The power and limits of the anti-monopolist tradition
(January 21, 2020) — My father always told me that all businessmen were sons of bitches,” John F. Kennedy once griped, “but I never believed it until now!” The young president recalled this pearl of wisdom in 1962, when the industrial giant US Steel announced its plans to raise prices, despite months of campaigning by the White House against such an increase. Steel was central to the US economy: The new highway system, the vast war machine, the automobiles and the oil pipelines that fed them were all made from it.
If steel prices went up, all prices went up, threatening an inflationary spiral. Both Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower had sought to avert this, and Kennedy was no different, making a public show of leaning on US Steel to keep its prices down. But the steel industry was determined to get its way. Under pressure from organized workers demanding higher wages, it felt that it had very little choice.
The 1960s are often remembered as the last decade of the golden age of egalitarian, high-growth capitalism. The New Deal reforms of the 1930s had something to do with this postwar boom, but so did the corporate structure and market position of the giant, vertically integrated industrial corporations like US Steel. In response to organized labor’s challenge, they were able to provide one of the great downward redistributions of income in the history of modern capitalism.
These companies could afford to do so, in part, because they enjoyed limited competition in their coordinated, oligopolistic markets. The US government had dismantled the formal price-control system under pressure from manufacturers in 1946, and so it relied to a large degree on informal mechanisms (so-called jawboning) to hold down prices, often by inserting itself into collective bargaining processes in consolidated markets like steel and autos.
Major American steel firms, for example, bargained jointly with the United Steelworkers of America—an affair of such economic significance that it spilled out of the private sector and repeatedly became a public matter. Contract after contract would wind up being settled in the White House. Whoever was president found that he could not afford the havoc of a protracted nationwide steel shutdown and so felt enormous pressure to deliver a victory to the steelworkers’ union.
But the White House also could not tolerate increases in the price of steel, which were the employers’ device to pay for a union victory. So a tripartite bargain was struck whose purpose (for the government) was to restrain wage and price growth enough to limit inflation, but not so much as to leave workers dissatisfied.
When business, labor, and government come together to determine how much goods would cost and workers would be paid, the result can hardly be described as a market process. The postwar years of the 1950s and ’60s were the age of “monopoly capitalism,” as the Marxists then called it, or, less polemically, an era of “administered prices.”
The cartelization of American industry had its negative effects, including the technological stagnation of US manufacturing and the irresistible rise of inflation, culminating in the chaotic 1970s. But in any case, it served many American workers well and, at least for a time, helped produce a more egalitarian country. But when it finally came crashing down, it took working-class incomes with it — a disaster from which we have yet to recover.
In recent years, however, a different account of the origin and nature of economic inequality has become popular in some quarters. Dubbed the new antitrust or new Brandeisianism (after Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, who laid the intellectual foundation for vigorous market reform), this approach offers a distinctive, simple, and insistent diagnosis of economic polarization.
Rather than emphasize the punitive turn of social welfare programs, the loss of union density, and the underlying structural pressures on employers to suppress wages, it instead argues that equality was undermined by the renascence of monopoly power. Monopolies today need not swallow a whole supply chain into a single corporation; instead, they work when a large firm dominates smaller ones, dictating to them without needing to own them.
Astride their respective economic sectors, tech companies control our minds, retail giants like Amazon and Walmart enforce terms of production on suppliers and terms of purchase on consumers, and Wall Street firms extract a punishing toll from every movement of money and suck value from the whole economy. Together, they are eroding the integrity of our political and economic systems.
In his new book, Goliath: The 100-Year War Between Monopoly Power and Democracy, Matt Stoller, one of the most irrepressible members of this new generation of Brandeisians, elevates this argument to something like a theory of history. For Stoller, all of American history — and much of world history — has been defined by a struggle between monopoly and democracy.
Where property is concentrated, its owners warp the public institutions that exist around them, allowing them to concentrate property still more. At the extreme ends of this quantitative process, the monopolist captures the state itself, with sovereignty a mere trapping of consolidated market power in the hands of a feudal lord or fascist dictator.
Over the history of the United States, Stoller finds the greatest nemesis of such authoritarian pretensions in America’s anti-monopoly tradition. For him, anti-monopoly is fundamental to the fabric of American democracy. It began with the American Revolution (which he describes as a revolt against the monopoly privileges of British merchants), gained a mass following with Jefferson, became radicalized with the Populists in the late 19th century, tasted power with the Progressives, and culminated in the New Deal and the mid-20th-century US economy. Minimizing the centrality of corporatist coordination to that era, Stoller insists that the New Deal was fundamentally an antitrust program.
