Zephyr Teachout is a law professor at Fordham University, as well as an author, activist, and three-time political candidate. In 2014, as a virtual political unknown, she mounted a surprisingly strong primary challenge to former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, grabbing 34 percent of the vote. In that campaign, Teachout made anti-corruption a key issue, which resonated among voters at a time when Cuomo had abruptly shut down the Moreland Commission, established to investigate political graft in Albany. Cuomo, accused of sexual harassment, resigned in disgrace in August 2021. Teachout also ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2016 and New York State attorney general in 2018.
An expert on corruption and antitrust law, in 2020 Teachout published Break ’em Up: Recovering Our Freedom from Big Ag, Big Tech, and Big Money, which Publishers Weekly called “a passionate and persuasive case for a revitalized antitrust movement.” Teachout, who will turn fifty on October 24, spoke with me by phone on a recent Friday evening from the Harlem home she shares with her husband and young son.
Fiery, loquacious, and as amiable as ever, Teachout had much to say about her area of expertise: organizing against corporate power.
“We need to start talking about corporate illegitimacy. Don’t just protest what they are doing, protest their existence.”
Q: Explain why it’s important to keep corporate power in check.
Zephyr Teachout: With the rise of corporate consolidation over the last forty years, we’ve seen increased abuse of workers and suppliers, because once industries achieve market dominance, they no longer have to respect either. Whether it’s Amazon with online retail or Eli Lilly with insulin or Tyson with chicken farming, they can set the terms. That means if you’re Eli Lilly sitting atop the market, you can charge twenty times what it costs to make insulin—a drug people need to live.
For workers, this has meant thousands of dollars a year in lost wages and degraded working conditions. Research has shown that the rationale for consolidation, which was reduced prices, has not worked.
Concentrated corporate power is a threat to freedom—especially in the wake of [the 2010 Supreme Court ruling in] Citizens United, which allowed companies to spend political money without restrictions. There are obvious ways they threaten freedom, like spending millions on lobbying. But fear is another threat. Take a company like Amazon. People are scared of Amazon and won’t speak up about their practices if they’re in Amazon’s orbit. They’re afraid that these behemoths will retaliate. So there’s a democratic cost along with wage stagnation and quality of life degradation that you get with big corporate power.
Q: How does the vast surveillance apparatus corporations wield today affect organizing?
Teachout: We’ve never seen anything like this. Parts of the monopolized economy are just old-school feudalism, but the radical level of surveillance is new. We’re under extreme surveillance not only as consumers but also as workers. Companies have SWAT teams that are on a hair-trigger alert if there are signs of organizing. They watch social media accounts and, increasingly, have technology that can listen to conversations.
This drives paranoia—a rational paranoia—that is seeping into our culture. Trusting others becomes difficult. For workers, one of the effects is that they can be treated differently in a way that undermines solidarity, like when companies give bigger bonuses to some workers for arbitrary reasons. It’s a type of gamification. Amazon and Uber are both using technology developed, as far as we can tell, in the gaming industry.
These companies prey on our individual vulnerabilities. They’re examining things like how to make Uber drivers take one more trip when it’s against their self-interest. It’s like Vegas casinos examining how to make gamblers pull the one-armed bandit forty more times. It’s using a combination of surveillance and psychology to treat workers like natural resources to be plundered and exploited.
Q: Let’s turn to solutions. Are unions still powerful enough to act as a bulwark against corporate power?
Teachout: Yes, and we need more. I love labor. That doesn’t mean I think every union is perfect, but it’s very important to support union organizing. There’s been an extreme drop in private sector unionization, and a split over how to confront that. Unions have not prioritized their budgets toward organizing. In one sense, they are in an impossible situation because they’re up against the most powerful entities in world history.
There’s no way unions can win the inside political game. So there must be more focus on organizing and a willingness to strike. Spectrum workers have been on the longest strike in New York City’s history—over three and a half years. We’re not always going to win, but without being willing to strike, we can’t win.
Antitrust is also key. Look at history. When the Clayton Antitrust Act was signed in 1914, the head of the AFL [American Federation of Labor] called it a “charter of freedom for workers.” That was when we viewed breaking up corporate power and strengthening worker power as connected.
To put it in the simplest terms, labor is about enabling workers to organize and antitrust is about making it harder for capital to organize. Some labor leaders today are seeing that connection. In New York State, for instance, Teamsters are pushing the 21st Century Antitrust Act, which is a state antitrust bill, because they know they are in an untenable position.
My point is that we have to reduce corporate power along with pursuing laws that make it easier to organize. To be fair, the legacy big companies still tend to have better working conditions than a lot of the newbies. But the long-term cost of siding with big corporations is that you end up negotiating with a company like Spectrum, who can say: “I don’t have to talk to you. We’re the only game in town.”
