Monsters and Capitalism

How the corporation became an octopus


Welcome to Unshared, a newsletter by me, Kyle Edward Williams, about the history of capitalism and the politics of corporate power today. First things first—thanks for subscribing! This is the first of what will be regular missives about things (more or less) related to work on my forthcoming book tentatively titled, Unshared: A Failed History of Corporate Social Responsibility.

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Today I’m going to write about something that’s been on my mind this week as I’ve been writing the first chapter of the book. It’s a chapter that tells the story of the rise of corporate capitalism in the decades after the Civil War and how Americans struggled to reconcile these powerful business institutions with our deep-seated intuitions about democratic checks and balances. The thing that’s been on my mind is how people throughout history have resorted to animalistic and monstrous metaphors to describe how capitalism, particularly corporate capitalism, works. The most well-known is probably the octopus. More about that below…

This image is a political cartoon from Puck, a weekly humor magazine from the turn of the century, published on September 7, 1904—116 years ago today. It shows an octopus in the form of a storage tank with “Standard Oil” written over the top, nestled alongside an oil derrick and refinery and grasping with its tentacles the White House, the Capitol Building, a state legislative house, and, in the background, reaching across a world map. The following year the federal government opened an investigation into Standard Oil because of the trust’s monopolistic practices that provoked a conflict known as the Kansas Oil War (I wrote about that here). About this whole episode, the progressive journalist William Allen White offered a characteristically tart assessment: “It is funny—how we have all found the octopus—an animal whose very existence we denied ten or a dozen years ago.”

How did the octopus become so well-known as a description of Standard Oil that it could be used as a reliable shorthand? It wasn’t the first time that the octopus was invoked to describe a corrupt and powerful corporation. The novelist and muckraking journalist Frank Norris a few years earlier in 1901 had used the imagery to great effect in the titular novel The Octopus: A California Story. The novel was about a battle between farmers in the San Joaquin Valley and a powerful railroad that took possession of their lands and ruined their fortunes. Based upon the Mussel Slough Tragedy of 1880 in which a fight between California settlers and the Southern Pacific Railroad left seven dead, Norris lists the crimes of the railroad in his perorative account of the injustice visited on the main characters:

Yes, the Railroad had prevailed. The ranches had been seized in the tentacles of the octopus; the iniquitous burden of extortionate freight rates had been imposed like a yoke of iron. The monster had killed Harran, had killed Osterman, had killed Broderson, had killed Hooven. It had beggared Magnus and had driven him to a state of semi-insanity after he had wrecked his honour in the vain attempt to do evil that good might come.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first use of the octopus to describe an “organized, usually harmful or destructive, power having extended ramifications, far-reaching influence, etc.” came from Joseph Potts, president of the Pennsylvania-based Empire Transportation Company. Ida Tarbell quoted in him in her History of the Standard Oil Company as saying in 1878 that the Standard Oil trust’s purchase of its refinery competitors led them to fall “shivering with dislike into the embrace of this commercial octopus.” Tarbell’s father chased fortune in the boom-time oil fields of Western PA and successfully lobbied the state government to take action against Standard Oil and its monopolistic practices. Tarbell’s history of the trust would make her a household name in Progressive Era America.

Calling John D. Rockefeller and his monopoly an octopus wasn’t just an insult. The octopus served as an apt icon because it effectively conveyed in visceral imagery what everyone already knew about the political economy of petroleum. Standard Oil had its hands in every part of the industry: in railroads, pipelines, refining, consumer marketing, not to mention the boardrooms of transportation companies, the halls of state legislatures, and the offices of newspapers. As a metaphor of systemic power, the octopus has had a long life.

It is difficult to overstate the degree to which the rise of large corporations provoked a crisis in American life. Beginning first with the railroad and communications industries and then everything from cigarettes to cars, these concentrations of capital and improbable bundles of labor relations were novel institutions that, thriving on vertical integration and technological innovations, shook up everything that Americans had known about the economy. The Gilded Age came to a close with a great merger movement where more than 1,800 firms disappeared into consolidations. Now, instead of a person or a limited group of people owning and operating a small firm, many hundreds or thousands of people owned shares in large businesses operated by a growing class of professional managers. Newly common legal tools like limited liability and the shield of corporate personhood allowed large corporations to pool unprecedented amounts of capital—and slip the nets of mutual obligation and bonds of accountability.

In this context, the metaphor of the octopus registered the sheer novelty—the freakishness—of these new corporate institutions. Reformers and radicals sprouted up in a range of movements that went under the banners of labor unionism, populism, producerism, and socialism. By appealing to the octopus, these critics of corporate capitalism drew from a deep well of culture.

Perhaps the most horrifying depiction of the octopus in all of literature comes from The Toilers of the Sea, a novel set in the 1820s by Victor Hugo, whose protagonist is a young sailor named Gilliatt who undertakes to recover the engine of a newly invented steamship that has wrecked upon the rocks of an island in the English Channel. Hunting for crabs in a sea cave, Gilliatt is seized by the tentacles of what Hugo calls a pieuvre, which has usually been translated into English as devilfish. “It was impossible to cut or to tear off the viscous bands that were adhering to Gilliatt’s body so closely and at so many points,” Hugo wrote.

The devilfish has no mass of muscle, no threatening cry, no armor, no horn, no sting, no pincers, no tail to seize or batter its enemies, no sharp-edged fins, no clawed fins, no spines, no sword, no electric discharge, no virus, no poison, no claws, no beak, no teeth. And yet of all the animals the devilfish is the one that is most formidably armed. What, then, is the devilfish? It is a suction pad.

Hugo’s devilfish, as painted above with ink by Hugo himself in a fashion that I think is just amazing, was what the 18th-century botanist Carl Linneaus dubbed the “Octopodia”—literally, the eight-footed. Other scientists came to call it the cephalopod. In Scandinavian folklore, colossal beasts known as Kraken and depicted like octopuses came up from the ocean depths to overtake ships. English sailors sometimes called them bloodsuckers. Whatever the name, the octopus evoked the grotesque and the wily. Not only spineless and feral, it was an animal whose 19th-century depictions made it out to be extremely clever and, of course, capable of obscuring itself with blinding ink. The animal’s chief power is its grip, which would be otherwise endurable if not for its overwhelming number of arms. For a picture of irresistible power seizing its victims from multiple points directed by a single malevolent will, it was hard to beat the octopus.

Doubtless with that metaphor in mind, one Kansas governor implored his fellow progressives to take the “monster”—the Standard Oil trust—by the neck and “compel it to be decent.” Reformers made it their project to domesticate the very thing that they doubted was even capable of being domesticated. That’s one way of describing the history of corporate politics in the 20th century. And it’s something I’m going to be writing about for the next couple of years.

One or two more things…

That Puck cartoon? It wasn’t the first or the last time that the magazine would skewer big business in its colorful lithographs. Many of them have been digitized by the Library of Congress and can be browsed here.

I quoted from the 2002 Modern Library edition of Victor Hugo’s The Toilers of the Sea, translated by James Hogarth. There is a convenient online edition available at the Internet Archive.

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