Its vigorous regulators broke the power that the robber barons accumulated in the 19th century and drove the moneychangers from the temple of democracy, thereby ushering in a golden age of competition and freedom — until this agenda was undermined by scurrilous and arrogant schemers in both parties, who opened the way for a massive reassertion of corporate power beginning in the 1970s.
What’s so telling about this narrative is not only the fact that the golden age of competition that Stoller wishes to restore is the very same period in which great, vertically integrated oligopolies ruled the economy in coordination with one another, labor unions, and the state; it is also that his expansive view of economic power still can’t find a place for class conflict — which, although invisible to Stoller, was often the engine of downward redistribution in the midcentury boom.
Because he does not grasp how the fundamental antagonism between labor and capital underlies other forms of economic rivalry, Stoller misunderstands the nature of the New Deal and the legacy it leaves us. As a result, his book offers us a useful guide to some of the ills of concentrated market power today but does not ultimately come to terms with their real origin or present any viable political response.
Stoller initially gained some prominence in the early 2000s as a member of the cohort of progressive political bloggers who found their voice in the early years of the Iraq War. Stoller at first supported the war, but he soon became horrified by how the Democratic establishment rolled over for the agenda of George W. Bush’s administration, and he and a set of his peers — writers like Matt Yglesias, Ezra Klein, and Markos Moulitsas — helped mobilize support for progressive reforms and the Democrats who championed them.
Although Stoller continued to see himself as an outsider in the years after Barack Obama’s election, he, like the other members of this cohort, joined the intellectual and political ranks of the DC machine and managed to establish their careers before the Great Recession started in 2008. Moulitsas, the founder of the website Daily Kos, became an unofficial Democratic Party operative. Klein and Yglesias emerged as celebrated policy journalists, eventually launching the mammoth operation at Vox.
By the end of the decade, Stoller, for his part, was working as an economic policy staffer in Congress. From this perch, he watched with dismay as the Obama White House did little to break from the prevailing economic consensus. With Clinton administration veterans Larry Summers, Rahm Emanuel, and Timothy Geithner back in power, Obama and his team of economic advisers sided with the lords of finance, directing unimaginable streams of money to shore up Wall Street while letting millions of Americans lose their homes to foreclosure.
This marked a second phase in Stoller’s politicization. “It seemed clear to many of us during the bailouts,” he notes in Goliath, “that the public would turn vehemently against the political establishment for taking their property, their stake in America, and so it has.” Stoller left Capitol Hill and fell into the orbit of the anti-monopoly thinkers and activists affiliated with the New America Foundation, particularly journalist Barry Lynn, whose 2009 book Cornered: The New Monopoly Capitalism and the Economics of Destructionargued that hidden monopolies have insinuated themselves throughout our economy.
For Stoller and this emerging anti-monopoly clique, the betrayal that took place after 2008 had a much longer history. In the 1970s, an affluent faction of Democrats helped kill the party’s “populist soul.”
Stoller began to formulate this thesis in historical terms in a widely shared essay that appeared in The Atlantic shortly before Trump won the 2016 election. Historians like Judith Stein and Lily Geismer told versions of this story before, arguing that in the 1970s middle-class professionals wrested control of the Democratic Party away from its blue-collar social base and unleashed a set of market-centric reforms and deregulatory schemes. But Stoller offers a somewhat different analysis: The transformation that these middle-class professionals helped to enact tilted the balance of class power, in his view, because it allowed the advance of market concentration. And he tells this story primarily through the perspective of Wright Patman, a Democratic congressman from rural East Texas, a “proud Hillbilly” and dogged foe of market consolidation and financial power. As Stoller announces early in Goliath, he sees this history “through [Patman’s] eyes.”
In his telling, Democrats lost their way when the yuppie progressives often called the “Watergate Babies” swept into power in 1974 and ousted Patman from his Banking Committee chairmanship, with grave consequences. “The destruction of the anti-monopoly and anti-bank tradition in the Democratic Party,” Stoller writes, “has also cleared the way for the greatest concentration of economic power in a century.”
In Goliath, he retells the story of Patman and the fall of the New Deal Democratic Party. But Stoller also aspires to something far grander. He insists that almost all of American history can be understood in terms of the struggle between the forces of monopoly on the one hand and democracy on the other, beginning with the feud between the aristocratic Alexander Hamilton and the democratic Thomas Jefferson and extending into the 20th century, with the rise of Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt, tribunes of the people in the age of mass democracy. (Glossed over or ignored outright here are the central roles in the Jeffersonian popular tradition of génocidaire Andrew Jackson and of pro-slavery politics.)
