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Hal Crowther

Boiled in Oil


Someone sent my wife a book published privately by the citizens of Dante (pronounced "Dant"), Va., a bare-bones little coal town in Russell County, near the Kentucky border. Titled Memories from Dante: The Life of a Coal Town, it's pretty much what you'd expect--oral histories from Dante's most venerable citizens illustrated with prize photographs from 100 family albums: vintage school and wedding pictures, the Dante baseball team in 1924, Clarence "Bad Eye" Thompson loading lump coal at Number Three tipple in 1933. The spirit of Dante's self-portrait is nostalgic and celebratory. I love these books. The last thing I expected to find here was a corrosive dose of subversive commentary on America's industrial history, a first-person indictment as chilling and timely as the Voice of Judgment.

Appendix C of Memories from Dante is a section of a memoir by a onetime miner and game warden named Dave O'Neill, who worked in the Dante coal camp before the First World War:

"Most of the laborers at the Dante camp were foreigners," O'Neill recalled. "Italians, Hungarians and Turks, they came in already indebted to the coal company for the cost of their transportation from Europe. It was obvious that many of those poor people had been recruited for the voyage to this 'land of the free' with grand promises of milk and honey, and then cruelly betrayed once they got here. Whatever conditions they lived under in Europe, it couldn't have been worse than what awaited them in Dante.

"The immigrants lived in wood-and-tarpaper shacks, sleeping 20 and 30 to a room. They endured the most unsanitary conditions imaginable. There was no plumbing, no flooring, and little protection from the elements. Because of the attempts of many to 'skip their transportation' and strike out for parts unknown, the 'furriners' were kept in compounds which, if they were in existence today, would be called concentration camps."

No one who's paid any attention to the criminal history of American capitalism is shocked to hear that slave labor didn't end in 1865, or that the lofty ideals inscribed on the Statue of Liberty became a merciless irony for millions of immigrants in a nation where an excess of free enterprise trumped "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness"--and trumps them still. It's the understated compassion of Dave O'Neill, an ordinary man who may never have met a socialist, that gives this passage its unmistakable sting.

The crimes of predatory capitalists--actual and de facto slavery, child labor, sweatshops, armies of thugs and strikebreakers, unimaginable environmental destruction with its legacy of death and disease--are such a constant theme in the modern history of the West that they've become a political cliché, a litany that identifies anyone who invokes them as a retro-radical. Part of the indifference that greeted Ralph Nader during the 2000 presidential campaign was the electorate's contempt for what it regards as decrepit rhetoric. In the era of mass communications, capitalists monopolize public discourse--they own the media--and successfully caricature their critics as hippies, anarchists and dinosaurs.

The muckraking novels of Upton Sinclair or Frank Norris are not much read anymore; we have no Teddy Roosevelt to brandish his big stick at ruthless tycoons. Swollen corporations rule more or less unchallenged. When a big one falls as Enron fell, it's like a missing tooth in the blinding corporate smile that mesmerizes America. For a moment, anyone who cares to look can see all the infection and corruption in the hungry mouth that threatens to swallow us whole. Expect only a brief glimpse before the Big Smile is repaired by the best oral surgeons money can buy. But what we see, and the way we respond to what we see, is more critical to America's survival than the fate of a million Islamic terrorists.

"The Enron scandal told us things about ourselves that we probably should have known, but had managed not to see," wrote economist Paul Krugman in The New York Times. "I predict that in the years ahead, Enron, not Sept. 11, will come to be seen as the greater turning point in U.S. society."

The White House, praying for a softer spin, saw its efforts to downplay Enron meet fierce resistance, even from establishment journalists. The Times' editorial page, prone to understatement, called Enron "the most spectacular corporate demise ever."

"This is a cultural event, a systemic collapse, an outrage so breathtaking that we poor scribblers have no category for it," added Richard Cohen of The Washington Post.

