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The “Crisis of Democracy” and the Attack on Education

Class War and the College Crisis, Part 1

by Andrew Gavin Marshall

"The Crisis of Democracy," The Trilateral Commission Report
"The Crisis of Democracy," The Trilateral Commission Report

Today, we are witnessing an emerging massive global revolt, led primarily be the educated and unemployed youth of the world, against the institutionalized and established powers which seek to deprive them of a future worth living. In Chile over the past year, a massive student movement and strike has become a powerful force in the country against the increasingly privatized educational system (serving as a model for the rest of the world) with the support of the vast majority of the population; in Quebec, Canada, a student strike has brought hundreds of thousands of youth into the streets to protest against the doubling of tuition fees; students and others are on strike in Spain against austerity measures; protests led by or with heavy participation of the youth in the U.K., Greece, Portugal, France, and in the United States (such as with the Occupy Movement) are developing and growing, struggling against austerity measures, overt corruption by the capitalist class, and government collusion with bankers and corporations. Students and youth led the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt last year which led to the overthrow of the dictators which had ruled those nations for decades.

All around the world, increasingly, the youth are taking to the streets, protesting, agitating, and striking against the abuses of power, the failures of government, the excesses of greed, plundering and poverty. The educated youth in particular are playing an active role, a role which will be increasing dramatically over the coming year and years. The educated youth are graduating into a jobless market with immense debt and few opportunities. Now, just as several decades ago, the youth are turning back to activism. What happened in the intervening period to derail the activism that had been so widespread in the 1960s? How did our educational system get to its present state? What do these implications have for the present and future?

The “Crisis of Democracy”

In the period between the 1950s and the 1970s, the Western world, and especially the United States, experienced a massive wave of resistance, rebellion, protest, activism and direct action by entire sectors of the general population which had for decades, if not centuries, been largely oppressed and ignored by the institutional power structure of society. The Civil Rights movement in the United States, the rise of the New Left – radical and activist – in both Europe and North America, as elsewhere, anti-war activism, largely spurred against the Vietnam War, Liberation Theology in Latin America (and the Philippines), the environmental movement, feminist movement, gay rights movements, and all sorts of other activist and mobilized movements of youth and large sectors of society were organizing and actively agitating for change, reform, or even revolution. The more power resisted their demands, the more the movements became radicalized. The slower power acted, the faster people reacted. The effect, essentially, was that these movements sought to, and in many cases did, empower vast populations who had otherwise been oppressed and ignored, and they generally awakened the mass of society to such injustices as racism, war, and repression.

For the general population, these movements were an enlightening, civilizing, and hopeful phase in our modern history. For elites, they were terrifying. Thus, in the early 1970s there was a discussion taking place among the intellectual elite, most especially in the United States, on what became known as the “Crisis of Democracy.” In 1973, the Trilateral Commission was formed by banker and global oligarch David Rockefeller, and intellectual elitist Zbigniew Brzezinski. The Trilateral Commission brings together elites from North America, Western Europe, and Japan (now including several states in East Asia), from the realms of politics, finance, economics, corporations, international organizations, NGOs, academia, military, intelligence, media, and foreign policy circles. It acts as a major international think tank, designed to coordinate and establish consensus among the dominant imperial powers of the world.

In 1975, the Trilateral Commission issued a major report entitled, “The Crisis of Democracy,” in which the authors lamented against the “democratic surge” of the 1960s and the “overload” this imposed upon the institutions of authority. Samuel Huntington, a political scientist and one of the principal authors of the report, wrote that the 1960s saw a surge in democracy in America, with an upswing in citizen participation, often “in the form of marches, demonstrations, protest movements, and ‘cause’ organizations.” Further, “the 1960s also saw a reassertion of the primacy of equality as a goal in social, economic, and political life.” Of course, for Huntington and the Trilateral Commission, which was founded by Huntington’s friend, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and banker David Rockefeller, the idea of “equality as a goal in social, economic, and political life” is a terrible and frightening prospect. Huntington analyzed how as part of this “democratic surge,” statistics showed that throughout the 1960s and into the early 1970s, there was a dramatic increase in the percentage of people who felt the United States was spending too much on defense (from 18% in 1960 to 52% in 1969, largely due to the Vietnam War).[1]

