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An 'excess of democracy': How corporations killed the campus

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(Image by David Shankbone | Flickr)

In 1971, a small band of "forgotten" businessmen fought off the enemy – radical academics, et al – and won the day… and the future. They were mainly pale, stale, male and hale of wealth, but they pulled it off anyway.

Education was particularly dear to what they called their hearts and their counterattack succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.

The "forgotten man"

Few elements of American society today have as little influence in government as the American businessman… truly the forgotten man.
Lewis Powell,1971

What happened in the 1960s? Masses of anti-Vietnam war, civil rights, women’s liberation and gay rights activists took to the streets across the global north. On August 23, 1971, in the midst of this so-called "crisis of democracy", jurist Lewis F Powell Jnr wrote to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce urging a full-scale counterattack on the enemy — namely, radical elements in higher education.

Powell said called it an attack on the:

‘American free enterprise system, from the college campus, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals, the arts and sciences, and from politicians…. The response of business… is appeasement…. Appeasement… serves to destroy free speech, academic freedom and genuine scholarship.’

Who or what was driving the "massive assault" on American free enterprise?

Higher education was to blame, said Powell, as:

‘The campus is the single most dynamic source…. Every major college is graduating scores of bright young men … who despise the American political and economic system…. They seek employment in… the business system they do not believe in.’

The Chamber of Commerce, he urged, should establish a special staff ‘to address the campus origin of this hostility' and the staff should comprise:

...highly qualified scholars in the social sciences who do believe in the system… [and] advocates from the top echelons of American business. [They] should evaluate social science textbooks… toward restoring the balance… publish…. a steady flow of scholarly articles… insist upon equal time on the college speaking circuit. The counterattack should first target college level, including Graduate Schools of Business, but also create programs tailored to the high schools.

As with textbooks,

...the national television networks… should be kept under constant surveillance…. Complaints… should be made promptly and strongly…. Forum-type programs [should] afford at least as much opportunity for supporters of the American system… as for those who attack it... In terms of political influence the American business executive is truly the forgotten man…. Regulation and control… have seriously impaired the freedom of both business and labour.


The first step should be a thorough study.

David Rockefeller, CEO and Chairman of Chase Manhattan Bank and billionaire grandson of John D Rockefeller, agreed with Powell. A thorough study was needed. But who were the right people to carry it out?

The Trilateral Commission of 'private citizens'

After World War II, [America] was governed by the president acting with the support and cooperation of… the private sector’s establishment...

...Truman… went to the existing sources of power… to get the help he needed in ruling the country…. [In the 60s] this was no longer possible.
Samuel P Huntington, 1975

In 1973, David Rockefeller founded the Trilateral Commission, a self-described group of "private citizens" of Western Europe, Japan and North America. It commissioned Harvard centre director, Samuel P Huntington, to co-author a joint U.S.-Europe-Japan commissioned report, entitled, 'The crisis of democracy: Report on the governability of democracies to the Trilateral Commission'.

The report stressed the threat to governability from ‘an excess of democracy’, especially in higher education. Too many previously apathetic voters had been educated out of their apathy. Well known for his racist and supremacist views, Huntington had theorised a ‘hierarchy of civilisations’  headed by the ‘Christian bloc'. 

He asked rhetorically:

'Would America be the America it is today if… it had been settled not by British Protestants but by French, Spanish, or Portuguese Catholics? It would not be America; it would be Quebec, Mexico, or Brazil’.

The Trilateral report: The crisis of democracy

The 1960s’ ‘democratic surge’, said the report, had incited demands from the undeserving:

'Citizen participation [saw] markedly higher levels of self-consciousness on the part of blacks, Indians, Chicanos, white ethnic groups, students, and women… [claiming] opportunities, positions, rewards, and privileges, which they had not considered themselves entitled to before.’ 

The ‘excess of democracy’ challenged:

‘existing systems of authority, public and private… People no longer felt the same compulsion to obey those whom they had previously considered superior to themselves in age, rank, status, expertise (p. 74)…. the authority of wealth was challenged and successful efforts made… to limit its influence’. 

