Magazine article Multinational Monitor

Don't Mourn, Organize: Big Business Follows Joe Hill's Entreaty to U.S. Political Dominance

Magazine article Multinational Monitor

Don't Mourn, Organize: Big Business Follows Joe Hill's Entreaty to U.S. Political Dominance

Article excerpt

FOR MORE THAN TWO DECADES, a corporate political juggernaut has rolled over citizen interests the world over. It was not always so.

In the 1960s and 1970s, it was Big Business that was on the defensive. In the United States, a low-unemployment economy increased workers' bargaining and, indirectly, political power. The modern environmental movement formed and quickly began transforming popular consciousness and scoring important political victories. Following Ralph Nader's breakthrough with Unsafe At Any Speed, the consumer movement began uncovering case after case of corporate abuse and successfully pushing for reform. The anti-war, civil rights and women's movements all mounted broad social challenges intended to democratize the economy.

Internationally, the newly decolonized Third World asserted itself politically, pressing calls at the United Nations for a New International Economic Order. Revolutionary movements around the globe posed serious threats to established order, in many cases gaining political power and in some instances rejecting multinational corporate dominance of developing country economies.

In leading business circles, these developments were viewed with alarm. In 1971, Lewis Powell, a prominent corporate lawyer who would soon be appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, prepared a memorandum, "Attack on American Free Enterprise System," for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. This widely circulated memo asserted that "no thoughtful person can question that the American economic system is under broad attack." It warned: "Business and the enterprise system are in deep trouble, and the hour is late."

The central message of Powell's memo was that corporations needed to organize to confront organized citizens. "Strength lies," Powell wrote, "in organization, in careful long-range planning and implementation, in consistency of action over an indefinite period of years, in the scale of financing available only through joint efforts, and in the political power available only through united action and national organizations."

Although Powell's memorandum focused on what the Chamber of Commerce could do, it was really a clarion call to the executive class. To respond to the memo, the Chamber organized a task force of leading executives to develop an action plan. Following on Powell's suggestions, the task force emphasized the need for corporations to:

* Work to promote pro-business attitudes among young people and intellectuals, including by hiring sympathetic intellectuals as consultants and sponsoring their research;

* Sponsor more research and aggressively communicate business points of view to the media;

* Utilize paid advertisements to support the business system;

* Dramatically ratchet up corporations' political activity, including by forming political action committees and increasing campaign contributions; and

* Strive to influence judicial decisions and the judicial system.

Business took these recommendations to heart. Through the Chamber of Commerce and by many other means, corporations pursued all of the proposals put forward by the task force. More importantly, multinational corporations committed themselves to following Powell's entreaty to organize politically.


The multinationals threw themselves into the task of domestic political organizing with reckless abandon. They revitalized the Chamber of Commerce and National Association of Manufacturers. They created new entities, such as the Business Roundtable, an organization consisting only of the CEOs of the nation's largest companies. They transformed countless trade associations from sleepy groupings at which companies traded information on industry matters to potent political lobbies.

Through these beefed up organizations and their own Washington, D.C. offices, business started channeling vastly greater sums into national politics, with campaign finance laws playing little role in limiting their monetary contributions. …

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