Huntington wrote that the “essence of the democratic surge of the 1960s was a general challenge to existing systems of authority, public and private,” and further: “People no longer felt the same compulsion to obey those whom they had previously considered superior to themselves in age, rank, status, expertise, character, or talents.” He explained that in the 1960s, “hierarchy, expertise, and wealth” had come “under heavy attack.” The use of language here is important, in framing power and wealth as “under attack” which implied that those who were “attacking” were the aggressors, as opposed to the fact that these populations (such as black Americans) had in fact been under attack from power and wealth for centuries, and were just then beginning to fight back. Thus, the self defense of people against power and wealth is referred to as an “attack.” Huntington stated that the three key issues which were central to the increased political participation in the 1960s were:

social issues, such as use of drugs, civil liberties, and the role of women; racial issues, involving integration, busing, government aid to minority groups, and urban riots; military issues, involving primarily, of course, the war in Vietnam but also the draft, military spending, military aid programs, and the role of the military-industrial complex more generally.[2]

Huntington presented these issues, essentially, as the “crisis of democracy,” in that they increased distrust with the government and authority, that they led to social and ideological polarization, and ultimately, to a “decline in the authority, status, influence, and effectiveness of the presidency.” Huntington concluded that many problems of governance in the United States stem from an “excess of democracy,” and that, “the effective operation of a democratic political system usually requires some measure of apathy and noninvolvement on the part of some individuals and groups.” Huntington explained that society has always had “marginal groups” which do not participate in politics, and while acknowledging that the existence of “marginality on the part of some groups is inherently undemocratic,” it has also “enabled democracy to function effectively.” Huntington identifies “the blacks” as one such group that had become politically active, posing a “danger of overloading the political system with demands.” Of course, this implies directly an elitist version of “democracy” in which the state retains the democratic aesthetic (voting, separation of powers, rule of law) but remains exclusively in the hands of the wealthy power elite. Huntington, in his conclusion, stated that the vulnerability of democracy – the ‘crisis of democracy’ – comes “from the internal dynamics of democracy itself in a highly educated, mobilized, and participant society,” and that what is needed is “a more balanced existence” in which there are “desirable limits to the indefinite extension of political democracy.”[3] In other words, what is needed is less democracy and more authority.

The Trilateral Commission later explained its views of the “threat” to democracy and thus, the way the system ‘should’ function:

In most of the Trilateral countries [Western Europe, North America, Japan] in the past decade there has been a decline in the confidence and trust which the people have in government… Authority has been challenged not only in government, but in trade unions, business enterprises, schools and universities, professional associations, churches, and civic groups. In the past, those institutions which have played the major role in the indoctrination of the young in their rights and obligations as members of society have been the family, the church, the school, and the army. The effectiveness of all these institutions as a means of socialization has declined severely.(emphasis added)[4]

The “excess of democracy” which this entailed created a supposed “surge of demands” upon the government, just at a time when the government’s authority was being undermined. The Trilateral Commission further sent rampant shivers through the intellectual elite community by discussing the perceived threat of “value-oriented intellectuals” who dare to “assert their disgust with the corruption, materialism, and inefficiency of democracy and with the subservience of democratic government to ‘monopoly capitalism’.” For the members and constituents (elites) of the Trilateral Commission, they did not hold back on the assessment of such a threat, stating that, “this development constitutes a challenge to democratic government which is, potentially at least, as serious as those posed in the past by the aristocratic cliques, fascist movements, and communist parties.”[5] This is a very typical elitist use of rhetoric in which when identifying any perceived threat to elite interests, they are portrayed in near-apocalyptic terms. The implication, therefore, is that intellectuals who challenge authority are presented as much of a threat to democracy as Hitler and fascism were.

The Trilateral Commission report explained – through economic reasoning – how increased democracy is simply unsustainable. The “democratic surge” gave disadvantaged groups new rights and made them politically active (such as blacks), and this resulted in increased demands upon the very system whose legitimacy had been weakened. A terrible scenario for elites! The report explained that as voting decreased throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s, active political participation on campuses increased, minority groups were demanding rights (how dare they!), and not only were they demanding basic human rights, but also “opportunities, positions, rewards, and privileges, which they had not considered themselves entitled to before.” That is, unlike the rich, who have considered themselves entitled to everything, always, and forever. Thus, government spending on social welfare and education increased, explained the report: “By the early 1970s Americans were progressively demanding and receiving more benefits from their government and yet having less confidence in their government than they had a decade before.” Most people would refer to that as the achievement of democracy, but for the Trilateral “intellectuals” it was an “excess of democracy,” and indeed, a threat.[6]

Samuel Huntington, naturally, assumed that the decline of confidence in the government was irrational, and had nothing to do with the Vietnam War, police and state repression of protest movements, the Watergate Scandal or other obvious crimes. No, for Huntington, the decline in confidence is tied magically to the “increased expectations” of the population, or, as Jay Peterzell explained in his critique of the report, “the root cause of public disillusionment is consistently traced to unrealistic expectations encouraged by government spending.” Huntington justified this absurd myth on his skewed analysis of the “defense shift” and “welfare shift.” The “defense shift,” which took place in the 1950s, described a period in which 36% of the increase in government spending went to defense (i.e., the military-industrial complex), whereas welfare declined as a proportion of the budget. Then came the “welfare shift” of the 1960s, in which between 1960 and 1971, only a paltry 15% of the increase in spending went to the military-industrial complex, while 84% of the increase went to domestic programs. Thus, for Huntington, the “welfare shift” basically destroyed America and ruined democracy.[7]

