Monthly Archives: March 2013

Reading Tip

This article explains how the fact that everyone today buys diamond rings for their engagement is the result of one incredibly successful ad campaign by De Beers in 1938. If you consider the imprint global demand for diamonds has left on post-colonial Africa (Sierra Leone is the most famous case), a re-evaluation of the role ad agencies play in global politics might be in order. Interesting stuff.

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The rise of corporate money in politics

A couple of weeks ago, I heard the former governor and ambassador Jon Huntsman talk about the current state of U.S. politics. He argued that the biggest problem facing America’s democracy is the disproportionate influence of private money on politicians, which he effectively labelled as corruption. This claim was quite surprising. Not so much because it is new (it certainly isn’t), but because it came from a Republican. After all, the supposedly pro-business GOP has always received the lion’s share of corporate donations, a fact that put Mitt Romney at a significant financial advantage in last year’s presidential election.

Marxists tend to argue that democratic governments have always been in the hands of big capitalists, and yet the case of the United States puts this claim into question. The current influence of corporate money on politics in Washington is a distinctly contemporary phenomenon and the culmination of a development that began less than 50 years ago. The founder of modern corporate political activism was Lemuel Ricketts Boulware, vice president of General Electric in the 1940s and 50s. The post-war years were a time when unions were stronger than ever before and Keynesian demand management had pretty much become the consensus choice of economic policy. Boulware perceived this liberal consensus as an existential threat to the very future of American prosperity. Union leaders, he argued, were socialists that prevented the country “from progressing to that better material and spiritual America” of individual freedom.

His response to this threat were a number of management tactics that became known as Boulwarism. As GE vice-president, he rejected any kind of compromise with unions and spread anti-union propaganda among his employees. But, most importantly, he supported conservative politicians such as Barry Goldwater. Ronald Reagan received campaign donations from Boulware in 1966, and the then-governor of California wrote a letter to Boulware thanking him and promising that he would “fight back against government’s increasing lust for power over free enterprise”. Boulware urged other businessmen to follow his lead. Many did, and he gained an immense influence in American conservative circles. His legacy was, in the words of historian Kimberly Phillips-Fein, to instill “the sense in a part of the business community that ideological and political engagement was an appropriate, legitimate and absolutely essential part of being a businessman”.

While Boulware may have provided the ideological foundation for today’s corporate involvement in politics, the overall financial commitment by companies was still comparatively small. This changed in the 1970s. Much like their predecessors in the post-war years, many businessmen in the early 70s felt threatened by the New Left, student radicalism and the still persistent Keynesian consensus.

The lawyer and future supreme court judge Lewis Powell, who at the time sat in the board of directors of several large corporations, argued that “the overriding first need for businessmen is to recognize that the ultimate issue may be survival”. The conclusion he drew from this observation was that corporations needed to use their funds to influence politics. He published these views in a memorandum that circulated widely among conservatives. In the following years, conservative think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation sprung up, financed by businessmen who, as in the case of Joseph Coors, were greatly impressed by the Powell Memorandum. The new corporate activism of the 1970s was perhaps most visible in the growth of lobbying. In 1971 only 175 companies had registered lobbyists, eight years later 650 had. Similarly, the number of PACs grew from 89 in 1974 to 821 in 1978. The 1970s also saw the transformation of the Chamber of Commerce into an effective lobbying organisation. The Chamber had 1400 Congressional Action Committees with 20 members each, who were in charge of lobbying local legislators.

The third big transformation in corporate political involvement after Boulwarism and the 1970s obviously took place in the wake of the Citizens United v FEC verdict of 2010. We all know the story of the rise of Super PACs and I won’t describe it in detail here. What is interesting is a comparison of the three transformations. Both Boulwarism and the Powell Memorandum were born out of a strong sense of threat and general weakness. Boulware and Powell believed that government and public opinion were controlled by left wing radicals and by organised labour, and that Businessmen had to pour their money into politics if they wanted to save the free market.

A case can be made that the Super PACs are ballooning in a similar environment. One only has to look at Donald Trump’s post-election twitter rant to understand how threatened many conservative businessmen feel by the most liberal president since who knows when (LBJ?). ( We tend to view corporations’ influence on politicians as a sign of their strength, and in a way it is. But history shows us that the political activism of businesses is just as much an expression of their perceived weakness.

