MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
THE CRISIS OF LIBERTY
Americans are obsessed with liberty, mad about liberty. On any day, we can tune into arguments about how much liberty we need to buy a gun or get an abortion, to marry who we want or fully embrace the gender or genders we feel. We argue endlessly about liberty from regulation and observation by the state and proudly rebel against the tyranny of the course syllabus and Spotify playlist. Redesign the penny today and the motto would read, “You ain’t the boss of me.”
And yet, somehow, we as a people missed the most radical revolution in political economic thinking in our history, and consequently, the rise of the greatest domestic threat to many of our fundamental liberties since the Civil War.
It’s not President Trump who poses this danger. Subversive, often destructive, and gleefully so, Donald Trump is but a symptom of the problem, and sweeping him from office will do little to solve it. Nor is it nationalism, or tribalism, or a generalized loss of faith in liberal democracy that poses the danger. These too are but signs of what lies beneath.
The crisis is monopolization on a scale that far surpasses even that of the days of the plutocrats. It is extreme concentration of power and control that has disrupted our political systems, our social systems, our economic systems, our ability to communicate with one another, our ability to build our communities and families, even our ability to make our own selves and our own futures.
Until the Covid-19 lockdown, the economy was in very good shape, at least on the surface. Roads were jammed, the stock market was soaring, and restaurant windows were filled with hiring signs. But even before the pandemic, the American people knew that something was wrong with the fundamental structure of our political economy and our society. And so they despaired and sometimes raged.
Yet because people didn’t fully understand the nature of the threat, their search for answers led them often in terribly wrong directions, toward answers that made the problem only worse. Like blaming other victims of power. Or blaming the “nature” of “capitalism.” Or embracing romantic and naïve ideas about what the “state” can do. Or blaming “identity politics,” as if Americans must sacrifice one form of liberty for another.
The simple fact is that no liberty is safe among a people who have forgotten what it takes to prevent the concentration of extreme power and control within their own political economy. Who have forgotten how to protect the markets where, to a very great degree, they and their children make their society and their lives and their selves. Who have forgotten, in short, that power is a zero-sum game, and in the end there are only two types of liberty: liberty for the master, to exercise power over the rest of us, and liberty for all of us, from all masters.
Ultimately this is a book not only about power but also about identity. It is about who you are within today’s political economy, and who you might become in a world in which power and control are less concentrated. It is about whether you are in charge of your own destiny or an object shaped and directed by distant bosses. It is about whether you are a grower, maker, creator, thinker, dreamer—or a blinking, brooding, bleating bundle of appetites, lured by cheap aromas down a concrete corridor toward a kill room.
The gravest crisis we face today? The rise of autocracy in America and around the world. The most intimate of subjects? Your own sense of who you are, and how you fit into an ever-changing world. In the pages that follow, I hope you will come to understand how these two stories are one.
By now you have probably read somewhere that America faces a monopoly crisis. Polls show most Americans fret about some form of monopoly every day—at home, at work, while sitting at school or driving to church. We worry that giant corporations rip us off and tie us down, that they have too much power over our community and our politics. But generally, Americans tend to view monopoly as merely one in a long list of problems in our lives, yet another threat to keep us awake at night.
It’s vital to understand that monopoly is not one of many economic problems but rather the political economic problem of our time. In America today, just about every grave problem we face was created by, or made worse by, monopolists. Consider:
Why were there fewer good jobs than in the past, even before Covid-19? And why do almost all jobs pay less? It’s because monopolists use their power over our markets to cut the total number of jobs, to restrict your liberty to trade one job for another, and thereby to drive down wages.
Why must you drive farther to get to a hospital? And why does routine care cost so much more than a few years ago? It’s because monopolists buy up all the hospitals in a region, then cut the total number of beds and the total number of doctors, nurses, and aides.
Why is your rent so high? And why will your mortgage debt never go away? It’s because monopolists use their massive piles of cash to drive up the price of the land right under your home, so they can charge you more just to sleep.
