Monopoly vs. the Magic Cape

Trust busting is a great idea. But would it be enough?

Will Meyer | Longreads | December 2018 | 19 minutes (4,998 words)

As Amazon attempts to wrap its strangling octopus tentacles around Long Island City and the nondescript “National Landing” — a newly renamed portion of Crystal City — in Northern Virginia, one of the words floating in the punch bowl of our popular vernacular to describe the firm’s unchecked power is “monopoly.” The “HQ2 scam,” as David Dayen dubbed it, was never an act of good-faith competition, but rather a cunning scheme to collect data about cities all over the country: What infrastructure did they have? How many tax-breaks was the local (or state) government prepared to hand over to the richest man in the history of the world? What would they do to accommodate a massive influx of professional-class tech workers? The spectacle of the publicity stunt was gratuitous, to put it mildly, but it was also beside the point. In Dayen’s formulation, as Amazon expands from two-day to one-day or same-day delivery, the company will need more infrastructure everywhere. From Fresno, California, to Danbury, Connecticut, at least 236 cities stumbled into Amazon’s HQ2 flytrap: submitting bids — bargaining chips — for the company to use in its quest for monopoly.

The story of HQ2 isn’t about Amazon’s superior products, or even benefit to consumers, but instead how the company is the current poster boy (poster behemoth?) for the unchecked political and economic power of tech giants. Amazon has the ability to drive out rivals, to engage in dirty tricks — like the HQ2 scam — due to its size and inertia. One need look no further than the Forbes billionaire list to see evidence of the damage caused by forgoing antitrust action against tech companies. Zuckerberg, Gates, Bezos are all high on that list. The white collar cops in Washington haven’t bothered them for the most part (they did go after Microsoft enough to scare them in the late nineties, but that was the last serious case), basically allowing these firms to scoop up competitors and amass as much power as they please.

Between 1997 and 2012, 75 percent of American industries became more concentrated, repeating what happened around the turn of the twentieth century when in the span of nine years — 1895-1904 — 2,274 firms merged into 157.

Today’s gross inequality — and creep towards fascism — rests, at least partially, on the failure to revive the trust busting spirit of the Progressive era; or so argues Columbia Law Professor and New York Times op-ed writer Tim Wu in a compelling, snack-sized book just out from Columbia Global Reports. The Curse of Bigness accomplishes a lot in a mere 140 pages. Primarily, and at its strongest, it traces and celebrates the political history of antitrust enforcement in the United States from the 1890 Sherman Act to the present. Indeed, The Curse of Bigness responds to slides toward populism, both on the left and right, by pointing to the economic success of government-regulated “open and competitive markets” over the course of the 20th century in the United States (and elsewhere) while still advocating for strong antitrust laws, as well as their tougher enforcement, as necessary for keeping those markets functioning smoothly and equitably.

Wu lays out the stakes early. He says that the first Gilded Age (we now live in the “New Gilded Age”) “has taught us [that] extreme economic concentration yields gross inequality and material suffering, feeding an appetite for nationalistic and extremist leadership.” He goes on to suggest that “the road to fascism and dictatorship is paved with failures of economic policy to serve the needs of the general public.” The book — as well as a recent op-ed by Wu — point to Hitler’s “tolerance” for monopoly “in key industries,” such as armaments, chemicals, and railroads, as evidence of this correlation. In this light, Wu poses the question that drives his book: “Are extreme levels of industrial concentration actually compatible with the premise of rough equality among citizens, industrial freedom, or democracy itself?”

In Wu’s telling, between 1997 and 2012, 75 percent of American industries became more concentrated, repeating what happened around the turn of the twentieth century when in the span of nine years — 1895-1904 — 2,274 firms merged into 157. The drift towards monopoly produced magnates of the Gilded Age, like J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, and Andrew Carnegie. “The monopolists of the Gilded Age preferred to think that they were not merely profiteering, but building a new and better society,” Wu recounts, “characterized by the rule by the strong.” This view, as he notes, isn’t all that different from those espoused by libertarian-tech-capitalist Peter Thiel, who believes that monopoly “drives progress” and that “competition is for losers.” (Thiel, true to form, is a connecting tissue between Amazon and the federal deportation apparatus, given that his company, Palantir, helps ICE with data logistics. So much for the shallow promise of freedom from Thiel’s ilk; Palantir stores the fate of undocumented people on Amazon’s cloud, Amazon Web Services — which, for what it’s worth, is bigger business for the company than its sprawling retail empire — helping the state and its co-conspirators in the private sector carry out dirty deeds no liberal-minded/anti-fascist person would approve of.) And if those historical continuities weren’t persuasive, perhaps most saliently, as Wu points out, monopolists favored a laissez-faire, Social-Darwinist mindset, by which many of them opposed state intervention except in one area: “eugenics campaigns meant to cull the physically and mentally disabled, and thereby help speed up the coming of the new age.” Which isn’t far off from big tech’s complicity in the rise of fascism today: from Nazis weaponizing social media to Amazon helping ICE and allowing the Proud Boys to use its platform to sell merchandise, little has changed.