It is, in fact, with Wilson that Goliath opens in earnest, with his campaign for the presidency in 1912, when he faced off against Theodore Roosevelt (as well as William Howard Taft and Eugene Debs) over the question of what was to be done about the accumulation of economic power in the hands of the few.
Railroad and coal barons mutilated their workers in spectacular workplace horrors, while bankers lorded it over society like European aristocrats. “We stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord!” Roosevelt declared, and for him, this battle required introducing a corporatist system that regulated but did not break up the new industrial giants. For Wilson, who embraced the ideas of Brandeis, it meant splitting them up — what he called a “New Freedom.”
In Stoller’s rendering of this story, Wilson attempted to launch something like a New Deal and might have pulled it off if World War I hadn’t gotten in the way. But America’s entrance into the war in 1917 and the economic chaos and reactionary politics that it unleashed allowed the reassertion of power by the forces of monopoly. “Wilson, so energetic at the beginning of his term,” Stoller writes, “could do nothing by the end of his tenure except lie in bed as his administration jailed thousands of innocents, and as the plutocrats swiftly subverted the new order he had imposed just a few years earlier.”
Apparently, the Wilson administration’s reform agenda rested on the vision and energy of but a single figure, and his physical decline brought the New Freedom down with it. The egalitarian ambitions of Wilson and the anti-monopoly tradition would have to be put on hold as Andrew Mellon, the last of the great robber barons, rose to power and, as secretary of the treasury, unleashed the oligarchic forces of the 1920s. Wealth accumulated at the top, while the common people suffered — a regime Stoller calls “Mellonism.”
With the Depression, agency in the narrative shifts again, from Mellon and his accomplices to a new generation of anti-monopolists, including many in Franklin Roosevelt’s brain trust and, of course, Wright Patman, Stoller’s East Texas hero. Patman arrived in Washington in 1929, the year of the crash, and almost immediately set about bird-dogging Mellon. Patman supported the marchers of the Bonus Army, advocated cheap credit for farmers, and wrote with Arkansas Senator Joe Robinson a landmark anti-monopoly bill in 1936 that barred predatory pricing in retail.
A beneficiary of the South’s racist one-party system, Patman may have been a champion of economic competition, but he also spent decades in power without much political competition, accruing seniority and rising to the chairmanship of the Banking Committee. (This was the reason he drew the ire of the Watergate Babies in 1975; they wanted to eject the Southerners from their powerful sinecures.)
Stoller unconvincingly suggests his great man was only as racist as he was obliged to be politically and was appreciated by his black constituents, even if Patman was, after all, one of only five Texas Democrats in the House to sign the 1956 Southern Manifesto denouncing the Brown v. Board of Educationdecision. (Seventeen refused.)
One wishes Stoller had paused to contemplate why anti-monopoly tended to find its most vigorous advocates in white Southerners like Wilson, Robinson, and Patman. He suggests this is merely a coincidence and that there existed no historical relationship between white supremacy and pro-competitive politics. In part, this is because Stoller really is interested only in telling us how the relentlessly populist Patman’s advocacy helped shape the New Deal.
“Patman brought forward what the farmers of the 1890s demanded of their society, a democracy with an egalitarian system of free enterprise, where small business had the same shot as Andrew Mellon to compete. He stood up to Mellon. He stood for the plain people, and the veterans. And in doing so, he destroyed the legitimacy of the plutocrats that dominated America.” Summarizing the emerging egalitarian era, Stoller observes, “Finally, after the second great war of the century, democracy had taken hold in the commercial sphere.”
If this doesn’t match your idea of the origins of the New Deal era, you’re not alone. Wishing anti-monopoly to be a politics for all times and places, Stoller cannot allow it any historical specificity. He does not satisfactorily wrestle with the fact that Patman and his antitrust attorney allies formed only one part of the New Deal coalition. Anti-monopoly was a part of a much larger political spectrum, which also included corporatism of just the kind Stoller abhors.
Distinguishing among these elements is possible, and one can argue that one is preferable to the other. But doing so would also require acknowledging the existence and logic of another dimension of the New Deal beyond antitrust and corporatism—and that would mean considering labor and class.