Huntington went to great pains to explain that a large degree of non-involvement among marginal groups is required if democracy is to function:

‘A democratic political system usually requires some measure of apathy and non-involvement on the part of… a marginal population…. inherently undemocratic, [it nevertheless enables] democracy to function effectively. Marginal social groups, as in the case of the blacks, are now becoming full participants. Yet the danger of overloading the political system with demands… remains.’ 

To save democracy, said the report, democracy must be limited. The ‘excess of democracy’ must give way to desirable limits to [its] extension’. A better balance must be struck between government and the "oppositional" force of the media. First-Amendment protection of the media should be re-evaluated in the ‘broader interests of society and government’. The government’s ‘right and ability to withhold information at the source’ should be exercised and, in the absence of voluntary journalistic restraint, ‘the alternative could well be regulation by the government’ 

America must limit the education of marginal groups, said Huntington. Prior to World War II, only 40 per cent of the population was educated beyond elementary level; by 1972, that figure was 75 per cent.

The report summed up the threat thus — education raises political consciousness, which raises demands, which make democratic government unworkable:

The more educated a person is, the more likely he is to participate in politics, to have a more consistent and more ideological outlook on political issues ,and to hold more “enlightened” or “liberal” or “change-oriented” views on social, cultural and foreign policy issues.

...Black political participation,' the report said, ‘was the product primarily… of increased group consciousness.

To solve this problem: 'A decline in the saliency of school integration, welfare programs, law enforcement [would bring about] a decline in their group consciousness and hence their political participation’.

Expansion of higher education must be curtailed, the report advised. Education must relate to ‘economic development and future job opportunities’ or ‘lower job expectations’. And rather than allow workers’ participation, employers should ‘opt for job redesign’.

The Carter Administration’s "private citizens"

David Rockefeller, believing ‘the Watergate-plagued Republican Party was a sure loser’ for the 1976 presidency, selected Democrat Jimmy Carter to run. Notably, the Trilateral Commission is bipartisan; whoever best supports business is their man.

On Carter’s election, the "private citizens" dominated his Administration. They included: Walter Mondale (Vice President); Cyrus Vance Jnr (Secretary of State); Zbigniew Brzezinski (National Security Advisor); W Michael Blumenthal (Secretary of the Treasury); Harold Brown (Secretary of Defence); Richard Holbrooke; Warren Christopher; Richard N Cooper; Samuel P Huntington; Andrew Young (Ambassador to the United Nations); C Fred Bergsten (Treasury); Paul Volcker (Chairman of the Federal Reserve); and Alan Greenspan (Chair of Economic Advisers).

After Carter, presidents George Bush Snr, Bill Clinton, George Bush Jnr and Barack Obama were invited onto the Commission. Not Donald Trump, though — due not to his politics or manner but his poor business skills.

In 1979, Carter increased administrative control over all levels of education by creating a separate department run by a member of the Council on Foreign Relations — a more secretive body than the Commission.

Education as a commodity

Where to now?

The conservative values underpinning university funding were also used to withhold it. The Trilateral Commission saw American democracy as increasingly ungovernable and unaffordable. They wanted a new order to make the world more predictable and they saw radical intellectuals as contributing to the dangerous disorder.

The 1960s had seen a Keynesian commitment to education for the betterment of society. Neoliberalism, in contrast, treated education as a commodity.

Everyone in education knows what "now" looks, smells, feels and sounds like. "Now" exceeds Lewis Powell’s and the Trilateral Commission’s wildest dreams, their entire set of prescriptions realised. "Now" is the corporatisation of the university and the commodification of education. "Now" is the false idea of "balance".

"Now" is unprecedented wealth disparity. Whereas wealth disparity decreased during the 1970s, it shot up again during the 1980s as neoliberalism took hold. The wealth of the richest 20 per cent has climbed steadily from the late 1970s onward, while real wages for most Americans have steadily declined.

"Now" is people as the commodity.

‘The real truth of the matter is… that a financial element in the larger centres has owned the government ever since the days of Andrew Jackson.’

Franklin D Roosevelt, 1933

Dr A L Jones is a psychologist, academic, editor and author of books and articles on gender politics. You can follow Jones on Twitter @ALJones58178191.

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