The invitation, the conspiracy
A look at a fifty year-old memo and the current ‘conspiracy tilt’ in America abetting Putin’s attack on Ukraine.
Is Lewis Powell jr. America’s version of Aleksandr Dugin?
Consider David Remnick’s thoughtful contextualizing of Putin’s attack on Ukraine, “Putin and Putinism,” published April 4 in the New Yorker:
“To create the trappings of this Russian identity… illiberal, imperial, resentful of the West… Putin seized on existing strands of reactionary thought. While most observers paid closer attention to the intellectual and political turn to the West in the late nineteen-eighties and nineties, many Russian thinkers, publications, and institutions drew inspiration from far different sources….A crackpot philosopher named Aleksandr Dugin published neo-fascist apocalyptic tomes about the crucial battle between the ‘sea power’ of the West and the ‘land power’ of Eurasia, and found an audience in Russian political, military and intellectual circles.” (1)
Now superimpose this thesis with a memo the late US Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell, jr. wrote to Eugene B. Syndor, jr., chair of the education committee of the US Chamber of Commerce, August 23, 1971, “Attack of American Free Enterprise System” (2)
Powell’s piece seduces the reader with a humble, charming “Aw shucks,” tone. One is reminded of a rarefied, intellectual version of Jimmy Stewart:
“This memorandum is not the place to document in detail the tone, character, or intensity of the attack. The following quotations will suffice to give one a general idea.”
The subject of the memo, Powell’s ‘attack,’ is elusive.
“No thoughtful person can question that the American economic system is under broad attack. This varies in scope, intensity, in the techniques employed, and in the level of visibility.
“There have always been some who opposed the American system, and preferred socialism or some form of statism (communism or fascism). Also, there have always been critics of the system, whose criticism has been wholesome and constructive so long as the objective was to improve rather than to subvert or destroy.
“But what now concerns us is quite new in the history of America. We are not dealing with sporadic or isolated attacks from a relatively few extremists or even from the minority socialist cadre. Rather, the assault on the enterprise system is broadly based and consistently pursued. It is gaining momentum and converts. (editor’s emphasis)
Powell skirts the smoke of McCarthyism and passé “right wing Goldwater rhetoric” by faulting American business… for what?
That’s right, .American business:’
“One of the bewildering paradoxes of our time is the extent to which the enterprise system tolerates, if not participates in, it’s own destruction.
“The painfully sad truth is that business, including the boards of directors and the top executives of corporations great and small and business organizations at all levels often have responded — if at all — by appeasement, ineptitude and ignoring the problem. There are, of course, many exceptions to this sweeping generalization. But the net effect of such response as has been made is scarcely visible.
Whereas Powell’s tone is friendly, the implications he draws are sinister. He is pointing a finger at American business, attempting to muster out a phalanx of organizations to rally around defending the “American way of life.” Think neo-conservative vigilantes.
“In all fairness, it must be recognized that businessmen have not been trained or equipped to conduct guerilla warfare with those who propagandize against the system, seeking insidiously and constantly to sabotage it. The traditional role of business executives has been to manage, to produce, to sell, to create jobs, to make profits, to improve the standard of living, to be community leaders, to serve on charitable and educational boards, and generously to be good citizens. They have performed these tasks very well indeed.
But they have shown little stomach for hard-nose contest with their critics, and little skill in effective intellectual and philosophical debate.”
Though violence is not mentioned, Powell samples the rhetoric of William Kunstler, cleverly extrapolating from one impassioned white speaker the ‘call for violence’ as the rallying cry for the approaching mob of liberals.
“You must learn to fight in the streets, to revolt, to shoot guns. We will learn to do all the things that property owners fear.”
-comment attributed to William Kunstler, lawyer for the “Chicago 7 Defendants,” re-quoted in a column by William F. Buckley, Jr., Richmond News Leader, June 8, 1970.
In Powell’s view business promoting organizations, like the US Chamber of Commerce, born in the age of post WWII boosterism, are not up to the task: they have failed at challenging a seditious hegemony of college professors, pulpits and a compliant media, primarily TV, eager to amplify a chorus of ‘free enterprise’ betrayers.
