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Corporations? Corporations? Nobody Here but Us Chickens

Author Donald Lazere details the means by which American corporations render their own political and economic power invisible.

(Image: Hiding faces via Shutterstock)

In Why Higher Education SHOULD Have a Leftist Bias, author Donald Lazere surveys the means by which American corporations render their own political and economic power invisible while diverting blame for social ills to “the government.”

Author’s note: This is an except from my recent book, “Why Higher Education SHOULD Have a Leftist Bias,” published by Palgrave-Macmillan. The book argues that the unremitting propaganda campaign by conservatives against leftist bias in American higher education and mass media is based on a rhetorical trick: It singles out every instance of alleged bias on the left – some accurate, some not – then magnifies them far out of proportion to comparable biases in conservative camps, and to the larger forces of conservative bias pervading American society that are not generally even perceived as bias, but only as the norm of neutrality, of “business as usual.” So my book surveys a wide range of these “unmarked” sources of conservative bias past and present then calls for teachers, scholars and journalists to be forthright in providing minimal leftist, especially socialist, counterweight to the whole range of conservative business as usual – while urging them to address these issues in a scrupulous manner that does not just replace one variety of propaganda with another.

For more than a century, corporate agents have propagated an image of large corporations that renders them invisible as economic special interests and wielders of partisan – or bipartisan – political influence. An irony downplayed by conservative theorists of the invisible hand of the free market is that a quite visible hand is considered necessary to manipulate the selling of the conservative agenda, through billions of dollars spent every year by corporations and corporate-wealthy individuals on political lobbying and campaign contributions, public relations agencies, law firms, foundations, think tanks, and above all news and entertainment media controlled directly or indirectly by ownership and advertising.

This PR image depicts corporations as champions of a myriad of mom-and-pop businesses, so that any legislation aimed at curbing big business and the corporate wealthy is deflected by a pretense of concern that it will harm small business. This image further equates corporations with individual citizens, deserving the same constitutional rights as individuals – an assertion whose ultimate vindication came in the 2010 Supreme Court Citizens United case. (For historical perspective on corporate legal and PR strategies here, see Hartmann, Aune, Fones-Wolf, Stauber and Rampton.)

A corollary PR campaign, to sell the notion that corporate “free enterprise” was endorsed by the American founders, is based on shameless lies. It is hard to find a word about corporations in early American political writing and literature that does not regard them with loathing. When writers like Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Hector St.-Jean de Crèvecoeur praised free enterprise and private property, they meant individual farms or trades, not the modern usage of finance capital, stock markets, and multinational corporations. When they lauded “industry,” they meant individual industriousness, not corporate industries. Thus Crèvecoeur emphasized in his definitive 1782 essay “What Is An American”: “Here there are … no great manufacturers employing thousands, no great refinements of luxury. The rich and the poor are not so far removed from each other as they are in Europe. We are all animated with the spirit of an industry which is unfettered and unrestrained, because each person works for himself.”

In fact, Jefferson wrote in 1816, “I hope we shall crush in its infancy the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country.” As recounted by Thom Hartmann in his book Unequal Protection, tracing the rise of corporate dominance over government, “Jefferson kept pushing for a law, written into the Constitution as an amendment, that would prevent companies from growing so large that they could dominate entire industries or have the power to influence the people’s government.”

The clearest sign of the triumph of the perennial campaign by corporations to render themselves invisible is that when college students and writers of letters to the editor complain about excessive power or corruption in America, its source is almost always identified as “the government,” almost never “the corporations.” Few of my students over the years have taken any courses that studied the influence of corporate lobbies and PR on “the people’s government.” Thus national debate over President Obama’s proposed health care reform became framed (largely through health-care industry PR) in terms of the dangers of a government monopoly depriving individuals of free choice – a false dilemma that excluded attention to the financial restrictions on individual free choice under the present system of corporate oligopoly in health care, insurance, and pharmaceuticals, or to the immense profits and executive incomes of those corporations. This same pattern is visible in nearly every other conservative campaign, such as privatizing public education, Social Security, and Medicare, where conservative arguments always play up “individual choice,” not the potential multi-billion-dollar profits or power over education for the corporate privatizers behind these campaigns. Likewise with debates over gun control, nearly always framed in terms of individual rights, rarely in terms of the profits of gun manufacturers and sellers, nationally and internationally, or their lobbying power at the federal and state level.

