Reviewed by Pat Wehner
Vol. 23, No. 1 2001 pp. 23-26
Thomas Frank, One Market Under God: Extreme Capitalism, Market Populism, and the End of Economic Democracy, New York: Doubleday, 2000.
I recently watched as a business school professor channeled the spirit of Henry Grady for a collection of visiting financiers, entrepreneurs, and vice presidents of marketing, important men who had braved rush hour traffic in hopes of having their warm tinglings about the “emerging markets of the global South” affirmed by a higher, or at least a tenured, authority. Like Grady, the American South’s self-appointed ambassador of goodwill to the carpetbagging industrialists of the 1890s, the professor promised that when everyone up North set aside their preconceptions and recognized the hard-working, brand merchandise-craving character of the folk, there would be no further talk about sweatshops and unions, no more agitating for labor laws, trade regulations, or environmental standards. Between sycophantic shout-outs to his visiting homeboys from Georgia Pacific and Equifax, the professor reassured us that according to figures helpfully supplied by the International Monetary Fund, standards of living were actually rising for the benighted people of Guatemala and Mexico, Thailand and Indonesia. Anyone who thought differently was out-of-touch, elitist, and quite probably racist in not permitting the world’s diverse populations to exercise their universal, God-given right to be exploited. Furthermore, anyone foolish enough to hesitate now–say, to pause and wonder why all this breathless enthusing about the “new” economy sounds oddly like the squeakings of a helium abuser–was in for a shock. Corporate globalization was a done deal, a no-brainer, a slam-dunk. Gentlemen: I give you the future, with stock options.
Though delivered with more than the usual helping of smug, there was nothing very original about this uplifting little sermon (or little sermon of uplift, any distinction being all but meaningless). One can easily find New York Times columnists riffing on the same themes any day of the week. It was somewhat more surprising to hear it spoken so confidently at a university, where critical thinking purportedly lives and thrives. And in fairness there were some stirrings of discomfort from the audience–the professor’s cheering section of imported suits not withstanding. Yet the question that provoked the greatest response of the night, when everyone from the undergraduate beside me to the venture capitalists in the front row raised their hands unselfconsciously skyward, was when the professor asked, “How many people here have worked for minimum wage?”
Among journalists, sociologists, and historians it has become almost a cliché to note that nearly everyone in the United States claims to belong to the middle class. The show of hands I participated in demonstrates a related truth, that most everyone believes they got that way through their own hard work and sacrifice. So while the professor’s whole presentation on global economics amounted to little more than an attempt to legitimate the policies of the executives down in front, the success of that effort relied on a ludicrous parallel between the comfortable university audience and factory employees
working fourteen-hour shifts in southeast Asia. Leaving aside the bar graphs and statistics, the justification of those (far-off) workers’ continued exploitation depended, in the end, on our buying into some weird flattery of our personal intelligence and initiative. You started out at the bottom of the ladder, look how far you’ve gotten…(and better for it, too).
How variations on this appeal to our collective vanity have become an all-purpose defense for the ruthless policies of corporations–everything from downsizing and outsourcing in the U.S., to the repression of labor, environmental, and pro-democracy activists in countries like Nigeria and the Philippines–is the theme of Thomas Frank’s new book, One Market Under God: Extreme Capitalism, Market Populism, and the End of Economic Democracy. As one of the founding editors of The Baffler, a scruffy, sarcastic, but consistently relevant journal of cultural criticism, Frank has specialized for years in attacks on “the Culture Trust,” the media conglomerates and corporate marketers who have colonized every available public space to maintain their “brand presence” in our lives. In One Market Under God Frank brings his historically-informed skepticism to bear on the business mythologies of the 1990s, the decade when Land Rover-driving investment bankers reimagined themselves as revolutionary “change agents.”
Frank introduces the term “market populism” to describe a powerful ideological consensus that emerged in the 1990s, one that equates unregulated business with the highest ideals of democracy. Quoting advertising slogans, management guides, and press coverage of the “new” economy, he presents an exhaustive (and at times, exhausting) argument that this unlikely association has become a culturally pervasive “given.” Today, it is not just the brokerage presidents and chief executives telling us that we should accept the impartial wisdom of that abstraction called the Market, but also the politicians, journalists, and university professors. Together they argue that if meddling bureaucrats would only stand aside, the Market would empower people to take control of their lives, multiplying their options and bringing prosperity to all who are deserving. As Frank describes the market populist reasoning, “By its very nature the market was democratic, perfectly expressing the popular will through the machinery of supply and demand, poll and focus group, superstore and Internet. In fact, the market was more democratic than any of the formal institutions of democracy–elections, legislatures, governments.”
Like the Populist politicians of the 1890s, the market populists of today claim to represent the interests of “The People” and declare “elites” to be their sworn enemy. But Frank rightly notes that the “elitism” being condemned in the Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, and Forbes has nothing to do with economic power. To judge from these publications, the most unforgivable conceit is to question the workings of the market and especially, to imply that workers and consumers might benefit from some kind of legislated protections. Should a tire manufacturer decide to break a strike by hiring replacement workers, thereby causing the reliability of their product to decline, no need for alarm; when the number of fatalities reaches high enough to attract media notice, the market will see the right people are punished. If the telecommunications cartel you work for tosses you out this morning and hires you back this afternoon as a “temporary” worker without health insurance-hey, now you’ve entered the exciting world of “free agency.” Government regulations, unions, and labor laws only get in the way of the market working properly and insult our ability to choose what’s best for ourselves. Indeed, writes Frank, “Since markets express the will of the people, virtually any criticism of business can be described as a despicable contempt for the common man.”
