I have been posting a lot lately on democracy and capitalism, things that we ought to have in mind as we go through this general election. In both critical areas we're on the wrong path, a path already traveled by others to their peril.
This brings me to an op-ed published in The Guardian last month, "To Rescue Democracy, We Must Revive the Reforms of the Progressive Era."
At some point we need to see reality. We have embarked on another 'gilded age' of the sort that, a century ago, sparked an American political uprising, the Progressive Era.
In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville offered a prescient warning for “the friends of democracy”. In a chapter called “How Aristocracy Could Issue from Industry” he observed that industrial capitalism would create economic inequality between owners and wage-workers and divide them culturally, morally, and socially.
With the rise of industrial capital, Tocqueville feared there would be no genuine relationships between these two emergent classes. “If ever a permanent inequality of conditions and aristocracy are introduced anew into the world, one can predict they will enter through this door.”
Almost 200 years later, Tocqueville’s fears seem prescient. We live in a second Gilded Age – an era of extreme economic inequality and monopoly power. Wages for workers have been largely stagnant for a generation, while CEO pay has skyrocketed. A small number of firms now dominate many sectors of the economy. And the consequence for democracy is dire: study after study in political science shows that government is responsive to the preferences of the wealthy and their interest groups, but not to ordinary people. This creates a vicious cycle in which the wealthy and corporations can rig the political rules to benefit themselves. And the rigged system only makes them wealthier and more powerful. The danger of “a permanent inequality of conditions and aristocracy” is upon us.The author says the playbook we must follow already exists. It was written for us a century ago by American progressives of the early 20th century.
These reformers recognized that concentrated economic power – in any form – was a threat to freedom and democracy. Concentrated economic power not only allowed for localized oppression, especially of workers in their daily lives, it also made it more likely that big corporations and wealthy people wouldn’t be subject to the rule of law or democratic controls. Reformers’ answer to the concentration of economic power was threefold: break up economic power, rein it in through regulation, and tax it.
It was the reformers of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era who invented America’s antitrust laws – from the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 to the Clayton Act and Federal Trade Commission Acts of the early 20th century. Whether it was Republican trustbuster Teddy Roosevelt or liberal supreme court justice Louis Brandeis, courageous leaders in this era understood that when companies grow too powerful they threatened not just the economy but democratic government as well. Break-ups were a way to prevent the agglomeration of economic power in the first place, and promote an economic democracy, not just a political democracy.
In other sectors, however, monopoly seemed almost necessary. It made more sense to have a single telephone network in America, given the high costs of building the network and the importance of having everyone on it. So here, reformers of the Progressive Era championed public utilities regulation. Democratic control would be preserved through legal restrictions – regulation of rates, universal service obligations, and non-discrimination rules. Public utilities regulation was a way to ensure that the basic infrastructure of industrial capitalism remained under democratic control, rather than being able to control democracy. This basic infrastructure also ensured that economic democracy could flourish; small businesses and individuals thrive when they have access to the preconditions of modern life at fair terms and for a fair price.
...Theodore Roosevelt once wrote that “there can be no real political democracy without something approaching an economic democracy.” The truth is that the two work hand in hand. Political democracy helps foster economic democracy as the people work to make the country more egalitarian. And a more economically equal society feeds into political democracy, as no one accumulates so much power that they can dominate government or their fellow citizens.
Antitrust, regulation, tax, democracy reforms – these were rules that made industrial capitalism work, and kept it from destroying democracy. Even though it’s been gathering dust for decades, this Gilded Age and Progressive Era playbook is the essential starting point for reform today. We must reinvigorate antitrust laws and create a more competitive economy. This means breaking up big tech, big pharma, big banks – and restructuring and empowering the antitrust agencies so they are empowered to act with courage and vigor.The wisdom of the past bolstered by new ideas for new times.
A central lesson of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era reformers is not what they did to reform the system. It is that they had the courage and creativity to think for themselves and pursue bold reforms, persistently, over decades.
A new generation will have to adapt the old playbook to new challenges. Industrial capitalism’s basic structure is changing. As Shoshona Zuboff has argued in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, the rise of surveillance technology and behavioral targeting risks an economic revolution that turns consumers into commodities and a political revolution that could morph democracy into digital authoritarianism. To paraphrase Tocqueville, if a permanent inequality of conditions or a nationalist oligarchy come to define the next generation, they could very well enter through these doors.Don't wait to hear these ideas from Trudeau or even Jagmeet Singh. Like Scheer they're mired in neoliberalism, loyal disciples. Change will have to be driven from the bottom up, from the street. It will necessitate certain forms of civil disobedience, enough to shake up our sullied political apparatus. Here's my pitchfork. Now where did I put that torch?