ourEconomy: Opinion

Breaking corporate monopolies is the only way to save democracy

OPINION: Tackling our most pressing problems will require taking back the enormous power held by the 1%

Nick Dearden
22 March 2023, 3.40pm

The world’s five biggest corporations collectively earned more than the income of the poorest two billion people


Mark Ralston, Getty Images

A few months into his presidency, Joe Biden signed an executive order to promote competition in the American economy saying: “We’re now 40 years into the experiment of letting giant corporations accumulate more and more power […] I believe the experiment failed.”

While those might seem unlikely words from the once centrist champion of corporate trade deals, Biden’s speeches – peppered with broadsides against “big agriculture”, “big tech” and “big pharma” – today sound closer to Britain’s former Labour shadow chancellor John McDonnell than Hillary Clinton

There are many reasons for Biden’s stance on monopolies. The profound shock to America’s liberal establishment of the Trump presidency and the popularity of Clinton’s one-time opponent Bernie Sanders have certainly shifted the dial.

But there is also deep recognition that we live in an economy captured by incredibly wealthy and powerful corporations, almost to the point where they threaten the stability of the system.

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While the world is battered by a cost of living crisis even as it recovers from the worst pandemic in a century and struggles to cope with the effects of climate change, the profits of the biggest 500 firms on the planet nearly doubled, exceeding $3trn in 2021. At $38trn, their combined income amounted to nearly 40% of the world economy and more than the GDP of all but the very richest countries taken together. 

The five biggest corporations together earned more than the income of the poorest two billion people – or nearly a quarter of the world’s population. And a single corporation, Walmart, earned more than half a trillion dollars or at least $1.5bn every day, while Apple’s profits rocketed to $95bn. 

The reason is the growing concentration of corporate power. In many sectors, a handful of massive companies have cornered the market, meaning they are free to set prices, whatever the circumstances. 

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Recent analysis by Harvard University, The University of Chicago and the Leibniz Institute for Financial Research found the top 1% of US corporations account for an astonishing 81% of business sales and 97% of business assets. The top 0.1% alone account for 88% of corporate assets and 66% of sales.

Between 1995 and 2015, 60 US pharmaceutical companies merged and became just 10. Some 25 years ago, 10 corporations controlled 40% of the global seed market; today it is just two.

Google enjoys an 85% share of the global search engine market, while Amazon, Microsoft and Google together have 65% of cloud infrastructure services. Here in the UK, just three companies own 90% of the national newspaper market, up from 71% in 2015. 

This has been exacerbated by a new aristocracy of finance, with the largest shareholders in all major transnational corporations increasingly made up of the same enormous investment funds. Just three of them – BlackRock, Vanguard and State Street – are the largest shareholder in 495 of the 500 largest US corporations.

In an economy where access to capital is the highest priority, these corporations have enormous power. As Farhad Manjoo says in The New York Times: “Their rise has come at the cost of intense concentration in corporate ownership […] in the future, about a dozen people at investment firms will hold power over most American companies”.

All of this doesn’t simply mean we pay higher prices. Rather, democracy itself is eroded by monopoly capitalism. 

We’ve been told that we live in a gigantic marketplace, where no central authority gets to make decisions and everyone can express their deepest desires by buying things.

Our economy can be reshaped in the public interest by mobilising a broad movement against monopolies

In reality, leaving major decisions ‘to the market’ means leaving them to big business. But these decisions are deeply political in nature: what should society make, for whom and how? Who should get these products and services and on what terms? 

Corporate concentration grants big business outsized political influence and lobbying enables them to create rules to exacerbate their power. For instance, intellectual property monopolies or fiscal policies to lower tax liabilities.

Anti-corruption campaigner Zephyr Teachout believes privatisation of these political decisions and the governing power afforded to corporations not only makes corruption more likely, but is corruption itself.

Biden’s response to the problem of monopoly power is inadequate, but this is a moment with huge potential for positive change. Our economy can be reshaped in the public interest by mobilising a broad movement against monopolies, which people are more hostile to than, say, the free market.

Within that movement, there are different schools of thought.

Some, like the Balanced Economy Project, are putting their efforts into radical antitrust work, breaking up the cartels, preventing mergers and reinventing competition policy.

Others want to push for the nationalisation of natural monopolies, transform the global trade rules that hold these monopolies in place (think People’s Vaccine challenge to medicine monopolies), or promote alternative means of organising society, such as the inspirational food sovereignty movement. 

Still others want to tackle individual monopolies by bringing different interest groups together, as with Make Amazon Pay. And at a local level, in the US, there are dozens of examples of local initiatives fighting big business. North Dakota has struggled to maintain a local banking sector and 39% of Cleveland’s procurement budget has been shifted to local businesses.

The important thing is to see ourselves, in whatever work we do, as part of the fight to transform our economy, in recognition that monopoly capitalism can’t be beaten by a single method.

Monopoly capitalism has shifted power from the 99% to the 1% and undermined our democracy, making it harder to tackle our most existential crisis – climate change. Only by reclaiming, breaking, decentralising and dispersing this power can we hope to make democratic decisions that are in the public interest.   

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