In this time of socio-economic turmoil and political malaise, might we take a moment, breath, step back and perhaps try to understand how we got here, to this confusing place we’re living through these days, so that we then might find ways through and, eventaully, out? Because we are going to get out of this; the question, however, is what will we look like when we come through to the other side.
We’re living through a transition of mammoth proporstions. The anger — and anguish — we witness daily is caused by enourmous change in societies. Some of this change is planned; some is historical; other change is uncontrolled, unforseen. This is literally happening everywhere. No one is untouched. We are anxious because experience — reality as we once knew it — is ending. We’re certain. We feel we’re at the end of boundaries. But boundaries are also beginnings of things. What will be, though, is unclear. And what is — the present — is defined by tremenodous anxiety that shallow political figures and the media that follows them along fuels. We’re frustrated because, as we are pushed up against boundaries, politicians and popular media merely exacerbate rather than engage in a reasoned examination of what is and, most importantly why.
In his seminal work, The Location of Culture (1994), Homi Bhabha says that, “Our existence is marked by a tenebrous sense of survival, living on the borderlines of the ‘present’, for which there seems to be no proper name other than the current and controversial shiftiness of the prefix ‘post’: postmodernism, postcolonialism, postfeminism…”
The notion that existence is dark, even foreboding, and that reality is always on the borderlines, suggests a rather indefinite place; it’s home to the disorder of things, the result of an utterly fabricated world – an experiment that needs us to re-visit our purpose in creating it.
Bhabha also suggests that, “Social differences are not simply given to experience through an already authenticated cultural tradition; they are the signs of the emergence of community envisaged as a project – at once a vision and a construction – that takes you ‘beyond’ yourself in order to return, in a spirit of revision and reconstruction, to the political conditions of the present.”
Is this systemic? Have we been engineered to be dominated so violently? After all, society is manufactured so what we become is planned, organized, given schedules, laws, and moral codes. It is reasonable to wonder how we came to be so divided, so constricted in our social mobility.
Witness “the political conditions of the present,” as Bhabha urges “in a spirit of revision and reconstruction”: Our socio-economic downturn and the extreme separation between race(s) and class were seeded in the social upheaval of the 1960s. America was struggling to come of age racially and sexually; the country was torn apart by Vietnam, so much so that it still haunts the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
For some, the chaos of the sixties was a sign of hope – society could change; for others this same period was a warning – powerful ideas were infiltrating our most heralded institutions, especially education – and challenging the free market. Capitalism was challenged on all fronts.
In 1971, Lewis F. Powell, then a corporate lawyer and member of the boards of 11 corporations, wrote a memo to his friend Eugene Sydnor, Jr., the Director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The memorandum – The Powel Memo, also known as the Powel Manifesto – was dated August 23, 1971, two months prior to Powell’s nomination by President Nixon to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Powell Memo did not become available to the public until long after his confirmation to the Court. It was leaked to Jack Anderson, a liberal syndicated columnist, who stirred interest in the document when he cited it as reason to doubt Powell’s legal objectivity. Anderson cautioned that Powell “might use his position on the Supreme Court to put his ideas into practice…in behalf of business interests.”
Though Powell’s memo was not the sole influence – another, from the Left, was The Crisis of Democracy, Report on the Governability of Democracies to the Trilateral Commission – the Chamber of Commerce and corporate activists took his advice to heart and began building a powerful array of institutions designed to shift public attitudes and beliefs over the course of years and decades. The memo influenced or inspired the creation of the Heritage Foundation, the Manhattan Institute, the Cato Institute, Citizens for a Sound Economy, Accuracy in Academe, and other powerful organizations. Their long-term focus began paying off handsomely in the 1980s, in coordination with the Reagan Administration’s “hands-off business” philosophy.
Most notable about these institutions was their focus on education, shifting values, and movement-building. Powell, for his part, embraced the expansion of corporate privilege and wrote the majority opinion in First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti, a 1978 decision that effectively invented a First Amendment “right” for corporations to influence ballot questions. On social issues, he was a moderate, whose votes often surprised his backers.