Q: You mentioned antitrust law. How big of a role does the government play in checking corporate power?
Teachout: One of the fundamental jobs of government is to protect citizens from abusive private tyrants. Just like protecting citizens from violence. When it comes to the Democratic-Republican divide on the role of government, the politics of anti-trust are not as straightforward as other issues. Like liberals, many conservatives oppose corporate monopolies who they see as taking away their freedom.
Conservatives feel powerless right now, like they have no voice, and I see a huge opportunity for Democrats. The Republican Party tells them to blame immigrants, or the racial “other” and big government. So Democrats need to state clearly: “Yes, you’re powerless, but the problem isn’t government or other people, it’s corporate tyrants.”
Meanwhile, [President Joe] Biden is working to stop the consolidation trend with his recent executive order [signed in July] to encourage competition, and his accompanying speech was both good politics and good policy. We need government to protect against private corporate tyrants, and at the same time we need to reach people in both parties who think corporate power is a problem.
Q: Historically, consumer boycotts were a way of getting businesses to change. But with the rise of monopolies, boycotts seem futile. How do you boycott Google, Facebook, and Amazon?
Teachout: Boycotts can still be effective, but they’re a lot harder in a monopolized moment like ours. And yet, they’re becoming more frequent. We seem to be moving toward a depoliticized personal ethos of “mini boycotts,” where we tell friends on social media what companies they should avoid.
There’s nothing wrong about that per se, but a big problem is that the left has deeply absorbed this fundamentally rightwing concept, which is that what you do as a consumer is a form of voting. We are citizens first, not consumers first. The most powerful consumer boycotts in American history have aimed to change law, not just behavior.
If you look at the grape boycotts, for example, they were about changing labor law. The most famous bus boycotts during the civil rights era were not to get businesses to behave differently, the goal was to change the law. I want people to demand change from government first. Then, if they still want to boycott, they can.
Q: What can the average person do to restrain corporate power, if not boycott?
Teachout: We need to organize grassroots movements that demand we break up companies as well as improve labor rights. Those two must come together. We need to start talking about corporate illegitimacy. That means when you’re organizing—let’s say on health care—a key part of the demand is to break up pharmaceutical companies. Don’t just protest what they are doing, protest their existence.
What I suggested in my book is that we organize sit-ins at the FTC [Federal Trade Commission]. But now we have this amazing new head of the FTC, Lina Khan, who I’ve known for about eight years. She’s clear-headed and compassionate and I’m excited about what she’s doing there. So at this point I’d say to pay attention to big merger moments.
Most people don’t remember where they were when Dow and DuPont merged. But that was one of the most important political moments in terms of power consolidation in the history of this country. We need to see mergers as political moments, protest the hell out of them, and make power organizing a part of what we do.
Q: Does campaign finance reform play a role in curbing corporate power?
Teachout: Oh yes, that’s a big part of it. If aliens landed on Earth and saw how we ran our society, they would say “What!? You elect people based on who can raise the most money from the richest people in world history? That’s nuts!” Our [political] fundraising system has become: Who’s the best sycophant? It takes people who are naturally empathetic and forces them to listen to the problems of the radical elite, instead of [those of] average people.
I’ve run for office a few times and I love a lot about it. But raising money is such a turnoff. Our system forces you to suck up to corporate America, promise them the world, block legislation, and ignore people who are drowning. It’s a sick, sick system.
Q: So do we move toward publicly financed campaigns?
Teachout: I love pure publicly financed campaigns, but there are similar models that would also work, like the match model, where if you raise $50, that gets matched with public funds. The Democracy Voucher model is another good one. This is what Seattle has. Every citizen is given, like, $200 a year to spend on politics. In that system, candidates know that anybody they meet is able to fund their campaign. That creates an incentive to listen to everyone.
But none of these deal with the Citizens United problem. On that front, we need a Supreme Court and a Constitutional amendment, and I will be there for every fight on that. Seattle has also been a leader in this area by passing an initiative that says any corporation with foreign ownership, even 1 percent, can’t run a super PAC.
So there are ways we can deal body blows to Citizens United, but fundamentally, when you talk about money in politics, you have to talk about court reform. So until we can overturn Citizens United and Buckley v. Valeo and this insane notion that money is speech, publicly financed elections—whether it’s a matching model or a Democracy Vouchers model—has to be what we’re pushing for.
Look, there’s a lot to be excited about right now. There are amazing, brave, extraordinary, diverse people who are excited about running, and often the only barrier to them succeeding is money in politics. Let’s take that bravery and excitement and make it possible for it to be at its maximum.