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The Octopus

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Via Mother Jones is this superb site called Vulgar Army highlighting the use of the octopus in history to illustrate the evil power of corporations or other sites of power. It was especially popular in the late 19th and early 20th century during the time of monopoly and labor repression. It faded by the 1930s though has never fully gone away (and the site has examples from each decade). It’s actually kind of hard to imagine the octopus as a scary enough animal to use as a comparison to corporations. It feels more like a Melville-esque old-timey fear of sea creatures that has gone away for whatever reason. Maybe Jacques Cousteau and TV nature shows. Maybe sushi bars. Maybe aquariums.

Naturally enough given my love of both debauchery and disease, I’m rather enamored of this image of the liquor octopus. I’ve also long enjoyed this classic I.W.W. octopus image:

To no small extent, this sort of imagery was necessary in the polylingual early twentieth United States, when you had to reach a workforce that might have native speakers of up to 10 or 12 different languages at a given jobsite. They might not all be able to speak English, but the octopus had universal symbolism. Salvatore Salerno argues in his book on the European anarcho-syndicalist roots of the I.W.W., Red November, Black November, that Wobbly artists consciously drew upon European precedents for the posters, cartoons, poems, and songs. This makes a lot of sense given the high immigrant population many of the groups Wobblies organized.

Today, with our self-conscious drawing from past art forms to influence today’s imagery, you could see a revival of the octopus as a metaphor for corporations. It certainly isn’t going to have the resonance with everyday people, but it is not an inaccurate metaphor for modern corporate practices. And as the Mother Jones article points out, at least one artist is using it as part of the Occupy Wall Street art.

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