Just been listening to a terrific conversation on the ‘Talking Politics’ podcast between the host, David Runciman, and Gary Gerstle (who is the Mellon Professor of American history at Cambridge1) about the great campaigner and journalist Ida Tarbell — the woman who brought down John D Rockefeller and his company, Standard Oil.
The conversation left me musing about why (and how) Tarbell (and her fellow ‘muckrakers’) managed to get so much traction with the American public?
One reason was outrage at the way ordinary smallholders were driven out of business by Rockefeller & Co. (Remember, as David Runciman pointed out in the podcast, that in the early days drilling for oil was what small farmers did in Pennsylvalia.) You could drill for your own oil, but if you needed to get it to market you’d have to pay freight rates determined by the railway monopolist — and beat the prices that Rockefeller could set. So even small folks felt the heat.
Another was that the idea of ‘monopoly’ had unique historical resonance for American citizens: it was linked in the public mind with the American revolution — seen in part as a revolt against the charter-granting proclivities of the English Crown.
Also, the rise of new industrial Titans was seen as a challenge to the American dream — of how lowly immigrants seeking a better life in the New World could flourish by their own efforts with no monarch or grandee to stop them. The big trusts could therefore be portrayed as an attack on the very idea of what the US was supposed to be — and thus as a threat to its democracy.
As a result, Tarbell and her peers may have been preaching to people who were ripe for conversion. At any rate, public hostility to the monopolists of the first Gilded Age seems to have flourished and spread. This was manifested in the 1912 presidential election, for example, where the three main candidates were extremely hostile to the monopolists, though in different ways.
Turning to the present…
The contemporary tech giants are also a threat to democracy but in rather different ways. This means that they might be more difficult to bring under democratic control. Apart from anything else, there is much less public outrage about them than there was in 1912 United States. Among the reasons for this public lassitude are:
- the nature of the threat is more indirect and requires a relatively sophisticated mental model of democratic essentials to be properly appreciated
- Unlike in late 19th-century America, the contemporary public benefits from — and enjoys using — many of the services provided by the modern monopolists (think WhatsApp, Skype, YouTube, Instagram, Facebook); in the late 19th century the benefits to the public of the great wealth and power being accumulated by the Robber Barons were less obvious or perceived as non-existent; the new tech titans may not look like middle-aged bastards in Homburg hats, but they are just as ruthless and acquisitive
- there’s little public understanding of the implications of the implicit Faustian data-bargain that users have struck with the surveillance capitalists
- official reactions to digital monopoly have been neutered by a combination of neoliberal ideology, Chicago Law School judicial thinking and tech lobbying.
- Rockefeller, Carnegie, Vanderbilt, Morgan & Co had operations mostly concentrated in a single jurisdiction. Their Trusts were not global operations in the way that modern transnational corporations are.
Since the shocks of 2016 we have seen the growth of a degree of public unease about the dangers of our current generation of Robber Barons (the so-called ‘techlash’). We see this, for example, in the presidential campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren at the moment. And there is also some evidence of tech-disaffection on the Right in the US. But the diagnoses and remedial policies that are being discussed seem inchoate, incoherent and unlikely to be fit for contemporary purpose. And — most importantly — there is, as yet, no sign of the kind of public outrage that would motivate serious political action.
One final historically-inspired thought. It took about 35 years for the public outrage that was manifested in the 2012 election to find its full expression in legislation in FDR’s first term as President. Gary Gerstle attributed much of the delay to the length of time it took the US Supreme Court to change its collective mind on some of the key issues involved. That problem remains— maybe in more acute form if Trump gets re-elected. So if anyone is hoping to see rapid and effective control of our current monopolists, they will need the patience of Job.