In reality, however, Jay Peterzell broke down the numbers to explain the “shifts” in a larger and more rational context. While it was true that the percentages increased and decreased as Huntington displayed them, they were, after all, a percentage of the “increase” in spending, not the overall percentage of spending itself. So, when one looks at the overall government spending in 1950, 1960, and 1972, the percentage on “defense” was 44, to 53, to 37. In those same years, spending on welfare amounted to 4%, 3% and 6%. Thus, between 1960 and 1972, the amount of spending on defense decreased from 53-37% of the total spending of government. In the same years, spending on welfare increased from 3-6% of the total government expenditure. When viewing it as a percentage of the overall, it can hardly be legitimate to claim that the meager increase to 6% of government expenditures for welfare was anywhere near as “threatening” to democracy as was the 37% spent on the military-industrial complex.[8]

So naturally, as a result of such terrifying statistics, the intellectual elite and their financial overlords had to impose more authority and less democracy. It was not simply the Trilateral Commission advocating for such “restraints” upon democracy, but this was a major discussion in elite academic circles in the 1970s. In Britain, this discussion emerged on the “governability thesis” – or the “overload” thesis – of democracy. Samuel Brittan’s “The Economic Contradictions of Democracy” in 1975, explained that, “The temptation to encourage fake expectations among the electorate becomes overwhelming to politicians. The opposition parties are bound to promise to do better and the government party must join in the auction.” Essentially, it was a repetition of the Trilateral thesis that too many promises create too many demands, which then create too much stress for the system, and it would inevitably collapse. Anthony King echoed this in his piece, “Overload: Problems of Governing in the 1970s,” and King explained that governing was becoming “harder” because “at one and the same time, the range of problems that government is expected to deal with has vastly increased and its capacity to deal with problems, even many of the ones it had before, has decreased.” The Italian political scientist Giovanni Sartori asked the question, “Will Democracy Kill Democracy?”

We are pursuing targets which are out of proportion, unduly isolated and pursued blindly, and that are, therefore, in the process of creating… a wholly unmanageable and ominous overload… We are beginning to realize in the prosperous democracies that we are living above our means. But we are equally and more grievously living above and beyond our intelligence, above the understanding of what we are doing.[9]

King explained that, “Political scientists have traditionally been concerned to improve the performance of government.” An obvious mistake, concluded King, who suggested that, “Perhaps over the next few years they should be concerned more with how the number of tasks that government has come to be expected to perform can be reduced.” The “remedy” for all this “overload” of democratic societies was to, first, bring “an end to the politics of ‘promising’,” and second, “attempt to reduce the expectations of voters and consumers” on the political process.[10]

The “threat” of educated youth was especially pronounced. In 1978, the Management Development Institute (a major business school in India) released a report in which it stated:

perhaps the most pernicious trend over the next decade is the growing gap between an increasingly well educated labor force and the number of job openings which can utilize its skills and qualifications… The potential for frustration, alienation and disruption resulting from the disparity between educational attainment and the appropriate job content cannot be overemphasized.[11]

In these commentaries, we are dealing with two diametrically opposed definitions of democracy: popular and elitist. Popular democracy is government of, by, and for the people; elitist democracy is government of, by, and for the rich (but with the outward aesthetic of democracies), channeling popular participation into voting instead of decision-making or active participation. Popular democracy implies the people participating directly in the decisions and functions and maintenance of the ‘nation’ (though not necessarily the State); whereas elitist democracy implies passive participation of the population so much as to allow them to feel as if they play an important role in the direction of society, while the elites control all the important levers and institutions of power which direct and benefit from the actions of the state. These differing definitions are important because when reading reports written and issued by elite interests (such as the Trilateral Commission report), it changes the substance and meaning of the report itself. For example, take the case of Samuel Huntington lamenting at the threat posed to democracy by popular participation: from the logic of popular democracy, this is an absurd statement that doesn’t make sense; from the logic of elitist democracy, the statement is accurate and profoundly important. Elites understand this differentiation, so too must the public.

The Powell Memo: Protecting the Plutocracy

While elites were lamenting over the surge in democracy, particularly in the 1960s, they were not simply complaining about an “excess of democracy” but were actively planning on reducing it. Four years prior to the Trilateral Commission report, in 1971, the infamous and secret ‘Powell Memo’ was issued, written by a corporate lawyer and tobacco company board member, Lewis F. Powell, Jr. (whom President Nixon nominated to the Supreme Court two months later), which was addressed to the Chairman of the Education Committee of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, representing American business interests.

