in mind what I wrote near the beginning of this blog: All these industrial complexes impact us in different ways, but are united by a common thread: industry-advocating lobbyists and corporate leaders exerting undue influence upon politicians at multiple levels, which leads to legislation and policies that do not always serve the common interest. If these same candidates who refuse to be owned by lobbyists also demonstrate commitment to curbing climate change, you know you’ve got a winner. This is a helpful link for a quick glance at how the Democratic presidential contenders, for example, stand on all the key issues.
  2. Speak out and influence others to be more aware of how specific industrial complexes impact different people’s quality of life, based on the knowledge you’re gathering through your learning agility, whenever you’re given the appropriate megaphone.

Growing Your Strengths

I’m a Nashville-based writer, talent strategist, and certified executive coach. On this website, I share insights and actionable practices concerning mindfulness, learning agility, and storytelling: lifelong strengths that will help you love your career and enhance your quality of life.

Most of us are facing similar pain points: nonstop change, accelerating economic and technological disruption, and the collective “noise” that grows louder each day. The impact, for so many of us, has been confusion, distraction, and stress. Mindfulness, learning agility, and storytelling can make the difference between being overwhelmed by all of these dynamics…or leveraging them for success and well-being.

Start with this post. As time permits, check out my books and join our learning community to receive free, exclusive content via email each month with timely guidance on applying mindfulness, learning agility, and storytelling.


John M. DeMarco is a writer, strategist, and executive coach based in Nashville, Tennessee.