What's left of the responsible press and the progressive minority knows that Enron, an economic tragedy, is potentially a political godsend. Corporations as large as Enron belong to the Pay and Play Club, an elite beyond taxes and regulations, beyond legislatures, beyond literal or figurative accountability, almost beyond prosecution. For one of these giants to fall, it takes a phenomenal convergence of incompetence, misfortune, arrogance and greed. It provides the rarest of opportunities to show the American public, long oblivious to economic nuance, that greed without conscience or restraint is not the engine of prosperity but--as every religion teaches--a congested Highway to Hell.

This is a precious chance, maybe our last chance to make an edifying spectacle of a corrupt plutocracy. It can only be wasted by diehard Democrats clamoring for revenge and partisan advantage. Enron has implications that dwarf party politics, the dreary, vicious, infantile tug-of-war that reached a nadir of nastiness in the 1990s.

It's true that Republicans received 75 percent of Enron's dirty money and that George W. Bush was its chosen darling, the focus of its highest hopes and the chief beneficiary of its tainted largesse. Retiring Sen. Phil Gramm and House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, Texas Republicans the Democrats hate as much anyone in Congress, are in the Enron muck up to their shoulder holsters. Yes, this is a felony-rich scandal that makes Whitewater look like amateur night at the Lions Club.

But it has to be enough to know all that and enjoy it in privacy, to imagine the squirming and the sweaty late-night meetings as a White House packed with Enron cronies strives to wash its hands of Kenneth Lay.

The truth is that Democrats took all the money they could get from Enron and would have been overjoyed to steal the lion's share. The Clinton administration was more than friendly to the free-spending Texans; Sen. Joe Lieberman, who ran for vice president on Al Gore's ticket, took money from Enron and more from Arthur Andersen, its egregiously compromised accountants. A notably pompous liberal Democrat, Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, was first in line--to the tune of $329,000--at the feeding trough filled so generously by Arthur Andersen and the accounting lobby.

When Enron rang the dinner bell, everyone with a knife and fork came running. The finger-pointing gets complicated, even comical, when 74 senators and 188 congressman have been dining at the same thieves' expense.

In a sane media environment, sleeping with Ken Lay might be more embarrassing to a president than foreplay with Monica Lewinsky. But Enron will never be the ruin of George W. Bush, locked so comfortably into his bizarre new role as the warlord of the free world. The Bushmen didn't break any laws to help their friends in Houston. If they tried to make a few laws, shape a few policies on Enron's behalf, that's a quid pro quo everyone in Washington understands. (Though Dick Cheney may live to regret those preposterous claims of executive privilege for his energy huddles. Smoking gun or no, an aging vice president with a damaged ticker makes the perfect scapegoat if someone has to take a fall for this administration.)

The shock of Enron is neither the magnitude of its deceit nor the way the system worked to conceal it, but the bitter recognition that hardly anyone is clean. The president, the vice president, the attorney general, the chairman of the SEC, half of Congress, accountants, law firms, judges, educators, even journalists are wrapped in these oily tentacles. We'll have to look overseas, it seems, to find a special prosecutor with no ties to Enron.

It's like the movie Chinatown, where everything is fixed and everyone is in on it. Or Nathaniel Hawthorne's story "Young Goodman Brown," where a whole village of pious Christians worships the devil in secret. Even Enron critic Paul Krugman of The Times has admitted that he took $50,000 from an Enron-sponsored "advisory board." ("It had no function that I was aware of," Krugman said in his defense.)

We were, we are, the Enron nation, and before the crash no one seemed to notice that the very blood in our veins had been replaced with petroleum. In a culture where the worst scoundrels survive on expensive spin and instant public amnesia, will the unmasking of Enron leave any permanent impression? Does a TV-tranquilized population still experience nausea at the appalling gap between the perception, Enron's surface--its commercials, its benevolent civic presence, its rosy (and false) quarterly reports, Ken Lay beaming at presidents and celebrities--and its naked reality: a coven of ghouls preying ravenously on investors and employees alike, amassing obscene fortunes behind a protective shield of explicit and implicit bribes?

