Populism and Plunder
As editor of the radical journal The Baffler, Thomas Frank first showed up in the early 1990s with his own novel prose style: a sarcastic, zine-inspired writing combined with scholarly apparatus and academic vocabulary. His essays in The Baffler were widely reprinted in The Nation, Harper's and Chicago Reader. His first book, 1998's The Conquest of Cool, was about the advertising industry's role in shaping the 1960s; turns out that "cool"—individualism, hedonism, the fear of being the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit—was not so revolutionary as commercial: it moves product.
A popular theme in much of his work, including his new One Market Under God, is the current corporate endeavor to paint billionaires and entrepreneurs as rebels (consider Wired) and to tar opponents of the market or free trade as cynical elitists (consider almost anything else).
One Market Under God is a lively work, establishing Frank as one of the essential critics of our generation. Particularly in the early chapters, Frank nails down the political legacy of the 1990s as an era of kinder, gentler, legitimized greed: "the age of the great agreement," Frank calls it. It was a time when "leaders of left parties in the U.S. and U.K. accommodated themselves to the free-market faith of their predecessors, Reagan and Thatcher. As both Clinton and Tony Blair made spectacular public renunciations of their parties' historic principles, the opposition literally ceased to oppose."
One provision of the great agreement stipulates that what is good for the market is good for the people; another is that capitalism is liberation—something Frank calls "market populism."
Many of Frank's examples of neo-populist posturing—Rupert Murdoch's self-portrait as an Everyman or the auto industry's claims that safety equipment equals suppression of freedom—are amusing. But in his best moments, he is one pissed-off intellectual. In "The 'New Economy' is a fraud," he writes:
[New York Times reporter Thomas Friedman's] formula 'one dollar, one vote' is not the same thing as universal suffrage, as the complex, hard-won array of rights that most Americans understand as their political heritage. Nor does it mitigate the obscenity of wealth polarization one whit when the richest people ever in history tell us that they are 'listening' to us, that theirs are 'interactive' fortunes, or that they have unusual tastes and work particularly hard. Markets may look like democracy, in that we are involved in their making, but they are fundamentally not democratic. We did not vote for Bill Gates; we didn't all sit down one day and agree that we should only use his operating system and we should pay for it just however much he thinks is right. We do not go off to our jobs checking telephone lines or making cold calls or driving a forklift every morning because this is what we want to do; we do it because it is the only way we can afford food, shelter, and medicine. The logic of business is coercion, monopoly and the destruction of the weak."
Frank goes through the stock market's calamitous historical blunders, discusses late-19-century tycoons who "damned the public" (a fascinating bit of history) and lays down the law about who benefits most from the new, user-friendly, down-home market. "However widely dispersed stock ownership may have become in recent years," he writes, "the vast majority of shares are still held by the wealthy. . . . The booming stock market of the '90s did not democratize wealth; it concentrated it."
Frank occasionally shifts into the first person and his own outrage over advertising's audacity: Nike was able to "pay their workers wages so small that it is difficult for Americans to understand how they stay alive. Having done that, though, Nike then proceeded to do pseudo-anthropological studies of the very Americans whose world has been shattered by the departure of operations like theirs to the lands of 'the open shop'—and to produce gritty commercials celebrating the authenticity of our poverty, our alienation, our earnest search for redemption through sport."
Near the end of the book, Frank introduces the bizarre Al Neuharth, the tycoon behind USA Today and the Gannett newspaper empire. Neuharth toured small-town USA on what he called a Buscapade, holding town meetings and trying to get to know real people for a column he wrote called "Plain Talk." While crushing unions and "silencing independent editorial voices," Gannett newspapers made a mint with its anti-intellectual, colored-masthead, homey, love-the-little-guy approach.
More critic than crusader, Frank does not propose any particular remedies for an omnipotent market. He considers One Market Under God "a history of bad ideas." But it is much more than that. A crucial document of 1990s excess, it's a book that readers will either hate or love—depending on their investment portfolio.
One Market Under God: Extreme Capitalism, Market Populism and the End of Economic Democracy by Thomas Frank; Doubleday. 432 pages, hardcover, $26.
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