In Goliath’s second half, Stoller gives us his story of how the New Deal’s anti-monopoly democracy was unmade. Some of the beats are familiar: His narrative dwells on the rise of the Chicago School of economics—what Stoller calls “the new Mellonism”—where American antitrust law was reinvented by characters like law professor Aaron Director, economist George Stigler, and jurist Robert Bork.
The result was the law and economics movement, which played an enormous role in changing doctrine in general and elevating the significance of consumer welfare in particular. These thinkers constructed a consumer welfare standard for antitrust cases that didn’t necessarily focus on big or small but rather cheap and thus became the cover under which market power reasserted itself. (Whatever else Amazon is, it is cheap and convenient for the consumer.)
But the Chicago School neoliberals and the politicians and judges they influenced were given valuable cover, Stoller argues, by intellectuals on the left, who saw in large-scale economic concentration the basis of a social order beyond capitalism — and saw in populism only backward-looking reaction.
Stoller reserves pages of bizarre vitriol here for sociologist C. Wright Mills, historian Richard Hofstadter, and economist John Kenneth Galbraith, whom he blames for eroding the ideological basis of antitrust in the postwar years. “Hofstadter and Galbraith together,” he tells us in a puzzling passage, “created a new language and new frame of analysis designed to eliminate the antimonopoly tradition in American politics. A new villain, the grubby racist small businessman, had replaced the money trust.”
As Stoller concludes later on, “‘Beautiful smugness’ is how John Kenneth Galbraith and Richard Hofstadter persuaded a generation to give up their liberties.” Even if Stoller’s readings of these thinkers represented them accurately, this would seem an awfully large role to assign to a sociologist, a historian, and an economist — even unusually prominent ones.
While neoliberalism germinated in Chicago and smug intellectuals fulminated in New York, finance regrouped. “Set free from their wartime constraints, and then from the constraints imposed by White House control over the Fed, bankers tried to seize more power,” Stoller writes, and financiers like Citibank chief Walter Wriston and conglomerate mogul Saul Steinberg invented financial tools to manipulate the market — including the certificate of deposit, a bondlike instrument that allowed Citibank to evade regulations meant to limit bank size. When Patman came after these bankers, his success was mixed; they had learned from the experience of the 1930s. Stoller writes:
Wriston didn’t appear as a robber baron, but a cosmopolitan executive who believed in racial tolerance, liked rock ‘n’ roll, and wanted to be a responsible business leader in a technologically advanced society. Citibank, as he told governors and local politicians, didn’t pollute, and it went without mention that the bank didn’t send soldiers to Vietnam.
Perceiving an intersection between a fashionable cultural progressivism born out of the 1960s and a renascent economic oligarchy, Stoller continues, affluent, snobby liberals teamed up with bankers against the American people. By the early 1970s, everyone from Ralph Nader and the Watergate Babies to enlightened bankers and Chicago School economists were working together to bring the curtain down on economic democracy.
With Patman ousted in 1975, Jimmy Carter deregulating key markets shortly thereafter, and Democrats taking up the Chicago School’s ideas, corporate power took off. Unshackled from regulatory constraints, big-box retail spread across small-town America, while banks and more exotic financial firms began to reassert themselves, growing in size and power.
From there, Stoller offers us a straight line to the election of Trump, who fed on the democratic decay that set in once the regulatory state had been dismantled. As Stoller puts it in his Atlantic essay, “The story of Patman’s ousting is part of the larger story of how the Democratic Party helped to create today’s shockingly disillusioned and sullen public, a large chunk of whom is now marching for Donald Trump.”
In this respect, Goliath is an ambitious and risky undertaking that proffers a century-long narrative encompassing virtually every aspect of American political and economic life. But Stoller tends to tell his story from the perspective of individual politicians, intellectuals, and millionaires—Patman, Wilson, Brandeis, Mellon, and the like. Structural forces recede, personalities grow in importance, and it becomes difficult to tell why anything is happening.
For this reason, great changes that Stoller would like to trace tend to go unexplained except in terms of the greed and corruption, or farsightedness and altruism, of particular individuals. Wilson’s Federal Reserve, for example, was a good idea — “designed to move power over the economy from Wall Street to the people” — until it fell into the hands of “shortsighted private bankers who could not or would not stop speculative bubbles.” (Why? How?) The defeat of Wilson’s ostensibly benevolent peace plan is also attributed to the machinations of robber barons. “[Henry Clay] Frick and Mellon believed that America should use its power solely to enhance American financial interests, not to engage in some scheme for world peace.