Where Powell’s rhetoric backs off from smearing criticism of power elites — corporation influence, inequality and injustice — his connecting of this criticism as undoing protected freedoms goes “rogue.”
Variously called the ‘free enterprise system, ‘capitalism,’ and the ‘profit system.’ The American political system of democracy under the rule of law is also under attack, often by the same individuals and organizations who seek to undermine the enterprise system.
-footnote 1, citing the memo’s use of the term ‘system’
In case we missed it, the same critics of ‘free enterprise,’ are the same perpetrators of violence against the state.
Consider Powell’s memo as two invitations:
1.One, an invitation for the disaffected student to arise and promote the free enterprise system
2.One, an invitation to liberate the repressed practitioner of late corporate profit mythology
Powell was not complaining about what America lacked; rather Powell was looking for what could be kept from Americans writ large. His memo didn’t trade emotions of abundance for emotions of scarcity; his memo carved out exclusion and conspiracy. The physical manifestations of this strategy and its institutionalization are emerging in our schools, our courts, our jails, our ‘democratic’ forums.
Powell’s imagined cadres foretold the rise of corporate ‘moderation’ — aka influence — as the buffer to ‘extremist’ — aka ‘leftist’ propaganda — whose aim was to destroy. Whereas cultural boosterism was not up to the task, equal time and intellectual space advocacy would be a start… to ‘what’ one is not sure. Presumably to allow ‘free enterprise’ thinking to gain sway in the public imagination.
Yet ‘moderation,’ like triangulation politics, hangs on revealing extremes. Powell’s directive became a conspiratorial fixation. Aimless conservatives tiring of stoking anti-liberalist fires, found a short circuit: conspiracy-think, a latter day translation of Powell’s “attack” on our economic system, America’s ‘way of life.’
These invitations embedded in Powell’s memo were accepted and adopted in Republican think tanks, lobbying groups, ‘newsertainment media,’ DC insiders.
Moreover, surfacing from Powell’s rhetoric were calls for “fighting back,” — against whom or what remains murky — using the tools of media exploitation and militancy. Enter Murdoch and company, far more sinister than Ralph Nader and company — Powell’s attackers — who argued in campus forums for accountability and representation.
Sounds too familiar.
The future: America’s tilt to conspiracy-think supporting Putin’s attack on Ukraine
As America fumes over a 2024 election landscape, the narrative of the day is how conspiracy mongers blind, hurt and subvert resistance and dissidence.
Michelle Goldberg writes in an opinion piece, “Putin’s Proxy Culture War,” New York Times, March 28, about how Putin’s falsehoods are finding compatible voices on America’s right wing platforms. She quotes Serhiy Leschenko, investigative journalist and current Zelenskyy advisor, “you maybe know this Georgia Congresswoman, Marjorie Greene?,” ‘mentioning a recent floor speech in which Greene speculated that bioweapons labs in Ukraine could end up killing people.’
One hears the distant drumbeat of Powell’s memo, stoking betrayal and conspiracy-think. Goldberg writes,
“Russia’s war on Ukraine has for the moment led many Republicans to rediscover their inner Cold Warriors. But pro-Putin sentiment — or, at least, anti-anti Putin sentiment — remains strong on parts of the right…
“Having watched Trump try to extort Zelensky, Ukrainians know it can be geopolitically consequential when crackpot Russian conspiracy theories gain a foothold in American politics.
“Putin, presumably, knows this as well, which helps explain why he’s appealing to Anglophone culture warriors.
“The ability of Ukraine to elicit international solidarity has been among its most potent weapons in this war. Against it, Putin needs some solidarity of his own, and the natural place for him to look for it is among liberalism’s enemies… “If he’s going to visit further atrocities on the Ukrainians, it helps to have Americans claiming it’s their own fault.
Not an old notion.
In fact a fifty year old one.
1- David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, spent several years reporting from Moscow and is the author of Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire, for which he was awarded a Pultizer Prize in 1994.
2-Cited in December 13, 2021 blog by Egberto Willies