The Limits of Progressive Thought: A Review of Donald Gutstein’s Not a Conspiracy Theory: How Business Hijacks Democracy

By Stephen Gowans

Progressive media analyst Donald Gutstein, a professor in the school of communication at Canada’s Simon Fraser University, and a former co-director of Project Censored, has written what appears to be a promising analysis of the state in contemporary capitalist society. Not a Conspiracy Theory: How Business Hijacks Democracy, examines the role of business in shaping public opinion, but is a disappointing farrago of misconceptions, faulty logic, and contradictions, whose prescriptions offer the left no way out of the cul-de-sac it finds itself in. Gutstein, a liberal with a hazily radical air, argues from a vaguely Marxist and radical standpoint, but his horizons are limited to targeting “radical” conservatives in an effort to restore the social welfare gains of the post-war period. Gutstein wants to relegate business to the role he imagines it once played: as just once voice in a pluralist society presided over by a neutral state.

In short, Gutstein’s argument is that “In Canada and the United States, corporate power and the free market were reined in after the Second World War” [1] in favor of building a mixed economy. “Business signed on to the welfare state because it feared working class activism and a return to Depression-era conditions. It supported nearly-full employment for males, expanded trade union rights and the construction of a social safety net.” [2] The mixed economy produced “unprecedented growth and prosperity,” but “in the 1970s…profits declined and inflation rose” [3] as oil prices skyrocketed and competition from a revived Japan and Western Europe intensified. This prompted business to launch a counteroffensive to restore profits. Business recruited and funded “radical” conservatives to build a propaganda machine to change people’s attitudes and beliefs about unions, the mixed economy and the welfare state. The propaganda worked astonishingly well, allowing business to hijack the media and government, both of which have become instruments of corporate power. Business needs to be reined in so that it is only one of many voices in a pluralist debate (as it was in the post-war period.) The way to accomplish this goal is for progressives to build their own propaganda machine to restore the credibility of the mixed economy and welfare state, relying on grassroots donations and funding from wealthy liberals.

Has business propaganda been successful?

Gutstein argues that business propaganda is used to shape public opinion in ways that favor the interests of business owners against the majority. Propaganda, in his view, keeps the majority from using its numbers to pressure governments to adopt policies that encroach upon business interests.

“A democratically elected government with a mandate from voters to protect jobs, regulate environmentally destructive industry and ensure business pays its fair share of taxes, presents great risks to businesses, limiting a company’s ability to produce ever increasing profits for its share-holders. The risk to business is that…the public…will conclude that business is too powerful and needs to be reined in. The purpose of business propaganda is to ensure that these ideas do not arise.” [4]

Has business propaganda worked? While Gutstein says it has, the examples he cites show it hasn’t. For instance, while he argues that one of the goals of business propaganda is to persuade the public that business isn’t too powerful, he writes,

“A poll commissioned by (Business Week) found that 72 percent of Americans said business ‘had gained too much power over too many aspects of their lives.’ Surprisingly to the Business Week editors, respondents seemed to agree with the sentiments expressed at the 2000 Democratic convention, when presidential nominee Al Gore declared that Americans must ‘stand up and say no’ to ‘Big Tobacco, Big Oil, the big polluters, the pharmaceutical companies, the HMOs’.” [5]

Gutstein argues that the business “propaganda machine…was astonishingly successful in reversing the gains of the welfare state.” [6] But if business propaganda works by changing people’s attitudes and beliefs, it could only have achieved astonishing success in reversing the gains of the welfare state by changing the attitudes and beliefs of the majority about the welfare state. And yet, as Gutstein himself shows, the majority’s support of the welfare state has never wavered. “Despite thirty years of (business) propaganda for tax cuts,” he writes, “people still want spending on social programs.” [7]