The two men saw opposition to the [Treaty of Versailles] as a way to discredit the Democrats and drive them from power.” Mellon then became the most powerful man in the country—“King Andrew”—setting the stage in turn for the stock market crash of 1929. Everything in this narrative is about market power, and market power is about greed and opportunity.
Yet when one attempts to peer beneath this layer of individual action, avaricious or heroic, Stoller’s narrative begins to unravel. In order to conjure up a united front of the common people against corporate power, he repeatedly collapses the distinction between the problem of monopoly and the problem of class.
Again and again, he cites capital’s offenses against labor as evidence of the need for anti-monopoly measures, writing phrases like “small businessman and blue-collar worker” as if the reader will not notice he has named two separate things.
Stoller isn’t wrong in asserting that there were many working-class people invested in breaking the power of the robber barons, but anti-monopoly as it emerged as a mass movement in the late 19th century was only one component of what was often called “the social question,” or if you were less inclined to euphemism, “the labor question.”
To be sure, agrarian rebels demanded the death of the money power, while huge strike waves shook the country in 1877 and again in 1886, developing into general strikes in multiple cities. The United States saw repeated instances of workers shutting down large sections of the nation’s rail network in wild, out-of-control confrontations. Gun battles between unions and company thugs became more and more common, as in Homestead, Pennsylvania, in 1892 and Cripple Creek, Colorado, in 1894.
But at issue in these labor conflicts was not just the cartelization of the economy but the whole system of relationships that made up America’s social order, in particular the “wages system” — that is, capitalist labor markets — and its bouts of wage cuts and unemployment. When workers in these struggles denounced monopolies, they often did so because they viewed concentrated capital as part of a deeper problem: capitalism itself. They struck because industrial wage labor was a new form of domination, and they wished to diminish and eventually end it.
For Stoller, however, inequality and the class tensions it unleashed are made not inside the process of production but in the “commercial sphere.” Industry and commerce, however, are obviously not the same thing, and this conflation leads him to serious conceptual problems.
The political issues that arise from production occur between labor and capital — over wages, hours, safety, unionization, workers’ control, and so on — and are quite distinct from conflicts over market power, which occur between capital and capital and, as the legal scholar Lina Khan put it, concern “product quality, variety and innovation” as well as prices. The two are related to each other, as when labor markets take on monopsonistic characteristics, but they remain distinct.
Yet wherever he looks, Stoller sees the two spheres as one and accordingly vexed by the same question: what to do about the robber barons — which is to say, the issue of concentration at the top. Social inequality, the relationship between the classes, and the maldistribution of economic and political power are all collapsed into a question of the bigness and badness of the biggest, baddest members of the elite.
He is also correct in asserting that anti-monopoly sentiment has enjoyed a large social base in American history, but it was not among “the people” in general and certainly not the working class in particular. Rather, it was a politics that arose among several distinct social and economic groups as they came under increasing economic pressure around the turn of the 20th century and settled on trust-busting as the instrument of their relief.
They were not all of one kind. There were farmers and craftsmen, shopkeepers and small businessmen, spread out across small towns and the countryside. These groups linked up with Progressive lawyers and professionals in the first third of the 20th century — especially those influenced by Brandeis — who believed that market regulation could limit the power of corporations in order to produce a stable, harmonious social order.
Yet since Stoller takes as a given that anti-monopoly populists speak on behalf of the people as an organic whole, he presents Patman and the antitrust activists in the New Deal as the entirety of that project’s egalitarian thrust. Invisible in his account is the Northern social democratic politics of millions of working-class Americans that—I think I’m on safe ground here—was also quite influential in shaping that era’s policies.
Whether or not you rate antitrust as important, it still beggars belief to see it as a more significant force in the remaking of American society in the 1930s than the insurgency of millions of industrial workers and the wave of reforms they won: the National Labor Relations Act, which established union rights; the Social Security Act, which created the eponymous program as well as family assistance and unemployment insurance; the Fair Labor Standards Act, which established the 40-hour workweek and the minimum wage and banned child labor; and, indirectly, legislation touching on housing and urban development, veterans’ policy, and more.
A telling example of Stoller’s oversight in this regard comes in his narrative of the Southern crusade of small businesses and farmers against the predations of the A&P market chain. While relating this story, Stoller mentions as an aside that the giant chain struck an alliance with the American Federation of Labor and various progressive consumer and cooperative groups to strengthen its hand against the antitrusters.
