American Notebook: Ideology and Big Business

American Notebook: Ideology and Big Business

Writers on the problem of ideology frequently describe it as an expression of a group or class view which gives the individual both an awareness and rationalization of his particular social role. Developing complex ideological systems along these lines was a favorite, often useful pastime in years gone by, but today, as C. Wright Mills tells us in The Power Elite, the recent attempts by dominant groups in American society to create an ideology have not really succeeded. The supposed beneficiaries of new ideological structures have preferred to drift along comfortably with a quasi-liberal rhetoric while the “new conservatism” of a Russell Kirk has been not so much rejected as ignored. The hallmark of excellence among the very rich has been, of course, money, while celebrities of the entertainment world are too unstable as a group to be especially receptive to ideology. It has been only among the Fortune readership, the acknowledged forum of management, that any interest has been shown in working up an ideology for Big Business.

How successful the managers have been in perfecting an ideology is illustrated by the interesting study issued not too long ago by four Harvard social scientists. The authors went for their basic material to the public statements of business leaders, to institutional advertisements in Fortune, Business Week and similar places, as well as to the many pamphlets flowing out of the NAM, U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the CED. From the numerous quotations compiled by them two major strands of ideology may be discerned; the classical and the managerial, which seem to be roughly equivalent to what C. Wright Mills has called “practical” and “sophisticated” conservatives. One might almost describe these as the Henry Ford-J. D. Rockefeller image versus the Henry Luce-Paul Hoffman conception.

The first, though somewhat old-fashioned, exhibits a certain ruggedness in its blunt approach to basic problems. It unambiguously claims lordship over all creation and extols the general beneficence of the profit motive. Material as well as non-material gains are explained by a relatively simple cause and effect sequence; what’s good for business is good for all. Charles Wilson’s otiose remark about General Motors a few years back varied this theme but slightly. The devotees of this view are not averse to repeating their litany in ritualistic fashion: The American Way of Life yields a high standard of living; there are 135 million radios; we can always out-produce the Russians; economic success is founded in efficiency; business is conducted in a spirit of service; and above all, these wonderful attainments come about because of the System.

We are sometimes so case-hardened to the blandishments of advertising that we tend to forget how dense the underlying ideas are. As one wanders through this wonderful world put together by copywriters one would hardly know that the high l...