Toward a 21st century democratic-republic: Beautiful Losers talk monopoly power with Matt Stoller

  
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Hi! Welcome to episode 10. We’ve got something special for our 10th episode. For those dying to hear Part II of our discussion on Peter Sloterdijk and cynicism, it will come out on Monday. Matt was kind enough to join us this week and we didn’t want to delay the episode.

This week your Beautiful Losers talk with Matt Stoller, author of Goliath: The 100-Year War Between Monopoly Power and Democracy. It goes without saying that you should order a copy from your local bookstore. He’s also the author of the famous 2016 Atlantic article “How the Democrats Killed their Populist Soul.

Matt Stoller is the director of research for the American Economic Liberties Project, a think tank that focuses on anti-monopoly policy solutions. The AELP is non-partisan and non-profit, and they are supported financially from a mix of foundation grants and individual contributions. They receive no support from corporations.

Goliath grounds its intellectual and moral framework in both democratic and republican traditions of thinking while simultaneously criticizing key missteps on both sides of the aisle. Its chief insight is a historical argument about how conceptions of political economy have changed over the course of the 20th century. Spoiler alert: the populist democrats of the early 20th century are, in Stoller’s account, replaced by democrats who facilitate a tremendous consolidation of monopoly power—this internal transformation is both a reflection of broader postwar economics as well as a failure to nurture the legacy of early 20th century democratic populism. As Stoller argues, this transformation suggests more than mere differences in generational politics across time. Rather, this is a seismic shift within a theory of government and political economy. Appropriately enough, this history of American finance appeals to people from a broad range of political backgrounds and identities. There are conservative republicans who oppose monopoly and there are progressive democrats who oppose monopoly. One of the central figures of the book is Wright Patman, an early 20th century Texas congressman who stood up to monopoly power. Patman’s journey, and his eventual removal by the democrats in the wake of the Nixon resignation, offers a critical parable to understand how these political economic transformations trouble our pat distinctions between the political Left and Right.

A couple of themes emerged during the course of our conversation. First, Stoller’s analysis of monopoly as a power formation within the political economy allows one to reorganize political discourse vertically, rather than horizontally. This means that instead of organizing issues around “right/left” partisan terms, which are arbitrary and tend to shift from one generation to the next, we can organize issues around the idea of monopoly itself—how it empowers some at the expense of many regardless of political affiliation.

Organizing politics around monopoly gets to the heart of what it means to have a government that works for broad social and national interest. Pro-monopoly conservatives deftly make the case that “smaller government is better” by appealing to the many ways that government is a hinderance and an annoyance. Their argument reduces a complex issue to a simple rhetorical question: “why do you want to give more power to an incompetent organization, like the federal government?” This is a deft argument because it elides the question of accountability by framing the issue around services. According to this logic, corporations are better service providers, therefore they should be allowed to act freely. This argument does not attend to the problem of accountability. If a politician governs poorly, you can vote them out of office. The only accountability that a corporation faces is from its shareholders/board or its government via regulation. If you work under a system of monopoly power, there is simply no recourse you have, as an individual, to make that system more economically competitive or diverse. This is why organizations like the AELP are important, but their success depends on their ability to appeal to a base broader than a single political party. 

Second, we consider the ways that monopoly and democracy are oppositional structures of power. By power we mean that force which organizes, enforces, and establishes systems of order. In this sense, corporations and government represent different systems of power. If government does not regulate corporate power, then corporate power will continue to expand by taking on more monopoly-like features. To put Stoller’s challenge in pragmatic terms: if government is going to regulate monopoly, it has to do so in a way that also delivers social and economic good to the people. The legacy of the new deal is not merely financial regulation, but major public investment in infrastructure and the individual advancement of all citizens.

Finally, we think about what a more sustainable political economy could look like in the 21st century. Matt surprised both of us by offering Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican party as an alternative—only this time without racism. Grounded in a concept of individual freedom, economic ownership, and local production, this party appeals to a broad set of values around which Stoller wants to organize a new politics. We found this idea especially intriguing, so much so that after Matt left we continued to sketch out some of the features of what this party could look like.

For us, the appeal to a historical formation like the democratic-republican party highlights the challenge of a global capitalist system. In many ways, the current corporate ecology can be understood as a predictable outcome from the post-war system of global capital, ratified at The Bretton Woods Conference in 1944. Matt frames this issue early in our conversation by observing that our society has become one of consumption rather than production. He’s right. But part of that is priced into a global system where the U.S. dollar stands as the global reserve currency, effectively requiring that the U.S. consumes more than it produces. The challenge, then, can be understood in the following terms: how can a production-based political economy, like the democratic-republicans, emerge within a global financial system that all but requires a federal trade deficit? We’re eager to puzzle over this problem and are looking forward to the next time Matt can join us to continue this conversation.