The signs are easy enough to see, if one is looking. 40% of Americans are reportedly unable to cover a $400 emergency. 45,000 people in the US die every year since they can’t afford healthcare, which is a leading cause of bankruptcy, to many even with health insurance. Student loan debt has recently hit $1.5 trillion: an average of $37,172 per borrower upon graduation. Job insecurity continues to be a fact of life for many with outsourcing in full steam, and scores of Americans feel alienated from politics and the institutions they are subject to, falling back on passivity and nihilism. It’s no surprise that trust levels have also been declining for decades.
The UN in 2017 sent a Special Rapporteur to the US in order to report on poverty and human rights. His full report can be found here and is best summarized by his statement that:
“American exceptionalism was a constant theme in my conversations. But instead of realizing its founders’ admirable commitments, today’s United States has proved itself to be exceptional in far more problematic ways that are shockingly at odds with its immense wealth and its founding commitment to human rights. As a result, contrasts between private wealth and public squalor abound.”
All of this is during one of the largest economic expansions in US history with low levels of official unemployment . Why the disconnect? How can so many experts be saying the economy is doing so well but for much of the working class, we seemingly never fully recovered from the 2008 financial crisis and great recession? The answer lies partly in what economic class one belongs to.
According to a recent 2017 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research, working class wealth is still lower now after years of this ‘economic expansion’ than before the 2008 financial crisis sparked the great recession in the first place. But after only two years in 2009, while the recession was still felt in full force, the wealth of the top income brackets rose by 28% and hasn’t stopped rising since.
For much of the mass media, consisting of multi-billion dollar corporate conglomerates owned by the wealthiest American shareholders, our economy is doing just fine, thank you. For the regular Americans of the working class, it’s another story.
Contrast our current situation with that of the 1960s: adjusted for inflation, rent has gone up 46% since then, the cost of owning a home has risen by 73%, college education up 400%. To keep up with greatly increased costs of living, wages for the working class have not kept up with inflation, being essentially stagnant since the early 1970s- no coincidence, as will be shown.
The 1960s were a time of political action, protest, and activism for large portions of the US population. The Civil Rights movement was in full force. The protests of the Vietnam War intensified. The hippie movement was emerging- all amidst the Cold War with the Soviets. This greatly worried the elites at the time, who resented masses of people challenging elite supremacy of power in American society.
In today’s age, conspiracy theories abound. From a population deprived of a voice in how society is run, it seems natural that grand conspiracies about any number of things exist in attempts to make some sense of a world gone mad. What follows is not a story one of shadowy figures or secret meetings held in dark, smoke filled rooms. It is all public record, released for anyone to read for themselves. I will of course be hyperlinking so the readers can do their own research to validate it.
As a first reaction to the political activity of the 1960s, former American Bar Association president and corporate lawyer Lewis Powell was commissioned by the US Chamber of Commerce in 1971 to report confidentially on how the US business community could again retake the levers of power in the country where they appeared to be slipping out of their grasp. The report was discovered by the Washington Post one year later and publicly released. It can be found here and is a fascinating read.
The report opens with “No thoughtful person can question that the American economic system is under attack”. Powell mentions of the sources of the attacks that they are “from the college campus, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals, the arts and sciences, and from politicians”. In other words, there was steadily increasing pressure on the elites of society from below, and we can’t have that.
Powell details steps needed to take back control for the interests of the powerful and large corporations (bold as follows is mine):
- “A significant first step by individual corporations could well be the designation of an executive vice president whose responsibility is to counter- on the broadest front- the attack on the enterprise system. The public relations department could be one of the functions assigned to this executive.” Essentially, delegating a role for the public relations departments as corporate propaganda.
- He next notes that “independent and uncoordinated activity by individual corporations, as important as this is, will not be sufficient”. Instead, “the role of the Chamber of Commerce is therefore vital. Other national organizations should join in the fight, but no other organizations appears to be as well situated as the Chamber. It enjoys a strategic position, with a broad base of support” and that “there are hundreds of local Chambers of Commerce which can play a vital role”.