“No thoughtful person can question that the American economic system is under broad attack,” writes Powell in his memo. “We are not dealing with sporadic or isolated attacks from a relatively few extremists or even from the minority socialist cadre. Rather, the assault on the enterprise system is broadly based and consistently pursued. It is gaining momentum and converts.”
The fear that forces had infiltrated institutions and were effectively changing the course of Capitalism was alarming to the centers of power – defense, banking, the oil industry.
“The most disquieting voices joining the chorus of criticism,” Powell warned, “come from perfectly respectable elements of society: from the college campus, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals, the arts and sciences, and from politicians. In most of these groups the movement against the system is participated in only by minorities. Yet, these often are the most articulate, the most vocal, the most prolific in their writing and speaking.”
No one was safe from Powell’s condemnation, particularly “minorities.” Circle the wagons – the creation of the present began with Powell and those that saw value and benefit in his message.
Adding to the problem, according to Powell, “The painfully sad truth is that business, including the boards of directors’ and the top executives of corporations great and small and business organizations at all levels, often have responded – if at all – by appeasement, ineptitude and ignoring the problem. There are, of course, many exceptions to this sweeping generalization. But the net effect of such response as has been made is scarcely visible.” Business, while doing their jobs well, were never prepared for the kind of “guerilla warfare,” Powell calls it, that was certainly needed. “[But] they have shown little stomach for hard-nose contest with their critics, and little skill in effective intellectual and philosophical debate.”
The remedy was to have the Chamber of Commerce be more instrumental because, “It enjoys a strategic position, with a fine reputation and a broad base of support.” The college campuses needed “balance” — and the Chamber could provide a means to an end, the reconstruction of a new order.
The social science faculties usually include members who are unsympathetic to the enterprise system. They may range from a Herbert Marcuse, Marxist faculty member at the University of California at San Diego, and convinced socialists, to the ambivalent liberal critic who finds more to condemn than to commend. Such faculty members need not be in a majority. They are often personally attractive and magnetic; they are stimulating teachers, and their controversy attracts student following; they are prolific writers and lecturers; they author many of the textbooks, and they exert enormous influence – far out of proportion to their numbers – on their colleagues and in the academic world.
Powell argued that organizing the Chamber to assist administrators and faculties in actively constructing change was feasible; the Chamber could also organize “a staff of highly qualified scholars in the social sciences who do believe in the system”; organize a “staff or speakers of the highest competency” that would include speakers for the Chamber that “would have to articulate the product of scholars.”
Reaching the campuses and secondary schools was vital.
But Powell recognized that reaching the public in the short term, as he says, “may be more important.” This would involve the monitoring of the national television networks. “This monitoring, to be effective,” notes Powell, “would require constant examination of the texts of adequate samples of programs. Complaints – to the media and to the Federal Communications Commission – should be made and strongly when programs are unfair or inaccurate.” A private police state. Radio, scholarly journals, books, paperback and pamphlets were all under attack and in need of a forceful revision. The courts, the political arena, paid advertisement – all of it had to be re-constructed accordingly.
The total commodification of the American Experience was underway, fully engaged and given free run by Reagan, resulting in the present: the privatization of schools, the segregation of communities, the ever widening gap between the rich and everyone else, but particularly between wealthy whites and people of color.
This is what Powell called the “Rehabilitation to Freedom.” Powell believed that the country had moved too far into “state socialism.” Says, Powell, “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
In the present – in corporatized academia and the privatization of public education, in the political arena motivated more by ideology then negotiation, bargaining and compromise, the staples of democratic principles, and in a mostly conservative media that is keen on covering process instead of a “return to the political conditions of the present,” the actual moral place of media – we can literally see and hear Powell.
The political left does not fare any better in this story.
