The dot.con 

Skewering the fallacies of new market populism

Is Thomas Frank a prophet?

His book One Market Under God, just released in paperback with a new Afterword, predicted the fall of the high-tech economy back in 2000 before dot-com gold lost its luster. What the book proves, though, is that it doesn’t take a clairvoyant to see through the cultural fog of the New Economy, just plenty of skepticism and patience.

One Market Under God examines the ideology of the New Economy. Extreme capitalism triumphed over government regulation and organized labor in the 1990s by legitimizing itself in the culture, Frank argues. A formidable historian and economist, Frank is at his most incisive as a cultural critic, and this has been the strong suit of his journal The Baffler as well as his previous books.

“This is a study of business culture,” Frank asserts early on. He ties together the self-consciously rebellious mythos of dot-com new money with the anti-elitist posturing of conservatives like Rush Limbaugh to create a narrative of justification for the unfettered, unregulated free market. It is the “fantasy of the market as an anti-elitist machine,” Frank writes. His best insights are those that root out perniciously righteous blather in one sector of society and interweave it with the New Economy grand narrative. For example, he shows us how much Howard Stern and Newt Gingrich really have in common:

“Since markets express the will of the people, virtually any criticism of business could be described as an act of despicable contempt for the common man. This was an argument that would unite such disparate characters as the Gingrich right, who would use it against those who found fault with the market, and Howard Stern, who would use it against the critics of his tastelessness; it would permit both Hollywood executives and cultural studies scholars to shoot down critics of virtually any culture product as snobs out of touch with the tastes of the common people.”

This last section reveals how intellectually daring Frank is in One Market Under God. His indictment of academic cultural studies for its complicity with market populism may be the first observation of its kind. Usually the chorus castigating postmodern professors is made up of crotchety old right-wing men sounding the drumbeat of cultural relativism. Frank comes at his colleagues on the postmodern left from the hard Marxist left. Witness his swipe at Brown University’s hybrid of film studies and semiotics, the Modern Culture and Media department.

“The pedagogy looked the same, but its object had changed,” Frank writes. “After all, one could hardly be a ‘disdainful aesthete’ or a highbrow snob if one wanted to work as a script supervisor to James Cameron or produce episodes of ‘Xena: the Warrior Princess.’ What would help students interested in such a career were deep understandings of fan communities and audience ‘resistance’—precisely the issues raised by cultural studies. The point now wasn’t so much to celebrate ‘resistance’ as to work around it, preparing students to make commercials (like the Nike skateboarder spots) that flatter a subculture’s paranoia or that use the more standard techniques of prude-dissing or let-you-be-you-ing to get, as the admen put it, Under the Radar. Maybe the corporate university and the academic left had something in common after all.”

Frank is at his funniest when he is at his meanest, and he’s pretty damned mean to what he calls the “management theory industry,” which he says continues to supply a “robust bull market of bullshit.”

The whole movement is “absurd,” he writes, for in “what by rights should be the hardest-headed corner of American life (business), one encounters PhD-bearing experts on ‘aura,’ full-blown astrologies of ‘leadership’ and ‘creativity,’ theories of art and learning so elementary they could have been lifted from the back of cereal boxes, and responsible adults devoted utterly to self-awareness tracts originally written for teenagers.”

Whether it’s ridiculous or not, Frank makes a strong case for why the movement cannot be laughed off. “With the decline of unions and the rollback of government,” he writes, “executives as a class now have more power than at any time since the 1920s.”

Frank is enough of a realist to avoid a “told-you-so” tone in the afterword, although he does take advantage of some well deserved karmic jabs. He revisits a few of the dot-com giants mentioned earlier in the book and shows how much money one would have lost had they invested in them at their late ’90s peak.

“Whether or not these favorites recover some part of their 1999 value over the years to come, the lessons of the Nasdaq meltdown seem clear,” Frank writes. “Lurid fantasies about the future produced by a babbling flock of far-right ideologues and self-proclaimed ‘crazy’ management theorists are hardly an adequate foundation for the economic well-being of the nation. Nor are stock markets really a superior mechanism for the distribution of society’s wealth.”

So where do we go from here? One Market Under God is an excellent polemic, and as such it doesn’t propose much of an alternative other than an unelaborated faith in government regulation and a strong labor movement. What Frank does say about an alternative order he sticks in the preface:

“I believe that the key to reining in markets is to confront them from outside,” he writes, lending tacit support to the globalization protest movement that began in Seattle. “What we must have are not more focus groups or a new space where people can express themselves or etiquette lessons for executives but some countervailing power, some force that resists the imperatives of profit in the name of economic democracy. That is, after all, precisely what the original Populists had in mind.”

I vote for that paragraph as the topic of Frank’s next book.

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