Competing Theories

In “No Going Back” [February 3], Gabriel Winant’s essay on my book Goliath: The 100-Year War Between Monopoly Power and Democracy, Winant dismisses the anti-monopoly tradition as a keystone of the New Deal. Unfortunately, to make his case, he relies on mischaracterizations.

Winant’s central critique is that I frame “antitrust activists in the New Deal as the entirety of that project’s egalitarian thrust.” Not so. From veteran marches to rural electrification, Social Security, fiscal policy, and unionizing Alcoa, I point out many different actors and tools central to the New Deal project.

He claims I neglect the role of class and labor, leading me to wonder whether he read the section titled “A Worker Democracy” or the many references to labor. Or perhaps he skimmed over lines such as “We can no longer depend upon prosperity coming from the billionaire class,” from Texas Representative Wright Patman, or missed the arguments about class I noted from Alexander Hamilton, Andrew Mellon, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Louis Brandeis.

Winant bristles at the rejection of a fundamental antagonism between labor and capital. I find the conflicts were more complex than a simplistic dialectic. One chapter is about battles between anti-chain-store advocates and the A&P supermarket chain, similar to the conflict over Amazon today. It highlights the way small stores pressured A&P into cutting a deal to unionize. Winant suggests I don’t realize that I hit upon a nerve at the heart of the New Deal, that I disdain unions as opportunistic. That’s just not the argument. Higher wages at chain stores helped workers and created a better competitive environment for small stores.

There are many other mischaracterizations. Why, he asks, do I refuse to grapple with Patman’s Southern heritage, considering the South’s legacy of white supremacy? Notwithstanding that nearly every social movement in American history has been racist and that I do discuss race, many anti-monopolists I featured, like Brandeis, Hubert Humphrey, FDR, and Emanuel Celler, lived in the North.

The list goes on. Winant breathtakingly calls the argument that the Chicago School was influential a “conspiracy theory,” ignoring intellectual history that doesn’t fit into his dogmatic Marxist framework.

Winant has one useful contention. He sees an egalitarian America in the 1950s, a land of unionized giants, of “monopoly capitalism.” Yet in that era, 57 percent of America’s GDP came from small business; Eisenhower had antitrust suits against General Electric, Westinghouse, RCA, US Steel, DuPont, AT&T, IBM, Alcoa, and more.

Blindness to the anti-monopoly tradition has eroded the left’s ability to participate in meaningful political disputes. In 2010 the proposal to break up the banks didn’t come from the left but from a former head economist for the International Monetary Fund, Simon Johnson. Similarly, it is entrepreneurs and populists going after Big Tech and Chinese economic coercion.

While Marxists like Winant read out of history the dangers of centralization, it’s important for those of us who realize something has gone wrong with our corporate structures to learn the history of corporate power, even if it uncomfortably challenges our assumptions.

Matt Stoller
washington, d.c.

Gabriel Winant Replies

The nub of my critique of Goliath was that the book represents anti-monopoly as a historically universal rather than specific program and fails thereby to distinguish between sometimes contradictory elements of past progressive economic politics. At times, monopolies have delivered benefits to some workers. The New Deal state attempted to control concentration while relying on it for this end. Admitting this wouldn’t bind Stoller to a pro-monopoly position, only a historically accurate one.

Stoller rejects any distinction—much less antagonism—between labor and small property. The historical bases of the workers’ movement and the anti-monopoly movement, respectively, these social groups diverged increasingly over the last century. Goliath, however, depicts workplace exploitation and unfair competition as identical. Stoller’s rendering of the A&P fight in his letter misinterprets his own evidence in that regard. Goliath shows that, under anti-​monopoly pressure in the 1930s, the retailer struck a quid pro quo with labor: Unionists “praised chain stores” and “attacked” small businesses. Labor leaders later “deluged the Truman administration, voicing opposition to [its] antitrust suit” against A&P. Eventually, A&P succumbed anyway, losing its market dominance; labor fell with it. Stoller scores it as a victory for the people at large.

In fact, the New Deal’s two most important unionists, John L. Lewis and Sidney Hillman, viewed excessive competition in their industries—coal and garments—as a source of misery. (Goliath mentions the Congress of Industrial Organizations once, incorrectly calling it a “labor union”; Lewis once; and Hillman never.) Oddly, Goliath cites workplace disasters in these cutthroat industries as evidence that monopoly hurt workers. Tailors and miners, meanwhile, fought and died demanding greater economic coordination, even nationalization. “One can hear the footsteps of the Deliverer—if only he listens intently,” Hillman wrote. “Labor will rule, and the world will be free.” He didn’t mean Louis Brandeis.

