One Market Under God:
Extreme Capitalism, Market Populism, and the End of Economic Democracy
by Thomas Frank
Doubleday, 414 pgs
Editor's note: The offices of The Baffler, Tom Frank's pioneering journal of cultural criticism and an island of sanity for the last decade, was ruined in a fire this April. Fans of the journal are encouraged to send contributions or spare office equipment to: The Baffler Magazine, P.O. Box 378293, Chicago, IL, 60637
During the winter and spring of 1999, there was a guy who used to sit in my neighborhood internet bar in Prague and day-trade. His favorite computer was usually reserved from between 3 and 6pm. I'd often watch him while sipping my coffee. Outlining his long frizzy hair was always a screen dense with stock quotes and slowly moving line graphs charting that morning's movement of the NASDAQ. He was a hippie traveler of sorts, and wore the same American flag shirt that got Abbie Hoffman arrested in 1968. On several occasions I saw him gesticulating wildly as he tried to convince Czechs of the genius of on-line stock trading. I couldn't get this character out of my head while reading Tom Frank's latest piece of contemporary history cum blistering social critique. This countercultural stock freak traveling through Central Europe with a napsack seemed to encapsulate perfectly the media created zeitgeist dissected in One Market Under God: in which capitalism is made 'revolutionary' by the creative energy of Zen management theorists and punk rock software engineers, in which the old boom/bust cycle and the dirty realities of inequality are vitiated by the inherently egalitarian nature of the New Economy and the wondrously anarchical internet. At least this was the story of the dot-com decade so exuberantly told and illustrated by the financial services industry and their journalistic boosters in Wired and the op-ed page of the New York Times.
Tom Frank, probably the premiere cultural critic of his generation, is like a hunter with a resting butterfly in the sights of his elephant gun when he goes after the New Economy hype that shaped and distorted America's public discourse for most of the 1990s. Frank's provocative thesis is essentially this: Wall St., as the embodiment of entrenched privilege and structural inequality in a supposedly democratic society, has been on the ideological defensive since the rise of the robber barons in the 1870s. It has thus always wrapped itself in the mantle of "the People" in an attempt to equate its success with that of the general population. After Wall St.'s public disgrace in the Great Depression and subsequent restraints placed upon finance during the New Deal, elites struggled to regain their lost patina of mass cred and overall benevolence. And they largely failed until the 1960s, when the supposed "elitism" of anti-American radicals on US campuses allowed Wall St. to ride Reaganite 'backlash' all the way into the trusting mind of Joe Hardhat. Cultural non-issues like flag burning and intermarriage let the one per centers point the finger of elitism leftward, away from their own growing millions and away from the declining wages of American workers.
But Wall St.'s propaganda connection to Main St. could no longer be sustained as the culture wars were gradually lost and the World War Two generation started dying off. Americans after the Cold War, most of whom have smoked pot and do not understand traditional patriotism, simply were not moved anymore by right-wing canards about "cultural McGoverniks." The fact that the country shrugged off the Monica Lewinsky scandal merely proved that another legitimizing tool was needed. The new ideology had been developing since the 1980s but reached full maturity only in the mid-90s; Frank calls it the refurbished ideology of "market populism." Market populism of a sort had existed in the 1920s, but in the last decade, Frank argues, it reached an apotheosis of such astounding arrogance and haughty elite consensus that it must be considered its own animal. Much of the book is dedicated to an exegesis of the major texts underpinning the 90s high-tech version of market populism, from libertarian futurists like George Gilder to hysterically pro-free market hacks like Tom Friedman.
Frank explores the techniques and unmasks the sophistry that sold anti-labor, anti-regulation positions to the American people, even though such positions were clearly against their interests. He traces how the mythology of an ever expanding, ever equalizing stock market and anecdotal images of multi-ethnic and hip young dot-com millionaires were packaged and re-packaged endlessly in the mass media. Who needs social security when you have stock options? Why spend tax dollars on worker disability when paraplegics can use E*Trade to help themselves? Such was the delusional frenzy at the peak of Market populism in the 90s that these questions were being seriously asked in serious forums. Frank also tracks the ways in which those who questioned the new Market orthodoxy were immediately branded heretics (sometimes Stalinists) and strung up in the common square as "elitists." For if the Market represents the will--and wealth--of the people, then anyone who would reign in the Market is obviously a totalitarian. Ours is a land of spiky haired and daring entrepreneurs, the Market populist chorus sang, and under their enlightened stewardship the Dow will rise to 20,000... 30,000 and beyond, thus rewarding us all in a business happy land of plenty.
But as Frank points out, the fundamental underlying myth of Market populism--the stock market as a "People's market"--is pure bunk. No less than 86 per cent of the market's advances in the last four years of the 90s bull market went to the wealthiest ten per cent of the population, and American inequality is now at levels never seen before in history--any history. Thus Frank rightly concludes that the New Economy was a fraud, a media friendly code for a conservative putsch against the last remnants of Second Wave regulatory laws. The ethos of business uber alles and the all-knowing logic of capital, Frank reminds us, is in fact "at variance with the hard-won array of rights that most Americans understand as their heritage."
Now that the speculative bubble is looking more like a used condom than a glittering hot-air dream machine, perhaps we can re-find that heritage. Perhaps we can grasp once again the timeless truth that the logic of business is not universal affluence, democracy incarnate or the face of God, but rather the ageless mask of class war, mercilessly fought and mercilessly won.