Since the Civil War and the industrialization of the United States in the late nineteenth century, the corporate monopoly, or trust, has been a central problem in the ongoing struggle between capitalism and democracy.
From the railroads to Microsoft, economists tend to explain the formation and persistence of trusts as the inevitable result of basic capitalist processes of accumulation and centralization (such as mergers and acquisitions).
Given the extraordinary economic power of amassed wealth, a monopoly is able to overcome—if not dictate—what are generally held to be basic market forces such as pricing, distribution, and demand.
But on a political and even moral level, large sectors of U.S. society have historically viewed trusts, and the hugely powerful plutocrats who dominate them (J. P. Morgan or Bill Gates), as a vast economic conspiracy destined to subvert competition, undermine democratic freedoms, and enslave society.
Beginning, perhaps, with Andrew Jackson’s fight against the Bank of the United States before the Civil War, U.S. popular politics has maintained a deep distrust of centralized economic power. Many historians have pointed out how the belief in free competition has long been an essential moral and political component of the national identity and Americans’ sense of individualism.
Following the tremendous economic growth fed by the Civil War, northern industries—led by the railroads—expanded and restructured themselves into the first modern corporate enterprises.
Fueled by major innovations in banking and finance capitalism, single incorporated entities began to seize hold of entire industries like steel, oil, shipping, lumber, tobacco, textiles, and beef. Headed by a board of trustees and owned by stockholders, the new corporate trusts generated so much capital that they easily subsumed the smaller, family-owned or proprietary capitalists.
Shortly before his assassination, Abraham Lincoln is alleged to have warned the nation of the growing power of the trusts: “I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country .... Corporations have been enthroned, an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money-power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until the wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed.”
At their origins, the modern corporation was seen by union members, poets, and politicians alike as predatory, insatiable, totalizing in its influence, and rapidly growing beyond the power of even the growing federal government to control.
By the 1880s many Americans believed that Lincoln’s warning (or, at the very least, the quotation mistakenly attributed to him) had come to pass and the “incorporation of America” was complete. The Gilded Age had given birth to the “Robber Barons,” a plutocracy of capitalists like J. J. Hill, Andrew Carnegie, J. P. Morgan, and John D. Rockefeller.
The previously unimaginable personal fortunes of these few (Rockefeller was the first billionaire in the world) were proof of the severe inequalities produced by the trusts. On a political level, these “Lords of Industry” seemed simply to pull the necessary strings and the powers of state and civil society would bend to meet their every need.
To combat this awesome threat, a wide range of popular social movements spread across the country: labor unions, farmer’s cooperatives, populists and socialists, middle-class reformers, and a new breed of investigative journalists, known as Muckrakers. Together these voices demanded that some limit be placed upon the power of centralized capital.
In 1890, Congress tried to co-opt this popular cause by enacting the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. In the words of Senator Sherman himself, this law was needed because “the popular mind is agitated with problems that may disturb the social order.” In the language of the law itself, the Sherman Anti-Trust Act declared illegal “every contract, combination in the form of trust or otherwise, or conspiracy, in restraint of trade or commerce.”
With this phrase, the Sherman Act seemed to give voice to the popular perception of trusts as criminal conspiracies as well as vast political conspiracies destined to restrain freedom. However, in the court of law this wording is so deliberately loose that many historians believe that the Sherman Act was never really designed to effectively limit capital accumulation at all.
In fact, during its first several decades of enforcement, the “conspiracy in restraint of free trade” clause of the Sherman Act was more frequently used to ban labor unions than it was to ensure competition among their employers.
By the Progressive Era, every individual area of industry was colonized and dominated by an “interlocking directorate” of trusts. “The Trust Question” was the political problem of the day.
In a carefully calculated gesture to popular demands, several politicians including Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson effectively pitched themselves as “trust busters.” Wilson especially made his bid for the presidency with the conspiratorial rhetoric of the antitrust movement, asserting that “an invisible empire has been set up above the forms of democracy.”
Upton Sinclair, a committed socialist, attacked the dangers behind beef trust in his novel The Jungle. Muckraking pioneer Ida Tarbell grew famous through her scandalous exposés of the competitive secrets (such as blowing up their competitors’ wells) of the Standard Oil corporation.
And political cartoonists loved to depict trusts as an enormous octopus or as a giant plutocrat grabbing for power. Of course, though some changes were made, it would take decades for the Justice Department and the courts to break up effectively such obvious monopolies as the U.S. Steel Company or Rockefeller’s Standard Oil.
In the years after World War I, the Sherman Act was successfully used to break up several major trusts, including Standard Oil and the American Tobacco Company. In its day-to-day function, the Sherman Act proved far more effective as a regulatory statute, preventing mergers and corporate conspiracies before they could occur.
In the latter half of the twentieth century, two of the biggest trusts effectively busted were the motion picture “Studio System” and AT&T. And while these antitrust actions have been decidedly nonconspiratorial, the 1990s witnessed the return of the giant corporate trust conspiracy in the form of the Clinton administration’s antitrust case against Microsoft.
Whether or not Microsoft constitutes a conspiracy in restraint of free trade, there is certainly no shortage of people around the world (mostly hanging out in Internet chatrooms) who would argue that Microsoft and its sinisterly geeky chairman represent a vast conspiracy to take over the world—or at least the computer software market.