Why do drugs and medical devices cost so much? And why are there so many shortages, even of basic items like facemasks? It’s because monopolists use their power to cut supply, to eliminate investment in research, and to block rival manufacturers, even when the result is to kill people. Nowhere was this more obvious than with facemasks during the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Why are so many farmers leaving the land? And why are so many rural towns dying? It’s because monopolists have captured control over almost all the markets designed to connect the farmer to the eater, and monopolists use their power to charge us more for less and to pay the farmer less for more.
Why did the stores on Main Street close, even before the pandemic? And why are your public schools out of money? It’s because corporations like Walmart and Amazon and Wells Fargo bankrupted your neighbors’ businesses, then transferred the money they took from you to Wall Street or London or Shanghai, rather than into your town’s treasury.
Why is your commute so long? And why is air travel so awful? It’s because monopolists like Koch Industries use their power to block mass transit. And because monopolists have cut not only the size of airline seats but the total supply available.
Why is it so hard to get simple justice in today’s America? It’s because monopolists use the arbitration requirements they impose in the fine print of their contracts to lock people out of the people’s own courts.
Whatever you are angry about, somewhere in the chain of blame you will almost always find a monopolist.
We blame the Chinese for stealing American factories. We should also blame the monopolists, who used their influence to change our trade laws and then shipped our factories to China.
We blame the Russians for disrupting our elections with “fake news.” We should also blame Google and Facebook and other monopolists who built systems to manipulate us, then rented those systems out to any autocrat or anarchist with a wallet full of bitcoin.
We rail at poor folks for crossing our borders to take our jobs. But what about the monopolists who looted the economies of Mexico, Honduras, and El Salvador and drove those citizens in desperation from their own homes?
We read terrifying reports about the speed of global warming and blame hardscrabble frackers and miners for pulling gas and coal from the earth. But what of the monopoly utility corporations that block us from installing solar panels on our roofs or recharging stations on our streets?
We blame our neighbors for their diabetes and overdoses and cirrhosis and psychoses. Yet what of the monopolists who all but freely push opium and booze and pot and sugar on us, to a point where soon half of all adults will be obese and where for the first time in our nation’s history, many of us will live shorter lives than our parents?1
We bemoan “inequality” and the “1 percent,” and threaten to tax billionaires so we can spend the money on college or some basic income scheme. But what about taking from the billionaires their actual tools of control? What about breaking their chokehold on our future?
Never have Americans seen so much control in so few hands. In our country today it is the monopolist who feeds you, bathes you, warms you, entertains you, even sings you to sleep at night, all while carefully cataloging your dreams and silently pilfering your pockets.
Little wonder so many Americans today felt so disconnected and anxious and angry, even before Covid-19 settled in. Driven from the marketplace and the town hall, made subservient and servile, what is left but to retreat into one’s own bedroom, one’s own despairing soul?
THE NEW AUTOCRACY
The crisis is getting worse fast. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Reagan and Clinton administrations, under the thrall of radical right-wing and left-wing philosophies, overthrew America’s antimonopoly regime. Since then, the process of monopolization in America has moved forward in two stages. In the first, corporations like Walmart, Microsoft, Citibank, Goldman Sachs, Monsanto, News Corp, Comcast, and Koch Industries were each able to amass great reach and sway over one or a few sectors of the American economy. This concentration posed many economic and political problems, as we will see. But well into the twenty-first century, real power in America was still distributed among a few hundred of these corporate and financial lords. Which meant there was still plenty of room in our society for something like democracy, something like open debate.
Today, however, we are far along in a second and far more dangerous stage of monopolization, in which Google, Amazon, Facebook, and a few other platform monopolists have captured control over the gateways that connect those of us who have something to sell or say with those of us who want to buy what’s for sale or hear what’s being said. And these corporations increasingly use their control over these chokepoints to determine how we communicate with one another and how we do business with one another.
Some have termed this business model “surveillance capitalism.” But what we see here has nothing to do with capitalism as we have known it, or as we can reasonably imagine it. And the surveillance itself, the spying on the individual citizen and individual business, is not the fundamental problem. The problem is not even the size of those three corporations, or the fact that they have become so essential to our lives and businesses.