In Gutstein’s view, if the majority recognizes that business is too powerful, it will act to rein business in. But popular action doesn’t always or even often follow a correct understanding of a problem. That’s because more than a correct understanding is needed before people take action. Also important is motivation, understanding of what action can be taken, and a belief that the action will make a difference. Furthermore, the action of the majority doesn’t always or even often change public policy. A majority of the world’s population opposed the US-UK invasion of Iraq, and filled the streets in protest on the eve of the invasion in the largest demonstrations in human history. Public opinion was elevated to the status of a second superpower. Yet public opinion turned out to be a rather feeble superpower. The invasion went ahead. Seven years later, Iraq remains under military occupation. Polls show a majority in Canada, Italy, France, Germany, Spain, Britain and even the United States either oppose deployment of their countries’ troops to Afghanistan or favor withdrawal [8], and yet the missions continue, and the U.S. mission will likely continue indefinitely. It could be argued that U.S. President Barack Obama was elected by voters because they believed he was committed to ending the war, yet there are more U.S. troops deployed abroad in combat zones today than under former U.S. president George W. Bush. Public policy seems to have little to do with the attitudes and beliefs of the majority, much less its actions, or votes. Gutstein’s belief that putting the business genie back in the bottle depends on the majority recognizing that business is too powerful is unduly optimistic.

What’s more, a majority of the world’s population already favors progressive policies, despite decades of business propaganda, and yet progressive policies continue to be dismantled. A GlobeScan poll conducted in 27 countries from June to October, 2009, and representing 70 percent of the world’s population, shows that most people in the world are social democrats, while a sizeable number are anti-capitalist, in their attitudes and beliefs. The poll found that a clear majority of the world’s population favors policies traditionally associated with socialism, including public ownership of major industries, redistribution of wealth, and an active role for government in regulating enterprises. [9] Gutstein himself acknowledges that “most people believe…that the acquisition of civil, political, and social rights is an inherently good thing”, [10] and that despite intensive propaganda against Medicare, “the public still backs the system.” [11] Business propaganda, it seems, has been astonishingly unsuccessful. All the same, the welfare state in advanced capitalist countries has been greatly weakened. To understand why, we have to look beyond business propaganda.

Is business propaganda new?

Gutstein can’t seem to decide when business propaganda began. Was it in the 1970s, when declining profits galvanized business to try to get out from under the burden of the welfare state, strong unions and rising popular demands, or did it begin earlier? The answer depends on which page of Gutstein’s book you consult. At one point he writes that the business propaganda machine was first established in the early seventies [12] but points to earlier business-directed campaigns aimed at winning support for a public policy climate favorable to business. He cites a 1949 American Medical Association campaign “to defeat attempts to create universal, federally-insured health care” [13] and a “massive, pro-capitalism grassroots campaign” carried out by “the Advertising Council and the PR industry” between 1945 and 1950. [14] “In 1947 alone,” he writes, the Advertising Council “spent over $100 million to ‘sell’ the American people on the wonders of the American economic system. The campaign, which continued into the 1950s, had two aims: to re-win the loyalty of the workers who had switched to the union, and to halt ‘creeping socialism.’” [15] Gutstein also points out that after World War I many people involved in the propaganda effort to mobilize support for the U.S. entry into the war “turned their efforts to a new crusade: making the world safe for business.” [16] According to Gutstein’s own review, then, the origins of business propaganda date to the period immediately following World War I and not the seventies. [17] If business propaganda has been around since at least the end of World War I, could it be that the domination of government and the media by business began much earlier than 30 years ago?

Have the media and government been hijacked?

Gutstein seems to think that the media and government have been hijacked by corporate interests, rather than created by them (the media) or dominated by them (government.) He misrepresents Noam Chomsky’s and Edward Herman’s propaganda model, outlined in their Manufacturing Consent, as one in which “the prevailing power elites co-opt intellectuals and large media companies and transform them into instruments of shaping public opinion.” [18] (Chomsky and Herman describe media corporations as businesses, whose very nature as businesses, structure their reporting. They have not been co-opted.) Similarly, Gutstein speaks of the corporate agenda becoming the government agenda, as if governments in capitalist society are capable of escaping the imperative of aiding business in its pursuit of profit. Gutstein’s thinking, then, implies that the media and government are capable of playing a neutral role in the clash of labor and business, with government mediating the conflict and the media siding with neither labor nor capital. But the media, for one, are clearly not independent of corporate interests, a point Gutstein himself makes: Media corporations, he writes, are “profit-seeking businesses owned by very wealthy families and by other companies. Owners are generally very conservative politically and favour the dominant North American private enterprise ideology.” [19]

