American historians and corporate power

Read Gabriel Kolko’s The Triumph of Conservatism. This 1963 work was one of the first salvos in an ongoing debate about the relation between American liberalism and American capitalism. To Kolko the progressive reformers of the early 20th century were fundamentally misguided. They believed that the decline of competition and the rise of large-scale corporate enterprise was inevitable on grounds of efficiency. Kolko argued that in fact the rapid pace of economic change in this period constantly opened new opportunities for competition. Reformers may have believed they were regulating monopoly in the public interest but Kolko argued their reforms actually served to stabilise the market and protect established enterprises and enabled them to support the monopoly position that was not sustainable in a competitive economy, American liberalism was a ‘corporate liberalism’. The debate sparked by Kolko is ongoing and alternative views are represented by James Weinstein, Jeffrey Lustig, James Livingstone, Martin Sklar etc. Kolko is a man of the left but his emphasise on the links between monopoly and government could also be shared by the old free-market right. There is a literature on the drift of some populist critics of corporate power to the right as governments and unions emerged from the 1930s as a perceived greater threat to the Jeffersonian utopia, see George Packer’s story of his¬†grandfather and An Encore for Progressivism. The overall debate reveals how American historians have correctly seen the evolution of large-scale corporate enterprise as central to American history.¬†Australian historians have not, capitalists are notably absent from a recent overview textbook of Australian history.

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