Monopoly’s Fallacy

Calls to break up tech giants miss the problem: monopolies are inevitable to competitive capitalism.

If you’re reading this article on a laptop, your data will have been tracked and sold to advertising bidders before you reach the end of this sentence. Tech companies have redrawn the boundaries of commerce and conquered new domains. Amazon’s Alexa lives in your home, Google’s Project Loon links remote communities to the internet, Facebook promises to connect the world and Elon Musk strives to settle another planet. The inexorable progress of capitalism’s new wild frontier seems impossible to moderate – and regulators can’t keep up.

A narrative is emerging that already feels spent. Amazon, Facebook and Google will take over the world because capitalism’s gatekeepers have allowed them to grow too big. The solution, the story goes, is to break up these monopolies and return the economy to a past incarnation, when markets were competitive and companies played fair.

Advocates for this panacea include Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and the European Union’s competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager. Both call for ‘robust’ enforcement of antitrust laws, the tools first invented to counter American banking trusts in the early 20th century. Fear of monopolies crosses right and left; for small-government conservatives, huge companies are as great a threat as an overbearing state, while those on the left fear that unchecked corporate power will ravage wages and workers’ rights.

And yet the notion that we can return to a bygone past of competitive free markets is a myth. Calling for a more competitive economy spreads a balm over a broken system and leaves monopoly’s root cause intact. Monopolies aren’t an incidental feature of a capitalism gone wrong; they’re inscribed within the logic of capitalism itself.

We’ve been here before

In the 1870s, Germany’s banks began competing for supremacy. A string of mergers in the late 1800s saw Deutsche Bank grow in value from 15 million marks in 1870 to 200 million in 1908. Commenting on Germany’s big banks, journalist Alfred Lansburgh warned that:

One fine morning we shall wake up in surprise to see nothing but trusts before our eyes, and to find ourselves faced with the necessity of substituting state monopolies for private monopolies.

Creeping expansion and aggressive acquisition had created economic concentrations. “In time the 300 men, who today govern Germany economically, will gradually be reduced to 50, 25 or still fewer”, Lansburgh wrote, adding that this trend “will not be confined to banking”.

Germany’s banks had grown from scattered and parochial companies into concentrated behemoths. This happened in part for two reasons. First, concentration enabled banks to approximate knowledge of the German market. Rather than competing blindly for unknown customers, banks like Deutsche could now preempt resources and consumer numbers. This in turn allowed them to influence market dynamics. Power begot knowledge, and knowledge spawned more power. Today’s surge pricing is analogous; Uber deploys its knowledge of resources and consumer habits to variate prices and hike its costs when your phone battery is running low.

Second, as German politician Jakob Riesser noted, the stock market had ceased to be a measuring rod of economic value. The size of Germany’s new banks meant they could influence appointments on supervisory boards and affect the decisions of regulators. By capturing and killing the indices of economic health, the banks could subtly alter the construction of value itself. Without the stock market’s semblance of objectivity in place, they evaded calculations of worth based on the strictures of supply and demand, much like the ratings agencies that caved to American banking pressure before the 2008 crash.

At the time, two Marxists, Karl Kautsky and Vladimir Lenin, disagreed about how best to approach this problem. They clashed over conceptions of ‘imperialism’ – the notion that monopolistic firms would use their size to leverage political power and divide up the world. Kautsky imagined a phase of ‘ultra-imperialism’ where capitalist companies would become so big that competition would be eliminated. Imagine Google, Amazon and Facebook joining together to create one harmonious front. For Kautsky, this phase of ultra-imperialism would be late capitalism’s peaceful stasis.

But Kautsky’s theory stumbled over limited resources and profit incentives. As long as the motive to turn a private profit exists, competition and expansion will persist ad infinitum. Firms will continue to compete for new territories to colonise, and new ways to sell us things we never knew we needed, whether it be Amazon’s invasion of domestic space, or SpaceX’s trips to Mars.

Take the “attention economy”, for example. Human attention is finite, and thus apps intent on profiting from the sale of targeted advertising will strive to command this limited resource using gameshow strategies. Twitter deliberately delays notifications with a ‘pulldown’ function designed to feel as racy as a dopamine hit from a slot machine; Facebook’s multifarious tactics momentarily zap consciousness and lull users into scrolling its inane vortex for hours.

Lenin decried Kautsky’s theory, calling it a “lifeless abstraction” and accusing him of distracting people from capitalism’s inequalities. Market competition transforms differences in resources, geography and skill into acute imbalances between winners and losers. Kautsky’s hopes for a docile endpoint flattened these antagonisms and assumed they could be shed at will. He missed how monopoly’s unshakable antecedents of competition and private profit would always be ruinous to the development of a fairer system.

Lenin thought Kautsky’s attempt to find peace when privately-owned companies held so much power was futile. Trying to remedy the problem by making markets more competitive was equally pointless. “A fight against the policy of trusts and banks that does not affect [their] economic basis is mere bourgeois reformism”, he wrote. Those who believed monopoly could be pacified while leaving competition intact missed a fundamental point. Monopolies aren’t just the incidental or unfortunate child of a capitalism gone wrong. They aren’t due to insufficient oversight on the part of regulators, to extraordinary entrepreneurial talent or amazingly innovative technologies. Monopoly is the ultimate purpose of profit-driven enterprises operating within a competitive system. To erase or pacify them would require tackling their underlying basis: competition itself.