Powell stipulated that “the American economic system is under broad attack,” and that, “the assault on the enterprise system is broadly based and consistently pursued… gaining momentum and converts.” While the ‘sources’ of the ‘attack’ were identified as broad, they included the usual crowd of critics, Communists, the New Left, and “other revolutionaries who would destroy the entire system, both political and economic.” Adding to this was that these “extremists” were increasingly “more welcomed and encouraged by other elements of society, than ever before in our history.” The real “threat,” however, was the “voices joining the chorus of criticism [which] come from perfectly respectable elements of society: from the college campus, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals, the arts and sciences, and from politicians.” While acknowledging that in these very sectors, those who speak out against the ‘system’ are still a minority, Powell noted, “these are often the most articulate, the most vocal, the most prolific in their writing and speaking.”[12]

Powell discussed the “paradox” of how the business leaders appear to be participating – or simply tolerating – the attacks on the “free enterprise system,” whether by providing a voice through the media which they own, or through universities, despite the fact that “[t]he boards of trustees of our universities overwhelmingly are composed of men and women who are leaders in the system.” Powell lamented the conclusions of reports indicating that colleges were graduating students who “despise the American political and economic system,” and thus, who would be inclined to move into power and create change, or outright challenge the system head on. This marked an “intellectual warfare” being waged against the system, according to Powell, who then quoted economist Milton Friedman of the University of Chicago (and the ‘father’ of neoliberalism), who stated:

It [is] crystal clear that the foundations of our free society are under wide-ranging and powerful attack – not by Communists or any other conspiracy but by misguided individuals parroting one another and unwittingly serving ends they would never intentionally promote.[13]

Powell even specifically identified Ralph Nader as a “threat” to American business. Powell further deplored the changes and “attack” being made through the courts and legal system, which began targeting corporate tax breaks and loop holes, with the media supporting such initiatives since they help “the poor.” Powell of course referred to the notion of helping “the poor” at the expense of the rich, and the framing of the debate as such, as “political demagoguery or economic illiteracy,” and that the identification of class politics – the rich versus the poor – “is the cheapest and most dangerous kind of politics.” The response from the business world to this “broad attack,” Powell sadly reported, was “appeasement, ineptitude and ignoring the problem.” Powell did, however, explain in sympathy to the ‘ineptitude’ of the corporate and financial elites that, “it must be recognized that businessmen have not been trained or equipped to conduct guerilla warfare with those who propagandize against the system.”[14]

While the “tradition role” of business leaders has been to make profits, “create jobs,” to “improve the standard of living,” and of course, “generally to be good citizens,” they have unfortunately shown “little skill in effective intellectual and philosophical debate.” Thus, stated Powell, businessmen must first “recognize that the ultimate issue may be survival – survival of what we call the free enterprise system, and all that this means for the strength and prosperity of America and the freedom of our people.” As such, “top [corporate] management must be equally concerned with protecting and preserving the system itself,” instead of just focused on profits. Corporations, Powell acknowledged, were long involved in “public relations” and “governmental affairs” (read: propaganda and public policy), however, the ‘counter-attack’ must be more wide-ranging:

But independent and uncoordinated activity by individual corporations, as important as this is, will not be sufficient. Strength lies in organization, in careful long-range planning and implementation, in 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.[15]

While the ‘assault’ against the system developed over several decades, Powell elaborated, “there is reason to believe that the campus [university/education] is the single most dynamic source,” as “social science faculties usually include members who are unsympathetic to the enterprise system.” These academics, explained Powell, “need not be in the majority,” as they “are often personally attractive and magnetic; they are stimulating teachers, and their controversy attracts student following; they are prolific writers and lecturers; they author many of the textbooks, and they exert enormous influence – far out of proportion to their numbers – on their colleagues and in the academic world.” Such a situation is, naturally, horrific and deplorable! Imagine that, having magnetic, stimulating and prolific teachers, what horror and despair for the world that would surely bring!

