A history of America’s fight against monopolies

Benjamin C Waterhouse

THE WASHINGTON POST – Woodrow Wilson’s pick for the Supreme Court in 1916 was Louis Brandeis, a jurist whose name became synonymous with aggressive opposition to big business.

Nostalgic for Thomas Jefferson’s vision of a nation of small proprietors, Brandeis scorned the roller-coaster speculation, ostentatious wealth and spectacular political corruption of his age. Democracy, he insisted, could not coexist with corporate capitalism. The monopolies had to be broken up.

A century later, from the wreckage of the 2008 financial crisis, a new generation has emerged to denounce monopoly power and the grotesque inequalities of modern capitalism.

Like their predecessors, these latter-day Brandeisians see market concentration and business size as the principal threats to economic justice.

In Goliath: The 100-Year War Between Monopoly Power and Democracy, Matt Stoller offers the movement its sacred text: a sweeping history of anti-monopoly politics in America, from the populist prairies of Kansas to the junk-bond madness of the 1980s and today’s tech, retail and banking behemoths.

Goliath retells the history of the last century as the rise and fall of populism itself. (In Stoller’s view, populism means opposing monopoly and is synonymous with democracy. Indeed, early versions of the book swapped those words in the subtitle.)

Largely skimming over the agrarian politics of the late 19th Century, Stoller argues that populist anti-monopolists emerged as an intellectual force during Brandeis and Wilson’s time before ousting the plutocrats during the New Deal in the 1930s. The result, briefly, was what Stoller calls a “democracy of small business” by the 1950s.

Within a few decades, however, the monopolists were back, and Americans lost sight of their once-proud anti-monopoly tradition.

By the 1970s, liberals robustly embraced the regulatory state while Chicago-school conservatives promised neoliberal market-based solutions to every social problem.

Cut from both sides, antitrust law no longer sought to prevent market power or promote competition, but rather simply to keep consumer prices low.

Antitrust suits against IBM, AT&T and Microsoft, while splashy, did little to stem the tide of concentration.

Stoller’s argument is inherently conservative. He looks back with nostalgia on an America of small shops, local farm production and minimised state power.

To explain how we lost that world, he introduces his tragic hero, the Texas Democrat Wright Patman.

Arriving in Congress the same day Herbert Hoover became president, Patman, whom Stoller confesses to have never heard of until the financial crisis 10 years ago, carried the Brandeisian torch, defending white farmers and small-business men from the predations of Eastern and urban capitalists. As the Depression spread, he called (without success) to impeach the corrupt Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon. In 1936, he authored the Robinson-Patman Act, which, for the brief time it was enforced, slowed the spread of chain stores by preventing them from undercutting small shops on price. In the 1960s, he chaired the House Banking Committee, blocking bank mergers and enraging Wall Street titans.

Yet in the wake of Watergate, Stoller argues, a new breed of congressional Democrats stopped caring about economic concentration – “what mattered was Vietnam, government bureaucracy, the seniority system, and civil liberties” – and expelled the 81-year-old Patman from his chairmanship in 1975.

Stoller arranges this potentially dry story of anti-monopoly politics into a series of dramatic set pieces. From street brawls to legislative legerdemain, from fiery rhetoric to intellectual double-dealing, the book is full of virtuous populists defending the little guy against dastardly monopolists and their enablers, the “paranoid red-baiting corporate right” and the “corporate left”.

Readers will learn fascinating details about the inner workings of New Deal policies, banking regulation, the conglomerate movement and the rise of the Chicago school and its intellectual assault on antitrust law. Full of righteous and riveting writing, Goliath provides an important overview of a vital history.

Yet as an argument about political economy, the book relies on melodrama and caricature, leaving much asserted but little proved.

In Stoller’s telling, Patman and his allies were “cerebral,” “iconoclastic” and farsighted. But those who favoured economic planning and regulation were, like New Deal Brains Truster Adolf Berle, “statist” and “deeply elitist,” or, like economist John Kenneth Galbraith, “socialist”. Meanwhile, “consumer-dominated” politicians were secretly “pro-monopoly,” and a business executive like Walter Wriston was merely an “old-line aristocrat.”

Readers already disposed to the premise will cheer, but those seeking to understand why monopolies grew and retained such political power will be left confused.

Stoller’s interpretation of anti-monopoly politics rests on a specific understanding of what political scientists call the horseshoe theory: that the extreme left and the extreme right are not diametrically opposed, but share much in common and will eventually meet.

In Goliath, the convergence is between the plutocratic, laissez-faire right and the socialist left, both of which accept large, powerful institutions.

Politically, neo-Brandeisian populism is the refuge of people who don’t trust regulation because they don’t trust the government. The fact that this anti-statism, following the horseshoe, creates common ground between left populism and right populism, with all the hate, violence and injustice the latter breeds, is not a matter Stoller pursues.

Scholars and activists have long complained that coastal, “new politics” liberals became neoliberal technocrats and lost their leftist bona fides. In the case of anti-monopoly populism, Stoller adds a twist: Post-1970s liberals forgot about America’s rich populist anti-monopoly tradition because they were lulled into complacency during the prosperous years after World War II.

Educated by historians like Richard Hofstadter, who played down the historic fight against monopoly, and economists like Galbraith, who argued that big institutions balanced one another through countervailing power, they forgot to hate bigness.

Yet this argument makes sense only from the nostalgic, Brandeisian perspective, in which a return to a (largely imagined) Jeffersonian ideal is both possible and desirable. Stoller fails to consider that anti-monopoly politics suffered not just an intellectual but also a structural blow.

Inflation and recession, as much as ideas, pushed politicians to focus on consumer prices in the 1970s. The new normal of low growth, resource scarcity, rising expectations of an inclusive democracy and an exploding global labour force all created intractable problems of political economy that defied the simple nostrum of “break up the big guys.”

But Stoller is angry, and with good reason. Modern capitalism overflows with injustice, such as rising costs of basic health care, falling standards of living for the middle class and the poor, and the grotesque fortunes amassed at the expense of the many. His book is looking for villains, not just among the plutocrats who make a mockery of democracy but among the well-intentioned liberals, from the Clintons to Barack Obama, who pay weak-tea lip service to the dangers of corporate power even as they enrich themselves at its teat.

The result is that Goliath is punditry posing as history. Stoller writes with the confidence of someone who believes he has uncovered the secret origins of America’s woes. If only this hidden story were revealed, Stoller claims, we could fix inequality and “restore our democracy.” Yet history is not a self-righteous morality play, and it cannot boil down to heroes and villains.

The neo-Brandeisians are dead right about the threat that concentrated corporate power poses to democracy and our future, but they err in their static understanding of capitalism. To achieve real reform, we must do more than recycle 100-year-old platitudes about shopkeepers and family farms and rescue long-dead Texas congressmen from obscurity.

Rather than look for heroes in a bygone economy, we must see the past as the violent, racist and oppressive time that it was.