For all of his optimism that business can be relegated to the role of one of many participants in a pluralist debate, [20] Gutstein recognizes that business “has significant influence over government, and controls the debate” [21] because it is able to use its wealth to press for a public policy climate favourable to its interests. Business-sponsored think-tanks, he writes, have,

“greater financial resources. Business sponsored think-tanks can hire more staff, fund more scholars, cover a wider range of topics and produce more studies and reports (than progressive think-tanks, with more limited financial resources, can.) They are also more effective because they have the ear of a sympathetic corporate media far more frequently than progressive think-tanks.” [22].

However, Gutstein focuses too much on the role business think-tanks play in shaping public policy, and too little on the movement of the same individuals back and forth between top corporate and government jobs, [23] the overwhelming role corporations and the wealthy play in funding major political parties, and the work of lobbyists on behalf of individual corporations and business as a whole. [24] He also ignores the limited room for manoeuvre of governments that work within the framework of capitalism. Unless they mobilize the energies of a significant portion of the population to overthrow the system, governments in capitalist society are constrained to act in ways that do no harm to the interests of business. If they do cause harm, business will stop investing, either because it is no longer profitable to do so, or to sabotage the government’s anti-business policies. Capital strike, or the flight of capital to business-friendly jurisdictions, will either bring the government back in line, or prompt voters to change the government. Either way, no government that willingly works within a capitalist framework can privilege lower classes at the expense of business for long without being reined in or replaced. It’s highly likely that governments in capitalist society would act to continue to defend and promote business interests whether business think-tanks – and business propaganda — existed or not.

The counteroffensive

At times, Gutstein seems to paint a picture of a world in which ideas are disconnected from the material world. At other times, he seems more firmly grounded in reality. But always ideology has primacy in his analysis. Ideas, if skilfully expressed by able and well-funded propagandists, have the power to compel action. For example, he attributes the Canadian government’s abandonment of social welfare policies and adoption of a neo-liberal program to a single report by Harvard professor Michael Porter. “After the Porter study (on Canada’s competitiveness in the world) made the rounds of senior officials, the corporate agenda became the government agenda.” [25] This supposes that the government’s agenda hadn’t always been the corporate agenda. An alternative view is that the Porter study didn’t cause the Canadian government to adopt a new agenda. The imperatives of the capitalist system did. What the Porter study did was justify the new agenda.

Gutstein’s emphasis on ideology is also expressed in his discussion of class conflict. Progressive movements, he notes, have “been followed by ideological counterthrusts of extraordinary force … sponsored by the entrenched interests of the day, fighting to protect their privileges and wealth, block progress toward a more just, equal and enlightened society, and undo the reforms already achieved.” [26]

It’s true that progressive movements have been followed by ideological counterthrusts, but more importantly, they have been followed by changes in policy. These changes have occurred when business’s ability to turn a profit has been damaged by a crisis of the capitalist system or by the insupportable encroachment of the demands of progressive movements on business interests.

Social welfare capitalism succeeded laissez faire capitalism as a result of the Great Depression, (though it was the massive spending on the war that brought the United States out of the crisis.) North America’s post-war growth and prosperity was largely caused by pent-up demand following the restraint and shortages of the war, the Marshall Plan, the Cold War, the space race and the rise of the automobile industry, (with its ramifying effects in touching off the growth of steel, glass, petroleum and rubber industries, and the construction of highways and the suburbs.) [27] Additionally, having escaped any major war damage, North American industry enjoyed a virtual monopoly for the greater part of the post-war period, as its competitors rebuilt. At the same time, ideological competition with the Soviet Union dictated that the working class in North America be granted concessions to meet the social welfare standards set by the Communist countries, with their full employment and robust social wage. [28] Strong unions and expanding social programs were easy for business to tolerate as the economy expanded, the price of raw materials was low, and foreign competition was modest.

