Monopoly and Muckraking
Gary Gerstle talks about the journalist who brought down a business empire, when Ida Tarbell went after the power of John D Rockefeller and the Standard Oil Corporation at the start of the twentieth century. Could anyone do the same to Facebook or Amazon today?
America’s foundational myth is about rebelling against monopolies: a monopoly of power in the hands of the King.
- How does an anti-monopolistic society get dominated by monopolies?
- Industrialization and the free economic environment after the Civil War created different conditions.
- The Supreme Court interpreted the 14th amendment to mean that corporations are individuals and therefore protected by the Bill of Rights.
Resistance to monopolies reached a peak during the first Gilded Age.
- Some of the resistance was political, but some of it was journalistic.
- Journalists known as ‘muckrakers’ sought to expose the practices that produced extraordinary power.
- The reports of journalist Ida Tarbell ultimately led to the breakup of Standard Oil of Ohio.
- Journalism set the tone for the progressive reform movement.
The election of 1912 was about what to do about the trusts/monopolies.
- Debs wanted to nationalize them; Wilson wanted to break them up; Roosvevelt said regulate them; only Taft carried take a stand.
- Roosevelt’s approach ultimately carried the day.
What can the past tell us about today?
- Warren is carrying forward the breakup agenda.
- Previous anti-monopoly movements took a long time; don’t expect much too quickly.
- But the sentiments haven’t gone away. And the forces that Warren and Sanders have unleashed will continue to percolate.
Mentioned in this Episode:
- More on Ida Tarbell
- A Talking Politics Guide to … the Gilded Age
- More on Elizabeth Warren’s plan to break up big tech
And as ever, recommended reading curated by our friends at the LRB can be found here: lrb.co.uk/talking
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