Internet exceptionalism

Like the German banks of the 1800s, the tech companies of today premise their strategies of domination on accumulating knowledge, aggressively buying up competitors, and eschewing regulation.

Where companies have shifted towards intangibility and platforms have replaced production, data has become the promissory of global domination. As technology theorist Adam Greenfield notes, virtual assistants like Amazon’s Alexa or Microsoft’s’ Cortana are “literally listening to us at all times”, harvesting our data for commercial purposes. The idea at play here, Greenfield writes, is that of “preemptive capture… you might as well trawl up everything you can, because you never know what value might be derived from it in the future”. Today, knowledge and power still go hand in hand.

Eschewing regulation, like the German banks of the 19th century, is also a key fork in technologists’ expansion. Lengthy litigious disputes ranging from Google’s shopping case to Apple’s tax avoidance attest to tech companies’ rule-bending capacities. The bubble of startup funding also evades objective barometers. Behind closed doors, venture capitalists gallop towards slimline platforms in the hope of making a buck on the next Uber. The language of “angel” investors throwing money at “unicorn” companies embellishes this senseless picture with mythic sparkles. The ambition of young tech founders is not to create a business with longevity, but to invent a thing that showcases enough disruptive potential or competitive threat that it will be bought up by a bigger company.

We’ve been here before. Internet exceptionalism – the idea that everything is different in digital space – belies the reality that the intentions of today’s monopolies are no different from their forefathers.

Prescribing utopia

History has not been kind to Lenin’s political economy. His template became untenable; politicians are guileful, and humans never behave as socialists would like them to. Even Lenin himself had to bend theory, introducing reforms in 1922 that sanctioned a mixed economy of public and private enterprises and revealed the cracks in his thought experiment. Underlying his ideas is a deeper tension between philosophy and reality. China suggests how socialist convictions play out when constrained by a globally competitive economy. The country’s anti-monopoly law forces even state-owned companies to abide by competition’s edicts. Faced with the reality of economic globalisation, a zero-sum game means those who refuse to play by the rules of competitive capitalism risk graduating at the bottom.

Yet tackling technology monopolists by restoring capitalism to a past that never existed is like rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. For while they look much like their monopolistic forefathers, today’s technologists differ in one important regard. The resources they monetise are a public good: your data. By tracking and trading the web pages you visit, the battery level of your phone, the locations you frequent and the products you buy, technologists get rich from monitoring our daily lives.

Arguments that applying more competition to tech monopolies will mean a better deal for consumers ring hollow. Just look at Amazon: by slashing prices and subsidising products like Prime and Kindle to force out rivals, Amazon’s monopolistic intent has resulted in fantastical affordability. Those products, in turn, are conduits for building data-rich profiles of consumers’ reading and shopping habits that further bolster Amazon’s dominance. We may get low prices, but it’s clear that Amazon gets so much more.

Another common plea is that competition drives innovation. Without the pressure to compete or fail, there would be no reason to invent shiny new things that enrich the human condition. But how much does society really need a Juicero, or a $400 teapot that connects to the internet? How many of these innovations simply create expensive ways to monetise old activities, or piggyback on the resources of the state to externalise risk while privatising profit? And do the benefits of these innovations really trickle down to enable society’s poorest?

If Lenin’s insights show us anything, it is that taking on tech monopolies requires a different approach. If people spend half of their lives online, digital space needs an urban planner to manage its commons. Many have argued that data, like oil, is a common resource. Socialising technology platforms and the resources they make use of – as crazy as it might sound to those firmly embedded within the free market – is the only way to retain their efficiencies of scale and make sure they operate in the common interest.

The internet is an arena where size brings efficiencies. Comparing different products across an online marketplace demands the scale of a company like Amazon. Recategorising tech platforms as utilities would be a step forwards. The European Union already classifies networked firms – such as credit and insurance companies – as ‘public interest entities’. As Trebor Schulz foresees, while Europe may one day substitute private tech monopolies for state tech monopolies, this is unlikely to ever happen in the USA where the free market reigns supreme. In these instances, we could embrace municipalism – funding cooperatively owned platforms that reinvest profits at the local or state level. The New Economics Foundation’s proposal for a publicly owned alternative to Uber, and the networks of cooperatives that already exist in Italy and Spain, point to alternative paradigms premised on cooperation instead of competition.

Beyond regulatory fixes, we need the capacity to imagine alternatives. Many decry such thinking as pointless utopianism. That may be so, if we accept dealing with the world only as it is. Yet imagining an alternative – imagining how inventions could truly benefit society – imagining a radically different world – is the only option available when our current one looks set to cannibalise itself. A dose of imaginative utopianism is a healthy prescription that recalls the internet’s founders and their dreams of a shared egalitarian space. Rather than push for a more competitive capitalism, we would do better to critically examine how technology firms monetise public goods. Applying more capitalism is not the solution to tech monopolies – it is the problem itself.


Hettie O'Brien (@hettieveronica)

Hettie O’Brien is a researcher at Rethinking Economics and writes about political economies and cities for Jacobin, CityLab, the London Review of Books and New Socialist.