In purporting that political scientists, economists, sociologists and many historians “tend to be liberally oriented,” Powell suggested that “the need for liberal thought is essential to a balanced viewpoint,” but that the ‘balance’ does not exist, with “few [faculty] members being conservatives or [of] moderate persuasion… and being less articulate and aggressive than their crusading colleagues.” Terrified of the prospects of these potentially revolutionary youths entering into positions of power, Powell stated that when they do, “for the most part they quickly discover the fallacies of what they have been taught,” which is, in other words, to say that they quickly become socialized to the structures, hierarchies and institutions of power which demand conformity and subservience to elite interests. However, there were still many who could emerge in “positions of influence where they mold public opinion and often shape governmental action.” Thus, recommended Powell, the Chamber of Commerce should make the “priority task of business” and its related organizations “to address the campus origin of this hostility.” As academic freedom was held as sacrosanct in American society, “It would be fatal to attack this as a principle,” which of course implies that it is to be attacked indirectly. Instead, it would be more effective to use the rhetoric of “academic freedom” itself against the principle of academic freedom, using terms like “openness,” “fairness,” and “balance” as points of critique which would yield “a great opportunity for constructive action.”[16]

Thus, an organization such as the Chamber of Commerce should, recommended Powell, “consider establishing a staff of highly qualified scholars in the social sciences who do believe in the system… [including] several of national reputation whose authorship would be widely respected – even when disagreed with.” The Chamber should also create “a staff of speakers of the highest competency” which “might include the scholars,” and establish a ‘Speaker’s Bureau’ which would “include the ablest and most effective advocates form the top echelons of American business.” This staff of scholars, which Powell emphasized, should be referred to as “independent scholars,” should then engage in a continuing program of evaluating “social science textbooks, especially in economics, political science and sociology.” The objective of this would “be oriented toward restoring the balance essential to genuine academic freedom,” meaning, of course, implanting ideological indoctrination and propaganda from the business world, which Powell described as the “assurance of fair and factual treatment of our system of government and our enterprise system, its accomplishments, its basic relationship to individual rights and freedoms, and comparisons with the systems of socialism, fascism and communism.” Powell lamented that the “civil rights movement insist[ed] on re-writing many of the textbooks in our universities and schools,” and “labor unions likewise insist[ed] that textbooks be fair to the viewpoints of organized labor.” Thus, Powell contended, in the business world attempting to re-write textbooks and education, this process “should be regarded as an aid to genuine academic freedom and not as an intrusion upon it.”[17]

Further, Powell suggested that the business community promote speakers on campuses and lecture tours “who appeared in support of the American system of government and business.” While explaining that student groups and faculty would not likely be willing to give the podium over to the Chamber of Commerce or business leaders to espouse their ideology, the Chamber must “aggressively insist” on being heard, demanding “equal time,” as this would be an effective strategy because “university administrators and the great majority of student groups and committees would not welcome being put in the position publicly of refusing a forum to diverse views.” The two main ingredients for this program, Powell explained, was first, “to have attractive, articulate and well-informed speakers,” and second, “to exert whatever degree of pressure – publicly and privately – may be necessary to assure opportunities to speak.” The objective, Powell wrote, “always must be to inform and enlighten, and not merely to propagandize.”[18]

The biggest problem on campuses, however, was the need to “balance” faculties, meaning simply that the business world must work to implant spokespeople and apologists for the economic and financial elite into the faculties. The need to “correct” this imbalance, wrote Powell, “is indeed a long-range and difficult project,” which “should be undertaken as a part of an overall program,” including the application of pressure “for faculty balance upon university administrators and boards of trustees.” Powell acknowledged that such an effort is a delicate and potentially dangerous process, requiring “careful thought,” as “improper pressure would be counterproductive.” Focusing on the rhetoric of balance, fairness, and ‘truth’ would create a method “difficult to resist, if properly presented to the board of trustees.” Of course, the whole counter-attack of the business world should not simply be addressed to university education, but, as Powell suggested, also “tailored to the high schools.”[19]

As Powell had addressed the “attack” from – and proposed the “counterattack” on – the educational system by the corporate and financial elite, he then suggested that while this was a more long-term strategy, in the short term it would be necessary to address the public in the short-term. To do so:

The first essential is to establish the staffs of eminent scholars, writers and speakers, who will do the thinking, the analysis, the writing and the speaking. It will also be essential to have staff personnel who are thoroughly familiar with the media, and how most effectively to communicate with the public.[20]

The means of communicating with the public include using television. Powell recommended monitoring television in the same way that they monitor textbooks, with an aim to keep the media under “constant surveillance” for criticism of the enterprise system, which, Powell assumed, was derived from one of two sources: “hostility or economic ignorance.” It is simply assumed that the critiques of business and the ‘system’ are unjustified, derived from a misplaced hatred of society or from ignorance. This point of view is consistently regurgitated throughout the entire memo. To more properly “correct” the media, Powell suggested that surveillance would then prompt complaints to both the media and the Federal Communications Commission, and just as in university speaking tours, “equal time [for business spokespeople] should be demanded,” especially on “forum-type programs” like Meet the Press or the Today Show. Of course, the radio and print press were also to be monitored and “corrected.”[21]

