Sign up to receive The Commons posts in your inbox.

The Bully Platform

natanaelginting - stock.adobe.com

The Tyranny of Big Tech, by Josh Hawley (Regnery, 200 pp. $30)

Since his election in 2018, Senator Josh Hawley has distinguished himself by his broad-ranging criticism of Big Tech. In his new book, The Tyranny of Big Tech, he attempts to revive the spirit of trust-busting exemplified by Teddy Roosevelt against the companies he identifies as modern-day robber barons. While it falls short as an analysis of present-day American monopoly policy, the Missouri senator’s latest book constitutes a spirited, even landmark, political statement and call-to-arms for a deeper shift towards vigorous republicanism in the American conservative movement.

Hawley begins with a rousing and readable history of the rise and fall of republicanism against “corporate liberalism” through the Gilded Age and into the Progressive Era. It centers on the railroad conglomerates and the ensuing political debate over how to regulate them. Hawley frames this debate as a struggle between competing conceptions of liberty, with Presidents Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson acting as avatars of this battle. Woodrow Wilson stand in for a liberaltarian view that tolerates the concentration of private power as long as it does not infringe on individual choice, while Teddy Roosevelt is portrayed as the champion of a vigorous liberty of self-government and independence vouchsafed by robust government action against concentrated power and wealth.

After an excellent summary of the evolution of American political economy through the nineteenth century, Hawley presents TR as the man who said “No!” to corporate concentration—beginning with a literal White House confrontation with the titanic J. Pierpoint Morgan in 1902. He makes much of Roosevelt’s proposed, though not accomplished, anti-trust regulations and presents him as an inveterate defender of the Founders’ yeomen republicanism against corporate power.

It is hard to square this portrait of TR as “the last republican president” and defender of the common man with that of Hawley’s 2008 intellectual biography of Roosevelt. There Hawley paints a far more ambiguous picture of TR’s attitude towards monopoly and of the Roosevelt-Wilson contrast:

“Theodore Roosevelt thought business combinations were natural products of an evolutionary process….The Populist’s agrarian ideal, the republican vision of small, independent producers, failed to move him. He had been a child in the country’s greatest industrial city, after all. He felt no personal commitment to a small-scale economy and not much sympathy for the Sherman Act’s (to his mind) misguided attempt to turn back the march of industrial progress.”

This TR is more skeptical of antitrust power and regulation than many Progressives and hostile towards the Sherman Antitrust Act—though happy to use the power it gave him. While Hawley makes much of Roosevelt’s 1902 antitrust lawsuit against J.P. Morgan’s Northern Securities Company in Tyranny, he declines to include the context he offered in the earlier biography: that Morgan’s sin, per Roosevelt, was not the size of the merger but its explicit attempts to skirt state regulators.

Hawley brushes over this critical point with broad strokes in Tyranny. Roosevelt believed that government must punish monopolies with a view to the rightness and wrongness of their behavior, whereas Wilson believed that properly regulating competition would allow market forces to work out moral questions, which government had no business addressing. TR’s republicanism was thus assertively moral as well as economic. As Hawley admits at the end of the chapter, Roosevelt never quite figured out how to square moralistic, big government republicanism necessary in “an age of combination” with “the right of the common man to rule.”

Hawley brings a similar attitude to bear when he turns his attention to the present. He offers a concise indictment of Big Tech—a term he never precisely defines, but uses in practice to mean Facebook, Google, Twitter, Amazon, and Apple—and catalogs its sins against the American economy, society, and body politic that call for bringing it to heel: First, that the internet in general and social media platforms, in particular, are a social and psychological menace, designed for and funded by addiction and attention. Second, that Big Tech firms have been unapologetic monopolists, building unassailable market advantages by buying competitors, seeking unearned rents, and defending their position with aggressive lobbying. Third, that these companies are modern-day robber barons seeking to rapaciously control and remake both the economy and the country—and thus to be broken up TR-style.

On the first two points, Hawley writes with clarity and power. He links directly the psychological and social harms of digital life to the very business model of Big Tech. But the book stumbles in making the case that these companies have systematically undermined our economic or political system. He ultimately falls back on the historical analogy, writing in the closing chapter that “Big Tech looms as large as any corporate power in American history, as large as the railroads from a century back.”

