The U.S. Chamber Of Commerce Responds To The Crisis Of Capitalism

Capitalists have to constantly devise ways to overcome the chronic problems of their degenerating system. One central source of these problems is the tendency for the rate of profit to fall. Another factor is the fact that capitalism undermines the conditions for its own (and everyone's) existence by destroying nature to accumulate resources.


The capitalist class has a number of organizations, usually identified as "think tanks" or "policy organizations," that undertake the system-managing tasks of advance planning—including idea generation, policy development, propaganda, and political action. One of the most central and powerful of these capitalist organizations is the little-studied U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which the Washington Post recently called "the largest advocacy group in the nation." It has been especially active during the current crisis of capital and its activities have amounted to a renewed war against working class interests at home and abroad.


A Portrait of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce


Founded in 1912, the Chamber is, in its own words: "The world's largest business federation representing the interests of more than three million businesses of all sizes, sectors, and regions, as well as state and local chapters and industry associations." Thousands of state and local Chambers of Commerce and hundreds of business associations are part of the U.S. Chamber—it is estimated to have about 300,000 members.


Although it stresses its small business connections, the organization largely reflects the interests of its large corporate members. For example, the top leadership of the Chamber is composed of very wealthy people with close ties to the largest U.S. corporations. The Chamber's current president and CEO (since 1997) Thomas J. Donahue—whose pay for one year's work (2008) was $3.7 million—is also a director of Union Pacific Corporation. Donohue's fellow board members include the retired chair of Conoco Phillips, a general partner of Brown Brothers Harriman, the former chair and CEO of Weyerhaeuser, and former executives with DuPont, Phelps Dodge, and Louisiana Pacific.


The Chamber is also (since 2004) a corporate member of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), another central organization of the U.S. capitalist class of which Donahue is a member. The Chamber's board chair, Thomas D. Bell, Jr., is a CFR member and has been a corporate executive at: Ball Corporation (an industrial corporation with about 14,000 employees); Young and Rubican (an advertising agency with about 16,000 employees); Gulfstream Aerospace Corporation; Norfolk Southern; and SecurAmerica. The immediate past chair of the Chamber of Commerce and current chair of the Chamber's executive committee is Robert S. Milligan, who is also the chair of MI Industries, and serves on the President's Council of the National Association of Manufacturers. His wife is on the Board of Directors of Wells Fargo Bank and other corporations.



The Chamber is simultaneously a think tank, a membership organization, and a partisan political (overwhelmingly Republican) organization with numerous branches and activities. The Chamber's key activities and sub-organizations include an in-house law firm, the National Chamber Litigation Center, which typically files over 100 new cases each year. In 2009, for example, it brought suit in court 134 times, challenging a variety of what the Chamber calls "anti-business measures."


The U.S. Chamber also sponsors an "Institute for 21st Century Energy," the work of which includes studying the geopolitics of U.S. energy security risks, focusing on securing oil and gas supplies in the Middle East through U.S. foreign and military domination. General James L. Jones, Jr., the president of this institute, was asked by President Obama to be his National Security Advisor. Before entering the government, Jones was also a director of Chevron and Boeing Corporation, two of the largest multinational corporations. The current vice president of the Institute is Frederick C. Smith, who, like Jones, is a former U.S. military officer. Smith spent time in Iraq during the Bush years as a senior military advisor. His job was to disband the Iraqi army and create a new "Ministry of Defense" for Iraq along U.S. lines. He recalled that the British advisers with whom he worked in Iraq made the "greatest contribution" due to their "imperial background," which made them able to contribute more to the "nation building" (i.e., creating a U.S. colony) efforts in which he was engaged.


The Chamber also runs the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE), which is part of the U.S. government-funded National Endowment for Democracy (NED). In 2009, the entire CIPE operating budget came from NED, the Department of State, and USAID. As is the case for other Chamber programs, the purpose of CIPE is to push private enterprise capitalism and "market-oriented reform" on vulnerable nations and peoples, especially those of the developing world and Eastern Europe. Nations under U.S. military occupation or threatened by violence from U.S. armed forces are among the key targets of CIPE. This is illustrated first by the locations of its six field offices as of September 2010—Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Egypt, Romania, and Russia. Also illustrative of CIPE priorities is its funding by region. Fully 45 percent of its total funding program in 2009 went to the Middle East and North Africa, with another 14 percent to Asia, 12 percent to Eurasia, and 10 percent to Latin America. As reported in CIPE's 2009 Annual Report, it has been very active in "developing a favorable investment climate" in Iraq by instructing Iraqi businesspeople on such topics as organization management, business environment analysis, provincial investment strategy development, and marketing. In its work it cooperates closely with the U.S. embassy in Iraq, by far the largest embassy in the world (and the largest every built by any country in world history).