This anti-anti-monopoly alliance, which wedded the interests of labor to those of a large corporation, represents the spirit and logic of the New Deal at least as well as Patman does. Stoller, however, cannot see it as anything but opportunism. The fact that Patman supported the Taft-Hartley Act, establishing right-to-work laws and hobbling the labor movement, also goes unexplored.
To be fair, part of the problem here is that the New Deal was itself a fundamentally equivocal and contradictory regime. It attempted to marry market regulation and antitrust with an implicit corporatism. While breaking up and regulating some markets, liberal policy-makers continued to pursue high-level social bargains among capital, labor, and consumers, explicitly until 1935 and tacitly and indirectly for decades thereafter.
Stoller hyperbolically draws parallels between the former efforts — those that accepted or even encouraged corporatist social compromise s— with fascism and then proceeds to ignore them as a key component of Democratic rule from the New Deal to the Great Society. But his elision of the centrality of labor-management conflict and compromise also leads him to elevate antitrust from a component of liberal policy to a synonym for democracy and freedom.
Goliath finds a key case study, for example, in the way the federal government set up competitors to Alcoa’s aluminum monopoly in the 1940s. This move, meant to keep the supply of aluminum flowing for the war machine, is presented as substantiation of Stoller’s reimagined version of World War II as a global struggle between monopoly and free competition. (One wonders where the Soviet Union is in this account.) But as historian Jonathan Bean observes, two-thirds of major war production contracts went to the largest 100 corporations, and two-thirds of research and development money went to 68 firms. Small manufacturers shrank dramatically over the war years in terms of relative employment while large ones grew.
After the war, when it came time to reconvert the $17 billion of publicly owned defense industries to privatized civilian production, two-thirds of their economic value went to 87 firms. Bean writes, “The federal government sold all of its synthetic rubber facilities to the Big Four rubber companies and allowed U.S. Steel to purchase 71 percent of all the publicly built steel plants.”
The steel monopoly, as we already noted, became a key mechanism in the balance between capital and labor struck by New Deal liberals, allowing for wage increases for the organized workers who formed the base of the Democratic Party. Yet you simply will not encounter in Goliath the overwhelming counterevidence that suggests the New Deal was marked by such social democratic features balanced on oligopolistic markets.
All of this is to not discount the fact that the New Deal experimented in antitrust efforts more actively than what came before it or after it, but it did so while helping to bolster a monopolistic and quasi-corporatist economic system. The New Deal and its heirs, in other words, rested on multiple pillars.
White Southern Democrats wanted cheap manufactured goods, competitive markets, and decentralized power that protected their racial order in the South; the multiethnic, multiracial, and working-class coalition of Northern Democrats wanted high wages and stable employment in industry. The tension between these two, structural as well as ideological in nature, eventually consumed the party in the 1970s in the economic chaos called “stagflation.”
For someone making a political argument by way of history, Stoller can view monopoly quite ahistorically. For many, monopoly is a more or less inevitable result of capitalist development. Marxists have argued that market consolidation is a mechanism by which capitalism has managed its periodic crises. By “socializing” production, or summoning together the once dispersed productive powers of society into a collective force, monopoly at once advanced capitalism’s development and produced a kind of socialism in embryo trapped by its private ownership structure.
For capitalists, this was true too. J.P. Morgan saw the rise of monopoly as an irresistible element of capitalism. Breaking up the trusts was as impossible, he said, as unscrambling an omelet. As a historical phenomenon — that is, developing over time in relation to particular contexts of events — monopoly has qualities that make it difficult to reverse. On this view, anti-monopoly is useful only within a larger account of the development and trajectory of capitalism itself, of which monopoly is just a symptom.
But for Stoller, monopoly is something that exists mostly outside time and the particularities of political economy. The essence of monopolization can be found in both medieval feudalism and 20th-century fascism. China, too, Stoller tells us, is just one giant monopoly.
The phenomenon has no distinct cause other than the greed of the powerful and the power of the greedy; it is merely the name for what happens when greed and power meet. It has, in this sense, no history that can be related except through the machinations of individuals, nefarious or heroic.
Operating with an anti-monopoly analysis but not a historical one, Stoller as a result constantly gets things only half right. “What of the party of the people, the Democrats?” he asks as he moves into the 1980s and ’90s. “Throughout American history, the triumph of plutocrats in a decade provoked a backlash, and the opposing party would win a series of elections and reorient political economy. But the Chicago School has dismantled this fail-safe.”
