#OccupyGaddis: We Get This One Lousy Vote

Mrs. Joubert takes her class and their paper bag of money to Manhattan to learn how America works. She consistently conflates the American political system with the free market system as though there were no question that they were one and the same. She tells Principal Whiteback, when she sees him outside of the bank, that they are going to the Stock Exchange to “learn how our system works” and immediately adds that they are going to “buy a share in America.”

To Mrs. Joubert, the daughter of the head of vast corporation, there is no difference between the United States and a corporation. It sounds cynical, but her view may not be that far from the truth.

 –…and that’s what owning a share in a corporation means too doesn’t it, the right to vote…

On September 9, 2009, the Supreme Court of the United States of America heard oral arguments in the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S. 50 (2010).

–I submit that the Court’s decisions in connection with the First Amendment and corporations have in the past made no such distinction. However—


 –Could they in your view, in the view that you are putting forth, that there is no distinction between an individual and a corporation for First Amendment purposes, then any mega-corporation, even—even if most of the investors are from abroad, Congress could not limit their spending?


–I’m not—I’m not saying that, Justice Ginsburg.

The issue was simple: Do corporations have the same First Amendment rights as individuals? Citizens United, a non-profit corporation, wanted to advertise its production Hillary: The Movie within 60 days of the 2008 general election, in violation of 2 U.S.C. § 441b which limited corporations from spending money on “electioneering communication” within 30 days of a primary and 60 days of a general election.   

 –I would not really call it an aggregation of wealth interest. I would say that it’s — it’s a concern about corporate use of other people’s money to —

In a prior case, Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, 494 U. S. 652 (1990), the Court found a compelling government interest in limiting “the corrosive and distorting effects of immense aggregations of wealth that are accumulated with the help of the corporate form and that have little or no correlation to the public’s support for the corporation’s political ideas.”

In a 5-4 ruling, the Court overruled Austin and held that the government could not limit the First Amendment speech rights of a corporation. In the Court’s opinion, Justice Kennedy writes, “When Government seeks to use its full power, including the criminal law, to command where a person may get his or her information or what distrusted source he or she may not hear, it uses censorship to control thought. This is unlawful. The First Amendment confirms the freedom to think for ourselves.”  

–That’s what people’s capitalism is, isn’t it everybody. As one of the company’s owners you elect your directors in a democratic vote…

By the end of the nineteenth century, corporate personhood was a well-established legal concept. Corporate personhood exists to shield investors from liability for a corporation’s actions.

Corporate personhood allows a corporation to own property, to sign contracts, or to take any other legally significant action. This fictional creature—the corporation—created on paper from the accumulated wealth of investors, created to accumulate more wealth for those investors, is invested by the State with an animating spirit. Because of Citizens United, corporations have a limitless voice.

While being heckled at the Iowa State Fair in August of 2011, Gov. Mitt Romney said, “Corporations are people, my friend.” Imagine the warm summer air heavy with the scent of fried Coke. His hecklers laughed at him, but he was correct. The decision in Citizens United proved it. Corporations are people, with full First Amendment protections.

–Then that — in that — but expenditures, which is what we are talking about today, do not concern the — the question, the actual threat of quid pro quo corruption or the appearance of quid pro quo corruption. And you know, Justice Breyer, what the Court said in that case is because it’s not inhibiting someone from actually speaking, it’s — it’s giving money to someone —

Originally, most states limited voting rights to white men who owned land. One of the few individual liberties protected by the Constitution as originally written was a prohibition against Congress banning the importation of slaves. The linking of voting, citizenship and ownership was there from the beginning. The law preferences ownership. We are restless spirits until we possess property that makes us fully corporeal. Mrs. Joubert takes her class to the Stock Exchange to buy a share of America because she believes that without owning something, they can never be part of the country.

Much like a corporation, the United States is a creature created on paper. Constitution or Corporate Charter? Citizen or Investor? One Vote, One Person or One Vote Per Share?

Both creatures are aggregations of capital—financial and human—expended toward expanding market dominance. Mrs. Joubert exists at the nexus of these worlds, private and public. We are introduced to her and the principal of her school not on the school grounds, but outside of the bank. Her father is the head of Typhon International, but is leaving the post for a position as an undersecretary in Washington.

Repeatedly, she refers to the democratic process not in relation to a citizen’s right to vote for a president, but a shareholder’s right to vote for a board of directors. In light of the Court’s decision in Citizens United, her unification of public and private is appropriate.

–With one share we get like one vote?


–You certainly do, and what’s more you’re entitled to…


–And like if I owned two hundred ninety-three thousand shares then I’d get like two hundred ninety-three thousand votes?


–That’s not fair! We get this one lousy vote and he gets like two hun…


–What’s not fair! You buy this here one share so you’ve got like this lousy twenty-two fifty working for you when I’ve got like six thou…

Gaddis’s vision of America’s conflation with the corporation is bitter and cynical, but it is not outrageous. It is not a foreboding vision to warn us of extremes that may come if we do not change our ways, not a Ghost of Countries Yet to Come, but rather accurately, and without exaggeration, reflection of the nation as it is. J R is a chaos of voices, all striving to rise above the rest, swarming with words and broken sentences. It captures accurately and without exaggeration our discourse. Consider the Citizens United oral arguments quoted above.

Even in that most stylized and formal of dialogues—an argument before the Supreme Court of the United States of America—the voices swell and fall, stumble and backtrack, interrupt and suddenly cease. But the voice of the corporation, made up of the voices of investors large and small tethered together for the benefit of the majority shareholders, speaks louder and freer. It rises above the din of the public discourse beneath it, silencing everything in its path.

3 thoughts on “#OccupyGaddis: We Get This One Lousy Vote

  1. cameronpage June 29, 2012 / 2:46 pm

    Thanks for a great post.

    What I found most striking was how similar a William Gaddis novel and a Supreme Court transcript sound.

    A few of us were tweeting earlier about whether the dialogue in “JR” is naturalistic or hyperrealistic. I maintain that you could make a movie out of “JR” and have it sound completely natural. When you read the text, with all those words smacked together and incorrect punctuation, it can seem surreal or inflated. But as the block quotes you chose remind us, that’s how people sound when they talk. Even highly educated lawyers speaking before the highest court in the land.

  2. DCN June 29, 2012 / 4:49 pm

    Thank you very much. I couldn’t agree with you more about the dialogue. I think some would disagree with us, but this is how we sound when we talk. The decision to include portions of the Citizens United transcript was influence by that discussion.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s