On the surface, the big business program for the 1970s is much easier to understand than its acceptance by much of mainstream liberalism and the public at large. From the early ’70s onward, such corporate-connected strategists as John Connolly, William Simon, David Rockefeller, and even Charles Schultze have argued, in effect, a simple position: wealth should be redistributed upward. The specifics of the corporate agenda have similarly been voiced again and again: cutbacks in “big government” (i.e., social-service spending); easing of environmental and consumer controls on corporate behavior; new tax incentives and forms of subsidy for business; and toleration for relatively high levels of unemployment. The large corporations have sought—in the astonishingly candid language of a Business Week editorial of October 12, 1974—to “sell” the public, through a wide-ranging advertising blitz, on the “idea of doing with less so that big business can have more.”
Yet, the capitulation of mainstream politics to the corporate assault cannot simply be explained away through conspiracy theories or reference to an all-powerful ruling class—the business community in the ’30s was nearly as unanimous as that of today in its savage opposition to major reform. While such politicians as Hugh Carey, Jerry Brown, and Jimmy Carter have acquiesced in much of the corporate agenda, they have nonetheless also retained considerable popularity in their political retreat. Such capitulation raises grave questions for reformers of a broad range of opinion. Why has the liberal tradition proven so vulnerable before the corporate crusade? As for socialists, why, in a period marked by greatly increasing questioning about corporate behavior, do we still see socialist organizations without the first signs of a genuinely popular base among the people?