Given this market populist definition of “elitism,” One Market takes the curious form of an intellectual history of anti-intellectuals. There is George Gilder, a professional apologist for the Reagan Revolution who has
remade himself as visionary of the “New Economy.” For years, Gilder has been among the most tireless promoters of Silicon Valley as a kind of latter-day Ellis Island, where every social misfit, immigrant inventor, and poor huddled entrepreneur can find a high-tech startup to call their own. Credit for making digital capitalism cool also goes to Kevin Kelly and the editors of Wired magazine for helping to popularize the idea that the Internet was libertarian by its very nature, a technology that recognized no laws and made all forms of government obsolete. But for sheer insults to the intelligence, few can match Spencer Johnson, author of the management primer Who Moved My Cheese?, which was, frighteningly enough, listed as the online bookseller Amazon’s best-selling business title for 2000 when I last checked. Masquerading as a children’s story that teaches about the importance of accepting “change” (adults might want to substitute “downsizings,” “lockouts,” or “plant closures”) Who Moved My Cheese? counsels “littlepeople” to set aside their “arrogance,” stop their complaining, and realize they should be grateful to those in charge of their particular rat maze. After all, these wise (if faceless) overseers have given the littlepeople a wonderful opportunity to discover what new “cheese” might be out there waiting for them. To avoid unpleasant associations with Big Government, there is naturally no mention made of whether a littleperson might expect this cheese to be USDA surplus.
As a regular reader of the business press, Frank has an extensive collection of these outrages at his disposal. By suggesting how absurd the free-marketeers’ propaganda can be, his gift for mockery creates frequent opportunities to laugh, however bitterly. Still, he insists that the self-aggrandizing slogans of the computer manufacturers and the adolescent fantasies of the e-traders should not distract us from a more serious truth. The goal of much of the market populists’ rhetoric has been to shift popular perceptions, redefining class conflict so that it is no longer imagined in terms of labor versus management, or even the haves versus the have-nots, but rather, “righteous new money versus the snooty old.” Now we are all expected to cheer for Bill Gates, who in surpassing the Rockefellers and the Carnegies and defying the loathsome bureaucrats at the Justice Department, has proven himself to be the People’s Monopolist.
But despite all the dot-commotion filling up the airwaves and newsstands, class and economics still count for something in this world. While television commercials depict truck drivers who have made a killing in stocks, Frank notes that even the conservative economist Lester Thurow was forced to admit a full 86 percent of the market gains between 1995 and 1999 went to the wealthiest 10 percent of the population. If the news media gave more time and inches to publicizing figures like these, more people might find themselves agreeing with Frank that there is precious little that is “new” about the present economy save for the ceaseless drone of the market ideologues.
Still, whether our concerns are for the “global South” or the local neighborhood, activists and educators are already confronting the effects of this ideological consensus. Beyond its celebration of greed and legitimation of “let-them-eat-bootstraps” indifference, market populism poses a more subtle threat in attempting to make business and finance synonymous with grassroots movements. Anyone with a sense of history or perspective can recognize the obscenity of a television ad comparing the “liberation” of online trading to the struggle for African-American civil rights. But in the environment One Market describes, activists must now contend with more than the appropriation of their symbols and histories. Lately, every management guru describes him- or herself as “The People’s” revolutionary, while every advertising campaign urges us to subvert the status quo. Frank notes that many marketers have embraced the ideas of advertising expert Jean-Marie Dru, who proposed the secret of business success was to align a brand with some “vision” of freedom, from Pepsi’s teen rebellion to Benetton’s high-gloss multiculturalism. Frank warns us that “From a longer perspective what Dru was proposing was the colonization by business of the notion of social justice itself.” Defined in these terms, social activism might well amount to participation in a consumer taste test.
Meanwhile, the landscapes of the American South continue to serve in a familiar role as locations where advertisers and brand marketers go prospecting for “authenticity,” that elusive resource believed crucial to winning over today’s skeptical consumer. But the cruel irony, Frank notes, is that when companies like Nike or Phillip Morris use rural crossroads, gritty industrial towns, and inner city neighborhoods as the backdrops to hock their products, the “authenticity” they are celebrating is the poverty, uncertainty, and diminished prospects that have been created by the flight of business capital. Market populism abounds with contradictions of this sort, for it is in essence an ideology that combines promises of freedom with the threat of the inevitable; questioning the effects of free markets and corporate globalization are after all, never listed among our “choices.”
One Market Under God is not without flaws; at 358 pages, the book would have benefited from a less indulgent editor. Frank’s decision not to explore how far his ideological consensus extends to the population as a whole amounts to a more serious limitation, since everyday experience is a constant reminder to many that the market is an unfair place indeed. But clearly he is on to something. There is no denying that deregulation and privatization, an upward redistribution of wealth and the dismantling of the
social safety net, the exploitation of workers, and the excesses of global marketing continue to be justified in market populist terms. Ultimately this is what makes One Market an important book, for it reveals how these injustices are perpetuated in our name.
Pat Wehner is a postdoctoral fellow at Emory University’s Center for Myth and Ritual in American Life, a Sloan Center for Working Families.