Ryan’s notes on our discussion of The Powell Memo and Mario Savio’s “Bodies Upon the Gears”

Tonight Jorge introduced two pieces to the group. The first was the Powell Memorandum (1971), a private document intended for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and written by Lewis F. Powell, then a corporate lawyer who had represented the tobacco industry in Virginia. In it, Powell warned of growing anti-business (and therefore anti-American) sentiment, and advocated greater corporate control over the media. The second was a speech given by Berkeley student activist Mario Savio, “Bodies Upon the Gears” (1964), in which Savio famously compared capitalist society to a “machine” and urged his fellow students to stop its functioning with their own bodies.

Powell’s memo warns business elites of a “broad attack” on “the American economic system,” and that they are not paying close enough attention to the leading centers of public opinion: “the college campus, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals, the arts and sciences, and…politicians.” The threat from these groups, he argues, is worse than that from Communists or New Leftists, who “remain a small minority, and are not yet the principal cause for concern.” The left-wing threat, in other words, is from within, and calls for a disciplined response from responsible elites: “One of the most bewildering paradoxes of our time is the extent to which the enterprise system tolerates, if not participates in, its own destruction.” Though we didn’t get to discuss them tonight, he then lays out precisely the kind of covert influence that has been the strategy of the pro-corporate Right for the past 30 years and which we now tend to call “corruption,” or maybe “right wing conspiracy.”

Savio’s speech was delivered as part of the Free Speech Movement’s action at Sproul Hall on the Berkeley campus (which also became the site of Occupy Berkeley) in defense of the right to political speech on campus. He calls for a reclamation of the human right to collectively decide the kind of world he and his peers want to live in, in defiance of established authority. The university administrators, he claims, have demonstrated that they aren’t invested in the humanistic ideals of a liberal education, and are instead interchangeable with the managers of a factory. Extending this logic, “the faculty are a bunch of employees and we’re raw material.” And that means the students’ most powerful weapon is their active refusal to participate, using their very bodies. “One thousand people sitting down some place, not letting anybody by, not letting anything happen, can stop any machine, including this machine!” The force of this refusal promises to open up a space in which a new world can be imagined: “We’re going to learn about freedom…and we’re going to learn by doing!!”

We discussed how the two essays presuppose two opposed perspectives (the top vs. the bottom, or at least in sight of the bottom), two opposed audiences (a tiny wealthy elite vs. Berkeley students and the broader public), and two opposed worlds. At the same time, they share an interest in preserving a way of life or set of values from outside attack.

Katherine pointed out that Powell sees activists like Savio’s defense of (what for him is) humanity betrayed as an attack on the “American economic system.” Where Savio’s speech is as inclusive as possible, Powell is constantly bringing his collective ‘we’ back to America and the nation state against its internal and external enemies. We then wondered if Powell really believes that free market capitalism is the essence of America or if he is just using it instrumentally to advance his own interests. James reminded us that the “American system” has been in defense of property owners since its founding, and that gives the defenders of (any version of) capitalism the justification to equate it with “real America.” It’s a powerful argument that can work on both elites and the public, even if the common working person owns a vastly smaller share of the wealth. To be against (any version of) capitalism is to be un-American. It’s also how elites can use populist-sounding arguments to defend their own interests against the public without suffering cognitive dissonance.

I suggested that there’s also a fascist history to Powell’s argument. Blaming social and economic decline on so-called ‘cultural elites’ (‘the enemy within’) over any specific external threat while calling for a return to essential national values is classic fascism. It justifies greater power and control over the population and the suppression of dissent.

We considered that for Savio, the enemy isn’t internal vulnerability, but an oppressive and dehumanizing system of control, a machine. As Jorge put it, the basic conflict between the two seems to revolve around the question (basic to liberal political theory from Hobbes to Rousseau) of whether good social order requires that people be controlled for their own good by responsible elites, or whether people should be free to control themselves according to their general will. In other words, is direct democracy a desirable ideal or an unrealistic and dangerous one?

It’s pretty obvious which side we’re on.

We also asked ourselves whether the university and the media are still the key political battlegrounds, as Powell and Savio both thought they were. Some of us, including myself, said yes; Kyle said no, the university is not the hotbed of radicalism it’s made out to be. James argued that ideological battles are not enough, because the very language and imagery we use can always be turned against us. Slogans like “We are the 99%” are already getting co-opted by Democrats, and Republican PR strategists like Frank Luntz have already got the GOP candidates expressing ‘sympathy’ with Occupy while attempting to turn it to their advantage. We were all unclear how to sway anyone we don’t know personally to our side beyond the opportunistic repetition of slogans.

There was no real consensus on this point, but it’s a troubling set of questions: to what extent does the war for public opinion matter in a political struggle that goes beyond partisan politics to address the very nature of capitalist society? To what extent can it matter when our opponents have a vast advantage in funding and institutional power? And if the answer to either question is “not that much,” then what is the Occupy movement actually trying to accomplish?


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