By the mid-1970s, growth was slowing, the creation of the OPEC cartel sent oil prices skyrocketing, labor had become increasingly militant, and popular demands were being made for further expansion of the welfare state. The top shareholders and executives of major corporations decided that social democracy had gone too far. They used advances in transportation and telecommunications to shift production to non-union areas and later to low-wage countries, to escape the limits strong unions and minimum wage laws imposed on capital accumulation. Publicly-owned assets were sold off, generating new opportunities for profitable investment. Corporate taxes were slashed to fatten bottom lines, reducing the tax revenue base needed to fully support social programs. The welfare state capitalism of the post-war period was being dismantled. But the reason it was being dismantled was not because “radical” conservatives had organized themselves into corporate-funded think-tanks, which had then hijacked the media and government, but because business interests could no longer tolerate the social welfare gains of the post-war years. It was this that caused business to use its agents to both implement and justify a new agenda.

A false solution

Gutstein believes that progressives can achieve success by aping conservatives. Where conservatives identify liberals and leftists as their enemies, “progressives have to make…radical conservatives…the enemy” [29] abandoning their historical focus on “poverty, homelessness, inequality, poor healthcare, racism and sexism.” [30] These evils should never be lost sight of, he writes, but at the same time, they shouldn’t get in the way of targeting “radical” conservatives.

One of the implications of targeting “radical” conservatives is to vote strategically to stop their rise to elected office. But strategic voting by left-wing voters strengthens conservatives by pushing politics increasingly to the right. This happens in two ways. First, those who would otherwise vote for an authentic left alternative throw their weight behind a party which represents a position to the right of their views, in order to defeat conservatives who are even further to the right. This alone represents the skewing of political positions in electoral contests to the right of the base of political positions held by the voting population. Second, the parties that receive the votes of left-wing strategic voters (Labour in Britain, the Democrats in the United States, the Liberals and NDP in Canada), are given permission to move further to the right, in an effort to expand their appeal to cover right-wing voters, since they know that no matter how far right they move, left voters will move with them, so long as there are conservatives even further to the right who must be blocked. Targeting “radical” conservatives, then, rather than promoting authentic left-wing positions, is a self-defeating strategy that only guarantees further migration to the right.

In elaborating this approach, Gutstein urges progressive foundations to take a leaf from the playbooks of conservative foundations. Progressive foundations, he says, spend their money on “thousands of grassroots groups disconnected from one another and from national politics,” while conservative foundations fund a smaller number of “well-chosen think-tanks and advocacy organizations.” [31] Conservatives have “demonstrated that a successful political movement required building multi-issue organizations,” while progressive foundations spread their resources thin, distributing their more limited funding on “organizations engaged in one or a few issues.” [32] Gutstein assumes that once this truth is apprehended, progressive foundations will change their funding practices. But what he misses is the possibility that progressive foundations fund a multiplicity of disparate, single-issue organizations, by design. What wealthy liberals want no more than wealthy conservatives is an effective multi-issue political movement capable of challenging the privileges of corporations and the wealthy. Keeping the left fractured and disorganized, by doling out small donations to disparate groups working on single issues, is one way of preventing the rise of an effective, multi-issue organization. [33]