The railroad conglomerates should serve as a fitting analogue to Big Tech, where all of the information in an information society “rides the rails” of controlled networks. Yet the more one thinks about corporate concentration today, the less persuasive one finds the analogy. At his height, Rockefeller was four times as rich as Bezos is today. In 1913, the Pujo Committee calculated that JP Morgan Chase bankers sat on the boards of companies accounting for 85% of the market capitalization of the New York Stock Exchange. While Big Tech companies are now the biggest political spenders in Washington, they hardly have more sway over politicians than any of the big money lobbies did in the past. It is hard to deny the looming threat of plutocratic tyranny, but Big Tech seems to be an unduly narrow explanation for it.

So if this central contention doesn’t hold up to scrutiny, how to explain Tyranny?

Perhaps it is not, in fact, about tech at all. Hawley does not mention technology companies with serious monopolies, like in the semiconductor or cybersecurity industries. Nor does he focus on corporations with substantial market power and domineering behavior, like Oracle or Microsoft. Instead, he focuses on companies controlling information—namely Google and Facebook. And so, the book’s title not-withstanding, the heart of Hawley’s argument is about information and media, more than technology as such. With an argument at times redolent of Herbert Marcuse’s about concentrated power foreclosing dissent at the level of discourse itself, Hawley’s project centers on the control of civic discussion as the central battleground between republicanism and technocracy.

Hawley is at the vanguard of putting these observations into practice within Republican politics, linking GOP paranoia about censorship and repression to the institutions exerting undue influence over American political discourse. But in the struggle to organize a political movement, like TR’s, that can counter-balance corporate liberalism with American nationalism, Hawley must win an intra-party ideological battle: to persuade GOP voters, wonks, and politicians to abandon their comfortable commitment to a purely small-government, non-interventionist approach.

His first step is to wrest everyday Americans from the stupor and distraction created by the Internet-media complex and to ensure that those channels remain open to the counter-cultural message of nationalism and republicanism. Midway through the book, Hawley telegraphs this motive in a brief sketch of the American people’s growing dissatisfaction with globalization, corporate liberalism, and implicit oligarchy at the dawn of the 21st century, before the rise of Big Tech. He speculates that, while Big Tech promises the American elite a renewal of their institutional power and control, it may lead to the downfall of the whole system as Americans call it into question.

From this perspective, the book stands out as a timely political statement. It is most concerned not with the threat of corporate concentration to republicanism (dire though it is), but with the degradation of civic virtue towards tyranny, defined best by Plato as the rule of the lower appetites over the higher reason. Big Tech companies may not be financially dominant, but they do exercise tremendous power over the formation of Americans’ appetites and ideas. Digital media sap Americans of the focus and energy necessary to re-assert themselves as political actors. For those not already sedated by doomscrolling or the numbing hours of a Netflix binge, it is still easier to rant online about political correctness than to organize at the local level.

Hawley shares Roosevelt’s horror at the way in which liberty-as-individual-autonomy can lead to nothing more than the liberty of the strong over the weak. But he also sees, in corporate liberalism, a stultifying blanket. The essence of “combination” in the Gilded Age was the end of competition, the very force that the Founders believed would ensure the continuing renewal of the republic. While TR maintained a respect for the titans of industry who cobbled together fortunes with pure will and resolve, he abhorred the impersonal, unaccountable, spirit-less corporate structure they left in their wake.

The most severe danger, by this view, is not the robber baron but the monoparty of national elites controlling every part of the economy, society, and political system and now engineering control of national discourse itself. Against this threat, every resource must be brought to bear. And to do that, Hawley and others must persuade conservatives to take up the mantle of republicanism against monopoly once again, even if it means fudging the footnotes.

Return to the Commons

Jonathan Askonas is assistant professor of politics at the Catholic University of America and a fellow at the Center for the Study of Statesmanship.

A Collective Cure to Privacy Threats

Firmin DeBrabander | Aug 11, 2021 | Big Tech

Privacy is another major casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic. Governments instituted expansive surveillance programs to enable contact tracing and corral the disease. Many of these programs are here to stay, as citizens get used to them or welcome them to avoid future quarantine and lockdowns. More generally, the pandemic accelerated our growing dependence on digital […]

Don’t Leave Social Media Regulation to the Platforms—Bring in the FCC

Marshall Auerback | Jul 22, 2021 | Big Tech

Coming to terms with the importance of free speech means coming to terms with the reality that free speech will sometimes be used for abhorrent purposes. We protect bad speech on the grounds that the alternative—censorship—is even worse. But the rise of social media as both a powerful distribution framework and disseminator of content has […]