The most fundamental problem is that we have left those three corporations—and similar middlemen corporations of the digital age—with a license to treat each citizen, and each business, uniquely. That we have left these corporations with a license to deliver to each of us different information, different prices, different services.
Over the first 200 years of our nation’s history, Americans applied various types of a “common carrier” law to every provider of essential services, including all transportation and communications networks. We used such laws to ensure that any corporation that controlled access to a vital service treated every person who depended on that monopoly the same.
Absent such rules, Google, Facebook, and Amazon are now free to treat each of us differently. They use all the personal information they gather and store on each of us individually to manipulate how we sell and buy, what we speak and read, where we go and what we view, even how we vote and what we think, to a degree that no previous private power, in any nation, has ever come close to achieving.
The actual business models of these three corporations differ slightly.
In the case of Google and Facebook, the corporations sell their ability to manipulate us to almost anyone who wants to do so. Google and Facebook make almost all their money from renting out such services, under the guise of “selling advertising,” and in 2019 the corporations carted home roughly $120 billion and $70 billion respectively by doing so.
Amazon, by contrast, is designed to make money by charging fees for the “services” it provides to the people who sell on its platforms. This includes the warehousing and packing and shipping of other people’s goods. The corporation also makes money by exploiting its control of the market to steer buyers away from other people’s products toward items manufactured for Amazon itself.2
The most immediate danger posed by these corporations is to free speech and the free press. Google and Facebook, as already mentioned, routinely and eagerly rent their manipulation machines not only to consumer goods retailers like Procter & Gamble and Coca-Cola but to just about any demagogue or anarchist with a desire to peddle propaganda and misinformation to disrupt our democracies and societies.
Even more dangerously, Google and Facebook every year divert many billions of dollars in advertising away from both traditional newspapers and magazines and pure digital publishers. This means—compared with only a few years ago—thousands fewer journalists walk the halls of our governments and markets and report on the deeds and misdeeds of our politicians and businesspeople.
In short, not only do these corporations spread bad information, they also choke off our ability to gather trustworthy and useful information.
As bad as this is for our democracy, these three corporations increasingly wield an even more dangerous power. Their monopolization of key marketplaces, combined with their license to open and close the gate to these markets according to no rule other than their own interest or whim, gives them the ability to engage in a sort of routinized extortion of any person or corporation who depends on them to get to market.
And Google, Facebook, and Amazon extort more than money in exchange for permission to pass through their gates. As we will see in the following pages, these three corporations also increasingly extort various forms of political favors from the corporations in their thrall, the most important of which is simply silence about the nature and extent of their power.
The result is a fast-accelerating collapse of the rule of law, as even the biggest of businesses and properties are no longer safe from the predations of Google, Facebook, and Amazon. Put another way, the result is an unprecedented pyramiding of power, as even many of the most potent corporate masters of the last generation increasingly live to serve the vastly more wide-reaching masters of this generation.
THE AMERICAN SYSTEM OF LIBERTY
My goal in Liberty from All Masters is not to identify and survey the monopolists or the specific dangers posed by the corporate structures and piles of capital that they control. I did that in my last book, Cornered, in 2010. And recent books by Sally Hubbard, Christopher Leonard, Zephyr Teachout, Thomas Philippon, Jonathan Tepper, David Dayen, and others all do a good job of catching today’s readers up on how today’s monopolists are strip-mining your family, your community, and your nation.
Instead, I will use Liberty from All Masters to build on that base, in three main ways.
First, I will detail the rise of the new autocracy we face today in America. In chapter one, I will describe the first of the two stages in the concentration of power and control in our nation, by detailing how the “neoliberal” revolution of the 1980s and 1990s cleared the way for the rise of a new oligarchy of corporate and banking lords. Then in chapter two I will expand on this description and detail how Google, Facebook, and Amazon are concentrating dangerous degrees of power over the oligarchs of the last generation by choke-pointing their path to the marketplace and by building immensely powerful mechanisms precisely to manipulate the flow of information and commerce in our society.
