The bumper sticker has growing relevance: “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” As many corporations report record profits and our president announces with a straight face the economy is sound, the gap between the very rich and the rest of us continues to widen, the number of U.S. citizens without health insurance passes 45 million (equivalent to the populations of the eight northeastern states), and the level of American jobs outsourced to cheap labor markets worldwide reaches farther up into the middle class. For the first time in generations the economic outlook of our children is dimmer than that of their parents.
Amongst corporate media, no one said boo about all this until Hurricane Katrina smashed through the façade to ask her own questions. The Abramoff scandals will provide further illustration of how far the organized accumulation of money has come in hijacking our democratic ideals. It’s time for some history you didn’t hear in school.
In 1971, scant weeks before being named to the U.S. Supreme Court by Richard Nixon, Lewis F. Powell, a corporate lawyer and multiple board member, wrote a 6,000 word letter to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on the request of a fellow Virginian and friend serving as the Chamber’s education director. The Powell Memorandum, as it came to be known (mediatransparency.org), warned of a growing threat to the business establishment posed by the rising political power of voices that were awakening public opinion to the costs of the corporate paradigm: environmental degradation, threats to public health and safety, joblessness, race-based neglect of the poor, and corporations’ involvement in the Vietnam War. Prophetically and deceptively, Powell used the term “self-interest groups” to lump consumer advocates, environmentalists, and labor unions.
Memories of the great depression were fresher in those days, and the business community was reluctant to do more than, well, business. Powell argued that the American capitalist system was “under attack” and without action “was not likely to survive.” “Business must learn the lesson, long ago learned by labor and other self-interest groups. This is the lesson that political power is necessary; that such power must be assiduously cultivated; and that when necessary, it must be used aggressively and with determination.” Powell emphasized the effort must be organized, specifically targeted, and long-term.
His message did not fall on deaf ears. The Business Roundtable quickly formed, a kind of senate of business elites which established class solidarity among its members. Powell’s analysis of the major sources of harmful liberalism pointed to college campuses, the media, and the courts. In response to the education “problem,” institutions were set up to provide an echo chamber for the corporate agenda: think tanks (such as the Heritage Foundation, et al.), books and magazines, and increasingly sophisticated public relations and lobbying agencies. The message was the same one familiar today: the “free” market (my quotes) is infallible; we just need government off our backs. Significantly, any mention of business’s responsibilities toward social justice was omitted. And, although the Roundtable was and is dominated by multinational corporations, a major propaganda ploy remains the questionable claim of representing small business.
Corporate media of course have remained on message for decades now, ignoring or ridiculing those who dare suggest the corporate structure is anything but “natural” economics. In response to Powell’s assertion that “the judiciary may be the most important instrument for social, economic and political change,” scores of “free enterprise” foundations were bankrolled to press for expanded corporate “constitutional rights” and legal doctrines. Between 1992 and 1998, 237 federal judges reported attending 530 “educational seminars” sponsored by groups such as the Washington Legal Foundation. Justice Powell himself went on to figure prominently in Supreme Court rulings that profoundly expanded corporate “rights.”
I am not against corporations doing business, but rather the use of matchless corporate resources to shape public opinion, policy, and law. Just as liberals seized their chance to create a positive social contract between business and society upon the collapse of the Gilded Age during the “dirty thirties,” Lewis Powell launched a juggernaut out of the business community’s perceived crisis of the 1970s. People should know that.
The trends and events of the past few years have been hard on our country’s sensibilities, pride, and confidence. Our faith in the ability of laissez faire capitalism to create a just or sustainable society has finally been shaken. The dilemma we find ourselves in can be the occasion for a fundamental adjustment toward a more equitable future, through a reexamination of corporate-installed paradigms. We need to learn that today’s economic realities are not necessarily the result of some mysteriously natural economic process, but rather an idea in someone’s head, an idea that was acted upon.
Dave Wheelock, a member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, did not learn about the Powell Memo while attaining a history degree from the University of New Mexico. Engage him at firstname.lastname@example.org.