Dante Occupies Wall Street
~by Arthur Emlen
In the Fall of 1947 at the University for Foreigners in Perugia, I took a course in Dante Alighieri’s Inferno. Dante completed this epic poem in 1321 just before he died. It was unusual because it was written not in Latin but in his native Italian, revealing the beauty of the language.* It is significant also because it reveals timeless social and moral issues just as relevant today seven centuries later. Those issues are forcefully being brought to the fore by the Occupy Wall Street movement.
The Inferno is an allegory telling of a journey through nine circles of Hell where familiar figures receive a punishment appropriate for their behavior. Though it must be said, that appropriateness had one exception. Perhaps to save his own skin, Dante assigned to Limbo, in the first circle, those Greek philosophers and other worthy heroes of the past, simply because they had not received a Christian baptism. Aside from that, Dante was an insightful and subtle moral philosopher. He even assigned to the first circle those “uncommitted” souls who never took sides on the issues of the day. Their punishment was forever to be made uncomfortable, stung by wasps and hornets.
The next seven circles of Hell are for those who committed acts more deliberate and specific—the lustful, the gluttons, and the greedy, including both misers who hoard and those who squander. Yet Dante also found a place here for the angry who find no joy. Violence and usury also appear in circle seven, where loan sharks who impoverish others are described as violating the two legitimate sources of wealth—people and property.
The eighth and most richly designed circle of Hell is devoted to perpetrators of conscious fraud. This circle is a complex domain supervised by a winged monster having the face of an honest man. It includes panderers and seducers, who exploit the passions of others. It includes flatterers who exploit others by using language, and their punishment is to be steeped in human excrement. Circle eight includes false prophets and fortunetellers, who forever must now walk forward with their heads facing backwards. Here too are the corrupt politicians and grafters, whose sticky fingers boil in pitch. Here as well are hypocrites, thieves, and fraudulent advisors who gave false advice or used their position to counsel others how to engage in fraud. Not forgotten are sowers of discord and falsifers such as counterfeiters, perjurers, and imposters.
Perhaps most significant and relevant to the modern world is Dante’s final ring of Hell. Frozen in a lake of ice are those who committed acts of treachery that involved betrayal of trusted relationships. Dante includes betrayers of family ties, of community ties, and of nation. In contemporary terms, these frauds would include betrayals of trust by any who have been given, or who have acquired, a position of responsibility, whether to serve, govern, advise, protect, or nurture, and whether to educate, research, or honestly investigate and report the factual truth. All of these are fiduciary relationships, whether legally contracted or morally implied. They are the ties that bind and are the foundation of a just society. Dante was probably right to be most concerned about fraud that involved betrayals of trust.
The behaviors that Dante was able to observe in fourteenth century Italy are alive today in the USA—though with further sophistication. Dante didn’t know about telemarketers. Surely we would like to condemn them to a life without privacy, peace, and quiet. And Dante didn’t know about those fraudulent conjurers and sellers of risky securities composed of bundles of home loans on the verge of bankruptcy. Surely we would wish those greedy betrayers to be mired in the debt they fostered, along with the regulators, legislators, and financial advisors who also failed in their fiduciary duties.
On fundamental morality, Dante had us nailed back in 1321, even though he could write a lively second edition. But alas, there is another parallel to the times then and now: failures in accountability. He understood how little accountability there would be for those Florentines and Vatican Popes from whom he had to flee and write about. But in his allegory, punishments could take place only in an afterlife. “Lasciate ogne speranza voi ch’entrate.” The sign above the entrance to the Inferno warned: Abandon all hope you who enter here.
Dante was wrong about where hell is. It’s right here on earth, or not at all. Punishment is now or never, and society may be punishing the wrong parties. In Boomerang (2011) Michael Lewis writes about how we allowed fraudulent misrepresentation of financially risky securities. The story is entertainingly told, but sadly true to life. We in the USA threw that boomerang of greed and fraud, and it proved how international greed is—easily adapted to the national character of Iceland, Greece, Ireland, and Germany, as well as our own. That was our debt we suckered them with, and now the boomerang is winging back across the Atlantic to swack us again. Hell on earth is not discriminating. I once became acquainted with a man who had robbed banks during the Great Depression, and he received a very long prison sentence. Nowadays, according to former bank regulator William K. Black (2005), the best way to rob a bank is to own one. We don’t prosecute fraud much in this country, although the SEC has just announced it is prosecuting those at Fannie and Freddie, whose dishonesty about risks taught Wall Street a thing or two about fraud [Mortgenson and Rosner, Reckless Endangerment (2011)].
The Occupy Wall Street movement is drawing attention to the need for accountability, as well as to the need for change in social and economic policies that will restore the health of a democratic society. The sentiments and aims of the Occupy movement are not as unfocused as they may appear. The movement is identifying many imperatives because the problem is complex and the needs are great: Re-regulate banking, hedge funds, and derivatives. Stop usury and the sleazy banking that promotes unaffordable housing and replaces family savings with debt. Expose the bribe-takers who sell the greedy legislation, and expose their sources. Require immediate financial disclosure of all political ads and influence. With transparency, follow the money! Pass real tax reform—personal and corporate—that stops cheating the 99% to enrich the 1%. Rebuild the economic capacity of families and of the working classes, without which quality of life and a vibrant economy are not possible. Remember, our last two economic depressions were no accident; they followed on the heels of the 1928 and 2007 extreme peaks in disparity of incomes (Reich, Aftershock, 2010). Protect consumer interests. Enable all families and individuals to build some wealth. Respect labor and insist on fair wages. Repair the tattered safety nets, including health care. Invest in the common good. Stop destroying the planet. No longer allow careless enterprise to pass along the costs of environmental harm. And stop our unwinnable wars.
All of these imperatives are linked together. They will continue to receive political support, because they spring from commitment to democracy and to sentiments of fairness that are rooted in a shared heritage of the civilized world. Recently this morality has been given renewed voice by the movement to Occupy Wall Street, and Dante lit candles that helped to light the way.
* The opening six lines of the Inferno by Dante Aligheri (1321):
Nel mezzo del camin di nostra vita
mi retrovai per una selva oscura,
che la diritta via era smarita.
Ahi quanto a dir qual era ´e cosa dura,
esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte
che nel pensier renova la paura!
Translation: Midway through this journey of our life, I found myself in a dark forest, in which the straight and true path was lost to me. To say how it was is a hard thing to do—this wilderness so savage, dense, and powerful, that just thinking about it brings back fear.