Stoller is, of course, correct that the Democrats failed utterly to channel the miseries of neoliberalism into a political challenge and instead have served as handmaidens to worsening inequality. But the idea that this collaboration is due to the influence of the Chicago School in particular—as opposed to much larger structural forces that have prevailed around the world—is not an analysis; it’s a conspiracy theory. It also excludes almost all of the important reasons Democrats turned rightward and implies no theory of what might be done to counteract this.
No vision of politics follows from the insight that elites sometimes scheme and accrue influence. This becomes a genuinely political idea only when it can be used to develop a specific vision of conflicting interests, friends who might be organized and enemies who must be divided and overcome. “They’re for the powerful, we’re for the people” is something Al Gore said in his acceptance speech for the Democrats’ 2000 presidential nomination; one hopes for something a bit more precise in a 600-page book.
The ahistorical and thus apolitical quality of Stoller’s book becomes even more apparent when he attempts to generalize the perfectly sound idea of breaking up some monopolies into a transcendent principle of democratic life: that the basis for all forms of freedom — social, economic, political — lies in open access to commerce. “Each of us,” he rhapsodizes in his conclusion, “is a worker, a businessperson, a consumer, and a citizen.”
I am not a businessperson, and I suspect this may be true for many of my readers too. As far as I can tell, even Stoller is not a businessperson. Many in this country are, of course, also not citizens, as we are grimly reminded every day. Even in the working class, millions are not workers in the strictest sense. Many students, incarcerated people, disabled people, retirees, and the unemployed do not perform wage work.
Yet Stoller’s eye can track only the disposal of property, and in it he finds liberty itself. Capital encounters merely other capital, big or small. The vast majority of us who lack property that we can live off and thus must sell our labor power to survive are visible, in this analysis, only if we’re conceived of as tiny capitalists. Stoller’s history, as a result, is blind to the structural coercion of workers that brings them into their encounter with capital and gives capitalism its fundamental character.
For those of us who cannot live off our property, the economy is not where we become free through trade; it is where we become unfree through work or the lack of it. Property is a relationship, not an object. The liberty it grants some is always domination for others. The Jeffersonian smallholder class, for example, was built on the backs (or the land) of women, children, slaves, low-wage and migrant workers, and indigenous people. A focus solely on market relations loses sight of this political and economic domination.
Stoller’s framework also causes him to present anti-monopoly as a principle transcending differences between the right and the left—an approach that gives space to a nationalist vision of the people as an integral whole and who are beset by insidious outsiders.
On the hunt for anti-monopolists of all shapes and sizes, he finds an ally in Senator Josh Hawley, a “national conservative” who delivered a thinly veiled anti-Semitic speech about the “cosmopolitan” attack on America’s “common culture,” because of Hawley’s criticism of Big Tech. (It seems likely that Stoller is naive here rather than cynical, but it can be only one of the two.)
In the same vein, he has become an advocate of confrontation with China, writing in Foreign Policy, “The era of strong private corporate power is over. Public power is being reasserted over U.S. corporations. The only question is whether the public power that assumes control of Western corporations, and thus Western society, is American or Chinese.”
One need not applaud the regime in Beijing to dread where this goes. And Stoller also regularly bemoans the effects of monopoly on America’s weapons-making capacity and recently criticized tech workers for protesting their employers’ work with the Pentagon. “Warfare tech and AI isn’t necessarily about killing,” he explained on Twitter, “and weakening the military institutions isn’t the right way to change *war policy.*”
Throughout the book, Stoller distinguishes his anti-monopoly politics from the socialist and social democratic traditions of the left. Since he sees the tradition stretching from Jefferson to Patman as the core of democratic politics in America, anything that falls outside the spectrum between Hamilton and Jefferson is invisible, an illegitimate infiltrator, or an especially curious specimen of Hamiltonism or Jeffersonism.
If you follow his commentary, you’ll know, for example, that he’s convinced that W.E.B. Du Bois’s classic Black Reconstruction — a book that speaks approvingly of Reconstruction as a “dictatorship of the proletariat” — is merely an entry in the Jeffersonian tradition, contrary to Du Bois’s Marxist intentions. This reading rests precisely on a misunderstanding of the desire of freed slaves to own land as an impulse toward small business rather than the wish to be free of the supervisor’s lash.
It is clear from the outset of Goliath that Stoller very evidently wishes for a more just and equal world, and many of his solutions — breaking up and regulating the big banks and tech companies, for example — would be far preferable to the status quo. But he does not explain any of the reasons an anti-monopoly politics might win or achieve any staying power.
