Conserving Liberalism

A neglected twentieth-century concept anticipates today’s “woke capitalism”

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In the days after the 2020 election, when Donald Trump told his followers that the voting had been rigged and urged them to “stop the steal,” the reaction among prominent corporate leaders was somewhat panicked. At 7 a.m. on the Friday after the election, a group of about thirty chief executives from Walmart, Goldman Sachs, Johnson & Johnson, and other leading firms convened for a private Zoom call. At that meeting, the general consensus was that business leaders would have to be on the front lines of opposition if Trump were to attempt some sort of coup.

It was a rather grandiose role they imagined for themselves: saviors of the election, protectors of social stability, defenders of democracy. And the next day a select few of the CEOs arrived at the closest thing America has to a front line—doing interviews and issuing press releases. The coordinated PR response included Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase; Amazon founder Jeff Bezos; and members of the CEO lobby group the Business Roundtable.

The response to Trump’s refusal to concede, and then, two months later, the corporate leaders’ more forceful condemnation of the Capitol Hill riots, demonstrated a growing sense among corporate elites that they have been called to a wider role in politics than their usual efforts to push for deregulation and tax cuts. They are alarmed by reactionary forces intent on undermining the democratic system. They are alert, as well, to the rising appeal of socialist politics, represented by the presidential campaigns of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. Among many CEOs, there is a strongly held belief that the modern corporation is not just a form of organized profit-seeking. They imagine the business sector as the one place where leaders can rise above the partisan polarization dividing America—perhaps even believing the corporation is the last functional institution in our society capable of making the world a better place. Many of these executives have come to see themselves as the only ones who possess the competence, which is to say the managerial expertise, to address what they see as America’s most pressing problems: populism on the left and right, hyper-partisanship in Washington, D.C., climate change around the world, and even racism and sexual and gender inequality in the workplace.

Eager to act as gatekeepers of respectable and moderate opinion, executives have played a self-appointed role as the sententious legitimizers of social progress and enlightened thinking, embracing the more palatable concerns of Black Lives Matter (not defunding the police, of course), the LGBTQ movement, and the anti-Trump resistance. In recent years, it’s become more common for consumer brands to theatrically put socially progressive causes at center stage. Hence Colin Kaepernick was not just an activist against police violence but also a spokesman for Nike. So, too, were Gillette razors, in an ill-fated advertising campaign from 2019, not just a conventional hygiene product but now supposedly a symbol of opposition to toxic masculinity.

Name the System

Observers on the right have found all of this more than a little disorienting. It’s no surprise that conservative critics have latched on to the more exaggerated elements of this movement as evidence that an ideology of “woke capitalism” has taken over corporate America. The CEOs, we are told, have taken flight from reason and forgotten who butters their bread. When supposedly radicalized management requires training against racism for their employees, for example, they are implementing a program of “soft totalitarianism.” And by exchanging business sense for social change, corporations are undermining free enterprise. The problem, as conservatives see it, is that market actors are not acting like the profit-seeking agents they should be. They are letting other motivations—the expectations of the cultural elite or the desire for popular approval—make them negligent of their duties.

Outside of the footnotes of professional historians, the idea of corporate liberalism has largely been forgotten.

The socialist left, meanwhile, sees woke capitalism as little more than a branding exercise; it’s still capitalism, after all. Most credible narratives of the last five decades of American politics recount how organized business engineered the rise of the New Right in the postwar era, which led to continuous setbacks for New Deal liberalism, not to mention civil rights, voting rights, and economic equality. The way journalists write about money in politics also reflects this dynamic: a secretive network of business money funds right-wing think tanks, Super PACs, and lobbyists. The idea, then, that executives might sincerely, if deludedly, see themselves as socially responsible leaders and seek to act on behalf of a broad coalition of social and economic classes—well, this just isn’t how economic power really works.

For an older generation of leftist intellectuals and activists, though, the idea that corporate power could be rhetorically “progressive,” even going so far as to support certain socially progressive policies while also playing a deeply conservative role in politics and economics, was hardly worthy of dispute. That was, in fact, the very problem with twentieth century political reform, the left asserted: American politics was held captive by a business ideology to which every interest group, social movement, or dissident party had to accommodate themselves in order to achieve even modest success. It was a historical dynamic that stretched the limits of typical partisan language, which is why they came up with a new term for this prevailing ideology: corporate liberalism. The analysis began to take root in the 1950s, especially among a small group of intellectuals who gathered around William Appleman Williams, a leading professor in the history department at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. They included Martin J. Sklar, David Eakins, Saul Landau, Nina Serrano, Gabriel and Joyce Kolko, and James Weinstein, all of whom were part of the study of corporate liberalism that blossomed in the 1960s, producing work that might well be collected together in the Williams School of historical revisionism.

