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The Business Offensive: A Symmetrical Ruling Class

Since the close of World War II, America has sought an integrated policy as the militarization of capitalism. In the intervening years, this was not always easy to achieve, as, depending on circumstances, one or the other, the corporate-financial order, and the military itself, asserted itself and made strong demands on government. The result was never an intracompetitive mold because each needed and recognized the value of the other, but still there were periods of imbalance in their respective surges of governmental policy-emphasis. American capitalism had become a functional duopoly (C. Wright Mills’ Power Elite was a good popular discussion of this general structure at an earlier point in our capitalist-development trajectory after the war), the Cold War itself providing a cover for the US globalization of power via market penetration, international financial and monetary architecture under US supervision, and the steady build-up of an Armaments State.

There is nothing actually new here about the American historical pattern, except of course the more explicit and pronounced role to be assigned the military in the stabilization and expansion of American capitalism. The military was never at any point following the Civil War a negligible input in synthesizing the materials for an operational ruling class, but essentially, as in the late-19th century policy of the Open Door, business was sufficiently confident of its own power (the “imperialism of free trade”) to carry forward the process of expansion largely on its own. Yet, the dynamism of early modern capitalism, realized in part through grinding methods of labor suppression, notably, the privatization of force, helped on by a compliant government, meant that within capitalism itself there was tremendous jockeying for power requiring the imposition of Order if major railroads and industrial firms were to enjoy their secure monopoly status.

Here government was crucial to harmonious internal structural arrangements, anticompetitive in its policies for the promotion of monopolism sector-by-sector including banking (the House of Morgan, whose offshoots firmed up the organization of railroads and manufacturing) as the means to systemic consolidation—an end to internecine competition—which was achieved in the early 20th century under Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson (themselves the Janus-faced construct of the Battleship Navy and supposed liberal internationalism) setting the stage for the present era. In practice, we see the interpenetration of business and government as the integration of monopoly capitalism in its own right. Even the New Deal, because it provided a significant welfare-dimension as indispensable to the recovery of capitalism during the Great Depression, furthered the monopolistic trends through the National Recovery Administration. America was therefore poised on the threshold of world power, its initial phase of globalization made possible through a combination of wartime economic planning for the future, massive profits in the defense industries, and, immediately after, the acceleration and intensification of anticommunism partly as the cover for unilateralism in shaping the world system.

Why is the foregoing important for understanding the nature of American capitalism today? Is history a useful guide to the present and future? Business power cannot exist in a political and structural vacuum. This is no longer the 1890s or 1920s, when American capitalism displayed its wares and conducted its foreign investments pretty much as it chose. Wilson’s attempt to destroy Bolshevism through the Siberian Intervention gave us a preview of what lay ahead, but business could continue its course still for two-plus decades without full-throttle military help in further expansion. By the late 1940s one can say that the military remained a junior partner of a synthesized ruling group or class, given the overwhelming thrust of business and its ascendant banking wing in defining American capitalism. But the world was changing, not only the rise of rival power centers, and an awakening proto-revolutionary Third World, but America itself was now succumbing to its own political hysterics over the real and imagined enemies it created and the social forces it summoned into being by its destructive conduct in global affairs.

American capitalism could no longer go it alone, the military increasingly supplying the muscle for continued expansion and profitability. Korea and Vietnam were important chapters in the reshaping of a capitalist polity, with numerous interventions beyond mention the underpinning for a coalescent framework of elites, all making for a structural process of shaking down to the bare essentials the capitalist and military components in search of equilibrium. For otherwise, America feared its decline and would do anything to prevent. Granted, it is hard to conceive of capitalism as a perpetual war machine, especially in America, which labors under the fiction of being, or if it ever was, then remaining, a democracy. But there it is, an arms budget dwarfing all else, military bases strategically gathered worldwide, death squads euphemistically termed Special Ops, presidential-directed drone assassinations, the list goes on—so much so that one almost forgets capitalism is centrally about business and profits, not murder and mayhem.

At this point, business, rather than the military, appears to be the junior partner of American capitalism, but for those who value symmetry as an aesthetic goal, it will be welcome news that business is seeking to make a comeback, to claim its autonomy as a worthy partner in the Great Capitalist Synthesis, an accomplice to the more successful militarization of capitalism by holding its own as an integral part in the relationship. In sum, the desideratum of business as usual, as in fleecing the consumer and jeopardizing his/her safety, destroying the environment, and best of all, removing itself from the constitutional foundations of the rule of law. Corporations and banks have become a law unto themselves, with all the organs of government stretching from the Executive, Congress, the Supreme Court, to myriad regulatory agencies some unbeknownst to the public, sitting as a chorus of admiring voices egging them on.

Business wants parity with its soul partner, the military, and to that end we see many straws in the wind, from the coddling of General Motors over the killing of its customers with a defective ignition switch to the mining operations which release carbon emissions into the atmosphere, to, now the most recent revelation, a frightening judicially-supported move to abstract business from legal redress for any death and harm it inflicts or falsification of terms it imposes on those whom it putatively serves or comes into contact. The New York Times deserves high praise for documenting how business in what is becoming a unified posture is stripping away meaningful recourse to the law for the downright illegal and often sadistic practices it daily commits against the American people. (See my CounterPunch article, “Corporate Rescindment of Legal Rights: Business Power Run Amuck,” for some background.) Class-action law suits, frequently the only feasible action of the poor for seeking redress of grievances against the giant corporations, are all but prohibited, replaced in contracts by compulsory-arbitration clauses, intended in the first place to kill class actions, which compel the individual standing alone to face insurmountable odds in a process by which the corporation names the arbitrator, keeps the proceedings secret, and determines the rules of procedure.

Civil courts are thrown to the winds. It is as though capitalism, in this one seemingly minor area touching primarily the normalization of everyday relationships, has gone on the offensive, not of course to re-establish its relation to the military, but specifically and directly to exercise its domination over the people. I take this contractual bowdlerization to be symptomatic of things to come, capitalist arrogance to detach itself from the moral-legal norms of society and judicial framework to support them, and become, now fully militarized and feeling its oats, in sufficient commanding position to run roughshod over even the formalities of democracy. The now-and-future business polity is the fulfillment of the fascist dream, an authoritarian power structure of corporate consolidation supported through governmental suppression of dissent at home and an aggressively waged foreign policy to capture world markets. The small print of the contracts one signs, whether for car rentals or nursing homes, and thousands of transactions in between, emboldens capitalism to go its solipsistic way, to the destruction of freedom, the planet, and human dignity.

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Norman Pollack Ph.D. Harvard, Guggenheim Fellow, early writings on American Populism as a radical movement, prof., activist.. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at pollackn@msu.edu.

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