Beyond delineating the dangerous — frankly, terrifying — ideologies driving the build towards bigness, Wu’s history aims to suggest that there is a different path. Wu points to lawyer and Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis, who coined the phrase “the Curse of Bigness,” as the source for the book’s inspiration. “This book aspires to resurrect and try to renovate the tenets of the Brandeisian economic vision,” he writes. As Wu recounts, Brandeis, born in 1856, grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, which had a political economy — small, diverse, and decentralized — that his life’s work would seek to protect and promote. Brandeis believed that in order to have any semblance of a political democracy, there had to be a degree of economic democracy as well. “Men are not free,” Brandeis wrote, “if dependent industrially on the arbitrary will of another.” Thus, as Wu suggests, “Brandeis saw real freedom as freedom from both public and private coercion,” believing that both big business and big government posed grave threats to personal freedom and democracy.

Teddy Roosevelt, according to Wu, was the first “courageous” government official to take on the trusts in the form of breaking up dozens of firms, notably J.P. Morgan’s railroad monopoly and Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, by way of the Sherman Act — the first antitrust law, which Roosevelt was the first to enforce in earnest. His premise for enforcement was not to break up capitalism or even “bigness” wholesale like Brandeis — Wu notes that Roosevelt actually admired the majestic accomplishments of these titans in a way — but rather to further the premise that the trusts must “obey the state,” that regulation of the economy must be in the hands of a representative government and not in the hands of an “industrial oligarchy.” Wu describes Roosevelt as the first trustbuster, the “archetype” of the powerful government official “unafraid of the massive private power represented by the trusts, the incorruptible sheriff of economic justice.” He elaborates that “the trustbuster mantle would be something like a magic cape…passed down through the generations.” Other such trustbusters would go on to include Roosevelt’s successor William Howard Taft, Justice Department official Robert Jackson, and Supreme Court Justice Thurman Arnold. These magic cape wearing trustbusters would use the power of the Sherman and Clayton acts, among others, to regulate the economy till mid-century, by which point it went undisputed that antitrust legislation — and, more critically, its enforcement — was a necessary component of Western democratic norms.

Monopolies can become inefficient and resistant to innovation that could challenge their dominance. A good example of this… is AT&T blocking the implementation of things like answering machines and other telephone accessories.

In many ways, antitrust laws and their enforcement have been a large success. From the first monumental breakups of Standard Oil, which Wu chronicles at length, to noting that over one hundred trusts — including railroads, AT&T, and U.S. Steel — were subject to enforcement during the Gilded Age, Wu demonstrates the usefulness and effectiveness of antitrust in breaking monopoly and taming corporate power. Not only did Gilded Age enforcement prove the supremacy of the government over the trusts but it also led to a healthier political economy. As Wu and others, such as Barry Lynn, have noted, monopolies can become inefficient and resistant to innovation that could challenge their dominance. A good example of this that Wu discusses in the book is that of AT&T blocking the implementation of things like answering machines and other telephone accessories. That being said, even when federal authorities didn’t actually enforce antitrust laws, the threat of enforcement was often enough to get trusts to behave; a good example being the aforementioned Microsoft case, which Wu explicates at length.

But as soon as consensus was formed around the need for antitrust regulation in a country like the United States, it didn’t take long for right-wing ideological sabotage to dilute antitrust laws, altering their meaning to this day. As Wu elucidates in the second half of the book, by the seventies, a Chicago School lawyer named Robert Bork stood at the center of unmaking the tradition pioneered by Brandeis and Roosevelt. Bork, starting on the fringes, argued that antitrust laws should focus on “consumer welfare” instead of ensuring competition. Explaining how this standard shifted, Wu writes, “the government or plaintiff had to prove to a certainty that the complained-of behavior actually raised prices for consumers.” Wu chronicles how, as Bork moved the goal posts for understanding antitrust laws, their enforcement began to slip as well. By the time Bush II illegitimately took power, antitrust’s fate was sealed, with Justice Scalia writing in 2004: “The mere possession of monopoly power, and the concomitant charging of monopoly prices, is not only not unlawful; it is an important element of the free-market system,” thus cementing consumer welfare — Bork’s standard — as scripture.