Today’s left has mostly adopted the term neoliberalism to describe the international order that subsumes any idea of progress into an all-encompassing reliance on market forces. Whatever might be said for that school of thought—which derives from collaboration between the likes of Friedrich von Hayek, Milton Friedman, Karl Popper, and others who formed the Mont Pelerin Society in 1947—the term itself is not especially clear or descriptive. “Corporate liberalism” does more work as a label and as an explanation for a great deal of political history in the American experience over the last century. It is a concept that’s worth recovering today.

Sklarstruck

Let’s go back to a march on Washington in 1965. Students for a Democratic Society president Carl Oglesby gave a speech in which he identified corporate liberalism as the root cause behind the war in Vietnam. As the policies of the John F. Kennedy administration were carried forward by Lyndon B. Johnson, the nation saw socially liberal causes like the War on Poverty advance along with imperial adventures abroad. Both, Oglesby argued, were of a piece with the agenda of entrenched business power that sought to ensure social stability at home and American military power around the globe. By 1965, “corporate liberalism” had circulated among New Leftists who made it their intellectual project to “name the system.”

James Weinstein believed the functional role of American liberalism was to entrench corporate power, not restrain it.

The term originated far from the hotbed of student protests: it came from an essay developed from the master’s thesis of Martin J. Sklar, a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in the 1950s. A version of the essay appeared in the fall 1960 issue of Studies on the Left, a neo-Marxist journal he cofounded with a cohort of young radicals in Madison. Although Studies on the Left disseminated the concept of corporate liberalism to the student movement and beyond, the progressive and corporate origins of American empire had been noted before, particularly in The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, published a year earlier by William Appleman Williams.

The historians of what some have called the Wisconsin School were primarily focused on how the rise of corporate capitalism in the Progressive Era produced a distinct form of liberalism that would come to dominate American politics and fuel the Cold War. The revisionists threw cold water on the work of the so-called consensus historians, such as Richard Hofstadter, David M. Potter, and Louis Hartz, the latter of whom saw a “natural liberalism” derived from John Locke that would always be hostile to socialism and authoritarianism. Instead of a devotion to minimal government, progressivism led to a more powerful federal government in a permanent alliance with big business, according to the revisionist view.

But the Wisconsin School was far from a monolith: there were three overlapping but divergent ways of understanding the development of corporate liberalism in the twentieth century, all of which are instructive for understanding the relationship between business interests and American politics today.

Consider Sklar first. His original argument, although clothed in the cumbersome grad student prose he never entirely shook off, was relatively straightforward: Woodrow Wilson and the progressive movement he helped lead were neither “in nature or intent” anti-big business. An exaggerated antitrust story gets deceptively read into histories of progressive reform, partly because we take Trust-Bustin’ TR’s rhetoric too seriously. One important fact gets obscured: it was progressives who helped make the large corporation the “dominant mode of business enterprise” and, significantly, who engineered “popular acceptance of that development.”

The historical puzzle of progressivism that New Left historians were trying to solve was how the rise of modern regulation and socially liberal public policies, particularly those friendly to workers, could empower big business. What Sklar was so good at was getting into the headspace of the politicians, economists, and policymakers who threaded this political, economic needle. They understood that the viability of the large-scale industrial order rested on the development of a new form of capitalism.

Sklar gave his fullest treatment of this theory in his magnum opus, The Corporate Reconstruction of American Capitalism, 1890–1916, based on his doctoral dissertation and, oddly, published decades later in the late 1980s. The book argued that the rise of the corporation produced a new stage in the history of capitalism, pivoting away from the coordination of market-driven prices and toward bureaucratic and integrated organizations. Progressives came to believe that markets weren’t especially good at coordinating economic activity; they were prone to booms and busts and other excesses that undermined the stability of the American political system—as testified by economic crises becoming alarmingly more frequent in the 1870s, 1890s, and 1900s. A cross-class social and political movement placed their interests in “administered markets and government regulation” and fully embraced the “rise, legitimation, and institutionalization of the corporate capitalist order.”