If all of American history is defined by the struggle between the great heroes of anti-monopoly democracy and the avarice of Mellonism, then why would powerful and greedy men not machinate once more against antitrust laws? Why wouldn’t disdainful intellectuals conspire against the people’s cause yet again? If the prevalence of monopoly, as Stoller insists, bears no relation to the larger social and economic environment and is purely a voluntary choice, then there’s no reason to believe that anti-monopoly can produce a stable resolution to the problem of corporate power.
From where might antitrust politics draw social and political power with a mass base of farmers, craftsmen, and small businessmen long gone? What might bind the people as a whole together to confront their overlords? By way of employment in some cases, low prices or convenience in others, the monopolies that he detests have sunk their roots into large sections of society. Come after Amazon, and you come after its tens of millions of users too.
The socialism that Stoller dismisses emerged precisely in answer to these problems. It contends that capitalism gives rise—not once but repeatedly—to a potentially coherent and antagonistic social force capable of collective action.
This is the working class. Because capitalism produces a larger population over time that cannot survive from its own property and therefore joins many of these people at sites of collective labor, it makes it possible for them to organize and then to exercise leverage and political leadership over other sectors of society. (This is the reason that the most exciting intellectual work in antitrust is being done by scholars who work on market power specifically in employment, such as Sanjukta Paul, Suresh Naidu, and Marshall Steinbaum.)
One may criticize the socialist’s faith in the working class as politically naive or empirically inaccurate. But in any case, socialism (and beneath it Marxism as well) contains a theory of politics — a definite account of friends and enemies and why each is what it is — whereas Stoller’s populism does not. This is why socialists have proved to be so much less prone to deviations into jingoism and conspiracy theory than their populist peers.
One might also add that socialism and anti-monopoly are not necessarily opposed; In recent history, as well in the New Deal era, the two have blended in a combined opposition to the current economic and political order. For both sides, this blending together has been both opportunistic and fruitful. The presence in the presidential race of candidates who approximately represent each ideology illustrates the dynamic of this marriage of convenience.
The socialist who speaks of class war allows the anti-monopolist to leverage her plans for fixing it into popularity; in turn, the plan maker must mimic the socialist’s positions in order for her gambit to succeed, thus validating his ideas. Each gets to obfuscate usefully through the presence of the other and because they share enemies: Wall Street and its political representatives.
But Stoller’s book also demonstrates some of the underlying differences. Anti-monopolists oppose the economic elite but not the social system that gave rise to it. Likewise, between socialism and anti-monopoly lies a vast difference in analysis about the nature of the state and, indeed, power itself. For the anti-monopolist, the state is a shield for the people against their plutocratic enemies; power inheres in the state, and it is only a question of whether the people capture it through elections.
The anti-monopolist agenda is therefore to put the good expert into office, where she may wield the regulatory power of the state for the common good. For the socialist, on the other hand, the state is not neutral. Its purpose and nature are to serve the interests of the ruling class.
If it can be remade to serve the working class, this project cannot be achieved without enormous social conflict, and this change can come only from below, not just through elections but through sustained attacks on authority at every level: in workplaces, schools, families, neighborhoods, and beyond. Friendly elements within the state may lend important support to such struggles, and this is one of the reasons socialists seek state power. But socialism cannot be achieved solely by means of such power.
Which of these analyses you believe (and which diagnosis you accept) is, in part, the result of the different historical narratives that we tell. If you think the problem we face is something like “crony capitalism” or “money in politics,” then there is one weird trick that will fix it: reining in the too-powerful corporations — often by using laws already on the books — in order to get back to the people’s business.
This program, often presented as structural change, nonetheless represents an explicitly superficial approach: the idea that our economy has acquired a predatory, parasitic stratum at its top that needs to be stripped off, allowing the underlying system to work as intended. Explicitly or not, it’s the promise of a return to a lost utopia of markets, a society without fundamental antagonisms.
If, on the other hand, you think our problems are deeper, woven more fundamentally into the structure of how we live together — which things and people we value and which we discard, who must wear the saddle and who gets to ride — then there’s no going back. If the problem lies with capitalism as a system and not specific malicious capitalists, then we’ve got to embark on an adventure of a different kind, one that leads us not back to the comforts of midcentury America but somewhere wild and new. Goliath will not help us find the way.
Gabriel Winant is an assistant professor of history at the University of Chicago. He is completing a book on deindustrialization and care work.
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.