A multi-issue movement of the left that united its fractured parts would be more effective than the current agglomeration of single-issue groups, but what would it be united in pursuit of? In Gutstein’s view, it would unite to discredit “radical” conservatives, an enterprise which, if successful, would force governments to see the light and rein business in, so that business would be forced to return to the status of equal player in a pluralist debate mediated by a neutral government. This, however, flies in the face of reality. Business has always dominated the state in capitalist society. It may have appeared at certain points to many members of the corporate elite that the state was encroaching upon business interests more than was necessary to stabilize the society and secure the support of the working class, and at the same time, it may have appeared to members of the working class that the state was trying to balance the interests of labor and business, but there has never been any doubt that in a capitalist society the interests of capital are pre-eminent. There may be disagreements among the top shareholders and key executives of major corporations about the best way forward. Some may favor government intervention to stabilize the economy and to secure a basic level of economic security for the working class in order to build a stable society conducive to capital accumulation. Others may regard these interventions as unnecessary and prohibitively costly. Still others may look to permanent war, the mobilization of society against external threats (real or fabricated) and the promotion of religion, nationalism, racism and patriotism as alternatives to class, as the best way to stabilize society and perpetuate the rule of business. But in all cases, it is capital that is the dominant force.

Who is in the driver’s seat – and who ought to be?

Gutstein believes that there has been a fundamental shift in the balance of power over the last 30 years, where business, once reined in by government, has since slipped its reins, hijacked the government and media, and turned the corporate agenda into the government agenda. Let us accept Gutstein’s view for the moment, that it is indeed only in the last three decades that business has emerged to dominate government and the media. Whether corporate domination is inherent in capitalist society or only of recent origin, it remains the case that the present reality, as Gutstein notes, is that “Corporate power is in the driver’s seat. It has the money, organization and access to the media.” [34] How, then, does Gutstein propose that business be pushed from the driver’s seat? And who should replace it?

It would seem that the surest way to solve the problems of “poverty, homelessness, inequality, poor healthcare, racism and sexism” that Gutstein lists as the historical concerns of the left, is to replace business in the driver seat with the class that suffers most from these afflictions: the working class. Indeed, where the working class was, and currently is, in the driver’s seat, these evils were and have been nearly eliminated, if not abolished. In Cuba today and the socialist bloc before its demise, homelessness, poor healthcare, racism, sexism and extremes of income were largely eliminated, if not eradicated altogether. Since it is in the interest of the working class to deal with these problems but not in the interests of business to do the same, (except insofar as these problems threaten to destabilize society and business’s ability to accumulate capital), it would seem that the working class is the agent for this change. But that is not Gutstein’s view. As a pluralist, he wants to replace business in the driver’s seat with “neutral” elected politicians who will reconcile the clash between labor and capital. But can politicians be neutral in capitalist society? Since electoral success is highly sensitive to how much money and media support a candidate for elected office can command, and because business is in the best position to furnish candidates with the resources and media support they need to get elected, the capitalist system does not tend toward the production of neutral politicians. On the contrary, it tends toward the production of errand boys for business. What’s more, as already mentioned, politicians who operate within the framework of capitalism have no option but to make capitalism work, and that means, in the first instance, ensuring that the profit-making requirements of business are met above all else. This is true whether the government is conservative, centrist or social democratic. No government that operates within a capitalist framework is neutral.

If business is in the driver’s seat, “the money, organization and access to the media” that allowed it to move into the driver’s seat in the first instance, allows it, at the same time, to maintain its position and beat back challengers. How then does Gutstein propose that business be forced from its commanding position at the apex of society? The answer he offers is for progressives to unite to discredit “radical” conservatives and restore the credibility of the mixed economy and social welfare. This is shallow.

We have already seen, and Gutstein himself has shown, that social welfare, regulation, and public ownership never lost credibility with the bulk of people in capitalist society. The majority continues to regard these things as desirable, and yet these things are no longer part of the government agenda. This is so because public ownership, regulation and social welfare, lost credibility with business, and with its media and government agents, beginning in the mid-1970s. Indeed, the fundamental shift in the balance of power that Gutstein claims happened 30 years ago was really the loss in credibility of the welfare state among business and its representatives who dominate the state. This is why a conservative agenda was implemented despite continuing popular support for social welfare. Calling for a campaign to restore the credibility of the mixed economy and the welfare state can only mean restoring the credibility of social welfare capitalism among members of the ruling class, since this is the only class for which the credibility of public ownership, income redistribution and regulation, was lost. In other words, what Gutstein is proposing is that the public petition business and its agents in government to recreate the world as it was in North America from the end of World War II to the mid-1970s.

