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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.

The fundraising dinners are affairs of the wealthy. If you are a politician, the fatter the check that comes in, the greater your indebtedness. Your conscience becomes an instrument of self-deception. Some politicians are entirely at ease with this, either because they are themselves wealthy and are one with their contributors, or so reliably conformed to the values of the plutocracy that they rise up fully banked--as for example the Governor of Texas, noted for his rigorous support for the death penalty and for the civil rights of heavily polluting industries, who miraculously appeared in all the papers two years before the primaries as a front-runner and who now floats atop a campaign fund of $80 million.

What kind of political culture does the politician cheerfully acknowledge, who can say, as Republican Senator Orrin Hatch has said, that to back reform of the system of campaign money-raising would be an idiotic thing for his party because it collects more money than the opposition? What degree of public alienation can a politician like Senate majority leader Trent Lott depend on, who has brazenly said in sponsoring legislation written by corporate lobbyists... that after all they are the specialists in their field, who know the issues better than anyone else? These are the remarks of senators confident of a general population so numbed and alienated that barely 50 percent of eligible adults bother to vote in national elections. These are the flaunted values of politicians who know of the conglomerate-owned press culture, that there will be no editorial muckraking from the "in depth" journalists of the broadcast media, that the rampant corruption in Washington, the vast, deep and dangerous mutant character of the present state of things, will not be defined for what it is, and that who speaks of the bewildering broad front of failure and mendacity and carelessness of human life in so much of our public policy in tones any louder than muted regret will be marginalized for this indecorous transgression as a leftist, a bleeding-heart liberal or perhaps a raging populist, but in any event someone so out of the "mainstream" as not to be taken seriously.

How many in Congress today have the integrity, the strength, to distinguish the interests of their districts or their states from the interests of their heavy donors? How many think there is a difference? How many can honestly admit to themselves that the big money is their constituency? To hear the points of view of some of these people, how they have become so much the forces that have bought them, is to realize they are no longer guilty of hypocrisy, having been transmogrified.

The instructive image here is from Dante's Inferno, Canto XXV. We are in a pouch of the Eighth Circle, where the thieves are kept. A monstrous lizardlike serpent leaps onto one of the thieves, wraps its middle feet around his belly, pins his two arms with its forelegs and, wrapping its rear feet around his knees, swings its tail up between his legs and sinks its teeth into his face. And so intertwined, monster and thief, they begin to melt into each other like hot wax, their two heads joining, their substances merging, until a new third creature is created, though somehow redolent of both of them. And it slowly slithers away into the darkness.

Back in 1787, when the Constitutional Convention had done its work and the drafted Constitution was sent out to the states for ratification, the public's excitement was palpable. Extended and vigorous statehouse debates echoed through the towns and villages, and as, one by one, the states voted to ratify, church bells rang, cheers went up from the public houses and in the major cities the people turned out to parade with a fresh new sense of themselves as a nation.

Everyone marched--tradespeople, workingmen, soldiers, women, clergy. They had floats in those days, too--most often a wagon-sized ship of state, called the Union, rolling through the streets with children waving from the scuppers. Philadelphia came up with a float called the New Roof, a dome supported by thirteen pillars and ornamented with stars. It was drawn by ten white horses, and at the top was a handsome cupola surmounted by a figure of Plenty, bearing her cornucopia.

The ratification parades were sacramental--symbolic venerations, acts of faith. From the beginning people saw the Constitution as a kind of sacred text for a civil society. Indeed, the voice of the Constitution is scriptural. It ordains. It empowers itself to give law endlessly into the future. Like the Bible, it requires interpretive commentaries that themselves have the authority of law because its principles must be applied to a multitude of situations. And where its prophecy has been false, as in the infamous Article IV, which made a slave in one state a slave in all, the national calamity of a civil war ensued before the text could be amended.

Today, the Constitution with its Bill of Rights and further amendments rules us with a set of behavioral prescriptions that, if we lived up to all of them, would make us a truly free and righteous people. When the ancient Hebrews broke their covenant they suffered a loss of identity and brought disaster upon themselves. Our burden too is unmistakably covenantal. We may point to our 200-some years of national survival as an open society, constitutionally sworn to a degree of free imaginative expression that few cultures in the world can tolerate; we may regard ourselves as an exceptional, historically self-correcting nation whose democratic values locate us just as surely as our geography... and yet we know at the same time that all through our history we have brutally excluded vast numbers of us from the shelter of the New Roof, we have broken our covenant again and again with a virtuosity verging on damnation and have been saved only by the sacrificial efforts of Constitution-reverencing patriots in government and out of government--Presidents, senators, Justices, abolitionists, muckrakers, suffragists, striking workers, civil rights activists.

