Review of Break ‘Em Up, by Zephyr Teachout

Review of Break ‘Em Up by Zephyr Teachout

By Polly Cleveland

For over twelve years I backed up our three family computers to a cloud service called Mozy.com. Friendly interface, about $60 a year per computer. Then in February last year, Mozy vanished, replaced by something called Carbonite, at over double the price. Too busy to deal with it, I let it pass. But this May, Carbonite began sending urgent messages, “80% of capacity used. Add storage to avoid interruption.” What? That would have cost a few hundred more dollars. On checking, I found I had been moved into their “Safe Pro” service for small business up to 20 computers, instead of their “Safe Home” at half the price with unlimited storage. After a month of tough emails and phone calls, Carbonite relented and downgraded me to “Safe Home.”

Two takeaways: First, I realized that Carbonite probably switched me to “Pro” because they knew I could easily afford it. How? Because e-commerce knows everything about me. Well-heeled professionals live in fear of such sneaky rip-offs. Is Amazon showing me higher prices than it would to a shopper in Allentown? Is Uber adding a markup to my fare? How could I know? Second, I found that Carbonite is engaged in a “roll-up”, in which a private-equity financed niche company seeks to buy up or force out all the competition in order to create a monopoly. Roll-ups in the pharmaceutical business have sent prices of vital generic drugs so high that diabetics are dying for lack of insulin.

My little dustup with Carbonite hardly compares to the way powerful US monopolies and oligopolies screw less fortunate people. That’s the theme of Zephyr Teachout’s chilling and infuriating new book, Break ‘Em Up: Recovering Our Freedom from Big Ag, Big Tech, and Big Money.

She begins with “chickenization.” Three processors, Tyson, Pilgrim’s Pride, and Perdue, have divvied up the American chicken market between them. Chicken farmers have no choice but to sell to the one who “owns” their geographical area. That processor dictates where they get their chicks, how they build their chicken houses, what feed and medications they give, and when they deliver their fattened birds. Farmers must blindly accept whatever prices the processors give them on delivery. They are banned, on pain of being cut off, from comparing prices and conditions with other chicken farmers. In short, chicken farmers lead the lives of medieval serfs, or worse, because at least the serfs could complain to each other about the lord!

Chickenization isn’t just for chicken farmers. Grain farmers are serfs to Archer Daniels Midland (the buyers), Monsanto (supplier of seeds and fertilizer), and John Deere and Caterpillar (equipment). Chickenization isn’t just for agriculture. It’s long been the business model of Walmart, and more recently of Amazon. These behemoths constrain their suppliers, specifying details of products, limiting their distribution, changing prices at will, and punishing those who resist or complain by cutting them off. Uber chickenizes its drivers and deliverymen. McDonalds chickenizes its franchisees, even requiring them to make their employees sign “non-compete” agreements, so they can’t switch to working for Burger King.

Monopoly damage extends beyond chickenization: it has destroyed journalism, especially local journalism. Twenty years ago, there were lots of local newspapers. Many operated on a shoe string, funded by local business ads, reporting police blotter of course, but also misdeeds by local officials and bigwigs. The local businesses are now mostly gone, rolled up by chains. Remaining advertising dollars now go to precision-targeted ads on Amazon or Google or Facebook. (When I looked up cotton T-shirts on llbean.com on my desktop, and then picked up my cell, up popped H&M T-shirts.)

Big corporate monopolists’ roll-up of small businesses has also weakened a major source of support for Black activism: Black-owned businesses and Black business associations. It was indeed Black business persons who led and helped fund the desegregation efforts of the 1960s. Growing monopolization also explains the wage mystery that so long baffled most economists: Until forty years ago, wages and productivity rose together. Then, as productivity continued to rise, wages stagnated.

Worst of all, flush with monopoly profits, large corporate PACs increasingly control politics. Teachout reports that when she ran for Congress in New York’s 16th district in 2016, her real opponent wasn’t Republican John Faso, who won. Rather, she was massively outspent by mystery PACs who even used a body double—a woman who looked and dressed like her—to misrepresent her agenda.

To defeat monopoly, we must BREAK ‘EM UP, conceptually simple, but politically unattainable without a mass movement. During the New Deal, FDR successfully used old anti-trust laws like the 1890 Sherman Antitrust Act and the 1914 Clayton Antitrust Act and new laws like the 1932 Glass-Steagall Banking Act to break up monopolies and shrink the power of finance. But starting with the Reagan Administration in the 1980s, and continuing under Democratic administrations, enforcement slowly ground to a halt. Bill Clinton eagerly presided over the repeal of Glass-Steagall. We need new laws too, reforming campaign finance, raising taxes on the wealthy, and banning the secret information-gathering that sent me a plague of T-shirts.

In 2009, journalist Barry Lynn sounded a lonely alarm with Cornered: The New Monopoly Capital. Ten years later, Barry and the daughters and sons of Barry—Zephyr Teachout, Lina Khan, Matt Stoller, David Dayen, Gilad Edelman, Franklin Foer, Phillip Longman, Tim Wu and so many others—have captured the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, including Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders and the redoubtable Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. If the senator from the Corporate State of Delaware triumphs in November, progressives will drag him to an aggressive new New Deal.

Review of Thomas Frank’s “The People, No”

By Polly Cleveland

These days the major media fill with denunciations of populists. They are the ignorant people who rally to the standards of far-right fascists like Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines or Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil or Marine Le Pen of France. Or to a supposed leftist demagogue (but in fact democratically elected) Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela. In the US, they are Donald Trump’s loyal “deplorables” or Bernie Sanders’s “Bernie Bros.” They are racist, sexist, xenophobic, suspicious of expertise, contemptuous of those who disagree with them, resentful of privilege, backward-looking, quick to mob violence. In short, populists represent a rising danger to democracy.