Since business and its agents will only implement a welfare state if it’s in their interests to do so, and since objectively, it’s not always or even often in their interests to grant a full panoply of concessions and reforms, the likelihood of this approach being successful is entirely dependent on the interests of business. If there are times when it would suit the profit-making imperatives of business to strengthen social welfare, concede advances in unionization, and allow a measure of public ownership, these reforms and concessions will be made…but at the discretion of the same business interests that are in the driver’s seat. Reform and concessions will, therefore, be contingent and revocable, and will be taken back at the earliest moment the welfare state is no longer judged by business to be in its interests. The lesson of the last three decades for the left is not to work to restore the credibility of social welfare capitalism, but for the working class itself to take control of the economy and to replace business in the driver seat. This is the only way to permanently end the evils that Gutstein calls the historical concerns of the left.

It should be noted that Gutstein’s views are representative of those of progressives who aim to persuade business and its agents that income redistribution, strong unions, and robust social programs are a pathway to growth and prosperity, not burdens which reduce profit-margins. This Panglossian view, which also seeks an equal status for, or partnership between, labor and capital, holds that social democracy is a win-win for both classes. This view carries little weight with business, which recognizes that an irreconcilable antagonism exists between its interests and labor’s, and that if it can get away with paying less tax and lower wages, so much the better. The progressive argument that business could reap higher profits if it paid more taxes and raised wages is, not surprisingly, dismissed by business as nonsense. As to the view that a partnership between business and labor is democratic, this can be dismissed as nonsense too, for even if we were to suppose that labor and capital could have an equal status in capitalist society, it would be a strange democracy in which the 90 percent or more of the population that makes up labor had a voice only equal to the 10 percent or less that constitutes capital.

The limits of progressive thought

To summarize the problems with Gutstein’s analysis:

1. The post-war period may have been a time of robust growth and prosperity in Canada and the United States, but it does not follow that robust growth and prosperity were caused by a mixed economy, expanded union rights and the construction of a social safety net. What’s more, the United States economy has never been mixed, and the Canadian economy has only ever been mildly so. Pent-up demand following the restraint and shortages of the war years, the stepped up military spending of the Cold War, the space race and the expansion of the automobile and allied industries, contributed to making the post-war period a time of growth and prosperity. The role these factors played in creating growth and prosperity, alongside the industrial monopoly enjoyed by North American business for the greater part of the post-war period, allowed a social safety net to be built. The ideological imperative of meeting the social welfare standards established by the Communist countries provided the impetus to do so. The smaller size of the global capitalist workforce prior to its doubling with the collapse of the socialist bloc and the opening of China and India to foreign investment, checked the strong downward pressure on wages that would soon follow. The location of production in advanced industrial countries prior to the advances in telecommunications and transportation that allowed production to be relocated to non-union areas and low-wage countries also supported strong unions and higher wages.

2. While business recruited “radical” conservatives to promote neo-liberal and neo-conservative ideologies, the business propaganda machine has not been the astonishing success Gutstein say it has been. On the contrary, it has failed miserably in changing the beliefs and attitudes of the majority about social welfare, regulation and public ownership. And yet, the social welfare state has been largely dismantled and unions weakened. Business and is errand boys in government didn’t manufacture consent among members of the working class for these changes; they simply went ahead and made them.

3. Business did not hijack the media and government after profits declined and inflation rose in the 1970s. Media corporations, business themselves, are by their very nature corporate agents, while governments have long acted in the interests of business, because they have regularly been led by ambitious lawyers (typically), recruited, trained and financed by the corporate rich, and often by the corporate rich themselves, and because any government that willingly works within the context of capitalism must accommodate the profit-making interests of business, or risk its rule being destabilized.

4. By virtue of its ownership and control of the economy, business is in a position to use its immense wealth to undermine laws intended to rein in it, and to tilt the playing field in its favor. In a capitalist society, business wields too much power for it ever to be but one voice in a pluralist contest mediated by a neutral state. Business control of the economy and the wealth it allows it to accumulate furnishes business with the means to buy the media, lobbyists and politicians to undermine regulation.

