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James Burnham

Their Government

The Annual ‘Congress of American Industry’

(15 December 1939)


From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 93, 16 December 1939, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Anthropologists have carried out many interesting studies of a widespread historical phenomenon which they sometimes call “cultural lag.” A cultural lag occurs, to take a simple instance, when a set of ideas, relevant to a particular social context, persist as beliefs in the minds and words of men when that context has disappeared. In the new context, the ideas are a carry-over from an earlier cultural situation.

No group in society is altogether exempt from such cultural lags. As I read, last week, the reports of the proceedings of the annual “Congress of American Industry,” sponsored by the National Association of Manufacturers, I regretted that no anthropologist has as yet taken as his subject for examination this authoritative group of American businessmen, to place in his textbook alongside the examples he gives from the life of primitive tribes.

These men, so “practical,” ruthless and flexible in their business conduct, are in a true sense of the word primitive in their entire ideology. Their system of general ideas continues to be merely a re-hash of the concepts of the “classical economics” of a century ago, referring to the early stages of industrial capitalism, without the slightest significant relation to contemporary society. Not a single one of them is capable of giving any scientific or philosophic illumination to the problems of today, not even to their own problems. Their ideas are as outmoded as would be a chemist’s who talked about “phlogiston” or an electro-physicist who argued about an “electrical fluid.” Their ideal is, in their own words, that of “normal economic processes, unhampered by artificial restraints”: the ideal, that is, of the immediate followers of Ricardo.

The Wisdom of our Masters

This year’s Congress of American Industry adopted, with a unanimous flourish, a grandiose Platform of the Congress of American Industry, the Magna Charta, presumably, of the N.A.M. Few recorded documents have ever been emptier.

There is no lack, of course, of self-confidence:

“It must be made clear to the public that industry’s enlightened self-interest is linked inextricably with the welfare of all of these other elements and with the welfare of the nation of the whole.”

Nor any absence of tried and trusted phrases:

“Industrial management must continue to do all in its power to keep alive the faith of the public in the traditional American principles of free enterprise, as the guarantor of individual opportunity and security.”

But, incredible as it might seem, the entire platform does not mention in a single word or phrase either unemployment or the war! Nor, indeed, is there any concrete analysis of anything.

Yet, from another point of view, this Platform is not without a purpose, and this purpose at the same time explains why it cannot be other than stupid.

Eight requisites for achieving the “goal” of industry are listed. The first two of the requisites are as follows:

“1. Maintenance of individual initiative and free enterprise ...

“2. Recognition of the social value of the profit motive as a powerful incentive to all productive effort and of the economic need for profits in industry sufficient to maintain and expand existing enterprise.”

These are the polite words in which businessmen refer to capitalism. Placing these two requisites as first in achieving their goal means simply: for us, capitalist private property rights come first, and everything else is subordinated to them, everything else will be sacrificed to them.

With this as their central purpose, they could not possibly go on to any scientific analysis of the economy. If they did, they would only be able to prove that unemployment, starvation, misery, war, national and international chaos are what follow from their purpose; they would have to expose themselves to the public, and – what is painful for many of them – also to themselves. Therefore, they can only fall back on vague generalities and the slogans of Adam Smith.

The cultural lag in the ideas of these men symbolizes accurately the fact that the men themselves and the purposes which they try to fulfill in the world have come into insurmountable conflict with any sane and decent plan for the re-organization of society in the interests of mankind as a whole.

The N.A.M. and Washington

There is another notable feature of the Platform and, for the most part, of the speeches at the Congress. As compared with former years, the tone is extremely mild. From 1935 until last year there were always a number of bitter attacks on the Roosevelt administration and its policies. This year, the administration was hardly mentioned, and objections to its policies took the form usually of friendly advice rather than sharp criticism.

There seem to be two chief reasons for this important change. In the first place, these men, so stupid in general ideas but shrewd in practical affairs, know that the New Deal is buried. They do not, like Dubinsky or Hillman or the New Leader, bury their heads in a dream of the past, when it comes to a problem of dollars and cents. They are well satisfied with the Roosevelt reaction of the last year, so far as it has gone to date. Naturally they still have their demands: one of the planks in their platform is their way of calling for abolition of the closed shop. But the bogeyman of Roosevelt as a “serious threat to business,” which haunted some of them, is by now dispelled.

And, secondly, they are, in their own way, worried about the war. Their fears were expressed by Ernest T. Weir, who has spoken similarly on several occasions during recent months. Dimly they grasp their terrible dilemma: that they, the rulers of America, cannot live without plunging the nation into the war; and yet that they may not find themselves and their system still living when the war is over. They do not know how to solve this dilemma, which is in fact insoluble. And many of them are beginning to believe that they will have to turn the war-job over to Roosevelt, who seems so confident that he can handle it.

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