CIPE's 21-person board of directors consists of the same type of corporate ruling class leaders that run the Chamber. Six of the 21 are members of the Council on Foreign Relations, including the Chamber's president and CEO Thomas J. Donohoe. The 21 all have current or had former executive positions in leading U.S. corporations, most of which have extensive military or foreign business interests. These include Intel, Raytheon, Rand, Nike, Bankers Trust, Northwest Capital, Gap, Google, Facebook, and the Fairfax Group.


Another central component of the Chamber's work is political lobbying and campaign funding activities. It devotes substantial amounts of money pressing politicians to do their bidding, making it, in the words of the New York Times, "the biggest lobbyist in the United States." The effort is "bi-partisan" in that both Democrats and Republicans are lobbied extensively by the Chamber. But about 90 percent of the Chamber's campaign donations go to fund attack ads against Democrats or directly aid Republican candidates. The Chamber spent tens of millions of dollars during the 2010 election year, mostly to help elect Republicans, focusing strategically on the close races that determined control of the House of Representatives.


The money for this ambitious agenda comes from a handful of donors. A study by the New York Times (10/22/10) found that, although the Chamber says it represents 3 million businesses and has about 300,000 members, nearly half of its $140 million donations in 2008 came from only 45 donors. There is little doubt that these big donors, typically giving over $1 million at a time, give to the Chamber as a way to launder their money and hide their interest, such as when Dow Chemical gave $1.7 million in 2009 so that the Chamber could work against regulations that Dow opposed. Although the Chamber tries to keep its donors secret, the Times discovered that other recent large corporate donors to the Chamber have included Goldman Sachs, Chevron/Texaco, Prudential Financial, News Corporation (owner of the Wall Street Journal and Fox News), and a foundation closely linked to American Insurance Group (AIG).


The Chamber's Current Policies


On July 14, 2010 the U.S. Chamber of Commerce laid out its reactionary policy positions in a critical "open letter" to President Obama. With this letter the Chamber illustrated that capitalists are never satisfied unless the president is 100 percent for big business and the rich. Obama is viewed as standing at the inadequate level of around 90 percent. The Chamber stated at the outset of the letter that it had supported the Obama administration's bailouts of giant corporations on Wall Street and the auto and insurance industries, as well as the economic stimulus program (a major part of which was government aid to business). The Chamber argued, however, that Obama had gone too far, straying "from the proven principles of American free enterprise" with "major tax increases," "massive deficits," and "job-destroying regulation."


Ignoring the key roles of capitalist free market policies in general and the Republican Party in particular in generating today's crisis, the Chamber blamed the Obama administration and the capitalist state for unemployment, underemployment, low consumer confidence, depressed housing and stock markets, and the sputtering economic recovery. Arguing that the role of government is to "establish the right conditions" for the private sector in order to "foster economic growth" (i.e., protect the class system, increase profits, and accumulate additional capital for those already rich), the Chamber stated that the Obama administration and Congress had not fulfilled their roles. Instead, the Chamber said that the Democrats had created "uncertainty," causing banks to be "reluctant" to lend and American corporations afraid to invest. What the Chamber was actually doing with this statement was justifying a capitalist strike by business, encouraging non-investment because it believed that business could gain government concessions and paralyze the very weak reformist tendencies in current government with this tactic.


The U.S. Chamber identified the government policies that it felt would set the "right conditions" for American business to end a capitalist strike. These include:


·     tax relief for business


·     "modernization of entitlements" (code words for gutting Social Security and Medicare benefits that retired working have already fully paid for)


·     full-scale drilling in "oil, gas, and shale leases" on government land


·     full-scale timber harvesting on national forest lands


·     opening foreign markets


·     privatizing the nation's transportation and water infrastructure by removing regulations and legal and financial limitations on private investment


·     stopping the Labor Department's "restrictive workplace policies" and forthcoming "sweeping changes" in "union-management relations" expected from the National Labor Relations Board


·     incentives and "legal surety" for investment in "clean coal technologies, carbon capture systems, and massive expansion of nuclear power"


·     an end to the "regulatory burden" on business that will cause jobs to "simply disappear or be sent offshore"


The Chamber is in effect saying: "force down workers' wages further and assure us more profit or we will continue our capital strike by sending our money to other nations."


