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The octopus


“The Curse of California,” with the Central Pacific railroad monopoly as a hungry red octopus. Mark Hopkins and Leland Stanford are its eyes; farmers, miners, lumberjacks, and other victims are entangled in its tentacles. First published August 19, 1882 in The Wasp during Ambrose Bierce’s editorship.

Americans love using metaphors in their politics. They love to make complex issues intelligible by speaking in symbols. During the late nineteenth century, when a new industrial order was creating unprecedented consolidations of capital, a metaphor emerged to describe the powerful corporations built by Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie, and other tycoons: the Octopus. Many cartoonists drew the Octopus (the National Humanities Center has even compiled a collection), and Frank Norris wrote a novel called The Octopus: A Story of California.

The Octopus is a great metaphor for monopoly: it’s big, slimy, sinister, and can squeeze a lot of things at once. What’s the right spirit animal for today’s economic overlords? Swordfish? Salamander?