“I am Free Enterprise:” The Resurgence of the Free Enterprise System

Curator's Note

At the end of World War II, wealthy industrialists, corporate executives, educators and filmmakers joined a campaign to teach Americans about the benefits of free enterprise in an attempt to define an economic landscape supportive of broad business interests.  Also called “American Way” campaigns, free enterprise campaigns were a postwar response to a number of threats including the fear of union ascendancy and the menace of Communism. Despite the dangers real or imagined of workers and Reds, commentators at the time recognized a certain tendency towards excess in free enterprise campaign rhetoric and proliferation. Elizabeth Fones-Wolf, in her excellent monograph, Selling Free Enterprise, documents the response of labor groups, who wondered: “Why, after having its own way all these years, must [free enterprise] now be ‘sold’ in this lavish way?” (40).[1] When “free enterprise” was touted post-war, under an analogous period of economic strain, various forces (education, media, industry) organized around its promotion. Thus, we might ask a similar question, and I revisit this history to suggest we analyze a comparable conjuncture.

The featured video today, “I am Free Enterprise Video Contest” is one component of the current U.S. Chamber of Commerce free enterprise campaign. The contest encourages budding capitalists to pick up a camera and tell their stories, preferably a story that highlights individual creativity and entrepreneurship as a means of job creation. From the campaign’s YouTube page, “Freeenterprise’s Channel,” one can scroll down and view the submissions; watch “I am Jesse Wellman and I am free enterprise.” “I am Jesse Wellman” is not one of the more popular videos and its production values are not particularly impressive, but Jesse is a big fan of John D. Rockefeller and Henry Ford, two men who made profits, as Jesse notes appreciatively. A defense of corporate profits was necessary during the post-World War II period, as unions fought for higher wages or open books, and conservative economic education films, as Heide Solbrig notes in her post of 19 April, were particularly responsive to the threat of unions and the welfare state. The Chamber of Commerce campaign explicitly marginalizes government intervention, and perhaps has accomplished something more. At our moment of corporate and financial crisis, the videos in aggregate are not only startlingly sincere and without irony, but in focusing on the “I” of “I am free enterprise,” they successfully erase workers—and the threat of collective action.  The rules of the video competition also work to eliminate such tensions:  No more than 4 members of a team can be shown in any one entry.

This month, “Enterprise & Education Month,” the Chamber of Commerce has rolled out its Extreme Entrepreneurship Tour, which visits college students, entrepreneurs and state legislators across the country. Not surprisingly, the tour will visit Texas. The recent decision by the Texas Board of Education to rewrite the state social studies curriculum to promote a conservative agenda includes replacing “capitalism” with the “free enterprise system” throughout the texts. As one Board member noted, capitalism has a “negative connotations” and can be deployed maliciously, as in the epithet “capitalist pig.” [2]  By shaping the terms of the debate, the most recent manifestation of free enterprise campaigns seem intent on eliminating the voice of those who might shout such things from the barricades.

[1] Fones-Wolf, Elizabeth A. Selling Free Enterprise: The Business Assault on Labor and Liberalism, 1945-1960. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994. Print.

[2] McKinley, James C. “Texas Conservatives Win Curriculum Change.” New York Times. New York Times, 12 Mar. 2010. Web. 20 April 2010.



This is fascinating.  It is particularly fascinating to me for its collision of budding capitalists and the education of media makers-- as Matt Stahl has suggested in other publications outside this program, media workers are rapidly becoming protypes for the new 'liberated' worker, cut free of social ties, unions, self-made, and entrepreneurial.  Their conflation with the 'I' in the "I am free enterprise" highlights  how aspiring media makers, as well as aspiring capitalists (often the same person) are essentially expected to imagine themselves as the proverbial one-man band, despite the near necessity for collaborative work in media production (as well as business), marketing and distribution and of course labor.  To disallow representing more than 4 members of a team, is essentially, and typically, to make crew members, assistants, post-production people, creative partners, etc. to begin to understand their roles as 'below the line' conceptually, while encouraging 'talent' i.e. writers, producers and directors to see themselves as 'above the line' creatives and innovators.

The focus on "I" in this is intriguing.  As Heide notes, the separation of workers from each other has been one of the enduring projects of neoliberal economics, and the idea of creative labor is one of the most ingenious iterations so far.  One of the interesting subplots of the dot-com debacle in the late 90s was the realization by some high-tech workers that shares of a pie that was supposed to grow forever might well have been the economic equivalent of promised  rewards in the afterlife.   But that fixation with "I" - the rugged, individualist capitalist - has been a sticking point for any real collective action.

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