Returning to a Gilded age does not bode well for society and its democracy

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There was a time when we worried about the detriments of online shopping. Today, we’re worried that labour unrest at Canada Post will delay delivery of our Amazon purchases.

Brick-and-mortar retail has indeed taken a beating, but just like the stream of cheap crap from China, we’re more concerned with price and convenience than with the loss of jobs and local revenues.

Some of that is a natural evolution – if anything to do with the march of corporatism can be called natural – that saw the rise and fall of downtown main streets at the hands of malls, which were in turn supplanted by big-box stores. All forms of traditional retail are now prey to online shopping, most notably Amazon, which has about half of the online market.

That shoppers are searching for better deals – especially in the face of crappier jobs, stagnant pay and exploding housing costs – isn’t surprising. It’s another symptom of predatory, monopoly capitalism. Amazon and its social media counterpart Facebook are examples of the worst kind of robber-baron capitalism that emerged in the Gilded Age that led to the Great Depression and, eventually, tougher laws to temper the worst effects of an unchecked economic system.

The deregulation and corrupt politics that took off in the 1980s courtesy of corporate lobbyists and an unparalleled propaganda effort that continues to this very minute have culminated in a mirror of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

“America’s Gilded Age of the late 19th century began with a raft of innovations – railroads, steel production, oil extraction – but culminated in mammoth trusts owned by ‘robber barons’ who used their wealth and power to drive out competitors and corrupt American politics,” argues economist Robert Reich, a former Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration and now an outspoken advocate for change.

“We’re now in a second Gilded Age – ushered in by semiconductors, software and the internet – that has spawned a handful of giant high-tech companies.”

He maintains the major culprit is big tech firms and their sweeping patents, data, growing networks, and dominant platforms that are barriers to new entrants.

The solution is the resurrection of antitrust laws.

“It is time to use antitrust again. We should break up the high-tech behemoths, or at least require that they make their proprietary technology and data publicly available and share their platforms with smaller competitors.”

While the corporatism and resultant fascist tendencies aren’t as pronounced on this side of the border, we’re on the same path. We need both the economic and democratic reform Reich and a host of others advocate.

Those who argue that regulation only hinders capitalism – often the same people who wrongly equate capitalism with democracy – miss the point of a so-called free market. The idea of a free-market economy is to let the market decide what will be made and in what quantity, rather than the central planning of the communist system, for instance. It doesn’t, however, mean free from regulation. How many people would argue that business should be “free” to use slaves or child labour? That was once the case in the West, but has been regulated out of the mix.

Once we’ve established that the market is an artificial construct that we’ve devised, we’re free to shape it in such a way that it provides only benefits to society, not harms. The deregulation that fuelled the corporatism of the last few decades – think of the rise of globalization, monopolies and oligarchies and the resultant decline in our quality of life – followed a postwar boom that was shaped by a market system that was devised with the broad public in mind. It wasn’t perfect by any means, but far more equitable than is the case today. Deregulation killed that. New regulations controlling the excesses of the financial sector are needed to put us back on track. The same goes for removing corporate influence in the political system.

The Depression-era safeguards have been steadily rolled back under an avalanche of political donations, payoffs and propaganda. The assault on the public good really picked up steam under Reagan, Thatcher and, here, Mulroney. Governments have largely abandoned public protections against monopolies.

Just how bad things have got can be seen in new data released this week by the the Open Markets Institute — a U.S. anti-monopoly think tank — that shows a shrinking number of companies involved in the market share of a number of sectors. Google, for instance, controls 91 per cent of the $60-billion search engine industry; four firms control 53 per cent of the $218-billion meat processing business; three companies control two-thirds of car rentals, a $40-billion business; two players – Google and Apple – control 99 per cent of the smartphone operating systems; and the list goes on, sector by sector.

“Due to extreme concentrations of wealth and political power, our country is experiencing severe economic inequality, stagnant household income, the collapse of business formation and innovation, and historic levels of political polarization. This report shows that such concentration is not unique to one or two economic sectors. It is persistent across a diverse range of industries,” the organization notes in releasing the first set of data this week.

“[M]onopolistic corporations often present themselves as champions of consumer choice. But while it may appear as though there are endless brands to choose from online and on the shelf, most are owned by a few large parent companies, the array of labels a mere façade creating the illusion of abundant options.”

The U.S. is leading the charge on deregulation and a lack of oversight of bad business practices, including mergers, acquisitions and monopolistic practices, which are pursued as eagerly as deficit-causing tax cuts under the current regime. Joining in that race to the bottom, the Trudeau government is making moves to reduce corporate taxes following Trump’s lead, a tit-for-tat call that began before the ink was even dry south of the border.

“The economist Karl Polanyi understood that there are two kinds of freedoms. There are the bad freedoms to exploit those around us and extract huge profits without regard to the common good, including what is done to the ecosystem and democratic institutions. These bad freedoms see corporations monopolize technologies and scientific advances to make huge profits, even when, as with the pharmaceutical industry, a monopoly means lives of those who cannot pay exorbitant prices are put in jeopardy,” Chris Hedges writes in a column this week. “The good freedoms – freedom of conscience, freedom of speech, freedom of meeting, freedom of association, freedom to choose one’s job – are eventually snuffed out by the primacy of the bad freedoms.”

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