Second, in the heart of the book, I will reintroduce you to what I call the American System of Liberty. This was the complex network of concepts, laws, and policies that Americans designed with great care over the first two centuries of our nation to protect the liberties of the individual and the democratic institutions of the community by breaking and harnessing the power of the monopolist. In chapters three and four, I will detail how Americans first envisioned and established this system in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Then in chapters five and six, I will detail how Americans updated and adapted the system to address the challenges posed by then-revolutionary technologies such as the cotton gin, railroad, and telegraph, as well as electrical power and mass broadcast communications, and such existential threats as industrialized war.
Innumerable books have focused on the U.S. Constitution’s system of political checks and balances. But Liberty from All Masters is the first in decades to look at how Americans intentionally extended the system of checks and balances into every corner of the American political economy to regulate competition among individuals in their private relations as well as in their public ones. Along the way, I will show how Americans structured this system not merely to protect liberty and democracy but also to ensure that competition was mainly constructive in nature and would achieve certain fundamental social, moral, and intellectual ends.
This section will, I hope, also be of immediate use in understanding how to address the threat posed by Google, Facebook, and Amazon. In recent years, writers and researchers including Rana Foroohar, Lina Khan, Stacy Mitchell, Roger McNamee, Marc Rotenberg, Tim Wu, Frank Pasquale, Maurice Stucke, Franklin Foer, Cathy O’Neil, Jonathan Taplin, Ariel Ezrachi, Bruce Schneier, Shoshana Zuboff, and others have published a wide range of incredibly useful work on the threats posed by these corporations. Yet with a few exceptions—including former senator Al Franken, law professors Sabeel Rahman and Ganesh Sitaraman, the historian Richard John, and Phillip Longman, my close colleague at the Open Markets Institute—almost no one has focused closely on our failure to apply common carrier rules to the platform monopolists. Nor has anyone investigated in depth how such non-discrimination rules can be brought to bear today.
Liberty from All Masters will, I hope, help to fill this gap by identifying useful analogies and lessons from our long and ultimately successful struggle to master the railroads and other network monopolists of the nineteenth century and by detailing how non-discrimination law and regulation actually function. This book will also study the terrifying political and economic effects that result when we fail to pry these tools from the hands of the private monopolist.
Third, I will describe how particular ideas and language systems can help us to understand how power is concentrated and used within the political economy, and how to structure and direct power in ways that promote democracy and the liberty of the individual.
We will first see, in the central chapters of the book, how for 200 years Americans used a particular vision of the individual as a citizen to teach one generation after another to view all economic relationships through a lens of power. And to teach one generation after another to seek individual liberty foremost, to make and build and think and speak and sell, free from control by any master. Then in chapters seven and eight, we will see how, over the last generation, the powerful have used the conception of the individual as a consumer—along with other forms of ideological and rhetorical trickery—to hide the role of power in political economic relationships, and thereby to revolutionize how we see the world around us, and our place in it, in ways that have made it far harder for us to understand how today’s masters exercise power over us.
In recent years Thomas Frank, Angus Burgin, Nancy MacLean, Quinn Slobodian, Kim Phillips-Fein, Lawrence Glickman, and others have published excellent books on the rise and use of the reactionary, antidemocratic philosophy widely known as “neoliberalism” or “libertarianism.” They have detailed how the patrons of neoliberalism aimed to undermine the power of unions, to cut taxes on the rich, and to rewire corporate governance laws to favor the already powerful. Unfortunately, none of these scholars focused on the single most important act of neoliberal sabotage, which was the rewriting and ultimate overthrow of America’s system of antimonopoly law.
In Liberty from All Masters I will detail how, through the manipulation of ideas and language systems, the neoliberals managed to make antimonopoly law mean the exact opposite of what it had meant for two centuries. In other words, how they managed to take a body of law and policy designed to protect the individual and the community from dangerous concentrations of power and turn it into a system that gives the monopolist an almost complete license to do with us, and our world, as he wishes.
