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Book Review: Goliath: The 100-Year War Between Monopoly Power and Democracy by Matt Stoller

In his new book Goliath: The 100-Year War Between Monopoly Power And Democracy, author and former policy adviser for the Senate Budget Committee Matt Stoller makes a strong case for the necessity of a resurgence in Populist anti-monopoly politics in the Democratic Party. The book is effectively a history of the rise and fall of anti-monopoly politics, and populist politics more broadly, within the intellectual and political leadership of the Democratic Party during the 20th century (and bleeding over slightly into the 19th & 21st). In this it does a solid job, providing a compelling and highly accessible narrative account of a complex, and potentially rather dry, subject matter. Outside of this focus on the upper echelons of political/economic society the book shows more serious weaknesses. 

While the book is nominally about the fight between Democracy and Monopoly Power; the Demos, the People, make very few showings. With a few exceptions (mostly concentrated in the section covering the Depression) the unions, civic organizations, farmers, and shopkeepers who are the nominal beneficiaries and backers of the anti-monopoly movement hardly make a direct appearance. Instead the action is largely confined to corporate boardrooms, academia, and the halls of Congress. As the story carries on from one administration to the next “the voters” appear every four years, drop their ballots, and then fade once more into the background. When they do appear the Demos are largely treated as the passive objects of history, reacting to the decisions made by politicians, bureaucrats, corporations, and banks and rarely taking proactive action themselves. This turns a contest for power, a question of who ultimately makes the decisions about our economy and politics, into an intra-elite competition between enlightened Populist/New Dealers and reactionary Conservatives/Neo-Liberals. 

Compounding this is the implicit assumption throughout the book that non-monopolistic corporations and small-to-medium businesses are inherently responsive and fair institutions that reflect the will and interests of their “stakeholders” (financial shareholders, owners, management, customers, employees, and local communities). Monopoly power, rather than taking an already exploitative and undemocratic economic institution (the corporation) and making it worse, is instead made out to be the primary cause of Capitalism’s threat to Democracy. Stoller ends the book with a paean to the importance of a broad ownership of property and the economic/political independence that this ownership brings as being necessary for the maintenance of a Democratic society and politics. What he fails to reckon with is how, even at the height of the New Deal and Democratic Party anti-monopoly politics, the vast majority of Americans owned no businesses or property (other than maybe the house they lived in) and instead worked for someone else for a living. Anti-monopoly politics, in and of itself, did not and will not bring meaningful Democratic control over the economy to the Working Class majority. A genuinely broad ownership of property and the means of production would require not just breaking up the monopolies but also breaking the stranglehold that capitalists and finance hold over wide swaths of the economy. In the 21st century we can’t all be yeomen. 

The book is also somewhat hampered by its insular focus on American affairs. Much of the section on the shift from New Dealism to Neo-Liberalism amongst social and economic elites reads as if this was a problem of bad ideas, of ideology. A broader look at intellectual and economic changes across the world could have shown how these changes were happening across virtually the entire developed world. This undermines the “bad idea” thesis and heavily implies that the “Neoliberal Turn” was driven by larger macroeconomic forces at a global scale. Not only the New Deal in the US but also Social Democracy in Europe saw substantial rollbacks in the mid-to-late 20th century. More so, the pushback against the New Deal/Social Democracy started almost immediately after the end of the Second World War. If this is the case why should we expect a strictly anti-monopolist program in the 21st century to be more successful or longer lasting? What’s to stop the cycle from happening again?

Nevertheless, the book is a very well-written and compelling account of the intellectual and political transformation of the Democratic Party throughout the 20th century. It is recommended, with caveats, for anyone looking to seriously tackle the political-economic issues plaguing our country today.

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