Over Enron's twitching corpse, we can expect new laws governing corporate accounting and 401(k) programs, possibly even stricter regulation of stock transactions and energy markets. There may even be a more skeptical attitude toward the mindless Republican jihad called "deregulation." But if this parade of Enron's vast collection of castrated and compromised politicians doesn't create a mandate for immediate, drastic reforms in political campaign funding, there's no discernible hope for democracy in our time.

The grimmest shock of all, for me, was doing the math and comprehending that a player the size of Enron purchases the machinery of our democracy out of petty cash. Out of pocket change. Enron executives, who cashed in $1.1 billion in stock while their company was failing, who stood to gain $254 million in tax rebates from the president's economic stimulus bill alone, purchased the affections of George W. Bush for a measly million--like a buck for the hat-check girl. They acquired their entire stable of elected officials for $5.8 million in campaign contributions. That shrewd investment was the best one Enron ever made.

If it doesn't make you furious, nothing ever will. This gross difference in scale, between "big money" to a politician and "big money" to a Kenneth Lay, is the reason we have to build a firewall between electoral politics and corporate treasure. It's as if Fort Knox--symbolically the wealth of this nation, our wealth--were guarded only by mangy dogs, and you could carry off the gold by tossing them a few scraps of meat. Yet, here's a depressing footnote: One reporter's interviews with MBA students at Columbia, in the wake of the Enron disaster, revealed not a trace of righteous indignation. Their main, if not their only concern, was Enron's effect on the job market.

It's unlucky that America, wearing its favorite masks of wounded innocence and belligerent patriotism, is not currently in the mood for self-examination. Today many Americans cling to the myth of benevolent, self-regulating "free markets" as ardently as they embrace free speech or trial by jury. Yet all our experience, every page of our history, tells us that capitalists without cops devolve into bullies and thieves, even monsters. Enron didn't lock its employees in concentration camps without toilets or floorboards, like the coal barons of Dante, but it's clear that Enron would have done so, if it had been profitable and common practice among its peers. Enron management only stole its employees' life savings and replaced them with worthless stock, then fired people who complained about it on Internet message boards.

One specialist in corporate communications, sick of the hypocrisy of company "credos," offered Enron's epitaph: "Why not just come right out and say it? 'We will strive to make as much money as we can without going to prison.'"

When a commercial entity fancies itself above the law or in control of the law, an Enron is the inevitable result. Collusion between capital and government is always a calamity for the common man. The philosopher Claude Adrien Helvetius, writing in 1760 at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, declared that there were only two types of government--the good, which had not yet come into being, and the bad, which transferred the money of the poor into the pockets of the rich. Helvetius, once a tax farmer for the French king, knew whereof he spoke.

It's rarely noted that the best thinkers of the 18th and 19th centuries--radicals, moderates and reactionaries, from Montesquieu to Marx--almost all regarded capitalism as at best an aberration, at worst a pestilence. But now these aristocrats, communists and socialists are as rare as snow leopards, and against all their predictions America's cutthroat capitalism rules the West.

This is no cause for smugness, as Ken Lay reminds us, as Charles Keating and Mike Milken and Ivan Boesky and Teapot Dome reminded us, all the way back to John D. Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan, when free-market warlords divided up the United States like the bush chiefs divide Afghanistan. I accept capitalism because it's cynical about human potential--though it claims otherwise--and so am I. Who can deny that harnessing avarice creates wealth? (Though since 1979, virtually all of America's added wealth has adhered to the 1 percent at the top of the pyramid. So much for "trickle-down.") The key is the strength of the harness, and who holds the reins. And maybe just a trace of honesty. Avarice, disguised as one of the Seven Pillars of Wisdom, is actually one of the Seven Deadly Sins. Capitalism is a calculated bargain with the devil. We invite moral vertigo--and contempt--when we mistake this compromise with our darkness for the source of our light. EndBlock

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