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Frank Norris’ novel The Octopus tells the story of the struggle between farmers of the San Joaquin Valley and the grasping Pacific and Southwestern (P&SW) railroad. “The leviathan, with tentacles of steel clutching into the soil, the soulless Force, the iron-hearted Power, the monster, the Colossus, the Octopus,” is how Presley, the narrator, describes P&SW.
Norris based his 1901 masterpiece of American naturalism on the real-life 1880 battle with the Southern Pacific Railroad, in which seven San Joaquin farmers lost their lives. In 1886, it was the same railroad but a different fight when in Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad the U.S. Supreme Court granted corporations 14th amendment protections, thereby birthing the notion of corporate personhood.
Fast forward to 2009. In Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi describes investment bank Goldman Sachs as “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money” – and in so doing he forever besmirched that cloaked denizen of the deep, Vampyroteuthis infernalis (vampire squid from Hell, an actual species).
The question before us: What are we to call the modern corporate entity, endowed with human rights yet bereft of humanity? That conglomerate of business interests whose modular economies dwarf that of many nation states?
This year the John “Frankenstein” Roberts Court gave this monster a new heart in Citizens United. As a result, corporations and their hugely paid minions skulk across our political landscape with renewed vigor, injecting ill-gotten millions into House and Senate races – doing so anonymously, thanks to the inaction of the Federal Election Commission (Roberts’ Igor?).
Their mission: Elect a right-wing Congress that just follows orders. What are we with souls to do?
In August, MoveOn.org, and the 5 million Americans who rally to its banner, tried to defend the body politic. To no avail. MoveOn.org set out to buy commercial time on MSNBC to target Target for its decision to fund Minnesota Tea Party gubernatorial hopeful Tom Emmer. (See “Targeting Soft Money” on page 7.) MSNBC (soon to be a seed of Comcast – bye-bye Maddow?) explained that it could not air the MoveOn.org commercial because it violated network policy that prohibits ads attacking an individual corporation (potential advertiser?).
In other words, Target is welcome to fill MSNBC coffers by paying a right-wing homophobe to slander Mark Dayton, the candidate for Minnesota governor of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. But any counter effort that might expose the political machinations of Corporate America to supplant the popular will with Tea Party populism will not be permitted. That is what the Roberts Court means by freedom of speech.
In 1976, the first In These Times editorial declared: “We intend to speak to corporate capitalism as the great issue of our time.”
Much has happened during the past 34 years. What remains unchanged is the certainty that in 1886, when the Supreme Court granted corporations rights previously held only by human beings, a battle line was drawn.
Will we as a people let our civic life be ruled by the likes of Target, Comcast and Koch Industries? Or will we defend our democracy from scheming soulless corporate krakens?
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Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.