A HISTORY RESURRECTED
For a writer, it’s always tempting to present your work as entirely new and fresh. And as you read this book, it may seem I am indeed presenting a unique history of America, and an alternative interpretation of the Constitution. Yet I see my task more as resurrecting one of the original histories of America.
Liberty from All Masters presents a story of our nation as seen through the lens of antimonopoly philosophy and policy. It’s a story that, in one form or another, the American people repeated to one another for the nation’s first two centuries; a story of trying to structure power in ways that enable citizens to build a truly democratic community. Indeed, I believe the story I tell in these pages would have seemed familiar, even natural, to any reasonably educated, reasonably observant American voter, white or black, in 1965 or 1936 or 1912 or 1896 or 1860 or 1832 or 1800.
It’s a history that has been largely wiped from our textbooks and our discourse over the last generation.3 As we will see, this is mainly the result of efforts by the same people who supported the overthrow of America’s antimonopoly laws in the 1980s and the 1990s. To a lesser extent, it is also an unintended byproduct of the long-overdue reckoning by America’s historians with the ways in which members of dominant cultures have traditionally exercised power over other groups of people, such as people of color, women, and members of the LGBTQ community. For instance, in These Truths, her admirable history of various forms of oppression of one group by another, Jill Lepore almost entirely ignores private corporate power.4 It’s a history I am now able to resurrect precisely because I have devoted the last two decades to studying not only America’s foundational antimonopoly laws and policies but the political and social philosophies that underlie them.5
To the extent that any particular spirits have guided my work in Liberty from All Masters, it is those of the historians W. E. B. Du Bois and Gordon Wood.
It was from Wood’s book The Radicalism of the American Revolution that I first learned of the extent to which the early debates in our nation focused on the distribution of political economic power, and especially the role that common people played in driving that early radicalism, even when those people happened to be outside the actual rooms where elected and unelected leaders debated and drafted the nation’s early documents and institutions. Radicalism is a flawed book. As the historian Leslie Harris has written, while he “discusses the Founders’ ability to eliminate other forms of hierarchy, Wood has no explanation for why they were unable to eliminate slavery.” But it was precisely Wood’s discussion of efforts to destroy hierarchy, and to create a new form of citizen, that led me to take my exploration of the origins of America’s monopoly crisis today back to the Founding.6
From Du Bois, I learned something even more important. In 1935, he published Black Reconstruction in America, a book in which he overthrew the lie that the period of Reconstruction of southern societies and economies after the Civil War had been a time of mismanagement and misgovernment by poorly educated and inept blacks and working-class whites. Du Bois demonstrated that, on the contrary, Reconstruction was often a time of highly progressive and effective popular government, a time when black and white citizens established modern and democratic constitutions and built the region’s first public school systems and other forward-looking institutions.
I found Black Reconstruction to be especially important for this book in two ways. First, it is one of the most powerful paeans to American democracy and liberty ever written. Or as Du Bois himself put it, a paean to America as a “vision of democratic self-government,” which he then defined as “the domination of political life by the intelligent decision of free and self sustaining men.”7
Equally important, Du Bois left for all future writers of history a simple description of the role that concentrated power can play in distorting how a people remember and tell their own stories. After five years struggling to gather the facts and arguments necessary to overcome a cartoonish libel of black rule that had been solidified into hard consensus history, not only among segregationists in the South but also among “professional” historians of the North, Du Bois warned of the precariousness of truth and common sense in any world where we allow avarice and racism to rule.
“With sufficient general agreement and determination among the dominant classes,” Du Bois wrote near the end of his book, “the truth of history may be utterly distorted and contradicted and changed to any convenient fairy tale that the masters of men wish.”8
As is true with any history that runs contrary to a recent consensus, some of our favorite historical figures will come out looking somewhat tarnished. If you are an admirer of Ronald Reagan, it’s likely the Reagan we meet on these pages will disturb you, due to his role in overthrowing America’s traditional system of capitalism. The same is true if you admire Bill Clinton. Not only did the Clinton we will meet here fail to oppose the Reagan administration’s overthrow of the American System of Liberty, he worked energetically to complete the effort.