The “faculty of scholars” established by the Chamber of Commerce or other business groups must publish, especially scholarly articles, as such tactics have been effective in the “attack” on the enterprise system. Thus, these “independent scholars” must publish in popular magazines (such as Life, Reader’s Digest, etc.), intellectual magazines (such as the Atlantic, Harper’s, etc.) and the professional journals. Furthermore, they must publish books, paperbacks and pamphlets promoting “our side” to “educate the public.” Paid advertising must also increasingly be used to “support the system.”[22]

Powell then turned his attention to the political arena, beginning with the base assumption that the idea of big business controlling Western governments is mere “Marxist doctrine” and “leftist propaganda,” which, Powell sadly reports, “has a wide public following among Americans.” He immediately thereafter asserted that, “every business executive knows… few elements of American society today have as little influence in government as the American businessman, the corporation, or even the millions of corporate stockholders.” Powell amazingly claimed that in terms of government influence, the poor unfortunate American businessman and corporate executive is “the forgotten man.”[23]

Forget the poor, black, and disenfranchised segments of society; forget the disabled, the labeled, and the imprisoned; forget those on welfare, food stamps, dependent upon social services or local charity; forget the entire population of the United States, who can only incite government recognition and support after years of struggle, constant protests, police repression, assault, curtailment of basic human rights and dignity; those struggles which seek only the attainment of a genuine status of human being, to be treated equal and fair… no, forget those people! The true “forgotten” and “oppressed” are the executives at Union Carbide, Exxon, General Electric, GM, Ford, DuPont, Dow, Chase Manhattan, Bank of America, and Monsanto. They, truly, are the disenfranchised… At least, according to Lewis Powell.

For Powell, education and public propaganda campaigns are necessary, but the poor disenfranchised American corporate executive must realize that “political power is necessary,” and that such power must be “used aggressively and with determination – without embarrassment and without the reluctance which has been so characteristic of American business.” Further, it is not merely in the legislative and executive branches of government where business leaders must seize power “aggressively,” but also in the judicial branch – the courts – which “may be the most important instrument for social, economic and political change.” Charging that both “liberals” and the “far left” have been “exploiters of the judicial system” – such as the American Civil Liberties Union, labor unions and civil rights organizations – business groups such as the Chamber of Commerce would need to establish “a highly competent staff of lawyers” to exploit the judiciary for their own benefit.[24] Powell went on to play a very important role in this process as he was appointed to the Supreme Court almost immediately after having authored this memo, where he made many important decisions regarding “corporate rights.”

In advocating aggression in pushing their own interests, Powell encouraged the business community “to attack the [Ralph] Naders, the [Herbert] Marcuses and other who openly seek destruction of the system,” as well as “to penalize politically those who oppose it.” The “threat to the enterprise system” must not be merely presented as an economic issue, but should be portrayed as “a threat to individual freedom,” which Powell described as a “great truth” which “must be re-affirmed if this program is to be meaningful.” Thus, the “only alternatives to free enterprise” are to be presented as “varying degrees of bureaucratic regulation of individual freedom – ranging from that under moderate socialism to the iron heel of the leftist or rightist dictatorship.” The aim was to tie the average American’s own individual conception of their personal freedom and rights to that of corporations and business leaders. Thus, contended Powell, “the contraction and denial of economic freedom is followed inevitably by governmental restrictions on other cherished rights.” This is the precise message, Powell explained, “above all others, that must be carried home to the American people.”[25] So, by this logic, if today Monsanto and Dow are regulated, tomorrow, your Mom and Dad will be in a dictatorship.

The New Right: Neoliberalism and Education

The Powell Memo is largely credited with being a type of ‘Constitution’ or ‘founding document’ for the emergence of the right-wing think tanks in the 1970s and 1980s, as per its recommendations for establishing “a staff of highly qualified scholars in the social sciences who do believe in the system.” In 1973, a mere two years after the memo was written, the Heritage Foundation was founded as an “aggressive and openly ideological expert organization,” which became highly influential in the Reagan administration.[26]

The Heritage Foundation’s website explains that the think tank’s mission “is to formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense.” Upon its founding in 1973, the Heritage Foundation began to “deliver compelling and persuasive research to Congress providing facts, data, and sound arguments on behalf of conservative principles.” In 1977, Ed Feulner became President of the foundation and established “a new senior management staff” and a ‘resource bank’ in order “to take on the liberal establishment and forge a national network of conservative policy groups and experts,” ultimately totaling more than 2,200 “policy experts” and 475 “policy groups” in the U.S. and elsewhere. In 1980, Heritage published a “public policy blueprint” entitled, “Mandate for Leadership,” which became “the policy bible of the newly elected Reagan administration on everything from taxes and regulation to crime and national defense.” In 1987, Heritage published another policy plan, “Out of the Poverty Trap: A Conservative Strategy for Welfare Reform,” which, as their website boastfully claimed, “changed the entitlement mentality in America, moving thousands off the dole [welfare] and toward personal responsibility,” or, in other words, deeper poverty.[27]