Kickstart your weekend reading by getting the week’s best Longreads delivered to your inbox every Friday afternoon.

Sign up


Wu is clear from the onset about the limits of antitrust as a cure all for economic inequality. In the book’s introduction he concedes, “It is true that antitrust alone will not cure the curse of bigness or eliminate the excesses of private power.” “But,” he likewise suggests, “it strikes at the root, and getting the engines of law restarted is an important part of dealing with a problem that has reached Constitutional dimensions.” “Constitutional dimensions” is Wu’s legal-jargon way of saying that the threat posed by excessive private power is a direct affront to the freedoms the Founders hoped to enshrine. Indeed, in the book’s first chapter, as well as the conclusion’s final paragraphs, Wu invokes the American revolution as “being defined by resistance to centralized power and monopoly,” suggesting that: “The original Boston Tea Party was, after all, really an anti-monopoly protest.” Which, to an extent, is somewhat true, but not a definitive picture. As Cornell legal scholar Aziz Rana and others have put forth, while the American Revolution sought economic independence from the Crown for some (a slaveholding elite with hopes of western expansion against the wishes of the Mother country and the native peoples who lived on those lands) it was hardly an uprising against monopoly on behalf of the common people, many of whom (such as slaves, native people, women, and non-property owners) were excluded in many ways, if not totally, from the “democratic” power structures the Founders framed a government to uphold.

Highlighting the American Revolution as a type of origin story for America’s “anti-monopoly” history obscures a different, more radical movement which was far more influential on the anti-monopoly tradition celebrated in The Curse of Bigness. In the middle clause of a sentence praising Justice John Marshall Harlan’s trust busting bonafides, Wu references “the agrarian and populist spirit behind the Sherman Act’s creation.” This is the only mention of the Populist social movement and political party — later termed the People’s Party — which Rana’s 2011 book, The Two Faces of American Freedom, along with others like Lawrence Goodwyn’s 1978 The Populist Moment, helped to chronicle. While the movement of white Southern farmers who cooperated politically with black interests never realized its vision and ultimately splintered after racist pushback from the at-the-time very racist Democratic party as well as over internal divisions, the “agrarian revolt,” as Goodwyn put it, directly confronted the trusts of the day, notably banks and railroads. The Populists called for the breaking up of monopolies among other demands — like cooperative banks, ballot initiatives, the direct election of senators — that would further economic and political democracy. The Populist movement, as The Nation would later note, ultimately shaped the course of history from the Progressive era onwards. Where the American Revolt against the British Crown sought to preserve elite democracy from the top-down, the Populist movement, at its best, aimed to take power from the bottom-up. And, more to the point, the populist movement was responsible for encouraging the passage of the Sherman Act, the law on which Wu’s history of enforcement rests.

As soon as consensus was formed around the need for antitrust in a country like the United States, it didn’t take long for right-wing ideological sabotage to dilute antitrust laws, altering their meaning to this day.

As Rana elucidates, the Populists were not the first to articulate and fight for a radical and inclusive democracy, but rather their political commitments along with their timing — as elites were consolidating power and moving towards a more expansionist, imperial politics — solidified their significance. “Precisely because Populist arguments developed prior to the victories of today’s structural and ideological arrangements, they therefore suggested an alternative direction for the American project — although one that ultimately was not pursued,” Rana writes, adding, “They imagined a new industrial society, nonhierarchical and popularly controlled, in which farmers and wage earners set the terms for economic and political decision making. At its peak in the 1890s populism challenged the hegemony of the two established parties and presented the very real possibility of the collapse of the Democratic party in the South — an outcome that would have been unthinkable just years earlier.” Likewise, as The Baffler’s Chris Lehmann suggests, “the institutionalized system of postbellum white supremacy in the South came in response to the threat of the cross-racial class alliances that Populists sought to build — not as an outgrowth of any pre-existing bigotries on the part of Populist leaders.” Adding, “It’s not that the Populists were losing status in the South after Reconstruction had been dismantled; it’s that they were gaining political power on an explicit platform of cross-racial solidarity to combat the market forces that were dispossessing poor white and black tenant farmers alike.” Which is all to say, given the forces they were up against — not just an entrenched and corroded political class doling out steep inequality, but also attacks on voting rights and various schemes to bait racism into the movement — the fact that Populists achieved what they did was no small feat.