Without disambiguating popular social interests, Goliath cannot explain why the New Deal order fell. No one denies the reach of Chicago School ideas. The unanswered question is why those ideas became politically potent when they did. Similarly, anti-monopoly clearly isn’t identical to white supremacy; there were Northern liberal antitrusters. But its mass base was the white South, where an alliance between small property and white supremacy dominated. In 1930, for example, a grand titan of the Georgia Klan warned of “an oligarchy [of] centralized wealth” and inveighed against “atheism, communism, [and]chain stores”—positions widely echoed among leading Jim Crow politicians. Anti-monopoly isn’t intrinsically racist, but it was interwoven with racist rule. Antitrust would benefit from acknowledging rather than sidestepping this fact.

I frequently read Stoller’s business writing and find it informative. And I don’t doubt his desire for a better world. But there’s no single lever to pull, only the work of social and political struggle. The solidarity to sustain such struggle cannot be assumed. It must be constructed from the particularities in which we live—a task we will accomplish only if we face differences honestly.

Gabriel Winant
somerville, mass.

A Serious Misconception

I was dismayed to read Megan Magray’s “The Left Case for Fertility Awareness” [online, Dec. 26, 2019] arguing for a birth control method that involves identifying a woman’s monthly fertility window through a variety of tests. This Fertility Awareness Method (FAM), potentially more accurate than what used to be called the rhythm method, is a valid option for some women to protect against pregnancy or to get pregnant, if that’s what they want. But Magray’s endorsement rests on denouncing “medical” birth control, namely contraceptive pills and IUDs. In fact, FAM is equally “medical,” relying on daily tests of temperature and sampling vaginal mucous and urine, for example. Her article is so misleading, filled with naive notions of what’s “natural” and condemnations of other forms of contraception, that I wondered whether Nation editors had reviewed it carefully or had it fact-checked, given its simplistic attacks on medical science.

Of course, Magray is right that hormones and IUDs sometimes have deleterious side-effects, though it is noticeable that she is not enthusiastic about contraceptives that have no ill effects, such as vaginal diaphragms and condoms. It’s also true that some women seeking birth control have reported feeling pressured by providers to accept pills or IUDs and to avoid relying on FAM. Since providers are often required to see too many people in too short a time—a problem likely to get worse as funding for birth control clinics is cut—they may feel responsible to promote the contraceptives that do not demand daily attention by users. Magray also concedes that what experts call fertility-awareness-based methods are practical only in long-term monogamous relationships and that a variety of contraceptives should be available to all. She is not wrong to call for open and respectful discussion and research about time-of-the-month methods.

But her argument relies on dubious claims and innuendos. She writes that her backup method is male withdrawal, which she calls 96 percent effective “with perfect use.” Do I need to point out the magnitude of that qualifier? She writes that users of “medical” birth control put their health at risk. Yes, when hormones and IUDs were first marketed, they produced serious health problems in some women (and I was one of the scholars who denounced the cover-up of those problems decades ago). But since then, research and development have made these contraceptives safer and more tolerable. While Magray labels FAM a feminist cause, in fact it was feminist activists in the 1960s and 1970s who challenged the cover-up of the deleterious side effects of early hormonal methods. It was a nascent women’s health movement that forced US Senate hearings on pill safety in 1970, at which an all-male committee heard only from male witnesses; women in the audience, standing up and demanding to be heard, produced the first broad media coverage of the issue. My point is that the women’s movement sought not rejection of medical birth control but better medical birth control.

Magray deploys simplistic clichés that position feminism against modern contraceptives: the “capital-fueled, patriarchal chains that bind us”; the “patriarchal faith in technocracy”; “masculine biology.” And hyperbole: “The price [of medical contraception] is high: It is our health and our lives.” She belittles the preference for the most effective contraceptives on the grounds that the “values inherent in our most popular birth control options reinforce modern ideas about how women should live and operate.… Who has time for a period?” Of course, she’s right that the medical establishment and especially big pharma are male- and corporate-dominated, but we would not want to reject antibiotics and vaccines because their developers are motivated primarily by profit. Magray’s tone, her preference for what’s “natural” over what’s “medical,” her call for “community knowledge” over expertise, reminded me of the anti-vaccination movement.

Magray may be right that there are few if any objective studies of FAM effectiveness. Some “studies” have been produced by the companies that sell the relevant apps and tests. The manufacturer of a $330 thermometer, the Daysy, got a company-funded study published in the journal Reproductive Health, which claimed that its device produced a 99.4 percent effective rate in preventing pregnancy; after an investigation, the journal retracted the article. Many legitimate studies of birth control methods note “with perfect use” to qualify their data. But that perfection is difficult to achieve with FAM, and easier with pills, IUDs, diaphragms. Magray rejects the notion that our bodies are “inherently unruly.” But, in fact, our bodies are often unruly, and sex can be particularly unruly. Perfect use of the FAM that Magray promotes requires considerable discipline: Not all women who want birth control have the time and privacy to test temperature, urine, and vaginal mucous. I certainly didn’t when I was awakened every morning by a hungry, wet toddler and had to get to my desk to work as soon as she fell asleep in the evening.