For similar reasons, we also may find ourselves embracing some of the writings and actions of people we have widely vilified in recent years, such as Thomas Jefferson and Woodrow Wilson. To be clear, my goal here is not to get you to like these people as people, or to embrace all or even most of their actions and statements while on this earth. Rather, it is simply to relearn how to use the immensely powerful modes of analysis, language systems, institutions, and legal tools these deeply flawed men developed to understand and disperse dangerous concentrations of private economic power.
No history of American liberty can avoid the issue of slavery and Jim Crow, and of other forms of discrimination based on gender and religion. American liberty was marred from the first by fundamental hypocrisies, and my own take is that the American people did not even come close to realizing the promise of the Declaration of Independence until the Voting Rights Act of 1965. If anything, I believe the discussions of race and class in Liberty from All Masters provide ample evidence that even in the absolute best moments of the last half century, we never realized true liberty for all.
Ultimately, my argument about the intersection of American liberty and American racism can be distilled into a simple, two-point thesis. Along with Du Bois and other writers, I hold that the American quest for individual liberty provided the spiritual foundation for what people today think of as civil and human rights. Somewhat more originally, I argue that the American System of Liberty that Jefferson and others originally devised to make and protect these liberties also provided many of the practical tools that generation after generation of Americans—of all colors and genders—used to make and keep these and other liberties for themselves and their children.
Yes, the American System of Liberty was at times shaped by the interests and motives of the slaveholder and the racist, not only in the earliest days of the nation but right through the heart of the twentieth century. But the slaveholder and racist were not the only ones in the room and certainly not the only ones in the street. The American people, white, black, and brown, were also there from the first. And for long periods of time many of us succeeded—through the populist and civil rights movements—at making this system ours too, as individuals, as communities, and sometimes even as a community. Our challenge today is, for the first time in our history, to make the system truly work for everyone.
AN HONEST RECKONING WITH POWER?
In the spring of 2015 the political economist and former labor secretary Robert Reich published a long article in the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of The American Prospect. “For the past quarter-century,” he wrote, “I’ve offered … an explanation for why average working people … have failed to gain ground and are under increasing economic stress: Put simply, globalization and technological change have made most of us less competitive.”
But, Reich continued, this explanation was wrong, or at least very incomplete. “I’ve come to believe it overlooks a critically important phenomenon: the increasing concentration of political power in a corporate and financial elite that has been able to influence the rules by which the economy runs. And the governmental solutions I have propounded, while I believe them still useful, are in some ways beside the point because they take insufficient account of the government’s more basic role in setting the rules of the economic game.”9
It’s rare for any public intellectual to admit error, and Reich deserves real credit for doing so, especially in such an eloquent, graceful, and useful way.
Unfortunately, few others among our nation’s intellectual elites have joined Reich in acknowledging that—for the last generation—they failed to see how the U.S. political economy was geared to concentrate enormous amounts of power in the hands of the few. On the contrary, many have opted instead to focus their work on some of the more superficial effects of that concentration of power and to do so in increasingly apocalyptic terms.
It’s been widely documented that public debate in America is more polarized than at any other time since the Civil War, as ever more people take in information along entirely partisan lines, from entirely partisan sources of news and views. Less well explored is how another form of polarization has come to warp our conversations about politics and the future. This is the increasing division of the American people into nihilists and utopians, with hardly a space between for practical action.
Perhaps most maddening are the nihilists, who hold that liberal democracy has largely failed, and there’s little we can do but retreat into monasteries and huts in the woods, where for a few years we can watch from afar as civilization collapses and the earth burns. The one consolation? If we carry their books into our sad little lairs, we can at least feel smug in our superior insight and wisdom, even as we choke on the smoke of flaming farm and forest and the ravening mob closes upon our door.