- For colleges and universities, Powell recommended the Chamber “consider establishing a staff of highly qualified scholars in the social sciences who do believe in the system.” He also notes that for textbooks, they should be oriented in a way as to “include assurance of fair and factual treatment of our system of government and our enterprise system, its accomplishments, its basic relationship to individual rights and freedoms, and comparisons with the systems of socialism, fascism and communism. Most of the existing textbooks have some sort of comparisons, but many are superficial, biased and unfair.” Meaning these textbooks don’t make us look good by definition and that must be fixed.
- Of television “The national television networks should be monitored in the same way that textbooks should be kept under constant surveillance”. Concerning advertisements, the Chamber should support “a sustained, major effort to inform and enlighten the American people.”
- Regarding the court system, “this is a vast opportunity for the Chamber” who “need a highly competent staff of lawyers. In special situations it should be authorized to engage, to appear as counsel amicus to the Supreme Court, lawyers of national standing and reputation.”
- Of widely successful consumer advocate and lawyer at the time, Ralph Nader, Powell also called for opposing his efforts: “there should be no hesitation to attack the Naders, the Marcuses and others who openly seek destruction of the system”
To sum the Powell Memorandum up: use the PR departments of large corporations to promote the interests of individual big businesses, but most importantly, unite such large businesses together in order to pool their power and influence in society via Chambers of Commerce (and later Political Action Committees (PACs). This influence should be targeted at ‘education’, advertising, using the financial clout of large corporations to influence politics, and denigration of public figures fighting for the interests of consumers, Ralph Nader being only one example.
Lewis Powell would then be appointed to the Supreme Court that year in 1971 by Richard Nixon.
The next big ‘call to arms’ came in the form of a 1975 report to the Trilateral Commission called “The Crisis of Democracy”, written by Samuel Huntington who was an influential Harvard political scientist, among others. The Trilateral Commission is an organization of political and economic elites who seek to foster international support and cooperation for their agenda. Their work The Crisis of Democracy can be found here (text version here) and the print version can be bought, although it is rare to find since it was printed in limited numbers.
The report points out that:
“Truman had been able to govern the country with the cooperation of a relatively small number of Wall Street lawyers and bankers. By the mid-1960s, the sources of power in society had diversified tremendously, and this was no longer possible.” Furthermore, “Previously passive or unorganized groups in the population now embarked on concerted efforts to establish their claims to opportunities, positions, rewards, and privileges, which they had not considered themselves entitled to before.”
Translation: rule by the elite was the norm but is now being challenged by larger and larger portions of the population. And we elites can’t abide by this.
The report goes on to point out that due to the strength of the qualities inherent in democratic societies:
“The success of the existing structures of authority in incorporating large elements of the population into the middle class, paradoxically, strengthens precisely those groups which are disposed to challenge the existing structures of authority.”
Meaning when more and more of the poor are elevated into higher strata of income and standing in society, this creates a positive feedback loop wherein these people then go on to use their positions to challenge elite control, which are defended by such “existing structures of authority”.
“At the same time, a pervasive spirit of democracy may pose an intrinsic threat and undermine all forms of association, weakening the social bonds which hold together family, enterprise, and community. Every social organization requires, in some measure, inequalities in authority and distinctions in function.” We can’t let the masses of people exercise control over our society because that would threaten the interests of who already run the show. Furthermore, it’s natural that our tiny minority run things and this shouldn’t be questioned.
Finally, to sum up the problem in their words:
“In the past, those institutions which have played the major role in the indoctrination of the young in their rights and obligations as members of society have been the family, the church, the school, and the army. The effectiveness of all these institutions as a means of socialization has declined severely.”
Thus, the report recommends that:
- Some “centralization of power in Congress” is necessary in order to curb the power of “private interest groups”- ‘private interest groups’ being the population at large.
