Culture and Monopoly


WHAT would Teddy Roosevelt do? I know I’m not the only arts observer who wonders where the anti-trust boys — the Department of Justice, for instance — are when a tech company takes over an enormous share of a culture industry. Amazon owns about two thirds of the market for digital books, for example, and the DoJ ruled in favor of them in a recent case involving old-school publishers (and Apple.)

And we’re seeing something almost as twisted as this as Google intimidates independent labels with its YouTube music-streaming service. In most of these negotiations, the tech companies hold all the cards, and can do nearly whatever they want.

How did cultural monopoly get so pervasive, a century after TR’s trust-busting? Two recent stories help clarify things a bit.

The first is a really excellent piece by Steve Coll in the New York Review of Books. It’s ostensibly a review of Brad Stone’s book on Amazon, The Everything Store. On the antitrust front, Cool says, things have changed significantly since the 1940:

Since then, politics and antitrust jurisprudence have shifted to favor consumers and large corporations at the expense of small producers. On the political left, a consumer rights movement emerged in the late 1960s as a response to dangerous automobiles and corporate pollution. That movement gave consumers priority over small businesses in challenging powerful corporations. On the right, free-market ideologists built think tanks and long-term legal strategies to defeat business regulation of all kinds and to reduce the scope of antitrust enforcement from its expansive Progressive-era origins.

From the Reagan presidency onward, the right succeeded remarkably. Large corporations perfected their lobbying power in Washington while small businesses like bookstores and corner grocers watched their political influence and their hold on the American imagination fade. The United States today presents a more bifurcated economic landscape of empowered, atomized, fickle, screen-tapping consumers and the globalized, often highly profitable corporations that aspire to serve them.

In Europe, he writes, things are different, with small businesses exerting real political pressure. “Crucially, these patterns of resistance to the digital age’s speed-of-light patterns of creative destruction,” he writes, “have a political foundation—they are popular at election time. This is not the case in the United States, which lacks a politics favoring small- and medium-sized cultural producers, whether these are authors, journalists, small publishers, booksellers, or independent filmmakers.”

Please — read this story.

The second is a very different piece, a conversation between Salon columnist Thomas Frank and Barry Lynn, the author of Cornered, a book about the return of monopoly to American life. They discuss a wide range of topics; this is Lynn on our favorite bookseller:

Amazon now essentially governs business within the book industry. Amazon has so much power that it virtually gets to tell really big companies like Hachette, the French publisher, what to do. You’re gonna sell this book at this price. You’re gonna sell that book at that price. That means Amazon pretty much has the power to determine how many copies of a book a publisher might sell. That’s not citizens trading with one another in an open market setting those prices, that’s a giant corporation setting those prices. Which means what we are witnessing in the U.S. book industry, I think, is a form of top-down government.

Overall, this is one of he biggest issues in 21st century culture, and neither major political party is doing anything to address it.

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  1. says

    I recently tried to explain to a completely disbelieving, amazed classroom full of seniors and graduate students that only a few decades ago the U.S. government broke up the phone company because it was too big and monopolistic….nothing about that makes sense to the reality of 2014. It’s hard to imagine anything institutional standing in the way of Amazon, Google et al, since culturally the very concept of the right of government to regulate capitalism is essentially gone. I’m sure the pendulum will swing eventually, but it’s hard to see when or how that will happen.

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