Wu likely knows that the Populist movement (“spirit”) was responsible for building up the pressure on politicians that led to the passage of the Sherman Act, but he hardly says as much. (Likewise, it takes a lot of P.R. spin to reframe a settler empire built on slavery and genocide as emancipation from monopoly— which isn’t to say that’s not exactly how the revolutionaries themselves spun it.) Fundamentally, however, the way Wu positions this history testifies to the political and economic bedrock on which both The Curse of Bigness and the antitrust movement more broadly rest today. Obscuring the Populist movement downplays the role of compromise in producing the first antitrust laws. As Nathan Schneider explains in The Nation, “Like any policy doctrine, antitrust was born out of compromise — in this case, between the robber barons and the people organizing to resist their excesses.”

In fairness to Wu, it is worth noting that he is clear about both the book’s limitations and his ideological preferences. In the introduction, he writes: “this book is far less radical than it might be. It is actually a call for a middle path.” Although it isn’t made clear in the book, Wu suggests on a podcast with The Verge that antitrust is a type of technocratic compromise between capitalism and socialism — which is why he supports it. This view is no different from that of Senator Elizabeth Warren who, for example, is eager to break up tech firms but also wants to “save capitalism.” This view is gaining ground as a new survey released by The Intercept shows that “attacking monopoly can be stunningly good politics,” since a vast majority of Americans believe corporations are too powerful. Likewise, new research from the Open Markets Institute, an anti-monopoly think tank, shows that concentration is rapidly solidifying in several sectors of the economy as calls to take on monopoly become louder.

Still, by situating the problem as a battle between “bigness” and “smallness,” a focus on antitrust enforcement obscures thornier conflicts: between workers and bosses, capitalism and other economic arrangements, and so on. As Temple law professor Brishen Rogers argued earlier this year, in an essay titled “The Limits of Antitrust Enforcement” for the Boston Review, “More aggressive antitrust enforcement probably won’t do all that much to help workers, since the problem of employer power runs much deeper than monopsony (markets with only a single buyer), covenants (basically indentured service), and other restraints on workers’ mobility” that result from monopoly. While Wu does rightly note that economic concentration can have detrimental effects for workers — larger firms are able to “drive workers harder and longer for less money,” “abuse” non-compete agreements, and hire part timers, etc. — he doesn’t acknowledge that during the early days of antitrust law, these laws were used against labor unions to make organizing more difficult. “Industrial workers’ only means of improving their lot was to create a cartel, fix prices for labor, and exert economic pressure on anyone who refused to accept their terms,” Rogers notes, explaining that: “Before modern antitrust, employers often described unions as ‘labor trusts,’ cast their efforts as ‘civil conspiracy’ under state law, and obtained broad judicial injunctions against strikes and boycotts that thwarted organizing.” It wasn’t until the early ‘40s that the courts finally granted labor immunity from antitrust prosecutions, Rogers says.

Situating the problem as a battle between ‘bigness’ and ‘smallness’… obscures thornier conflicts: between workers and bosses, capitalism and other economic arrangements.

Unsurprisingly, as the Open Markets Institute’s Sandeep Vaheesan noted in the Law and Political Economy blog, these types of exemptions — that were initially used to stifle workers unions — are still being used in the same manner to this day:

Exploiting this gap in the law, the FTC has filed many lawsuits against associations of independent contractors for “restraint of trade.” As I describe in a forthcoming article, targets of the FTC’s anti-worker enforcement include doctors, ice skating coaches, music teachers, organists, and public defenders who aimed to raise their incomes through collective bargaining or codes of ethics that restrained competition among members. In light of these enforcement actions, antitrust is a real threat to the 20 million and growing workers classified, or misclassified, as independent contractors. Given the costs of defending against antitrust investigations and lawsuits and the potential for crippling damages, antitrust looms over efforts by all independent contractors to develop collective voice as workers.

