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In the Eighth Circle of Thieves | The Nation

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In the Eighth Circle of Thieves

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Eased into governance by years and years of conservative ideology, the corporations of America today effectively oversee the Congress, the regulatory agencies and indeed the presidency itself. There is no Article in the Constitution that recognizes the supracitizenship of conglomerates; nothing is written that grants enlarged and pre-emptive voting rights to business organizations and their trade groups. But as Washington is run today, major issues of public policy are bent and distorted by these multiheaded Brobdingnags who bribe Congress with their money and coddle it with their lobbies, so that time and time again socially desirable legislation in the public interest, whether having to do with public health or safety, environmental protection, preservation of our natural resources or any other issue of clear relevance to the entire society, is defeated, sabotaged or transmuted by language into its perverse opposite.

About the Author

E.L. Doctorow
E.L. Doctorow’s All the Time in the World: New and Selected Stories was recently published in paperback.

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Yes, you say, tell me about it. But this is the recurrent truth of Washington, so rhythmically repetitive as to be its heartbeat, the way it pumps. Corporations that pit themselves against the manifest needs of the American people according to the issues that arise take turns as enemies of the people. Nothing else on Capitol Hill occurs so reliably and regularly. It so prevails as a political fact of life that it is hardly news. It has been a long, long time since it was news. It is now only and obviously the way things are. Banking, oil, lumber, pharmaceuticals, weaponry, communications and electronics, chemicals, meat and poultry--whatever the industry, you'll find it striding with a proprietary mien through the corridors of power. But in the name of what kind of Constitution?

Apologists will cite the First Amendment, speak of the American or God-given right of people to function in their own interest. That is just what democracy is, they say, a raucous contention of interests that historically proves out as the genius of our system; it is what we have always done in this country right from the start, when frontiersmen in coonskin caps and leggings came to town, and later the men in cutaways and top hats, everyone, always, grabbing their representatives by the lapels and demanding to be represented.

But conglomerated organizations of capital are not exactly people. They are compositions of human talents formatted to their purposes. They are dedicated networks of artificial intelligence. They think and feel in numerical abstractions. They will advertise their employees as their human face, they will give themselves hearts and souls in their television commercials, but as institutions they are dimensionally beyond the humans who work for them or the shareholders who gamble in their stock. They transform themselves, take on or divest themselves of companies, move across national boundaries, restructure, wax and wane, merge with others of their ilk in an institutionalized dynamic that leaves even their executives irrelevant. They are profit manufactories that accumulate people or rid themselves of people according to the transhuman logic of their balance sheets. And for the loyalty they demand and receive, the quid pro quo is to absolve those working for them who act inhumanely on their inhuman behalf.

In effect corporate entities that function in Washington to achieve benefits for themselves--tax loopholes, contracts, entitlements, dismantling of regulatory acts--regardless of the overall social effect, pre-empt the idea of the larger community, the national ideal, the United States as the ultimate communal reality. A just nation is not envisioned but a confederacy whose people are meant to live at the expense of one another. Such social Darwinism finds the presumptions of democracy naïve. The corporations that will farm our lands, insure our lives and our health, finance our homes, entertain us, power our cars, light our lamps... ask only one thing in return: that we recognize two forms of citizenship, common and preferred.

How contemptuous this all is, what an enormous humiliation to a society of free people. We may ask those who speak of this corrupt and corrupting system as a kind of speech that mustn't be tampered with, if to privilege the free speech of corporations with vast treasuries on those grounds is not undeniably to squelch the speech of others who don't have the same resources. Or if, in fact, this huge application of money to the political process that so depreciates the power of the individual voter is not a de facto poll tax, with the expected minorities, Afro-American, Hispanic, joined in their disfranchisement by the white citizenry.

To consider the elected politician in all this is to mourn the days when amateurism was part of the political culture. Somewhere along the line political officeholding became a profession. To keep working, politicians have regularly to come like buskers into the street, sing their song and dance their jig and hold out their hats. In the best of them, this ritual has to induce a degree of self-hatred. Television is the major reason campaigning is so monstrously expensive. The airwaves are owned by the public, but that is irrelevant to the broadcast licensees, who charge commercial rates for programming in the public interest... and then contribute heavily to campaigns, so that no one who is elected will get up in Congress and say what a swindle it is for the broadcasters to charge the public for the use of airwaves the public owns.

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