The unusual thing about Sklar is that, even though he considered himself a man of the left, he dismissed the Populists and agrarian socialists of the turn of the century; they were essentially backwards and out of step with the inevitability of corporate capitalism. It’s not immediately clear what to make of this. The intellectual historian Howard Brick has called Sklar’s work “postcapitalist,” which is one way of characterizing Sklar’s theory that, far from a tragic sequence of events, the rise of capitalism actually introduced a “capitalism-socialism mix,” as he put it elsewhere. Not unrelated is the fact that Sklar, like other notable members of the New Left generation such as David Horowitz and Norman Podhoretz, followed a tortured path toward the right wing of American politics.

In his later years, he distinguished himself by becoming a self-published cranky critic of Barack Obama and an unlikely fan of Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck, facts which some of his former students characterize as an unfortunate aberration that shouldn’t be read back into his earlier work. Shortly after Sklar died in 2014, his one-time friend John Judis wrote a lengthy appreciation for The New Republic, in which he traced the many twists and turns in Sklar’s thinking. He concluded: “Sklar was important because he tried to answer the big questions that most of his colleagues, and most writers about politics, have ignored or avoided. And while he didn’t provide final answers, he came as close to doing so as any other historian of his generation.”

Tunnel Revision

If influence can be measured in part by book sales, Sklar’s version of corporate liberalism was overshadowed by the success of Gabriel Kolko. A graduate of Kent State University, Kolko studied social history at Wisconsin and received his master’s there in 1955, the same year he married Joyce Manning (with whom he later co-authored The Limits of Power: The World and United States Foreign Policy, 1945–1954). For his part, Kolko had the good sense to write a readable book that laid out the major claims of the revisionist school in a timely manner. That book was called The Triumph of Conservatism: A Reinterpretation of American History, 1900–1916, published in 1963. The basic corporate liberalism thesis, so evident in the title of Kolko’s book, was almost pugilistic in its revisionism. The Triumph of Conservatism told a story of the lobbying and policymaking efforts of big business leaders with an iconoclastic interpretation in mind. Even though corporations were growing and merging around 1900, Kolko claimed, “the dominant tendency in the American economy at the beginning of this century was toward growing competition.” Consider Collis P. Huntington, president of the Southern Pacific Railroad, who denounced in 1891 what he called “wasteful, and might I almost say wicked, competition.” Kolko explained:

Competition was unacceptable to many key business and financial interests, and the merger movement was to a large extent a reflection of voluntary, unsuccessful business efforts to bring irresistible competitive trends under control. . . . As new competitors sprang up . . . it became apparent to many important businessmen that only the national government could rationalize the economy. . . . Contrary to the consensus of historians, it was not the existence of monopoly that caused the federal government to intervene in the economy, but the lack of it.

Just as important, businesses saw that federal regulation could be steered to favor their interests. With the intensification of interstate commerce, a patchwork of state regulations became increasingly untenable and, what was worse, too beholden to more “radical, genuinely progressive local communities.” In this sense, Kolko viewed national progressivism as a deracinating force that came to the defense of business “against the democratic ferment that was nascent in the states.” The only way out of economic chaos and advancing radicalism was an activist, administrative federal government.

The radical revisionists of the 1960s need better heirs now that so many are gone.

But Kolko offered a stilted approach to the politics of the Progressive Era: all reform efforts were top-down projects that enabled the victory of the corporate class. Business leaders operated through informal agreements and recruited labor and reform leaders through deceit in their efforts to construct regulatory institutions like the Federal Reserve and the Federal Trade Commission. As for the labor leaders, social reformers, neo-populists, and the like, their incipient opposition to corporate capitalism was arrested by the mistaken belief that government regulation was a positive good, a way of restraining corporate power. Not knowing what they were doing, they worked with business leaders for legislative goals that served business ends. “Such innocence was possible,” he writes, “because of a naive, axiomatic view that government economic regulation, per se, was desirable.” This is more a convenient assumption in Kolko’s work than the convincing conclusion he wished it to be.

