The Peoples Bicentennial Commission

Slouching Towards the Economic Revolution

If you call the Boston office of the People's Bicentennial Commission, you'll most likely hear one of those earnest, accent-free youngish voices you know you've heard somewhere before. It will belong to someone who has probably spent at least four years going to school after high school and could probably give Walter Cronkite a run for sounding like the doesn't really come from anywhere. But then the voice begins to sound familiar: "Sure...Salgon's about to fall. The anti-war movement is going domestic."

The logic runs something like this: Back in the mid-sixties young American men were being drafted, Why? Because we were at war in Vietnam. Why? To protect our empire. Why? Because the multinationals need an empire. That sounds like imperialism, doesn't it? Sure does. Well, that's not fair for the people in those countries we're feeding off, is it? If you think that's unfair, you should check out the domestic economy. Look, Watergate, unemployment, regressive taxes, poverty-amidst-plenty, you don't think these things are accidents, do you?

And so the word began to spread, Watts?--look at the economy. Watergate?--look at the economy. Huge defense budgets nobody wants?--look at the economy.

Five years after its founding, the People's Bicentennial Commission is using an economic analysis to unify and reform American workers. The Commission was founded in 1970 by Jeremy Rifkin to provide "revolutionary alternatives for the Bicentennial years." Despite--or more likely because of--the ambiguities involved in that statement of purpose. Rifkin was able to convince some foundations to provide some of the original backing. The goal was education. The commission would do a lot of research and write books and teaching materials to put some substance behind the Disney-like productions the government was sure to come up with. Rifkin seemed like just the man for the job--a graduate of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts, a degree holder in economics from the Wharton School of Finance at Penn, former coordinator of the Citizens Commission Inquiry into U.S. War Crimes in Vietnam, a one-time VISTA volunteer, an anti-war activist and a good writer to boot.

His major opus is Common Sense II, an attack on corporate tyranny that draws on Thomas Paine's Common Sense for its rhetoric if not its analysis. Like much of what the PBC has done so far, Common Sense II spins out an elaborate analogy between the threat to American freedom and political expression today and the plight of the American colonies under King George III.

Rifkin argues that political democracy is contingent on what he calls "economic democracy." He points to the fact that one per cent of the adult population in this country owns 72 per cent of all corporate stock as a principle index of how uneven the benefits of economic organization are. Moreover, "the 200 largest business corporations also control two-thirds of all of the manufacturing assets in the U.S.," making them "each giant fiefdoms" and giving them disproportionate economic and political power. The real enemies, though, are those families--like the Mellons, who have substantial holding in ALCOA, the Mellon National Bank. Gulf and First Boston Corporation, and the Rockefellers, who seem to be to the American economy what a chain is to a bicycle--that own so much concentrated wealth in core industries that they make the Privy Council under George III look like Common Cause.

The problems Rifkin sees stemming from this power concentrated at the top are two-fold. At one level, as I.F. Stone once said, the rich march on Washington all the time. The importance of a smooth-running economy to a President and the power of the multinationals in world politics have been evident for years. The "corporate giants" are able to find more receptive ears in the White House and on Capitol Hill than the average working Joe, a massive contradiction of American ideals and purpose.

Jefferson's yeoman farmer and today's middle American are both on the outside looking in. But the corporations also exert their influence directly, through the authoritarian organization of the shop. Working people in this country, according to Rifkin, are told what to do on the job and off the job. Because so few Americans are self-employed now this corporate influence is greater than the East India Tea Company could ever have dreamt back in the eighteenth century. Rifkin links the two struggles with these gems from Thomas Jefferson:

I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations, which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of our country.

The problem now, as then, is that a handful of powerful men make the decisions that affect the lives of the rest of us.

The upshot is the new declaration of economic independence, "a platform to unite America." If you've got your old high-school American history book around, turn to the Declaration of Independence, change "men" to "People" and plug in "economic" in place of all references to politics: "The History of the present giant corporations is a History of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over those states." What follows is a long indictment of the big corporations for making serfs out of Americans, erecting monopolies that block the native talents of the nation's citizens, allowing hundreds of thousands to be injured or killed on the job every year, co-opting regulatory agencies and buying politicians, pocketing government subsidies while dangling the ideal of self-reliance before the citizenry, and "forcing" Americans to take boring, dangerous jobs to stay alive. "The corporations have created and perpetuated a small hereditary aristocracy, with wealth and power unrivalled in the annals of recorded history," it says.

In addition to this seminal manifesto, the PBC has published America's Birthday and Voices of the Revolution and has contracts for a total of nine books that "range from scholarly studies of the American Revolution to the issue of concentration of economic power in contemporary America." Almost 1000 radio stations across the country now carry their series. The Voices of '76, and more than 100 TV stations are airing the PBC television series of the same name. The PBC is still preparing "educational materials" that go out to the National Council of Churches, the Campfire Girls and "thousands of libraries, churches, fraternal clubs, schools, civic associations, etc.," according to a recent press release. Full-fledged commissions have been set up in 21 states and where those don't exist yet there are Committees of Correspondence to spread the word about the economy and the founding fathers.