Perhaps the least-scrutinized key fact of American political and civic life is that our major institutions of mass communication are themselves corporations driven by the profit motive; it is almost tautological to say that they are the least likely source to count on for finding intensive criticism of corporate society in general or of their own biases stemming from ownership and commercial sponsorship by conglomerate mega-corporations that are involved in a multitude of cross-promotions and conflicts of interest.

Consider the debasement of American politics by the absurd increase in the length of political campaigns, as presidential candidates begin virtually on one Election Day to run for the next one four years later, while the primary season drags out for a year before the general election. The prime beneficiary here is parties and individuals who can raise the most money to outlast rivals and who have constantly increased the stakes in campaign financing, mainly from corporate-wealthy patrons. However, the news media are equally complicit, through the billions of profits they now generate from both campaign advertising and the bump in general advertising for coverage of these protracted campaigns.

Further beneficiaries of the boom in campaign advertising are the star TV reporters, commentators (whether conservative or liberal), and debate moderators making millions and glorying in their self-importance; or the similarly well-paid, young Ken and Barbie dolls who have replaced seasoned journalists in newscasts, being fed sound bites through their earbuds or teleprompers, while they chirp with “happy talk” between accounts of bloody world conflicts and natural tragedies. (Thank goodness for the unglamorous professionalism of Candy Crowley and Barbara Starr on CNN.) Most media analysts were blind to the impending financial collapse in 2008 caused by runaway speculation and executive income on Wall Street, because they themselves had profited from the boom to jump into the top percentiles of wealth. So is it surprising that there is virtually no self-scrutiny aired on national or local TV of the corporate concentration of wealth biasing the ideological perspective of mass media? Corporations? What corporations?

Or consider the saturation point in commercial corruption of college and professional sports reached in recent decades, when every game has become an orgy of corporate promotions – as in the branding of stadiums like Petco Park or GEO Stadium at Florida Atlantic University, sponsored by a private prison corporation, and of golf tournaments like, I kid you not, the Waste Management Open. The funneling of wealth to the corporate elite throughout society is reflected in the mainstream media’s escalation in advertising revenue through sports, with commensurate revenue hikes for colleges and pro teams from the broadcasters, enabling hundred-million-dollar income for athletes, who in earlier periods typically were low-paid, blue-collar workers, chawing tobacco instead of bubble gum. (Not that I advocate a return to that period when players were slaves to owners – it is again a matter of proportion, and owners and media make far more than players.) How often are these issues discussed on TV sports broadcasts?

The myriad forms of corporations’ power – all disappeared from the agenda of public debate – also include their prerogatives as employers, the consequent subservience of students and workers to corporate bosses, the extortion from national and local governments of favoritism under the threat of moving elsewhere, and the willingness of legions to be a good team player, to lie, swindle, and despoil in the pursuit of corporate riches. Most social-science scholarship on authoritarianism has focused on authoritarian submission to royal, totalitarian, or military rule, but the most dominant form in contemporary America is obviously to corporations and the corporate wealthy. What explains why so many Americans (including college students) blank out on placing blame on the wealthy for socioeconomic problems, even as the gap in wealth and political power between the wealthy and everyone else widens exponentially? Most likely a combination of indoctrination into the faith that anyone has a chance to become rich (a faith constantly expressed by my lower-middle-class students at state colleges) and reluctance to bite the hand that feeds you or is likely to in the future. Thus follow all manner of doublethink rationalizations of submission to power that Orwell summed up as loving Big Brother.