That being said, Kolko’s accomplishments should not be neglected: his story put power relations, not natural historical development, at the heart of the history of capitalism—suggesting that things might have turned out otherwise. But because Kolko wasn’t particularly interested in the transformation of American liberalism, there is an interpretive brittleness to the book. That brittleness can be attributed in some ways to a concept that runs throughout The Triumph of Conservatism: not corporate liberalism, but political capitalism, a term that Kolko took from Max Weber and repurposed to characterize the strategy of business elites who took possession of the state in order to implement reforms that met their economic interests. Kolko didn’t admit the possibility that business leaders might sincerely think of themselves as supporters of progressive causes. Rather, he believed that they kept radicalism in check only by conscious deception, in his words, “by feeding the illusions of its leaders—leaders who could not tell the difference between federal regulation of business and federal regulation for business.” It’s not exactly a flattering portrait of the early twentieth century left, who were hoodwinked, in his view, by business leaders and their progressive allies who succeeded by appearing “radical while really remaining conservative.” In this sense, both Sklar and Kolko were equally dismissive of popular social movements.

Parable of the Wrecker

James Weinstein’s early impressions of Kolko’s book were enthusiastic. Part of that could be chalked up to personal connections. By the time Weinstein arrived in Madison, Kolko had long since decamped for the East Coast and doctoral studies at Harvard, but he left his mark on the various socialist clubs that gave the town what Paul Buhle called a “fresh burst of intellectual energy”—the very reputation and community that drew Weinstein, and many others, to Madison in the first place. He wrote a letter in 1964 to his friend Sklar sharing news of Kolko’s new book. “It is very important,” he wrote, underlining the word with his typewriter. “If the book gets read it should change 20th century historiography.” Weinstein’s praise was not without reservations. In a review for The Nation, he noted the conceptual narrowness of Kolko’s analysis, which treated radical activists with condescension and neglected the vitality of movements that stood opposed to big business.

Weinstein already had deep roots in the left by the time he moved in the fall of 1960. A one-time member of the Communist Party, he earned a thick FBI file for once giving a ride to Julius Rosenberg, who ended up front-page news just months later when he was accused of spying for the Soviets. Like many on the pro-Communist left, Weinstein abandoned his sympathy for the USSR in 1956 after Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin’s crimes. This was a turning point in his life. Weinstein got married the same year he left the Communist Party and enrolled in a master’s program with Richard Hofstadter at Columbia University to study the history of the left. The move to Madison soon after was “intellectually the most stimulating experience of my life,” he later recalled, and there he found a community of like-minded historians and socialist activists. (He worked with Sklar on Studies on the Left and later went on to found the Chicago-based socialist magazine In These Times, which he edited along with Sklar and John Judis, among others.)

Weinstein cared about the rise of corporate capitalism for the way it transformed American liberalism. And for that reason, his 1968 book, The Corporate Ideal in the Liberal State, 1900–1918, serves as a more reliable guide for thinking about the political role that business executives have sometimes taken for themselves. He had his own strategic reasons for his scholarly work—reasons shaped by the New Left’s ultimately frustrated struggle to form a coherent social movement in the 1960s—that remain strikingly relevant decades later. “False consciousness of the nature of American liberalism,” Weinstein wrote, “has been one of the most powerful ideological weapons that American capitalism has had in maintaining its hegemony.” Not leaving feuds to the footnotes, he called out by name Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., “intellectual in residence of the Kennedys,” for calling liberalism an anti-business movement.

That’s because Weinstein believed the functional role of American liberalism was to entrench corporate power, not restrain it. His whole scholarly project hinged on that point. “Both in its nineteenth and twentieth century forms, liberalism has been the political ideology of the rising, and then dominant, business groups,” he wrote. It was a principle that Weinstein extended through the twentieth century. From the moment when corporate capitalism first transformed the American economy during the Progressive Era to LBJ’s Great Society, corporate liberalism had demonstrated an ability to “make the necessary adjustments to restore at least a facade of social harmony.”

Such a pattern of “necessary adjustments” consisted in making concessions in some circumstances and playing hardball in others. On the one hand, corporate liberals marginalized the most extreme forces on the right by portraying the small business owners and rapacious monopolists of the Progressive Era as backward-looking, and by promoting the expertise of managers and regulators as the only solution to what they called “ruinous competition.” Ralph M. Easley, founder of the National Civic Federation, a liberal group which brought together executives, union officials, consumer advocates, social scientists, and economists and pounded out the major progressive public policies of the era, regularly railed against small industrialists and other members of the National Association of Manufacturers as irresponsible “anarchists.” That was his way of characterizing a small business community that tolerated, when they weren’t cheering on, class conflict and tended to see wild swings between economic booms and busts not so much as problems to be solved but as inevitable aspects of capitalist life.