If you are a “progressive,” you may have come across such arguments in the works of Yascha Mounk, especially in his book The People vs. Democracy, or perhaps William Galston, in his book Anti-Pluralism. The ultimate lesson of such writers, as they stare bewildered at Donald Trump and his supporters, is that the institutions and norms of democracy have been too corrupted to save, hence we must find ways around them, though we probably won’t. If you are “conservative” you may have come across similarly pessimistic musings in books by Patrick Deneen, Rod Dreher, and Yuval Levin, who set out to explain the supposed failures of liberalism, of democracy, of the open society, in terms not of the corruption of democracy but of a corruption of morals and a general decline in religiousness.
The utopians, by contrast, at least seek to keep hope aglow in our souls. They hold that a good future is not only possible but perhaps even imminent. There are three main strains of utopianism, each with its own map to Canaan. All three include a fundamentally material promise: if we do a better job of bringing new technologies to maturity we might be able to save our society and our world.
The most simple of these utopianisms holds that there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with America at all and that if we only relax, things will work out fine; this in essence is the message of Steven Pinker in Enlightenment Now, and of Pinker fans like Bill Gates. The second and perhaps fastest-growing utopianism holds that there is in fact a lot wrong with how wealth and power are distributed in America today, but ultimately there’s nothing the “government” can’t fix, if we can only get “the market” and “capital” and “profit” out of the way. This is, in essence, the message of Bernie Sanders. The third utopianism, libertarian utopianism, is much the same as it’s been for the last 50 years. It holds there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with America that “the market” can’t fix, if only we can get “government” out of the way.
Despite their focus on a better future, these visions are almost as sterile, almost as practically useless, as the visions of the nihilists. Without an analysis of power, they similarly offer no lessons about how we actually got into this problem in the first place or how to get out of it now. The utopians know in their gut that humans have the capacity to build a better economy and society. They just have no idea how to liberate people to do so.
There are many reasons this last generation of intellectuals simply stopped thinking coherently about the concentration of political economic power over the individual. There are also many reasons why today—despite overwhelming evidence, despite challenges from within their ranks such as Robert Reich’s—they still refuse to address this single most important political fact of our time.
In a few instances, as we will discuss in chapters seven and eight, it’s because they were funded by interested sponsors of their universities and think tanks specifically to hide this concentration of power. These intellectuals then took an active part in the writing of false narratives and the distribution of false economic sciences.
For most, however, the answer is less a matter of such intellectual corruption and more a matter of a naïve, romantic, sentimental belief that is especially common among progressives, liberals, and libertarians. This holds that human beings are fundamentally good and well-meaning, and that if only you can get into a position where you can reason with your opponents you will be able to persuade them of the wisdom of your beliefs.
One of our most important challenges in the days to come will be to build a new intellectual and moral culture, one that is bluntly realistic about the actual nature of human beings and that forces us to reckon honestly with the limits of simple persuasion and reason.
Yes, human beings are social animals, and yes, we are often very good at working together toward a common good. Yes, human beings are also often able to act rationally and to respond to reasonable economic arguments and rewards. But human beings are also selfish. And sometimes we are thugs and brutes who take wicked joy in bullying and beating others.
It was such desires that drove many of today’s monopolists to concentrate power in the first place. Their goal, often, is not only or even mainly to get rich. It is to control others, to impose their will on others. Some of these monopolists, certainly a large enough number to matter, will do so even if the result is to kill people, even if the result is to kill the world in which they and their own children live.
There are certainly exceptions. Some people do change their minds in response to a reasoned presentation of facts, and it’s vitally important always to assume every individual has this capacity. But in the aggregate, such evangelizing of the benighted will not solve our problems. As Ibram Kendi put it in Stamped from the Beginning, his excellent and important book on the history of racist ideas: “Power will never self-sacrifice away from its self-interest. Power cannot be persuaded away from its self-interest. Power cannot be educated away from its self-interest.”10
The good news? As soon as we see power, as soon as we begin to think in terms of the need to concentrate and wield public power in ways that allow us to protect ourselves and our society from concentrated private power, we may well find that we are also able to begin to build something like true utopia.