The model of the Heritage Foundation led to the rapid proliferation of conservative think tanks, from 70 to over 300 in over 30 years, which “often work together to create multi-issue networks on the local, state, and federal level and use mainstream and alternative media to promote conservative agendas.” The ultimate objective, like with all think tanks and foundations, is “spreading ideology.”[28]

The Cato Institute is another conservative – or “libertarian” – think tank, as it describes itself. Founded in 1974 as the Charles Koch Foundation by Charles Koch (one of America’s richest billionaires and major financier of the Tea Party movement), as well as Ed Crane and Murray Rothbard. By 1977, it had changed its name to the Cato Institute, after “Cato’s Letters,” a series of essays by two British writers in the 18th century under the pseudonym of Cato, who was a Roman Senator strongly opposed to democracy, and had fought against the slave uprising led by Spartacus. He was idolized in the Enlightenment period as a progenitor and protector of liberty (for the few), which was reflected in the ideology of the Founding Fathers of the United States, particularly Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, for which the Cato Institute credits as the reasoning for the re-naming. While Enlightenment thought and thinkers are idolized – most especially in the formation of the U.S. Constitution – as advocates of liberty, freedom and individual rights, it was the ‘right’ of ‘private property’ and those who owned property (which, at the time, included slave owners) as the ultimate sacrosanct form of “liberty.” Again, a distinctly elitist conception of democracy referred to as ‘Republicanism.’

These right-wing think tanks helped bring in the era of neo-liberalism, bringing together “scholars” who support the so-called “free market” system (itself, a mythical fallacy), and who deride and oppose all forms of social welfare and social support. The think tanks produced the research and work which supported the dominance of the banks and corporations over society, and the members of the think tanks had their voices heard through the media, in government, and in the universities. They facilitated the ideological shift in power and policy circles toward neoliberalism.

The Powell Memo and the general “crisis of democracy” set out a political, social, and economic circumstance in which neoliberalism emerged to manage the “excess of democracy.” Instead of a broader focus on neoliberalism and globalization in general, I will focus on their influences upon education in particular. The era of neoliberal globalization marked a rapid decline of the liberal welfare states that had emerged in the previous several decades, and as such, directly affected education.

As part of this process, knowledge was transformed into ‘capital’ – into ‘knowledge capitalism’ or a ‘knowledge economy.’ Reports from the World Bank and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in the 1990s transformed these ideas into a “policy template.” This was to establish “a new coalition between education and industry,” in which “education if reconfigured as a massively undervalued form of knowledge capital that will determine the future of work, the organization of knowledge institutions and the shape of society in the years to come.”[29]

Knowledge was thus defined as an “economic resource” which would give growth to the economy. As such, in the neoliberal era, where all aspects of economic productivity and growth are privatized (purportedly to increase their efficiency and productive capacity as only the “free market” can do), education – or the “knowledge economy” – itself, was destined to be privatized.[30]

In the revised neoliberal model of education, “economic productivity was seen to come not from government investment in education, but from transforming education into a product that could be bought and sold like anything else – and in a globalised market, Western education can be sold as a valuable commodity in developing countries.” Thus, within the university itself, “the meaning of ‘productivity’ was shifted away from a generalized social and economic good towards a notional dollar value for particular government-designated products and practices.” Davies et. al. elaborated:

Where these products are graduating students, or research published, government could be construed as funding academic work as usual. When the ‘products’ to be funded are research grant dollars, with mechanisms in place to encourage collaboration with industry, this can be seen as straightforward manipulation of academics to become self-funding and to service the interests of business and industry.[31]

The new ‘management’ of universities entailed decreased state funding while simultaneously increasing “heavy (and costly) demands on accounting for how that funding was used,” and thus, “trust in professional values and practices was no longer the basis of the relationship” between universities and government. It was argued that governments were no longer able to afford the costs of university education, and that the “efficiency” of the university system – defined as “doing more with less” – was to require a change in the leadership and management system internal to the university structure to “a form of managerialism modeled on that of the private sector.” The “primary aim” of this neoliberal program, suggests Davies:

was not simply to do more with less, since the surveillance and auditing systems are extraordinarily costly and ineffective, but to make universities more governable and to harness their energies in support of programmatic ambitions of neo-liberal government and big business. A shift towards economics as the sole measure of value served to erode the status and work of those academics who located value in social and moral domains. Conversely, the technocratic policy-oriented academics, who would serve the ends of global corporate capital, were encouraged and rewarded.[32]

