PERSPECTIVES: “The Powell Memo” (1971), Primary Building Block in Neoliberalism as We Know it Today

Read The Powell Memo here.

Background (The text here is drawn from Frank Fear’s essay in LA Progressive, March 24, 2016)

It was the time of the Civil Rights Movement, Viet Nam protests, the Women’s Movement, environmental organizing (“Earth Day”), and Ralph Nader’s proclamations regarding product quality and safety. Conservatives thought that Nixon had “caved in” to populist political pressure by enabling Federal legislation and policies that hurt Corporate America.

In response to these presumed policy errors, a prominent attorney named Lewis Powell wrote a lengthy memorandum to America’s business leaders. In that memo—known today as “The Powell Memo” (sometimes as “The Powell Manifesto”)—Powell argued that Corporate America needed to organize, just as “the people did,” to assert and advance business interests.

Political power needs to be mobilized in the interests of business, Powell urged, and that power needs to be used “aggressively and with determination….” The critical ingredients, he proposed, were organizing and organization—the same ingredients used in populist movements.

Powell put it this way: “Strength lies in…careful long-range planning and implementation, in the consistency of action over an indefinite period of years, in the scale of financing available only through joint effort, and in the political power available only through united action and national organizations.”

Sounds like the Koch Brothers of today, doesn’t it? But it was long ago, 1971 to be specific. And later that year Powell was named to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Business took Powell’s advice and efforts have continued unabated for over 40 years. It was epochal in nature, Hedrick Smith writes. because it “sparked a business and corporate rebellion that would forever change the landscape of power in Washington and would influence our policies and economy even now.”

How so? Business spread its creed through public and political outreach—seeking public support for “why business is good for you” and funding candidates who supported “the agenda.” It worked, not only for business but also as a way to promulgate a social philosophy for America. The ideas and preferred actions—fringe thinking for many beforehand—began seeping into the mainstream as “what’s good for America writ large.”

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