Biz-War and the Out-Of-Power Elites: The Progressive-Left Attack on the Corporation

Biz-War and the Out-Of-Power Elites: The Progressive-Left Attack on the Corporation
by Prof. Jarol B. Manheim, George Washington University

(Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc, March 2004, $34.50; 216 pages)

Citigroup, America’s largest financial institution, earlier this year announced that it was giving in to demands by the environmental activist group Rainforest Action Network (RAN) to stop funding projects that RAN claimed were harming the environment. RAN’s four-year campaign against Citigroup involved campus student rallies and boycotts, anti-Citigroup TV ads, street protests, and even banner hangings in front of Citigroup’s New York headquarters. To a casual observer, this might seem like a spontaneous grassroots movement spurred by concern over a financial giant’s business practices. But, as a valuable new book makes clear, nothing could be farther from the truth.

In his new book, Biz-War and the Out-of-Power Elites: The Progressive Left Attack on the Corporation, Jarol Manheim, professor of media and public affairs and political science at the George Washington University, documents the rise of the new anti-corporate Left. The book looks closely at the ideology, organizing strategies and communications tactics that liberal activists are using to challenge both this country’s business elite, as well as politically ascendant conservatives.

Manheim notes that his analysis is not concerned with ideology. His aim is to analyze not “the colorful philosophical banners around which true believers rally,” but the “strategies and tactics employed by their leaders to attract and mobilize them.”

Manheim begins his analysis with the 1980s Reagan Revolution, which he considers crucial to Bizwar’s story, because it routed a once-hegemonic American liberalism. Some of that rout’s survivors then began to cast about for ways to take back power. One survivor group was organized labor, integral to the New Deal coalition that Ronald Reagan shattered. Another was a network of wealthy young liberal philanthropists who, as early as 1981 (as Manheim documents), began casting about for ways the Left could rebuild its power.

First, the survivors set out to craft a “guiding empirical theory of social, political, and economic organization” to replace the liberalism that Reagan overthrew. A big part of the theory was “corporate social responsibility” (CSR). They also set out to build a new “institutional counterstructure” from which to attack conservatives. Manheim pays attention to the rise of ideologically leftwing foundation philanthropies like the Threshold and Tides foundations, which fund activist and advocacy groups. Threshold has made grants to such far-left outfits as the Ruckus Society, Friends of the Earth, Mobilization for Global Justice, and International Labor Rights Fund. Tides helped launch the International Rivers Network and the Institute for Global Communication.

To build unity among the various factions, the reconstituted Left settled on an identifiable enemy—for-profit American corporations, which Manheim describes as “the perfect foil.” That’s because corporations “determine the scale, nature and quality of employment; the types of goods and services that are produced…; the form and extent of the exploitation of natural resources and the balance between economic production and environmental quality…[P]recisely because they are the repository of so much economic, political and social authority, they are widely distrusted, disliked, and in some quarters even reviled.” For leftists attempting to rise, phoenix-like, from the ashes of the New Deal coalition’s collapse, “Corporations are the perfect enemy.”

Finally, the new anti-corporatists crafted new tactics of political confrontation. The Rainforest Action Network (RAN) is now trying to replicate its boldly disruptive campaign against Citibank; it sent letters to ten other financial institutions urging compliance with its demands. The first to cave in was the Bank of America. RAN also has campaigns against Ford Motor and the privately-owned grocer Trader Joe’s.  (Manheim’s previous book, The Death of a Thousand Cuts, provides an excellent survey of the tactics used by RAN and groups like it.  See also Manheim’s January 2002 Labor Watch article, “Corporate Campaigns.”)

Biz-War describes the activists, organizers, and institutions of the new liberal Left—a loose alliance of liberal foundations, labor unions, religious activists, environmentalists, activist pension funds and CSR boosters. And it explains how they are coming together to take back the power and authority they believed was unduly stripped from them. The Left’s revival, Manheim notes, “was not the result of a single decision by some maximum leader or leadership cabal…Rather, it was a bit of a messy process…[first,] key individuals and groups on the Left struggled for a time to overcome their shock at what had befallen them…Coming from a variety of directions and with varying pace, the policy activists, the ideologues, the social philanthropists, and the altruists who compose what we now think of as the Progressive Left slowly converged on their new language and on the strategy it opened up for rebuilding their movement.”

However disorganized they once were, the anti-corporate Left has become remarkably well-coordinated in pursuing its goals. Anyone who wants to understand the ferocious campaigns they conduct against corporations should read this book.