Taking his title from Carl Sandburg’s book-length Depression-Era poem, The People, Yes, Thomas Frank proposes that anti-populists pose the real threat. Modern scholars and media have the story backwards.

Frank begins with the largely-forgotten Populist political party. The Populist, or People’s Party, founded in Kansas in the early 1890s, was the last serious effort to form a national third party. It drew together the Farmers’ Alliance, which promoted collective action by farmers, the Greenbackers, who sought a fiat currency instead of the gold standard, labor organizers like Eugene Debs and Terence Powderly, advocates of votes for women, followers of utopian novelist and activist Edward Bellamy, and followers of economic reformer Henry George.

Most of the reforms on the Populist platform sound familiar today and would eventually happen. The Populists called for regulation of the banks and public ownership of railroads. They proposed to end the gold standard, which harmed famers and other debtors by causing steady deflation. They called for direct election of senators, votes for women, a graduated income tax, and the eight-hour work day. To achieve these objectives, the Populists sought to create a coalition between midwestern famers and city workers. Even more radical, poor white farmers in the south allied with organizations representing poor black farmers. Far from disparaging knowledge, the Populists believed in education, publishing millions of pamphlets and setting up reading and discussion groups among farmers and workers. Above all, the Populists believed that an alliance of ordinary working-class people could take control from the moneyed elite.

In the 1892 presidential election, won by gold-standard supporter Democrat Grover Cleveland, the Populist candidate won four states. In 1896, responding to the growing Populist movement, the Democratic Party dumped Cleveland and nominated a passionate gold standard opponent, the young William Jennings Bryan, to run against Republican William McKinley. The Populist Party with some trepidation threw in behind Bryan. That simply terrified the railroad magnates, bankers and other robber barons. It petrified the bourbon Democrats who ruled the South. As Bryan barnstormed across the country on a platform of free coinage of silver, the Republican establishment mounted a massive campaign of disinformation and intimidation that would have made Karl Rove proud. Bryan and the Populists were murderous beasts, they said, seeking mob rule like the French revolutionaries a hundred years before. (Frank has posted some great cartoons.) Bryan lost disastrously and the Populist Party collapsed, though it continued a while competing in local elections. The first anti-populist campaign succeeded magnificently.

While the Populist Party foundered, populist ideas nonetheless filtered into the Progressive movement, and into corners of the major parties. In the early 20th century, Teddy Roosevelt (1901-1909) began to enforce the 1990 Sherman anti-trust act. He supported labor unions and denounced big business. Under Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921), Congress established the income tax (affecting only the wealthy), created the Federal Reserve to tame the boom and bust cycle and passed the 19th Amendment giving women the vote. Populist enthusiasm and lawmaking reached a peak in Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal era from 1932 to 1940 with the establishment of a host of regulatory agencies, strong labor laws, Federal deposit insurance, Social Security, vigorous anti-trust enforcement and decisive reining in of the banks with the Glass-Steagall Act. Anti-populists complained bitterly that Roosevelt had betrayed his class, but to no avail.

In the broad prosperity following World War II, populist enthusiasm waned while anti-populists quietly regrouped in the US Chamber of Commerce, University of Chicago, and new right-wing think tanks. By the 1970s, as Frank documents, many scholars were reinterpreting populism in negative, pessimistic terms. These included historian Richard Hofstadter, famous for his book The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1964). Following the shocking election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, liberals and centrist Democrats increasingly became a party of the educated elite. They clucked their tongues at the benighted and bigoted classes who listened to Republican racist dog-whistles and hypocritical religiosity, wondering why these people couldn’t see their economic self-interest.

That was the question Frank posed in his 2004 best-seller, What’s the Matter with Kansas? and again in Listen Liberal (2016). His answer remains the same: Democrats have forgotten that they were the party of ordinary working people. That was painfully obvious in Hilary Clinton’s “deplorables” and before that in Barack Obama’s excruciating remark to wealthy donors about how residents of Midwestern small towns “get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them…” In true populism, ordinary folks stand together against powerful and unaccountable elites. Centrist Democrats have joined those elites. They have become scolding, condescending anti-populists. In so doing, they have left the door wide open to Republican faux-populists of whom Trump is only the latest and worst.

Frank quotes historian Lawrence Goodwyn that to build a movement like the Populists of the 1890s or the labor movement of the 1930s, one must “connect with people as they are in society, that is to say, in a state that sophisticated modern observers are inclined to regard as one of ‘inadequate consciousness.’” (Emphasis in original.) Only by practicing “ideological patience,” said Goodwyn, can one build a hopeful and powerful movement. Let’s pray the growing progressive wing of the Democratic Party can develop more of that patience.

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In his account of the Populist Party, I wish Frank hadn’t omitted an important part of the story. The Populists substantially overlapped with the Georgist movement, starting in 1879 with the publication of Henry George’s worldwide bestseller, Progress and Poverty. That was one of the main books that those Populist study groups were reading. It was George who gave the Populists their sophisticated understanding of economics and helped convince them they could change their lives by taking control of government through the ballot box. The anti-populists were equally enemies of George, making sure that his classical economics were replaced by new-fangled neoclassical economics which put working people back in their lowly place.

Interested readers may want to check out the three-part interview Paul Jay (formerly of The Real News Network) did with Thomas Frank about his book: https://theanalysis.news/uncategorized/thomas-frank-on-populism/.

 is an adjunct research scholar at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.