In the last year or so the PBC, a non-profit public foundation, based in Washington, D.C., has begun to take on a life and a momentum of its own even though the foundation funding has fallen off. Most of this financial support comes from the book contracts with Bantam, Simon and Schuster and McGraw-Hill. Some more comes from liberal heavies who are sympathetic to the idea of either economic democracy or an alternative bicentennial celebration. Most recently, direct fund-raising efforts have started to bring in more cash. What also helps, of course, is that most of the labor is free--only ten members of the Commission get anything at all and even Rifkin is reported to take home only $85 a week. And as the PBC becomes more visible, the early success begins to feed on itself to the point where it can now make money on the buttons, bumper stickers and other gimmicks they are turning out. The question remains though, about the purpose. It certainly doesn't seem logical to go to such lengths to create an on-going nationwide organization just to debunk official celebrations. Were that the case, the PBC could be expected to wither rather quickly away sometime around July 5, 1976 after a last gasp in Philadelphia. But they don't plan to go away.

Nick Nyhart, a PBC volunteer in Boston who says he "knows as much about the organization as anybody else except maybe some at the very top," explained last week that the long-range goal is not just education, but the realization of "economic democracy" in America. The current proliferation of books, pamphlets and slogans is just the first phase in a program for social change.

Two weekends ago, Jeremy Rifkin published a piece in a special supplement in the Boston Sunday Globe where he argued that America needs to see control of production by workers if we are not to make a mockery of the Revolution. What he seems to be talking about is socialism without the European terminology. He stresses in Common Sense II that the "best kept secret in America" is that workers are perfectly capable of managing factories--in fact more capable than management. He reports that several major corporations have experimented with worker control but have decided to pull back and try to keep a lid on the programs because they were too successful and would undermine management authority. He goes on to argue that the resources necessary for life in society belong to all members of society and that workers should thus throw off the burden of private ownership of industry. The way to do this is to inform Americans that there is nothing sacred or mystical about our current economic organization and that there are alternatives that do not produce great disparities in wealth and alienation as well as corporate tyranny, letting the examples themselves excite the vast majority of Americans to force entrenched capital out of the driver's seat through the legal system. What he's talking about is a non-violent workers' takeover of industry, a takeover that would provide the social basis for a political democracy in this country that has been lacking since Jefferson's lament about the corporations.

Rifkin's analysis and his strategy for change are brief and vague--purposely so. The major emphasis in Common Sense II and in most of the literature put out by the PBC so far is on breaking up the big corporations. The first priority is to get people thinking about economic injustice, and the focus for that discontent is the Fortune 500. Much of what they say and write, in fact, sounds like a new populism and is not far from what someone like, say. Sen. Fred Harris (D-Okla.) says.

Thus, the organizers see the PBC's 1975 "Town Meeting" and anti-Ford demonstration at Concord as an important success. Nyhart complained about the media coverage, saying that most reporters went and saw some young people, some alcohol and drugs, and some rain and thought. "Aha! Woodstock." Nyhart objects on two counts. Even if the people who came to Concord were mostly young, that doesn't mean they don't work or aren't looking for work. More importantly for the organization though, is that "say 50,000 people showed up there and say even as many as 20,000 of them got loaded in the first hour and passed out. That leaves 30,000. Now, suppose only 10 per cent of them were down near the front of the stage and were paying attention. That means 3000 people have heard what we have to say and are interested in us who didn't know anything about us the day before." He said the Boston Commission has been receiving a steady flow of calls from people who were at Concord on April 19 who are eager to either learn more or to volunteer their time to the PBC.

Their goal for the moment is to use the circumstance of the Bicentennial to get Americans thinking about an economic revolution, finding the rhetoric of 1776 an ideal vehicle for social change that is at once radical and patriotic. The PBC organizers hope to drive the sentiment in this country in favor of progressive social change farther than ever before by working slowly on incremental change by pointing to corporate capitalism as the most fundamental single problem in America. Their program allows them to bring together the remnants of the peace movement, the old New Left, women's movements, anti-racist movements, even the movement for Puerto Rican independence by focusing on the economy. They also hope that they can benefit from the experience of protest movements of the sixties and avoid polarization. Probably a good 90 per cent of the people in this country want to "Send a Message to Wall Street," and even if they all have different messages now, uniting them behind this baseline slogan opens the way for more sophisticated analysis in the future and, eventually, united mass action.

Whether or not that scenario will ever occur is, of course, impossible to know. Recognizing that economic and political conditions are liable to change dramatically in the next few years, the PBC has not tied itself to any specific plans. Nyhart explained that on July 5, 1976 the PBC will have to decide to either change its name and keep going or direct its energies into some existing organization and move it in the PBC's direction. At the moment, though, the PBC has no defined relation to the Democratic Party, the major labor unions, or any other possible source of change. The corporations and conservatives are naturally appalled by both the style and the substance of the PBC, but not many are taking them too seriously. The Left is skeptical, suggesting that the PBC should be more explicit in its demands for social change. But the thing keeps growing, and yellow "Don't Tread on Me" buttons and flags seem to have ousted the smiley for at least a while. But like most of their decisions, a judgement about whether the People's Bicentennial Commission will become a force for social change or liberal grandstanders will just have to wait.