Magray writes that if her backup method, male withdrawal, fails, she is “totally comfortable” with getting an abortion. I’m glad she supports abortion rights. But she does not mention that better access to effective contraception is the best way to reduce the abortion rate. Women need the right to weigh their options, which should include FAM, on the basis of accurate information. So do men. But ill-informed and manipulative arguments for the “natural” are not useful.

Linda Gordon
University Professor of the Humanities
Florence Kelley Professor of History
New York University

new york city

Megan Magray Replies

I struggled to locate the evidence for many of Dr. Linda Gordon’s critiques of my story. Though she writes that my article is “misleading” and that my argument rests on “dubious claims and innuendos,” and proceeds to question whether it had been fact-checked, she doesn’t cite any factual errors. She calls out a personal side note in the piece—that I use withdrawal with a trusted partner—as indicative that my argument is faulty, although it’s clear I don’t invoke this anecdote as part of my case. She raises several points already addressed in my story, and others that I agree with heartily and cosign in the piece itself, at times positioning herself in opposition to an argument that hasn’t been made.

Those who read her response alone would be misled as to the content of my work. At multiple points she not only misrepresents but misstates my argument, for example saying that I “concede” that fertility-awareness-based methods are “practical only in long-term monogamous relationships.” I actually wrote the opposite: that such arguments “are based more in stigma and misinformation than data.”

These issues aside, one of her underlying critiques—with which I am happy to engage in good faith—appears to be philosophical. From Dr. Gordon’s letter, it appears we disagree on whether it is ethical to appraise how different forms of birth control technology shift our experience of sex. While she says my rhetoric around automation, “natural” methods, and invasive technology “reminded [her] of the anti-vaccination movement,” I believe it’s silly to position any critique of technology’s cascading effects on a slippery slope. In this case, the connection is tenuous at best: The anti-vaccination movement rejects medical consensus, while my argument for fertility awareness—an under-researched subject—calls for more scientific research while recognizing the wealth of knowledge currently held by FAM practitioners.

Contrary to Dr. Gordon’s claims, I do not attack “medical science” writ large; rather, I critique the deferential aversion to critiques of how power is reproduced through medical practices, with the understanding that we are constantly learning, and our tools are perpetually imperfect. As I’ve already written, scientific research is a “very, very slow-moving ship,” especially with limited funding for contraceptive research. Again, I advocate in my piece for “funneling more money toward research around natural methods,” specifically because they have been maligned for so long in ways that medical birth control has not.

Dr. Gordon hammers me for deploying “simplistic clichés” and “hyperbole” while misquoting my work and replacing my words with those most convenient for her argument. She uses brackets to claim I write that “the price [of medical contraception] is high,” while the actual text reads “the price is high,” in reference to the cost of not democratizing fertility knowledge—and certainly not in reference to the use of medical contraception. Reading my story would help clear this up, and I stand by my actual argument: that a failure to democratize fertility knowledge is detrimental to our health and lives.

In my original piece, I discussed a liberal tendency to view any positive case for fertility awareness, body literacy, and natural birth control as an attack on access to other forms of birth control. Dr. Gordon appears to fall into this trope. In fact, I believe that all forms of birth control technology should be more accessible, and that women deserve a broad menu of options as well as the information to make informed decisions. Dr. Gordon writes that it is “noticeable” that I am “not enthusiastic about…vaginal diaphragms and condoms.” I do not believe a case for condoms needs to be made here; much has been written about the benefits of barrier methods, and I imagine Dr. Gordon would agree that the merits of condoms are clear to most readers of The Nation.

Rather than rehash the obvious advantages of condoms, pills, and intrauterine devices, I chose to advance an argument for more accurate information about a method that I follow and feel is widely maligned in public discourse. That Dr. Gordon interpreted this as an assault on women’s rights illustrates some of the shortcomings inherent to one-dimensional advocacy frameworks. (As an aside, if Dr. Gordon is truly in favor of expanding women’s reproductive rights, I am surprised she measures the quality of contraception by its power to “reduce the abortion rate,” which may be kept artificially low through misinformation, stigma, and repressive laws that restrict access. To frame any reduction in the abortion rate as a clearly good outcome demonstrates a deep misunderstanding of the diversity of reproductive experience in the United States.)

Megan Magray
brooklyn, ny