Swans Commentary » swans.com May 18, 2009  



General Electric: War Corporation, Liberal Hangout, Or Both?


by Michael Barker





(Swans - May 18, 2009)   Both critical media circles and the progressive activist community acknowledge that the media conglomerates currently dominating the world's media systems are closely tied to the military-industrial complex. An examination of one of these conglomerates, General Electric Company (otherwise known as GE), demonstrates the nature of these relationships. In their 1988 seminal book Manufacturing Consent, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky write:

The large media companies have also diversified beyond the media field, and non-media companies have established a strong presence in the mass media. The most important cases of the latter are GE, owning RCA, which owns the NBC network, and Westinghouse, which owns major television-broadcasting stations, a cable network, and a radio station network. GE and Westinghouse are both huge, diversified multinational companies heavily involved in the controversial areas of weapons production and nuclear power. (p.12) (1)

In 2001, the US-based corporate watchdog group, CorpWatch, observed that "GE has a lengthy record of criminal, civil, political and ethical transgressions, some of them shocking in disregard for the integrity of human beings." In recent years little has changed at GE, indeed "From 2000 to 2007, the company won 281 contracts from the Defense Department worth a total of $8.8 billion"; and GE board member, Senator Sam Nunn (Retired, Democrat-Georgia), was recently selected to act as senior informal Pentagon adviser to Barack Obama's transition team. This selection should speak volumes about the priorities of the Obama administration as Nunn happens to serve as the chair of the key neoliberal think tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies. In addition, contrarily, Nunn also serves as the co-chair and CEO of the Nuclear Threat Initiative -- a group that ostensibly works to "strengthen global security by reducing the risk of use and preventing the spread of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons." This latter "peace" group works across the (mainstream) ideological spectrum, and is thus appropriately co-chaired by liberal philanthropist and CNN founder Ted Turner.

Thus Nunn, a board member of the weapons interests holding GE, is a dedicated peace advocate. Moreover, his commitment to this liberal form of "peace" is so strong that Nunn is represented on the international advisory board of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies where he sits alongside one of the leading lights of liberal philanthropy, David Hamburg -- who is none other than the president emeritus of the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Such connections are confusing, in light of the evidence that GE is a repository for war profiteers, not peace activists. Consequently, this article will review the backgrounds of the remaining GE board members and consider whether Nunn's mixed peace-war affiliations are an anomaly or the norm.

In alphabetical order, the other fourteen members of GE's current board of directors are:

•   James Cash, Jr., board member of Microsoft Corporation. Microsoft's founder, Bill Gates, heads up the largest liberal foundation in the world, the Gates Foundation.

•   Sir William Castell, board member of a think tank called the National Bureau of Asian Research -- which obtains funding from groups like the Nuclear Threat Initiative and the Gates Foundations -- and whose other board members have considerable ties to leading military contractors.

•   Ann Fudge, the former chair and CEO of Young & Rubicam Brands, and whose work is intimately tied to leading liberal philanthropists as she is a trustee of the Rockefeller Foundation and chairs the US Program Advisory Panel for the Gates Foundation.

•   Susan Hockfield, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a trustee of the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

•   Jeffrey Immelt, chair and CEO of GE, serves as a board member of the Robin Hood Foundation -- where he serves alongside individuals that include actress Gwyneth Paltrow, CBS board member Doug Morris, and Geoffrey Canada, who is a former trustee of US programs for George Soros's Open Society Institute.

•   Ralph Larsen, trustee of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation -- a foundation whose board is chaired by Thomas Kean, who is the former chairman of the Carnegie Corporation of New York and has served on the national council of the World Wildlife Fund.

•   Rochelle Lazarus, chairman and CEO of Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, and is a board member of both the World Wildlife Fund and David Rockefeller's Partnership for New York City (one particularly notable fellow board member is Rupert Murdoch).

•   Douglas Warner III, former chair of David Rockefeller's investment bank, J.P. Morgan Chase & Co.

The background of the final six members of GE board of directors need not be examined here as they have no such ties to liberal philanthropists: these individuals are Andrea Jung, Alan Lafley, Robert Lane, James Mulva, Roger Penske, and Robert Swieringa.

This brief look at GE's boardroom clearly demonstrates that representatives of the world's leading liberal philanthropies have no qualms in maintaining intimate and profitable links to a leading corporation in the US's military-industrial complex. Such a revelation should give progressive activists much food for thought.

Rather than being a haven for warmongers, GE could be more accurately described as a haven for well known liberal funders. Moreover, many of the liberal foundations that GE board members have connections with actually fund the most influential parts of the antiwar movement within the United States. This is a problematic situation for activists intent on bringing the military-industrial-media-foundation complex to its knees. However, to date it is an issue that has rarely been broached by the peace movement. This must change and liberal foundation funding must be raised as an agenda item at future antiwar meetings.




1.  Later Herman and Chomsky observe how "GE has contributed to the funding of the American Enterprise Institute, a right-wing think tank that supports intellectuals who will get the business message across." (p. 12) See CorpWatch profile.  (back)


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About the Author

Michael Barker has recently handed in his PhD thesis at Griffith University in Australia. His other articles can be accessed at michaeljamesbarker.wordpress.com.



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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published May 18, 2009