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Horror Movies as a Mirror of History


by Johanna Wilson

Horror films in the silent era had their limits as far as subtlety went. They couldn’t do creepy music, footsteps, strange breathing. So, it was with the advent of sound in the 1930s that we start to see horror movies make their mark. Monsters and murderers no longer had to stand on screen looking vaguely menacing for the audience to notice them, and plots started to become more developed. Early horror films were mostly set in distant lands and times, where men in cloaks with thick accents waited to pounce. The greater technical effects available enabled the creation of two horror powerhouses, Bela Lugosi as Dracula (1931) and Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster (1931), whose influential performances you’ll at the very least know through their parodies. With an unsurprisingly large amount of the national budgets of Europe going to World War Two in the 1940s, Hollywood dominated horror film production. These films continued to stress how scary the rest of the world was, with monsters standing in for war as reasons for not leaving America. Even then you weren’t safe. Go somewhere as seemingly innocuous as Wales, you might end up as a werewolf (The Wolf Man, 1941). Alternatively the horror could strike at home; marry a Serbian instead of an all-American girl and you really only have yourself to blame when she turns out to be a cat monster (Cat People, 1942).

The 1950s saw constant fear of nuclear war. This meant one thing – monster movies from the likes of stop-motion master Ray Harryhausen; films about science, bombs and technology that goes too far. This was the age of horror B-movies, where quality became less important as they mainly targeted teenagers. These movies were about action; comprehensible plots and realistic monsters were strictly optional. 1954 saw Ishiro Honda making the first kaiju (roughly ‘giant monster’) movie – Godzilla. Yet it’s rather more solemn watching a film about a monster mutated by nuclear radiation destroying Tokyo when you consider Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been obliterated by nuclear bombs less than a decade before. The message you get from all these films is about not playing God.

The 1960s saw the sexual revolution, cults, the rise of acid and a lot of other things that had people terrified, while the 1970s saw a general malaise. Horror had come back home. It was no longer the atomic monsters or the creepy foreigners you needed to look out for. George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1967) helped make the zombie genre what it is, but is ultimately an indictment of everything he saw as wrong with American society. The breakdown of the family pervades these films; you can’t trust your spouse (Rosemary’s Baby, The Shining) or your kids (The Omen, The Exorcist). This period was also seeing the economic recovery and growth of cinema in other countries – the horror scene was becoming more varied.

The 1980s were when an ability to create better special effects and the need to keep shocking audiences caused the emergence of the ‘slasher’ film. A Nightmare on Elm Street, Child’s Play, Friday the 13th and so on had one unrealistically strong psychopath killing loads of people in pretty graphic ways. Horror movies were as explicit as possible, and were appealing specifically to horror fans through endless sequels. So, what were directors in the 1990s to do but turn away from supernaturally strong and comically OTT murderers, and start going for more realistic serial killers? Silence of the Lambs, Scream and Se7en brought the horror home to us. The bad guys weren’t going to get us in our dreams, but they were smart, they could be charming and they were real. Their humanity was what made them terrifying. Then at some time after the millennium, we decided that we’d seen it all before, and thus rose the ‘torture porn’ genre. Heavy on torture and nudity, light on plot. You know the kind: Hostel, any of the numerous Saw movies, The Human Centipede. Movies that you watch with friends and then have no desire to ever re-watch. Film-makers also started to remake older horror movies like their lives depended on it. But it’s not all doom and gloom. Zombies made a huge comeback, from Shaun of the Dead to the Resident Evil films. There’s been a huge rise in foreign horror movies reaching our screens: k-horror (Korean) and j-horror (Japanese) are two of the big ones, giving us strange ghostly girls and psychological breakdowns (The Ring, Tale of Two Sisters).

At the end of the day, horror films are like the best monsters – they just refuse to die. The horror genre adapts to each generation’s fears. It used to be technology could save you, now your mobile phone and TV can be haunted. Zombies used to be the shambling undead raised by voodoo. Now they’re created by contagious super-viruses. Monsters may not be made with atomic bombs any more, but toxic waste dumping and other eco-crimes are doing the same job. Vampires are still hanging out in our bedrooms, but now instead of wanting us as their undead brides, they’re… Actually no, wait, they still want to marry us but now that’s romantic. Apparently.

This article first appeared in The Bubble, an online student newspaper at Durham University.

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