Rogers is right to “worry quite a bit about a broad-based anti-competition mandate in the wrong hands”; as he notes, “That authority could be used to thwart all sorts of innovative worker organizing by vulnerable workers, a disproportionate number of whom are non-citizens or people of color.” As such, in addition to the industries Vaheesan names, Schneider reminds that antitrust law is being used against Uber workers — ”contractors” — today. But instead of engaging the use of antitrust against workers’ efforts to organize, Wu takes a different tack in describing such a power imbalance: He suggests that large concentrated companies have an easier time lobbying the government than the amorphous “middle class,” which Wu calls “disorganized,” but leaves it there. The argument frames the problem as access to the legislative process and tiptoes around the idea — or existence — of organized labor entirely. Here’s Wu:

Concentrated industries have good reason to invest in political influence. Consider, by contrast, the problem of collective action that faces “the middle class,” a large group with some 100 million members. A middle-class tax cut might save each member $500 a year. However, it might also require someone to invest $50 million to lobby and ensure passage of that tax cut. As the math makes clear, there is no individual member of the middle class that has the incentive to make that investment. Even if it were just a $20 million lobbying price tag, there would still be no investment. This is the problem with collective action, and it predicts that large groups — the majority — will often be losers in the legislative process.

Adrift on a theoretical framework that sets “bigness” ever in opposition to its inverse “smallness,” this not only floats right by the idea of worker unionization and collective bargaining, but also past other systems and ideas that address both bigness and ownership. As many examples have shown, the idea that in order to have competition — or decentralization — there must be capitalism doesn’t stand scrutiny. Take, for example, worker co-ops such as the Mondragon cooperatives in Spain. Or try the innovative idea of platform cooperativism — that runaway tech monopolies should be converted into co-ops owned by their users. At the very least, corporations could be required to have workers’ representatives make up one-third or even one-half of the corporate board, a typical approach in Germany and one favored by American voters in polls. And of course there is a larger debate over whether or not the trusts should be nationalized — something Wu makes clear he is against.

“It would be an exaggeration to suggest that antitrust provides a full answer to either inequality or other economic woes,” Wu writes in the book’s introduction. “Advocating antitrust revival is not meant to compete with other economic proposals to address inequality,” he says. While it’s hard to argue that antitrust laws aren’t one of the better weapons to wield against corporate power, seeing the problem through rosey-eyed nostalgia for Teddy Roosevelt and Louis Brandeis, in addition to restricting the spectrum of possible solutions, also makes it harder to see how power has metamorphosed into something that is much harder to locate — and, for that matter, resist — in an ever globalized and financialized world.

While the bigness of firms such as Amazon and Facebook do make sense in relation to their historical parallels, the problem of concentrated corporate power is still significantly different from what it was one-hundred years ago. One reason is what academics and economists call “financialization,” which, in its simplest sense, means that more of the economy is owned and managed by the “financial” sector and a growing share of wealth is created through financial means. Wu kind of eludes to this shift in a footnote, but doesn’t spell out its implications with any depth. The example he cites, like others such as CUNY economist J.W. Mason, is that of airlines, which often have the same institutional owners and therefore are not really competing. Yet as Mason argues, the shift to financialization means more than just increased consolidation, because financialization regulates the economy differently: by policing how firms operate, thus ensuring that they maintain a model of “shareholder primacy” in which money continues to trickle up to the wealthy. This type of cross-firm policing is achieved through a concentration of power in the hands of shareholders rather than companies: As Mason notes, “in 1999 less than 20 percent of firms in the S&P 1500 had a substantial shareholder in common,” in 2014 90 percent did. It is doubtful, especially given its ideological proclivities, that a middle-of-the-road antitrust movement can reign in investors.

Workers at [tech] firms are leading the fight both for better working conditions and, critically, towards reorienting the American project away from war, surveillance, and policing.

Another example is the weaponization of international trade agreements by international bodies that are difficult to hold accountable democratically like the IMF and World Bank. Take, for instance, a common clause of such agreements called “international state dispute settlements,” which allow corporations to sue governments if a law might potentially threaten their future profits. These cases are governed by the panels of international bodies rather than the courts or laws of the countries in question. As In These Times noted, “Unlike the common law systems in place in the United States and Canada, international arbitration panels do not have to follow precedent.” International state dispute settlements (ISDS) were initially pioneered by a group of German businessmen in the fifties as a way to protect investments in countries that were gaining independence from colonial powers. These laws have been used (and abused) all over the world. One egregious example — though there are many — was when an Alberta-based firm (that was legally located in Delaware) sued Quebec over a fracking moratorium. These kinds of pro-corporate terms embedded in trade agreements like NAFTA and the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) pose the same threats to political democracy that drive Wu’s book, but likewise cannot be reigned in by antitrust enforcement.