To be sure, not all corporate behavior is blameworthy, but isn’t the extent of opportunities for – and actual instances of – corporate malfeasance, and the number of humans who will do anything for enough money, sufficient to discredit conservatives’ idealized model of free enterprise? Several of my aggressively conservative students have also flaunted their ambition to get on the gravy train of Republican-aligned political consultants, media, foundations and think tanks. I recall no instance of liberal students saying they sought riches through labor unions, teaching, civil rights, feminist, and environmental groups, or ACORN. This is not to deny that some in those circles find ways to cash in through them, but only to suggest that most young people who seek careers in them do not claim this motivation, in the brazen manner of many young conservatives.

Although the Republicans have long been labeled the party of big business, the increasing dominance of big business and the corporate wealthy over the Democrats (and likewise over labor and social-democratic parties in Europe) has rendered meaningless the endless conservative attacks on Democrats’ putative leftism or “socialism.” Conservative polemicists love to deride the hypocrisy of Democratic “limousine liberals.” I argue that it is admirable for liberals who become wealthy to maintain a principled sense of social justice against their own class interests (despite the undeniable ethical dilemmas their retention of wealth poses), but I also argue that a major factor undermining progressive politics is that accession to affluence and power is a conservatizing force that has been irresistible for countless liberals or leftists in every walk of life – including not only politics, but unions, journalism, advocacy organizations, higher education and scholarship, and the arts; in every field their iconoclasm predictably diminishes as they become more established. With dismal frequency, those liberals who have reached the upper levels of their occupations – intoxicated by the sweet smell of success – change into advocates for the status quo of capitalism, producing rationalizations in the mode of Norman Podhoretz’s Making It and Breaking Ranks for the moral virtues of wealth and the free market.

In Making It, Podhoretz recounted the shock to his shabby-genteel, liberal-intellectual consciousness resulting from going on an all-expenses-paid junket to the Bahamas in the early 1960s for an international conference of artists and intellectuals sponsored by billionaire Huntington Hartford, the A&P heir. Podhoretz sighs, “This is what it meant to be rich: to sleep in a huge bright room with a terrace overlooking an incredibly translucent green sea, to stretch one’s arms out idly by the side of a swimming pool and have two white-coated servants vie for the privilege of depositing a Bloody Mary into one’s hand … without giving money a second thought.” (In the Bahamas, these obsequious servants would have almost certainly been black, and the omission of this detail was significant for the author of “My Negro Problem, and Ours.”) His point was that “the dirty little secret” of liberal intellectuals was that they were not immune to the lure of wealth and power.

Although Making It was published in 1967, before Podhoretz became a neoconservative, after he did so, he continued to fixate on such hypocrisies on the left, without ever acknowledging that personal wealth and power are more readily available to conservative intellectuals, and more often a motivator, underlying their professions of disinterested belief in the virtues of free enterprise. Nor has he ever acknowledged this as a possible motivation in his own latter-day conservatism or that of his many family members and friends who have “made it” in the Republican or corporate upper ranks. In his book about the neoconservatives, They Knew They Were Right, Jacob Heilbrunn significantly observes, “Allan Bloom was close to Irving Kristol, but not until he had become a millionaire. (When I visited Bloom at the University of Chicago shortly before his death, he said that his relationship with Kristol had become ‘easier’ once he, like Kristol, was wealthy.)” Exactly how Kristol, long an impecunious journalist for intellectual “little magazines,” got wealthy after becoming a corporate and Republican strategist has been a closely guarded secret in conservative circles.

In similar fashion, foreign dictators lavishing money in American public relations have been able to turn the heads of liberal American journalists and scholars, as in the embarrassing case of Muammar Gaddafi with Benjamin Barber and Joseph Nye (see Wiener, “Professors Paid by Qaddafi”). My point is that the co-opting force of access to corporate wealth and power is another subject erased from the agenda of American public discourse, and that an agenda more open to socialist views would include consideration of possible ways of limiting acquisition, by any individual or institution, of excessive wealth and power.

The best smoking-gun evidence I know of for the rhetorical trickery used to disguise the operations of corporate special interests is found in the transcript of a “60 Minutes” interview in March 1995 by Leslie Stahl with tobacco lobbyist Victor Crawford shortly before he died of throat cancer from smoking.

STAHL: You yourself said it wasn’t addictive when you were smoking and knew it was addictive.