In The Crisis of Democracy: Report on the Governability of Democracies to the Trilateral Commission, the authors – all three distinguished professors from prestigious universities, Michel J. Crozier, Samuel P. Huntington and Joji Watanuki, wondering whether there is a general crisis in this democracy, lament that there are “various communist observers, who speak with growing confidence of ‘the general crisis of capitalism’ and who see in it the confirmation of their own theories.” The remedy is to re-invigorate the public – and systems of government – around the central purposes of democratic systems: “the combination of personal liberty with the enhancement of social progress.”
But as the Trilateral Commission’s authors suggest, there are challenges to democracies, “tendencies,” as they say, “which impede that [the functioning of democracy itself] functioning”:
1. The pursuit of the democratic virtues of equality and individualism has led to the delegitimation of authority generally and the loss of trust in leadership.
2. The democratic expansion of political participation and involvement has created an ‘overload’ on government and the imbalanced expansion of governmental activities, exacerbating inflationary tendencies in the economy.
3. The political competition essential to democracy has intensified, leading to a disaggregation of interests and the decline and fragmentation of political parties.
4. The responsiveness of democratic government to the electorate and to societal pressures encourages nationalistic parochialism in the way in which democratic societies conduct their foreign relations.
Thus, “leadership is in disrepute in democratic societies.” A more stringent, subtle and powerful form of government, not seen but highly influential, had to take hold.
In the United States, at the time, “the government is constrained more by the shortage of authority than by the shortage of resources.” In essence, then, government had to regain its foothold in society. In order to keep democracy alive, at least in principal, democracy had to be essentially curtailed, shut down. Something else had to take it’s place, while creating the illusion that democracy still mattered. Enter the corporation.
Witness today: The Powell Memo and The Crisis of Democracy helped usher in the massive commodification of American life, the ongoing dismantling of public education, the corporatizing of the university, the aggressive and demoralizing taking apart of labor unions, the polarization of politics brought about by an insistence on stringent ideologies, and the homogenizing of popular media – all this taking hold while the country was grappling with civil rights, feminism, sexual politics and a devastating war no one wanted. These were difficult times. We witnessed the assassination of John F. Kennedy; then his brother, Robert, fell to the insanity. Malcolm X was taken in the confusion as well. Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream seemed to come to a bloody end on a balcony, in Memphis, Tennessee, on the 4th of April, 1968. And then there was Watergate, when we thought the chaos was winding down. These were the worst of times, though some, particularly today’s young, have a certain nostalgia for this frightening era.
And we came out of it – but when we re-emerged as a nation, all tattered and wounded, the Reagan years had effectively given us a different world: an American ideology – and politics – focused on corporate benefit.
The socio-economic divide has its road map, and segregation became entrenched; the gap between the haves and the have nots had been keenly engineered.
When capitalism was first presented as an intellectual framework, it operated unseen – Adam Smith’s “unseen hand.” But what we have now is an “unprecedented combination of powers distinguished by their totalizing tendencies,” says Sheldon S. Wolin, in Democracy Inc.,“powers that not only challenge established boundaries – political, moral, intellectual, and economic – but whose very nature it is to challenge boundaries continually, even to challenge the limits of the earth itself.”
Witness our present then, where the “totalizing tendencies” of this unbridled power have placed us all on the boundaries, at limits, where things end and where things also begin, looking once again at Homi Bhabha.
But what ends and what begins?
In a society where power’s totalizing tendencies are exercised fully and completely, marginalization, departmentalization and disenfranchisement are characteristics of this existence.
The challenge for America is the understanding that this methodology, which began with The Powell Memo and The Crisis of Democracy is focused on the short term. This common practice in American; it’s also a natural sympton of a constructed transition. Administered violence, rabid xenophobia and racism, sexism, consumerism and spectacle are but the results.
Now, knowing what we know, what are we going to do, what are we willing to do with what we know? This is at the crux of America’s perfect storm. If we don’t recognize how we got here, we won’t recognize where we might go, turning this ship around, pointing it toward the promises of opportunity and equality that, as we come to our 10th anniversary of 9/11, let’s not forget the representation of the Statue of Liberty a couple of miles from this tragic center.