War-making and imperialism pose another such threat, something which Teddy Roosevelt is known for as well as his magic-cape trust-busting. For their part, as Rana notes, the Populists loathed the imperialism of the Gilded Age, understanding that enriching corporations abroad would be an affront to democracy at home. And it is in this context, Rana writes, that Roosevelt repositioned American identity: affirming the expansionist, settler project as an American birthright. In other words, in contrast to the Populist movement which, according to Rana, understood that “conquest opened up new markets for industrial profits and promoted the need for a large standing army, permanently ready when called upon to suppress labor mobilization,” Roosevelt sought to tame that analysis by putting forth an alternative vision. In 1899, Roosevelt gave a speech at the Hamilton Club in Chicago:

I wish to preach, not the doctrine of ignoble ease, but the doctrine of the strenuous life, the life of toil and effort, of labor and strife; to preach that highest form of success which comes, not to the man who desires more easy peace, but to the man who does not shrink from danger, hardship, or from bitter toil, and who out of these wins the splendid ultimate triumph.

As Wu explains, “[Teddy Roosevelt understood] that ignoring economic misery and refusing what [the Populists] wanted would drive demand for more extreme solutions, like Marxist or Anarchist revolution” — a possibility about which Roosevelt was no doubt keenly worried after 1901, when he became president because McKinley had been shot by an anarchist; Roosevelt’s goal was as much to stifle labor’s momentum as it was to solve inequality. It is in this context, and once the Populist movement (later the People’s Party) and some of its leaders, notably Tom Watson, had pivoted from egalitarian self-rule to white supremacy, that the figleaf of antitrust enforcement is born.

Ultimately, Wu is very clear about his aims: he wants a compromise, not unlike Teddy Roosevelt did. In the book’s conclusion, Wu proposes a “Neo-Brandeisian Agenda” to revive antitrust enforcement for the age of tech monopoly. All of Wu’s proposals — better merger reviews, democratization of the merger process, taking on bigger cases, more break ups, and “market investigation and breakup rules” — would do a great deal to improve the state of antitrust enforcement. But while Wu’s blueprint for taking on antitrust from the inner echelons of federal law enforcement urged by the magic cape wearing, benevolent and “incorruptible sheriff[s] of economic justice” à la Roosevelt might appeal to someone inside the beltway, it is  — again, as Wu admits — a far cry from more radical calls for true economic democracy and self-rule. It begs the question: is antitrust enforcement going to be enough to check corporate power?

Vaheesan argues that for antitrust to be relevant and useful it must center workers, which today, under Bork’s “consumer welfare” standard, it does not. “A durable progressive antitrust must invert the prevailing ideology and permit cooperation among workers (and the powerless in general) and condemn the consolidation and monopolization of capital by ‘the economic royalists,’” he writes. This requires a fundamental shift that not only reconciles “bigness” and “smallness,” but also capital and labor, imperialism and peace, and a more robust reorientation of the American project — towards something more in line with the Populist’s (original) vision and less like the carrot Roosevelt trotted out to temper it.

Today, antitrust enforcement’s reincarnation as a way of taming concentrated corporate power has yet to occur, whereas workers are having some success with alternative methods. From Somali warehouse workers in Minnesota forcing Amazon to negotiate to tech workers at Amazon, Google, and Microsoft resisting the imperial projects these companies are involved in, workers at these firms are leading the fight both for better working conditions and, critically, towards reorienting the American project away from war, surveillance, and policing. “True worker power isn’t delegating the task of changing society to elites, but doing it ourselves,” writes RK Upadhya, a member of the Tech Workers Coalition, a group fighting big-tech’s more disturbing entanglements with big government. Workers are taking the reins in resisting Google’s “Project Maven” and pushing against Microsoft and Amazon’s collaborations with ICE (and law enforcement more broadly with Amazon). The campaign slogan “tech won’t build it” not only flexes worker power but also stands to constrain the aims of these corporations who will stop at nothing to increase their reach and revenue. Like the Populists understood in the first Gilded Age, workers today are clear: to kick bigness we also must confront the excesses of empire in order to create political and economic self-determination for all.

* * *

Will Meyer is a writer and musician. He is editor of The Shoestring, a local online publication in Western Massachusetts.

Editor: Dana Snitzky