But a more formidable ideological enemy—and a greater threat to corporate capitalism because it provided the most consistent ideological alternative—was the coalition of disaffected populist farmers, radical labor unionists, and urban workers who made up the growing Socialist Party of America. Corporate liberals undermined the momentum and legitimacy of the party, and the radicalism that it fostered, by alienating the left from mainstream American politics. Before World War I and the emergency powers that fueled the first Red Scare, they did this principally by supporting popular left-wing causes such as improvements to safety and working conditions, including workmen’s compensation, breaking up predatory trusts, and providing more generous benefits and increased salaries to workers. It was a winning strategy that routed big business rivals and helped to introduce what John Dewey called the corporate age.

This history of capitalism suggests a parable, if not a strategic principle, for understanding how corporate elites have positioned themselves as supporters of progressive causes. Today, of course, people like Jeff Bezos and Jamie Dimon aren’t sitting down at the table with union organizers or supporting higher tax rates, but that’s because they don’t have to. What they are doing is signing Business Roundtable statements that “Redefine the Purpose of the Corporation” and assuring us that they aren’t just putting in time at the shareholder value factory—they are, you see, committed to workers, consumers, suppliers, and communities.

Outside of the footnotes of professional historians, the idea of corporate liberalism has largely been forgotten. Weinstein’s book is regrettably out of print. And one of the only persons of note who has invoked corporate liberalism lately has been Missouri Senator Josh Hawley, a Republican who poses as a man of the people. Hawley’s appropriation of the idea in his recent book—which oddly casts corporate liberalism as the secret tool of the robber barons—was either a malicious or ignorant mischaracterization, if not both. The radical revisionists of the 1960s need better heirs now that so many are gone. William Appleman Williams died in 1990; Weinstein in 2005. Kolko died in 2014, about a month after Sklar.

Saviors of the Status Quo

The corporate liberalism of the early twentieth century is not exactly what we see today: business executives, for one, had more autonomy back then. Now they have to create and maintain tenuous deals with an activist Wall Street partly of their own making, whose obsession with the metrics of shareholder value could hardly have been countenanced in the Progressive Era. But we only have to look at one major reform of those years—the creation of the Federal Reserve in 1913—to see a perfect example of functioning corporate liberalism: an expert-led institution that, although it maintained regional branches as a concession to populist farmers, remained largely insulated from democratic control and stabilized the monetary system for the benefit of the banking industry and the corporations that relied on it.

In recent decades, little has changed as far as that goes. When the untrammeled lending and financial schemes of a deregulated and highly concentrated banking industry almost brought down the entire economy in 2008, the Fed was there to bail them out. And a decade or so after rescuing the mortgage companies, the Fed was there for the rest of the financial industry when the coronavirus pandemic struck, injecting massive amounts of liquidity into markets that floated high above the depressed and paralyzed economy that the rest of us lived in.

The triumph of corporate liberalism does not represent a movement oriented around the good of society.

But such Wall-Street-friendly policies, exemplified by Fed chairman Paul Volcker in the early Reagan years, have rarely come at the expense of corporations or management. They are rather in keeping with today’s corporate liberalism that tolerates, for example, antitrust crusades aimed at the worst offenders—the FTC’s recent litigation against Facebook being perhaps today’s version of TR’s assault on Rockefeller’s Standard Oil. And here we find clues to the politics of the Biden era, with an apparent reversal of the deregulation and austerity that largely dominated Washington over the last several decades.

None of these developments challenge the corporate capitalist system that has defined modern American liberalism. They demonstrate rather that corporate liberalism is an elastic ideology that succeeds when it consolidates a wide range of political interests in the name of economic and social stability. The rise of populism, democratic socialism, and, most recently, reactionary insanity on the right has been enough to rejuvenate an ideological strategy that, as Weinstein understood it, marginalizes the legitimacy of the right and takes away the necessity of the left. As he put it in The Corporate Ideal in the Liberal State, business leaders succeeded “because their ideology and their political economy alone was comprehensive.” They were the ones “who allowed potential opponents to participate, even if not as equals, in a process of adjustment, concession, and amelioration that seemed to promise a gradual advancement toward the good society for all citizens.”

In these terms, the triumph of corporate liberalism does not represent a movement oriented around the good of society. Rather, it’s a strategy that accommodates not only a certain amount of rhetoric about social progress but also sometimes real, even daring, concessions on public policy. All the while it stands militantly against any substantive attempts to transform a system that entrenches managerial and financial power.

Kyle Edward Williams is writing a book on the history of corporate social responsibility. He is associate editor of The Hedgehog Review.

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