What is to be done now, when the Constitution is subjected to corporate-groomed politicians who read it as no more than a postmodern self-deconstructing text? The present wide-open, scandalous system of campaign financing is rationalized by a rightist ideology that portrays the federal government as stiflingly bureaucratic, intrusive and inimical to the natural rights of a free people. In the lifetimes of many of us the federal government has been just the opposite, a means of redress, redemptive justice and societal healing, as, for instance, when it enacted the Depression measures of the thirties and the Great Society legislation of the sixties. Today the corporate rightists in Congress mean to privatize the Social Security system, vouch the public school system out of existence and do whatever they can to limit if not decimate the regulatory agencies established to control their worst business excesses. By the logic of their thinking even the National Office of Weights and Measures could be construed as an impediment to business practices.

It is not that members of Congress--or indeed the media or the American public--are not aware of the inequity of the present money-soaked system of political life in our country. But to what extent that system is responsible for the grotesque distortions of our present priorities--with the resultant poverty of so many children; the way our jails proliferate for the incarceration of black men, with more and more penal systems run privately for profit; the drift into monopolization of our media and means of communication, with fewer and fewer mega-corporations controlling more and more of what we read, see, hear or understand as the news; or the cost of health insurance policies that insure people until they get sick; the inequitable tax structure; the international trade agreements that rescind our environmental laws; the list is long--and how all of this is connected to the system of unrestricted and flamboyant political donations may not be always appreciated by the public or acknowledged consistently even by those members of Congress who have voted to reform the laws of campaign finance.

In fact, campaign finance reform as a phrase has been bruited about so long and to so little effect and is so yawningly dull, dreary and unresounding, it makes one wonder if it's not partly responsible for the conditions it has so far failed to address. Perhaps there is a basement office somewhere in Washington where mischievous lexicographers of a certain political orientation have the assigned task of finding the words and phrases to defuse the issues that threaten the interests of their employers. If so, campaign finance reform has done its work well. Because what is hidden in that modest little phrase is the vision of an honest, vigorously realized democratic republic.

To effect a true and thoroughgoing reform would not change the innately raucous competition of interests among us, but neither would it provide for the amplification of some of those interests to a level that is deafening. It would amount to a kind of revolution of our national political behavior; it would bring people of talent and vision into political life who are not now available to the nation; it would be breathtaking, predictive of a new authentic polyvocal Union; and with the possibility, at last, of addressing our entrenched social and economic inequities, the distortions of our priorities and what is grotesque about our public institutions, we would begin to come out of the terrible alienation that afflicts us and think again of the beauty of our national promise. We would hope to fashion ourselves more recognizably to the ideal of human rights implicit in our Constitution.

Perhaps, then, we should not rely on Congress to find the votes to pass a true and thorough reform bill that restores to us our dignity as citizens. A genuine ad hoc social movement may be required, a state-by-state struggle by referendum, issue-specific ratings at election time, an Internet-organized lobby to end all lobbies, but in any event something--some great public outcry to flatten back the ears of the distinguished colleagues in their paneled chambers.

To imagine such glory is to invoke the idealism of Walt Whitman. Whitman did not buy the elitist presumption of classic conservatism--that it was in the nature of some to lead and most to follow--even as it claimed to recognize its responsibility (as it does not now in its corporatized form) to look after, to take care of, as one looks after or takes care of children or pets. He saw it as a terrible depressant of human energies. He understood American democracy's breakout potential to enlarge the dimensions of human life, and thought that if the discourse was truly national, the communications omni-directional, the minds of a populace living in neighborly freedom could constellate into a universe that we hadn't yet dreamed of. That is why when he walked the streets of nineteenth-century New York, Whitman embraced everything he saw. He loved the multitudes, the industry of working people; he loved the ships in the harbor, the traffic on Broadway. But he was not naïve. He knew the newspaper business from which he made his living relied finally for its success on the frail shoulders of itinerant boys and girls, street urchins who lived on the few cents they made hawking the papers at every corner. Thousands of vagrant children lived in the streets of the New York Walt Whitman loved. Yet his exultant optimism and awe of human capacity was not demeaned; he could carry it all, the whole society, and attend like a nurse to its illnesses, but like a lover to its fair face.

And so must we.

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