In the 1960s, a phrase was being bandied about that included the two words that most terrify corporate executives: consume less. A substantial number of people, particularly young people, were coming to the conclusion that the road to nirvana may not necessarily lie through endlessly consuming more stuff. Indeed, consuming ever more stuff might just be fouling our nest—despoiling the very environment we depend upon for our sustenance. A cultural revolution was taking place.
Corporations and wealthy individuals decided that this consume less nonsense had to be stopped. In the 1970s, they swung into action. They began a process of pooling funds and investing them in think tanks, media outlets and lobby organizations to promote their agenda. The 1970s saw the birth of such conservative organizations as the Business Roundtable and The Heritage Foundation in the United States and the Canadian Council of Chief Executives (formerly the Business Council on National Issues) and the Fraser Institute in Canada. The number of registered lobbyists in Washington rose from 175 in 1971 to 2,500 in 1982 to almost 35,000 today.
Trade agreements alone have done much to enhance their power over governments and weaken the bargaining power of workers. The agreements restrict government’s ability to regulate corporate behaviour while freeing corporations to leverage workers in developed nations against cheap, non-union labour in developing nations. Union membership in North America has fallen precipitously, to 31 per cent in Canada and 11 per cent in the U.S. Capital is winning the war with Labour.
The mass media have become increasingly the instrument of oligarchs. Rupert Murdoch dominates the press in Britain and has created an entire TV network in the U.S. dedicated to right-wing propaganda. In Australia, he owns eight of the 12 major daily papers and mining interests are buying control of three of the remaining four.
Corporations have done well, too, in deregulating markets. Deregulation in the U.S. brought catastrophe to the financial markets, but the bankers continue to roll in money, and regulation they face as a result will be much weaker than what was in effect before Bill Clinton trashed the Glass–Steagall Act. Considering that Barack Obama depends heavily on election funding from the financial industry, we should not be surprised.
American corporations have even captured the U.S. Supreme Court. Its Citizens United decision, a case sponsored in part by the infamous Koch brothers, freed up corporations to buy elections as never before. Corporations even fund their own grass roots movements as we saw with the same Koch brothers and the Tea Party Movement.
Sometimes the blatant bowing of politicians to corporate power is
cringe-inducing: Tony Blair, as one of his first acts when he became leader of his party, traveling to the other side of the world to
genuflect before Rupert Murdoch; Barak Obama placating the insurance and
pharmaceutical industries in order to get his health care bill passed.
According to Pulitzer Prize-winning Steve Coll in his book Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power, since 1998, when Exxon merged with Mobil to create the world’s largest company, it has netted a cash flow of $493-billion and maintains an AAA credit rating. During the same period the United States government has seen a net cash flow of minus $5,700-billion and its credit rating has dropped to AA+. Governments struggle while the corporate counterrevolution rolls on.