5. Wealthy liberals are no more interested in building effective movements to challenge their wealth and privileges than wealthy conservatives are. While a coordinated, organized and disciplined multi-issue organization is necessary to successfully advance left-wing goals, the role traditionally played by liberal philanthropists in their relationship with the left has been one of co-opting moderates and splintering the left into disparate, single-issue groups, organized around concerns other than class (gender, race, poverty, environmentalism, and so on.) Any serious effort to secure advances for the working class will not be funded by those most likely to be adversely affected.

While each of the above issues is important alone, all can be more readily addressed within a publicly-owned, rationally planned economy than within the framework of capitalism. Progress in eliminating racism, sexism and in providing basic economic security came much faster and went much further in the Soviet Union and other socialist countries than in advanced capitalist countries. While progress toward the resolution of important problems does happen within capitalism, it happens in a slow, fitful manner, without the determined energy that has characterized the history of socialist countries. A commitment to building socialism is a more certain and rapid path to eliminating these scourges than attempting to secure gradual, piecemeal change within capitalism. With the world being driven headlong into environmental disaster by the competitive lash of capitalism, gradual, piecemeal reforms are not an option.


Contrary to Gutstein’s thesis, government and the media weren’t hijacked three decades ago. They have always been agents of corporate rule. However, three decades ago, the welfare state lost credibility with business and its representatives in government and the media because it no longer served business interests. Strong unions, labor militancy, rising popular expectations and demands for the expansion of the welfare state, and the crisis of stagflation, combined to encroach upon business interests to a degree business was no longer willing to tolerate. In a backlash against labor, unions were attacked, social safety nets were shredded, and the taxes of corporations and the wealthy were slashed. The backlash was facilitated by advances in shipping and telecommunications, which allowed production to be relocated to non-union areas and low-wage countries. The doubling of the global capitalist workforce, which occurred as a result of the opening of China and India to foreign investment, and the collapse of the Warsaw Bloc, helped to drive wages down. [35] The ideology propagated by “radical” conservatives who organized themselves into corporate-funded think-tanks justified the new agenda, but didn’t cause it.

Gutstein and other progressives think it’s possible to turn back the hands of time. They want to return North America to a post-war capitalism. But returning to the post-war welfare state means recreating the material conditions of the post-war years, something no amount of counter-hegemonic progressive propaganda can achieve. Those days are gone, and while they may have been comfortable for white, male workers in the United States and Canada, they were not a nostalgic period for women and racial minorities in the global north, nor for the greater part of humanity in the global south whose oppression the social welfare gains of the north partly defrayed.

The lesson of the last three decades for the left is not, as Gutstein concludes, to work to restore the credibility of welfare capitalism, but to face up to the reality of what happens when working class movements fail to take the driver’s seat themselves, and allow business to keep its hands on the wheel. Left in place to drive the car, the major shareholders and board members of the top corporations steer in the direction that suits themselves, veering only slightly off course when the passengers, or the conditions of the road, leave them no other choice. But the road of capitalism is narrow, and business absolutely will not steer off the road, though it is in another direction that the interests of the car’s working class passengers lie. As Gutstein points out, “poverty, homelessness, inequality, poor healthcare, racism and sexism” are the traditional concerns of the left, and it is in societies in which the working class has come to power that these evils have been greatly reduced, if not eradicated altogether. By contrast, in societies in which business has been left in the driver’s seat or where labor attempts to share power with business, progressive gains, if they’ve gone far at all, are almost always temporary, revoked the moment business needs to take them back and is strong enough to do so. No, the lesson of the last three decades for the left is not to work to restore the credibility of social welfare capitalism, but for the working class itself to take control of the economy and to replace business in the driver seat. This is the only way to permanently secure the benefits business temporarily ceded to one section of the global working class during the post-war period, and to make them a reality for all.