Critique of Chamber's Reactionary Program


The audaciously reactionary program of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce can be critiqued at a number of levels. First, although it is an organization that supposedly opposes the cost, scale, and power of the federal government, it is clear that the Chamber and many of the businesses within it welcome federal help for their own corporations and the capitalist class generally. The Chamber admits that it supported the stimulus and bailouts of top Wall Street firms, auto corporations, and American Insurance Group, paid for by the taxpayers. Its own CIPE program is also totally government funded. In its open letter to President Obama, the Chamber also demanded incentives and legal safeguards from the government. Yet, it wants cuts to Social Security and Medicare, leaving out the fact that those "entitlements" have been paid for by recipients through payroll deductions. The Chamber's hypocrisy is breathtaking as it is happy to take the government's corporate welfare handouts, but does not want other elements of society, especially workers, to receive a dime of benefits.


The Chamber is also mistaken when it complains about "job-destroying" regulations. Wall Street firms, British Petroleum, American Insurance Group, Massey Coal, Exxon-Mobil (just to cite a few examples), and numerous other death-dealing, job killing, and ecology destroying capitalist organizations have been and still are seriously under-regulated. These and other powerful corporations have been able to frequently kill working people with their safety violations, wipe out jobs with their speculation, and inflict serious damage on life-giving ecologies with minimal government interference.



Secondly, the Chamber's rule or ruin policies are class war from above. This includes its encouragement of a capitalist strike and export of jobs. The U.S. Chamber assumes that capitalism is an eternal order, not subject to challenge or change. It cares mainly about profit and little about human life, human development, higher culture, or ecological sanity. Believers in the divine right of capital to rule, Chamber leaders want to utilize the sphere of government as their own personal errand boy. The Chamber assumes that capital creates all value and the workers are only an expense.


Expand or Die


Finally, as a personification of capital, the Chamber of Commerce must be critiqued from a standpoint outside of the capitalist system. The perspective taken as appropriate is a critique of capital from an ecosocialist perspective. (See Joel Kovel's The Enemy of Nature: The End of Capitalism or the End of the World.) As Kovel points out, the current crisis facing humanity, especially the ecological crisis, grows out of the normal workings of capitalism. These normal workings include a radical eco-destructiveness embedded in capital's DNA, summed up by the term "expand or die." Having this constantly growing system (always stressing and acting upon the necessity of endless growth) dominating economic and social development on a finite planet with limited resources will, and is, leading humanity and many other life forms towards catastrophe. Capitalism's normal operation also precludes it from being reformed in any serious fashion. As a system it is not capable of real reform. This means that we, the workers, must go on the offensive, confront, and overthrow the power of a small class of wealthy capitalists as represented by the Chamber and end its alienating reign or face the destruction of our world.


What has to be created in its stead, through a massive struggle for our commons, is "free associations of the producers," a society in which the means of production (part of the commons) will be accessible to all and people will create and freely self-determine which collective association they want to engage for mutual productive activity. These free associations will produce mainly for individual and collective use (i.e., stress use-values) and radically reduce the domain of exchange-value (i.e., reduce production and sale of commodities in order to accumulate capital). This means full employment and worthwhile work that people control themselves. In such an ecosocialist system, forms (both means and ends) of productive use-value activity that foster ecosystem integrity will be valorized and practices that harm that integrity will be ended. Fully democratic practice will also be central in this ecosocialist future, involving coming into our full species power, beyond current notions of property and the state.


In short, the transformative vision that we are moving towards must be wider and deeper than any subsumed under the labels of past struggles. We must aspire to construct free lives with a higher meaning than accumulating things and asserting power over nature and others. Only by consciously developing our creative human powers, and unifying in a class struggle from below, can we remake ourselves and achieve our full humanity.


Laurence H. Shoup is an historian and author living in Oakland, California. His latest book is Rulers and Rebels: A People's History of Early California, 1769-1901 ( iUniverse, 2010).