Over the weekend I was re-reading the infamous Powell Memo, written by written in 1971 by former Supreme Court justice Lewis Powell, who at the time was working as a corporate attorney. The memo is in essence a letter to the Chamber of Commerce in which Powell urges the American business community to begin investing more money trying to capture the hearts and minds of Ma and Pa America. You see, back in the early '70s a handsome young buck named Ralph Nader was making life miserable for the American business establishment, particularly the automobile industry. While Nader today is considered a crank by most of the country, at the time he was quite effective, a sort of anti-corporate Andrew Breitbart who loved to stir the pot, make trouble and collect scalps.
At any rate, Powell's memo basically encouraged the business community to take more of an active role in political life. And I don't just mean donating to campaigns -- I mean getting involved in academia and the media to begin influencing public opinion. While it's true that this memo is not the Rosetta Stone of corporate influence that it's made out to be, it is reflective of a general feeling among business elites that they were tired of being pushed around by liberals and leftists and that they were going to start hitting back. This passage is particularly amusing in light of how much corporate power dominates our political landscape today:
[A]s every business executive knows, few elements of American society today have as little influence in government as the American businessman, the corporation, or even the millions of corporate stockholders. If one doubts this, let him undertake the role of "lobbyist" for the business point of view before Congressional committees. The same situation obtains in the legislative halls of most states and major cities. One does not exaggerate to say that, in terms of political influence with respect to the course of legislation and government action, the American business executive is truly the "forgotten man."
Powell is certainly exaggerating the plight of the poor beleaguered business man here, as the business lobby always had a seat at the table even during liberalism's heyday in the 1960s. The difference was, unlike today, the business lobby didn't own the damn table.
One of my favorite scene's in Oliver Stone's "Nixon" film comes when a group of cigar-chomping right-wing businessmen give Tricky Dick and earful about "federal price controls on my oil" and about the fact that "your EPA environmental agency has got its thumb so far up my ass that it's scratching my ear."
And while this is a work of fiction (and an Oliver Stone work of fiction at that), it's still somewhat thrilling to see Nixon stick up for the EPA in the face of corporate pressure. Where have you gone, Tricky Dick, our nation turns its lonely eyes to you!
The point here is that in the early 1970s, the public at large still thought the putting limits on how much pollution a private firm could emit was actually a good thing. That same decade was when Corporate America began investing more cash into think tanks like Heritage and Cato in order to scrub these inconvenient little ideas out of peoples' heads and convince them that air pollution was just one of the free market's many wonders, along with lead poisoning and E. coli.
But back to the Powell Memo. Toward the end of the memo, Powell provides a list of several principles that Corporate America should be defending as part of its propaganda campaign. Some of what you would expect, but others are still surprising:
We in America already have moved very far indeed toward some aspects of state socialism, as the needs and complexities of a vast urban society require types of regulation and control that were quite unnecessary in earlier times. In some areas, such regulation and control already have seriously impaired the freedom of both business and labor, and indeed of the public generally. But most of the essential freedoms remain: private ownership, private profit, labor unions, collective bargaining, consumer choice, and a market economy in which competition largely determines price, quality and variety of the goods and services provided the consumer.
Labor unions??!! Collective bargaining?!!?!!?!!?! This dude would be considered a Communist by the Tea Party's standards!
Powell then closes with a flourish and recites the most insidious meme embedded within corporate propaganda -- that your right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is directly tied to the right of rich and powerful corporations to do whatever the hell they want:
But whatever the causes of diminishing economic freedom may be, the truth is that freedom as a concept is indivisible. As the experience of the socialist and totalitarian states demonstrates, the contraction and denial of economic freedom is followed inevitably by governmental restrictions on other cherished rights. It is this message, above all others, that must be carried home to the American people.
And tragically for our country, this campaign to influence hearts and minds has been stunningly successful. We no longer protect blue-collar jobs, union membership as a percentage of the workforce is the lowest it's been in decades, and average wages have stalled even as corporate profits have soared. And still, our corporatist ideologues demand more. They want to voucherize Medicare in order to pay for tax cuts for corporations and wealthy individuals. They want to privatize Social Security and shift risk even more toward individuals. They want to end collective bargaining rights for public-sector workers all together.
For our democracy to survive at all, we're going to need a movement that challenges the role of corporate power. Russ Feingold's campaign to overturn the truly horrible Citizens United decision is a good place to start.