Monopolies, Trump, the Border, and Fascism

Andres Leighton/AP Image

An agent with the Department of Homeland Security closes the exterior gate of the holding facility for immigrant children in Tornillo, Texas, near the Mexican border. 

There has long been a symbiotic relationship between fascism and corporate monopoly. In the 1930s and '40s, industrial monopolists helped fascism thrive in Nazi Germany once Hitler was appointed chancellor, most notably when German chemical conglomerate IG Farben partnered with Nazis to fund the Reich’s war effort and carry out the Holocaust. Like other large business interests, IG Farben initially resisted Nazification, but came to see it as essential to its continued success. Once on board, IG Farben used Jewish slave labor from concentration camps, then manufactured poison gas then used to murder those same Jews across Europe. 

Antitrust scholar and author of The Curse of Bigness Tim Wu and other scholars have warned that monopoly helped bolster and buttress fascism once, and it could happen again. Now, in the American concentration camps along the U.S.-Mexico border and elsewhere, those warnings are proving true. To carry out its broad internment program, the Trump administration is relying on the cooperation—sometimes passive, sometimes very active—of companies that dominate industries crucial to the administration’s plans. 

No company is more significant to the internment program, or more interwoven into the fabric of the government’s technological bureaucracy, than Amazon. While the company dominates wide swaths of the consumer economy, much of its power and influence comes from its lofty position within the federal government. Amazon Web Services (AWS)—the largest cloud service provider in the world—provides more than 60 percentof the ultra-secure, “high-impact” cloud services most often required by federal law enforcement agencies, including Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. 

AWS hosts the government’s most powerful tool for tracking and detaining immigrants: ICE’s Investigative Case Management system, a database that collates information about immigrants from a host of other public and private databases, along with biometric information captured by ICE agents and other law enforcement in the field. That system, created by Peter Thiel’s data mining company Palantir, lives on AWS, as do several other Department of Homeland Security immigration-related databases. 

Amazon’s monopoly over government data systems grows in the same way that Google’s online search tool reinforces its own dominance with each use. Amazon has been cultivating its relationship with the federal government for nearly a decade. Winning the government’s business requires trust and the promise of consistenc. With every contract Amazon wins to house federal data using its high-security cloud services, the more likely it is to win the next one. 

To state the obvious, Trump’s border policies have not progressed to mass murder. But Amazon so far seems unwilling to sever its lucrative ties with the federal government despite the administration's increasing attacks on immigrants. While Google, Microsoft, and others have faced extensive internal and external pressure to cancel or avoid government contracts associated with ICE’s tracking and internment program, Amazon has remained unbowed. Its monopoly, entrenched within government bureaucracy, is poised to continue to profit from and bolster rising fascism if left unchecked.

Meanwhile, the administration’s now supercharged immigrant detention program has been a boon to the same concentrated private prison industry that has for years been intertwined with ICE and immigrant detention—and with Trump since his campaign. Two companies dominate the private prison industry: GEO Group and Core Civic, which had been called the Corrections Corporation of America before public outrage over its treatment of inmates forced a re-branding. The private prison duopoly oversees more than 120,000 inmate beds, including a string of prisons and immigrant detention centers in and around the border towns that have become the epicenter of Trump’s migrant internment program.

The private prison duopoly’s relationship with fascism was easy and direct. Both companies donated to Trump’s inaugural fund and his super PAC during his campaign. After Trump’s inauguration, the private prison duopoly cheered as ICE began looking for companies that could help build detention centers for the masses of immigrants the administration planned to intern. By late 2017, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded an Obama administration rule that reduced federal use of private prisons (Sessions’s former Senate aides were lobbyists at the time for GEO Group). Business was booming again. 

Now, both GEO and Core Civic have either planned or have begun building new $100 million detention centers to house ICE’s immigrant detainees. Both companies, along with smaller rival Management & Training Corp, continue to operate immigrant-only prisons, and both have taken on new contracts or otherwise backed the Trump administration’s  plans to intern more immigrants in these shadow prisons

The lessons here are clear: Monopolies step in time with fascism because, for those willing to participate, fascism is good business. The more immigrants housed in private prisons and camps, and the longer they are held there, the more money the industry’s duopoly can make. The more data on immigrants the government collects, the more contracts Amazon can bid on to host that data. As Wu has said, “The monopolist and the dictator tend to have overlapping interests.”

There’s an adjacent lesson here too. This isn’t simply a problem with monopoly, it’s a problem with the nature of capitalism. Monopoly capital is just one way to organize parts of the economy—but what is true for Amazon now or Farben in 1930s Germany is just as true for Wayfair or any of the myriad smaller companies happy to set morality aside for a cut of the billion-dollar internment industry. Shame on all of them, of course, though the subject of solutions to capitalism’s worst tendencies is beyond the scope of this article. 

Regardless, movements have won victories depriving the administration’s neo-fascist programs from the business support they need. There’s the Wayfair walkout, the single most notable direct action against a company participating in the internment program to date. And last week, labor activists convinced multiple major hotel groups to refuse requests from ICE to use their hotels as makeshift jails for immigrants caught up in a planned wave of raids around the country. While there may be an antitrust solution to the monopoly problem, it seems more likely that direct action, both within and outside the firm, will once again win the day.

The biggest single activist victory over the forces of corporate fascism has been the campaign against banks for financing GEO Group and CoreCivic. Because the private prison giants are set up as real-estate investment trusts for tax purposes, they require constant debt financing to expand their businesses and fund daily operations. Activists recognized this as a major choke point and persuaded six big banks to divest from private prisons (JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Bank of America, SunTrust, BNP Paribas, and Fifth Third Bancorp). Pressure campaigns from lawmakers and labor groups have succeeded in large part because of the private prison companies’ roles in interning immigrants.

new issue brief released this week from three activist groups tallied up the term loans and lines of credit these six banks previously gave to private prisons. GEO Group and CoreCivic stand to lose $1.93 billion in the coming years, representing 72 percent of their total current financing, after the divestments. It’s unclear where private prison companies will turn to find the financing to survive. GEO Group’s financial disclosure in the first quarter of 2019 acknowledged that continued resistance to private prisons could “impact our ability to obtain or refinance debt financing or enter into commercial arrangements, which could have a material adverse effect on our business, financial condition and results of operations.”

Before Hitler’s rise in the 1930s, Farben and other industrial monopolists remained wary of the Nazi regime. But when the Nazis took power and began detaining, interning and deporting Jews—a program that mirrors America’s treatment of Central and South American immigrants today—Farben began cooperating with the Nazis and, ultimately, with the Holocaust itself. The more normalized Trump’s internment program becomes—and the less internal and external pressure put on companies like Amazon to refuse to work with his brutal regime—the more inseparable monopoly power will be from modern fascism. 

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