As I wrote earlier, it was antimonopoly law—with its close focus on the structuring of markets and corporations to distribute and check private power—that for 200 years enabled Americans to make our liberty, our democracy, and our prosperity. The men and women who established antimonopoly law and refined it over those two centuries did so based on a highly realistic understanding of human nature, on an honest admission that there is a limit to the power of simple persuasion and that sometimes we must use power to break power.
What I hope you also come to understand in Liberty from All Masters is that when we allow others to concentrate power over us, it affects not only our economic well-being, but also our sense of self and community, our sense of personal and human possibility, in ways that can make us passive or, even worse, destructive. What I hope you also come to understand is that it was antimonopoly that for 200 years empowered the American people—to a very great degree—to think freely, to dream freely, to build freely. And that only by bridling and breaking today’s masters can we truly liberate the constructive spirit in all the rest of us.
I believe something like the better future envisioned by the utopians is indeed possible. But we will get there not by fixating on the making of new technologies; indeed, we already have most of the basic ideas we need. We will get there by breaking the power of those who stand in the way of actually using these better technologies, thereby empowering ourselves not merely to imagine what is impossible but to make what is impossible, possible.
THE WILL OF THE PEOPLE
I wrote the first words of this book in Paris in late December 2018, watching the rain roll down the cold panes of my hotel windows, sirens shrilling in the streets below. Christmas was a week away, but stores were boarded with plywood to protect against crowbars and cobblestones. The working people of France, pushed to the wall by shrinking salaries, enraged by the prerogatives of the rich, were increasingly hearkening to New Right politicians murmuring old fascist folktales. And they were not alone. In my travels in the previous days and months, I’d seen similar dramas playing out in Germany, Italy, Britain, America.
I began the final edits on this book in London, in December 2019. In many ways the world seemed in worse shape than the year before. I arrived just in time to see Boris Johnson wield a stiff concoction of racism and nationalism to win power for a Tory party that for a decade, with a joyful maliciousness, had cut the salaries and services of working people, students, retirees, and the poor. In Washington? The government was paralyzed by impeachment. In France, strikers had shut down much of the economy and day-to-day life. And still fresh in mind were the shattering heat waves and fires of the summer, blazing proof that our climate is changing in ever more terrifying ways.
And yet I knew that the people of the United States, and of the world’s democracies, had made major advances in those 12 months. Before arriving in London I spoke at a conference in Brussels on the crisis of monopoly and the state of antitrust law in Europe and America. There I saw a new generation of attorneys general from individual U.S. states, as well as enforcers from Paris, London, and Cologne, share lessons with one another of the many new investigations they had launched of the platform monopolies and of their new thinking on the dangers posed by concentrated private power.
Enforcers from the U.S. Justice Department and from the European Commission were also there. But something important had changed over the previous year. The interpretation of antimonopoly law was no longer the prerogative of a tiny cohort of “experts” stationed in Brussels and Washington. It was now a sword in the hands of the people of Texas and Nebraska and Iowa. And as events elsewhere in the world had shown, also in the hands of citizens in Johannesburg and New Delhi and Mexico City.
More encouraging yet, the monopoly crisis had become a topic of main-stage debate in American politics. This was true of the Democratic presidential candidates, all of whom were asked to address the issue in depth. It was true in the House of Representatives, where Congressman David Cicilline of Rhode Island had launched the most far-reaching set of investigations of monopoly in a half century. And it was also increasingly true in the Senate, where both Democrats and Republicans increasingly recognized the dangers posed at least by the biggest of the monopolists, Google, Facebook, and Amazon.
It takes a while for the people of America to think through a problem and to set our will. We are still early in that effort. I am confident we will learn and move swiftly. And that in the end we shall succeed.
If for no other reason, the stakes are simply too clear. Fail and it all comes down—our democracy, our families, our world. Prevail, and we establish a new political economy, one that greatly expands the realm of human liberty. One in which a free people will be able to devise technologies and techniques fit for the particular challenges we face today and the particular hopes and dreams of this generation.
The next steps are up to us. No savior will drop from behind the proscenium to set things right. The world is ours to remake. And we shall. As soon as we again declare our individual liberty from all masters.
Copyright © 2020 by Barry C. Lynn.