- The report notes the following: “A more highly educated, more affluent, and generally more sophisticated public is less willing to commit itself blindly and irrevocably to a particular party and its candidates. Yet partisan allegiances, along with party conflicts, have historically been the bedrock of democracy.” Basically, education of the people leads them to disavow party loyalties, and party loyalties are what we (the owners) use to ‘divide and conquer’ the population in order to ensure our own status- this is ‘our’ kind of democracy. Such reasoning calls to mind the popular phrase ‘we have one political party in this country with two wings’. Party politics is how elites can prevent the US population from uniting in their own interests and thus preserve the status quo for themselves and prevent this excessive democracy the elites speak of.
- As a side note, the thinking that ‘those people of the other party are the source of all of our problems’ is the exact kind of thinking that this report recommends to fracture the population and thus render them politically inept.
- Regarding the media: “But there is also the need to assure to the government the right and the ability to withhold information at the source. In addition, there is no reason for denying to public officials equal protection of the laws against libel, and the courts should consider moving promptly to reinstate the law of libel as a necessary and appropriate check upon the abuses of power by the press.” This one is densely worded and a bit confusing to understand, but in essence it means whistleblowers and other media watchdogs who can report damaging/abusive things about the government, corporations, etc. should be limited in their ability to inform the public. Keep a lid on the information which could hurt us, in other words.
- On colleges and universities: “higher educational institutions should be induced to redesign their programs so as to be geared to the patterns of economic development and future job opportunities”. Translation: instead of higher education promoting increased knowledge and intellectual development of students, it should instead be geared towards getting them jobs. Educate students on how to use and run the machines, but not to question our authority and the systems the workers are participating in.
- In the workplaces: “deep resentment and frustrations have developed, feeding back into the more conventional aspects of labor-management bargaining.” Labor unions are threatening profits and the ability of corporations to run the companies. Therefore, “industry should be given all possible incentives to move ahead and implement gradually new modes of organization” i.e., union busting.
- And lastly, the report recommends “securing support and resources from foundations, business corporations, labor unions, political parties, civic associations, and, where possible and appropriate, governmental agencies” since “Such mutual learning experiences are familiar phenomena in the economic and military fields; they must also be encouraged in the political field”. This closely echoes what the Powell Memorandum recommended: organize the centers of wealth and power in the country and use it to maintain their positions from the population at large.
Granted, these two documents were released back in the 1960s and 1970s, but the reason they are still relevant is that the social, political, and economic landscapes that exist today are partly a result of the strategies in these documents, if not directly due to the documents themselves. These documents represent the broad counteroffensive that the powerful, both politically and economically, launched in response to the democratizing forces being exerted on them from below in the 1960s and 1970s. We can see the effects of this counteroffensive all around us today.
Ithiel Pool, who at the time was the Chairman of the Department of Political Science at MIT, wrote of the people in Vietnam, the Congo, and the Dominican Republic:
“order depends on somehow compelling newly mobilized strata to return to a measure of passivity and defeatism… At least temporarily the maintenance of order requires a lowering of newly acquired aspirations and levels of political activity”
Are us ordinary Americans any different from those in Vietnam, the Congo, and the Dominican Republic?
The point here isn’t to promote the idea that there are masters who control everything in our society. Far from it.
FDR and his coalition were able to pass the legislation of the New Deal despite powerful corporate opposition and a plot to assassinate him. FDR would remark that:
“Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me-and I welcome their hatred.
I should like to have it said of my first Administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match. I should like to have it said of my second Administration that in it these forces met their master.”
Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016 despite him running largely outside the establishment Republican mold (and even with some Never Trump Republicans opposing him at least in rhetoric if not in votes) and against a Democratic opponent who was virtually christened to win the election by established power. The fact that the Trump Administration turned around and then embraced the political and economic establishment by cabinet appointments and policy can either indicate the influence of established power, the incompetency of the President, or both, but that is beside the point.
Trump may have run on being the ‘strongman who can fix all of our problems’, but the reality is that in order to establish decent working conditions, a realistic cost of living, and legitimate political representation, the people need to demand it from below through grassroots organization and solidarity. Merely casting a vote every four years in hopes everything gets better on its own will assuredly fail. Power is not relinquished without a mandate.