As the 1960s saw a surge in democracy and popular participation, to a significant degree emanating from the universities, dissident intellectuals and students, the 1970s saw the articulation and actualization of the elite attack upon popular democracy and the educational system itself. From the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Trilateral Commission, both of which represent elite financial and corporate interests, the key problem was identified as active and popular participation of the public in the direction of society. This was the “crisis of democracy.” The solution for elites was simple: less democracy, more authority. In the educational realm, this meant more elite control over universities, less freedom and activism for intellectuals and students. Universities and the educational system more broadly was to become increasingly privatized, corporatized, and globalized. The age of activism was at an end, and universities were to be mere assembly plants for economically productive units which support the system, not challenge it. One of the key methods for ensuring this took place was through debt, which acts as a disciplinary mechanism in which students are shackled with the burden of debt bondage, and thus, their education itself must be geared toward a specific career and income expectation. Knowledge is sought for personal and economic benefit more than for the sake of knowledge itself. Graduating with extensive debt then implies a need to immediately enter the job market, if not already having entered the job market part time while studying. Debt thus disciplines the student toward a different purpose in their education: toward a job and financial benefits rather than toward knowledge and understanding. Activism then, is more of an impediment to, rather than a supporter of knowledge and education.

In the next part of this series, I will analyze the purpose and role of education and intellectuals in a historical context, differentiating between the ‘social good’ and ‘social control’ purposes of education, as well as between the policy-oriented (elite) and value-oriented (dissident) intellectuals. Through a critical look at the purpose of education and intellectuals, we can understand the present crisis in education and intellectual dissent, and thus, understand positive methods and directions for change.

Andrew Gavin Marshall is an independent researcher and writer based in Montreal, Canada, writing on a number of social, political, economic, and historical issues. He is also Project Manager of The People’s Book Project. He also hosts a weekly podcast show, “Empire, Power, and People,” on


[1]            Michel J. Crozier, Samuel P. Huntington and Joji Watanuki, The Crisis of Democracy, (Report on the Governability of Democracies to the Trilateral Commission, New York University Press, 1975), pages 61-62, 71.

[2]            Ibid, pages 74-77.

[3]            Ibid, pages 93, 113-115.

[4]            Ibid, page 162.

[5]            Jay Peterzell, “The Trilateral Commission and the Carter Administration,” Economic and Political Weekly (Vol. 12, No. 51, 17 December 1977), page 2102.

[6]            Ibid.

[7]            Ibid.

[8]            Ibid.

[9]            Wayne Parsons, “Politics Without Promises: The Crisis of ‘Overload’ and Governability,” Parliamentary Affairs (Vol. 35, No. 4, 1982), pages 421-422.

[10]            Ibid.

[11]            Val Burris, “The Social and Political Consequences of Overeducation,” American Sociological Review (Vol. 48, No. 4, August 1983), pages 455-456.

[12]            Lewis F. Powell, Jr., “Confidential Memorandum: Attack of American Free Enterprise System,” Addressed to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, 23 August 1971:

[13-25]                        Ibid.

[26]            Julie E. Miller-Cribbs, et. al., “Thinking About Think Tanks: Strategies for Progressive Social Work,” Journal of Policy Practice (Vol. 9, No. 3-4, 2010), page 293.

[27]            The Heritage Foundation, “The Heritage Foundation’s 35th Anniversary: A History of Achievements,” About:

[28]            Julie E. Miller-Cribbs, et. al., “Thinking About Think Tanks: Strategies for Progressive Social Work,” Journal of Policy Practice (Vol. 9, No. 3-4, 2010), pages 293-294.

[29]            Mark Olssen and Michael A. Peters, “Neoliberalism, Higher Education and the Knowledge Economy: From the Free Market to Knowledge Capitalism,” Journal of Education Policy (Vol. 20, No. 3, May 2005), page 331.

[30]            Ibid, pages 338-339.

[31]            Bronwyn Davies, et. al., “The Rise and Fall of the Neo-liberal University,” European Journal of Education (Vol. 41, No. 2, 2006), pages 311-312.

[32]            Ibid, page 312.

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AGMarshall (Andrew Gavin Marshall)
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Andrew Gavin Marshall is a 26-year old independent researcher and writer based in Montreal, Canada. He has written for a number of publications, including AlterNet, Truthout, CounterPunch, Roarmag, and Occupy, among others, and has done a number of radio and television interviews, including with Russia Today and CBC Radio. He is Project Manager of The People’s Book Project, head of the Geopolitics Division of the Hampton Institute, research director of’s Global Power Project, and hosts a weekly podcast show at BoilingFrogsPost.

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