How to Play Monopoly

To play Monopoly, the goal is straightforward: Accumulate property, control the board and ruin all the other players.

To play Monopoly, the goal is straightforward: Accumulate property, control the board and ruin all the other players. It was created in 1903 as The Landlord’s Game by ardent anti-monopolist Lizzie Magie to educate people about the economic and social destructiveness of concentrating land ownership in private cartels. (Not for nothing is each box of Monopoly adorned by a caricature of a top-hatted, robber-baron tycoon, dubbed Rich Uncle Pennybags.)

More than a century later, real-world monopolists retain the game’s original objective: Amalgamate market power, crush competitors and run the board.

But rather than a game of chance dependent on a roll of the dice, today’s corporate monopolies are products of carefully plotted and executed power plays. Theirs is a game for the biggest, richest, most avaricious plunderers. Just to be a player now requires investing millions of dollars in campaign donations, lobbying firms, lawyer fees, etc.

Why? Because Americans HATE monopolies. From 1773’s Boston Tea Party — an audacious direct assault on the British East India Company’s attempt to monopolize colonial America’s tea market — we have vehemently rebelled, again and again, against corporate control as inherently antidemocratic, abusive, un-American … and morally unacceptable. But as Thomas Jefferson warned at the start of our republic, “monied corporations” know that they don’t need the public’s acceptance if they can buy backdoor acceptance from a few public officials.

Still, people’s disdain for monopoly power is so ingrained that lawmakers and their corporate purchasers can’t just pass a law declaring “Monopoly is hereby authorized.” Instead, they do it bit by bit through a process of obscure statutory deceits, pipelines of legalized bribery, vats of PR perfumes, and other devilish ways to rig the rules of competition against actual competition. Major brand-name corporations use workarounds to create and extend monopolies without ever having to say the word, leaving their tactics with obfuscating names ranging from arcane to quasi-comical, such as “category captain,” “slotting,” “no-poach agreements,” etc.

Over the past 40 years, however, the most common way to establish a monopoly has been: “What the hell, let’s just go buy one.” With antitrust enforcement hogtied by lawmakers in harness to corporate backers, it’s now considered a legitimate, even ethical, business practice for big-wigs who want to “play monopoly” is to compel competitors to sell out by deploying a combination of deep-pocket cash, ruthless market-squeeze and shareholder pressure.

Indeed, consolidating our economy is no longer something that the occasional corporate pirate does on its own. There’s now an entire industry of specialized law firms, Wall Street banks, hedge funds, lobbyists, social media pushers and a menagerie of high-dollar consultants working full-tilt every day to help ambitious empire builders pull off merger and acquisition seizures in every U.S. business sector. Our national and state governments used to stand as bulwarks against these anti-competitive takeovers, but since the 1980s, the corporate establishment has aggressively pushed presidents, legislators, governors and regulators to champion the efficiencies of deregulated markets. But that “efficiency” is a euphemism for raw power, and the de-reg frenzy its promoters unleashed almost immediately detonated an explosion of mergers … then megamergers, and now … Hello, Monopoly!

Forbes magazine reports that in just the first four months of 2021, corporations and speculators spent an astonishing record of $1.77 trillion on M&A power plays, producing nothing but tighter market control for wealthy elites, who will use the booty to grab more wealth and power. Apple, for example, brags to its investors that it has snapped up more than 100 competitors in the past six years, an average of more than one a month. Likewise, Amazon didn’t dominate the new and highly profitable cloud computing business through its own genius; it ran a high-tech Pac-Man takeover operation, gobbling up at least 13 cloud innovators from 2012 to 2020.

The laissez-fairyland promise is that corporate deregulation produces competitive magic. Ironically, the result is just the opposite: More and much more repressive regulation!

So, how do you fight monopoly? Start where you live — and here’s some help! The Institute for Local Self-Reliance has a guide full of examples of successful local and state anti-monopoly efforts that could be models for your own town. 

Jim Hightower