1. Donald Gutstein, Not a Conspiracy Theory: How Business Hijacks Democracy, Key Porter Books, 2009, p. 315.
2. Gutstein, p. 59.
3. Gutstein, p. 57.
4. Gutstein, p. 17.
5. Gutstein, p. 315.
6. Gutstein, p. 58.
7. Gutstein, p. 304.
8. Jennifer Agiesta and Jon Cohen, “Public opinion in U.S. turns against the war,” The Washington Post, August 20, 2009; John F. Burns, “Brown pledges to maintain Britain’s Afghan forces,” The New York Times, September 5, 2009; Julian E. Barnes, “Doubt raised on troop boost in Afghanistan war,” The Los Angeles Times, September 11, 2009; Linda McQuaig, “NATO is an unwelcome wedding guest,” The Toronto Star, July 28, 2009; “Just 40% of US back Afghan conflict,” The Morning Star (UK), October 8, 2009; Eric Schmitt and Steven Erlanger, “U.S. seeks 10,000 troops from its allies in Afghanistan,” The New York Times, November 26, 2009.
9. GlobeScan, “Wide Dissatisfaction with Capitalism — Twenty Years after Fall of Berlin Wall,” November 9, 2009,
10. Gutstein, p. 80.
11. Gutstein, p. 303.
12. Gutstein, p. 58.
13. Gutstein, p. 66.
14. Ibid.
15. Gutstein, p. 92.
16. Gutstein, p. 63.
17. Ibid. One of the people involved in the post-World War I campaign was Ivy Ledbetter Lee who “helped John D. Rockefeller clean up his reputation.” This was done by establishing the Rockefeller Foundation. Being liberal, Rockefeller’s philanthropy escapes Gutstein’s critical gaze.
18. Gutstein, p. 70.
19. Ibid. It’s curious that Gutstein considers private enterprise ideology to be uniquely dominant in North America. While it’s true that social programs and unions are stronger in other places (Western Europe, for example), it would be an exaggeration to say that private enterprise ideology isn’t dominant among mainstream journalists and media commentators, top level civil servants and political parties, including labor, socialist and social democratic parties, outside of North America. It is not, however, dominant among the majority, as shown above.
20. Gutstein, p. 315.
21. Gutstein, p. 11-12.
22. Gutstein, p. 73.
23. Paul Sweezy, “Power elite or ruling class?” Monthly Review Pamphlet Series, No. 13.
24. G. William Domhoff, Who Rules America? Power, Politics and Social Change, McGraw-Hill, 2005.
25. Gutstein, p. 30.
26. Gutstein, p. 56.
27. Paul A. Baran and Paul M. Sweezy, Monopoly Capital: An Essay on the American Economic and Social Order, Monthly Review Press, April, 2009.
28. Fred Goldstein, Low-Wage Capitalism: Colossus with Feet of Clay, World View Forum, New York, 2008.
29. Gutstein, p. 309.
30. Ibid.
31. Gutstein, p. 318.
32. Ibid.
33. Joan Roelofs, Foundations and Public Policy: The Mask of Pluralism, State University of New York Press, 2003; See also Michael James Barker’s web-log, Barker has written extensively on liberal philanthropies and their role in manipulating democracy.
34. Gutstein, p. 292.
35. Goldstein.

One thought on “The Limits of Progressive Thought: A Review of Donald Gutstein’s Not a Conspiracy Theory: How Business Hijacks Democracy

  1. Gutstiens arguement revolves around the state being some kind of benevolent organisation that stands above political economy.This is nonsense,political pluralism is a red herring,no where do the working class share power with the capitalist class and visa versa.It cannot be otherwise.Unfortunately the attitude that the state is independant is still dominant in most of the left here in Australia.The state is an instrument of class rule.Only the taking of power by the working class[revolution]and the overthrow of the capitalist class and its state can build a social system that will meet the needs of the majority of societies members.I would recomend Lenin to any of your readers that wish to gain an understanding of the state,its origins and its role in class society.Your section concerning the move to the right by supporting political parties that appear less right wing is accurate and exactly what happens here in Australia.Keep up the good work Stephen

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