CRAWFORD: Sure, it’s not a crime because I wasn’t under oath. It wasn’t perjury. And it was what I was being paid to do. … Was I lying? Yes.

STAHL: (Voiceover) Crawford says the tobacco lobbyists, often lawyers from the top firms, call themselves “the black hats.” So you took on a black hat. Why did you …

CRAWFORD: Money. Big money. … Unfortunately, the other groups are not in a position to pay the big bucks, which is necessary to hire the best people.

… We used to bring a scientist out of the woodwork and have this particular lab do this, and we’d have a poll pulled by some cockamamy pollster saying this, that or the other.

STAHL: You’re walking around with a study, and you’re thinking to yourself, “This study’s totally bull. …

CRAWFORD: Oh. sure.

STAHL: ” … but I’m going to give it to this guy anyway?”

CRAWFORD: Oh, sure. Just to show them that the jury’s still out, that you shouldn’t take away anybody’s civil rights until you’re absolutely sure what you’re doing. How can you be absolutely sure when this – this X-Y-Z laboratory, world-famous laboratory – why … is it world famous? Because I said it is, and nobody’s checked.

STAHL: I have to tell you, it’s shameful.

CRAWFORD: It happens. It happens every day. It happens in every – in every legislature. …

STAHL: (Voiceover) One of Crawford’s first assignments as a lobbyist for the Tobacco Institute was to head off a local ordinance in Maryland to ban smoking in bars, taverns and restaurants. He thought a rally for smokers’ rights would be a good idea.

STAHL: (Voiceover) But the demonstration against the proposed ban didn’t work, so Crawford tried a new tactic. He denounced the ban’s backers as “health Nazis,” a term he coined. What did you mean when you first used it?

CRAWFORD: I attacked the messenger on the grounds that they were trying to destroy civil liberties; that what they were trying to do was put their values upon the general public and try to impose it upon the working man, who wants a glass of beer and a pack of cigarettes, and destroys his freedom of choice.

STAHL: I’ve heard that argument myself.

CRAWFORD: That’s right. If you’ve got good people arguing for you, you can turn the issue away from the message. That’s what I’m saying. Get them away from the focus – because you can’t defend it – and attack the messenger.

STAHL: You know, you are describing the most cold-hearted, cynical, destructive set of values – I’m sorry – because these were your values.

CRAWFORD: They were.

STAHL: And you’re just telling it to us as if “Sure.”

CRAWFORD: It’s the American way. (“60 Minutes”)

Crawford’s confession is paradigmatic of the tricks of the PR trade for disguising corporate special pleading, including “astroturf” pseudo-grassroots support groups, phony polls and research institutes, smearing of opponents, and appeals to civil-libertarian freedom of choice and fairness and balance (“the jury’s still out”). A good assignment for college students, and challenge to conservative polemicists, would be to ask if they can document comparable examples that have been perpetrated in recent decades by liberals or leftists such as scholars, journalists, labor unions, public employees, or civil rights and citizen advocacy organizations like ACORN – at Crawford’s level of power, greed, cold-blooded deceit, and propagation of socially pernicious policies. Far from being an isolated case of the “few rotten apples in every barrel,” Crawford’s confession is a perfect emblem of the conservative special-interest propaganda that is indeed so ubiquitous as to be “the American way.” Unless they repent like Crawford or get caught in illegal acts like Jack Abramoff and his congressional accomplices, such PR agents and lobbyists are regarded as upstanding citizens, the envy of legions seeking to emulate them, with college major programs devoted to their training. Again to avoid over-generalization and stereotyping here, many PR agents, lobbyists, and the organizations they represent scrupulously provide useful social services, but there are far more than a few rotten apples, many of whom never repent or get caught. (The “60 Minutes” report on Crawford was itself a praiseworthy exception to the rule of exclusion of such stories from the mainstream media.)

Conservative theorists tend to avoid the issue of what restraints in the free market, without government legislation and regulation, can prevent the possibility of corporate power corrupting the entire polity. So at the very least, college liberal arts courses are justified in filling the vacuum in public discussion on this issue.
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