He's savaged the '60s counterculture, "hip" capitalism and cyberlibertarianism, so what does Tom Frank believe in?

Published October 26, 2000 8:43AM (EDT)

Contemporary American politics have devolved into a chimerical, hyperstylized battle of images. We live in a world where George W. Bush can play a homespun outsider, businessmen pose as paradigm-busting radicals and poorly paid professors are imagined to be a maniacal elite. Thomas Frank is one of our most brilliant critics precisely because he sees through all this, zeroing in on the economic dynamics obscured by predictable culture-war skirmishes. He's made it his mission to expose the fallacy behind our thoughtless conflation of "hip" and "subversive," arguing that our reverence for coolness plays right into conservative consumer capitalism.

Perhaps more important, Frank has followed Barbara Ehrenreich in pulling back the curtains on the right's trumped-up cultural populism, which functions as a distraction from economic policies that hardly favor the little guy. When Republicans can claim to be defending mainstream America families from threats like the "homosexual agenda" while repeatedly voting against the kind of minimum wage regulations that allow working families to buy shoes for their kids and put food on their tables, the right has managed to divorce the language of populism from any notions of economic equality. In illuminating the harsh economic realities underlying the late '90s boom, Frank suggests the possibility of a left that stands for more than a cornucopia of lifestyle options, piercing through trendy jargon to reclaim the ideals of social justice.

Frank, editor of the legendary zine-cum-academic journal the Baffler, is a dazzling writer, with a wit that recalls H.L. Mencken's. It's hard to imagine any other work of business history that could make a reader embarrass herself by laughing out loud on the bus as I did while reading his new book, "One Market Under God." Frank's writing is caustic, but he's nowhere near as cynical as those on the academic left who've abandoned the unfashionable poor for ever more baroquely irrelevant studies of pop culture's "hidden loci of resistance." As he wrote in the Baffler essay "When Class Disappears," "We've got an entire academic pedagogy devoted to the notion that symbolic dissent -- imagining, say, that the secret police don't want us to go to the disco, but that we're doing it anyway -- is as real and meaningful, or, better yet, more real and more meaningful than the humdrum business of organizing and movement-building." He's inspired by the old labor left, and his writing burns with passionate outrage on working people's behalf.

Yet despite the acuteness of his analysis, finishing "One Market Under God," I felt nearly as frustrated as illuminated. This has partly to do with one of Frank's only weak spots as a critic -- he dismisses any causes that aren't strictly economic as a result of his contempt for frivolous lifestyle politics. Beyond that, though, "One Market Under God," like so much of Frank's work, can be exasperating because it describes problems in intricate detail and then only obliquely points toward hazy solutions.

"One Market Under God" is both a persuasive attack on new economy rhetoric and a history of what Frank calls "market populism" -- the theory, almost ubiquitous in the last few years, that markets are inherently democratic, even more so than democratically elected governments.

Once Americans imagined that economic democracy meant a reasonable standard of living for all -- that freedom was only meaningful once poverty and powerlessness had been overcome ... Today, however, American opinion leaders seem generally convinced that democracy and the free market are simply identical -- What is "new" is this idea's triumph over all its rivals; the determination of American leaders to extend it to all the world; the general belief among opinion-makers that there is something natural, something divine, something inherently democratic about markets. A better term for the "New Economy" might simply be "consensus."

By fetishizing groovy concepts like difference and change and "thinking outside the box," Frank argues, the new economy's consultants, PR firms and media organs neutralize old objections to capitalism that were based on the soul-sucking conformity of bygone decades. The '90s consensus, he says, "was a struggle to establish the legitimacy of the free-market order by grounding it in something decidedly un-conservative; it was a consensus based not on obedience to God or deference to great men but on the volatile new idea that social conflict affirmed the principles of the market." The new corporate ideology celebrates "change " and "chaos." As Frank notes, "One of the more disheartening commercial fads of the nineties was the tendency to compare a given company's products to the civil rights movement.

Thus in the '90s, unchecked capitalism became cool. At the same time, all those cutting-edge companies with their nonhierarchical management styles helped create an abyss between the rich and the poor unique in the First World. For those without stock portfolios and stuck in insecure jobs paying stagnant wages, it made little difference whether the new breed of CEOs wore gray flannel suits or hip-hop gear.

Unlike many other lefty critics of American capitalism, Frank actually studies the inner workings of the business world, and his research yields some of the book's most astute insights and terrifying observations. The sections that focus on business literature and changing methods of corporate organization continue the project of Frank's first book, "The Conquest of Cool."

"The Conquest of Cool" is essentially about '60s advertising men, but it's also an argument about the role of the counterculture in contemporary capitalism. Frank rejects the notion that corporations simply co-opt the pure, authentic styles of the street. Instead, he maintains that while the '60s counterculture flattered itself with the idea that its hipness undermined "square" mainstream society, its values actually dovetailed in many ways with those of the admen. Citing the historians Warren Susman, William Leach and Jackson Lears, Frank wrote in "The Conquest of Cool," "[T]he prosperity of a consumer society depends not on a rigid control of people's leisure-time behavior, but on exactly its opposite: unrestraint in spending, the willingness to enjoy formerly forbidden pleasures, an abandonment of the values of thrift and the suspicion of leisure that characterized an earlier variety of capitalism."

Charting the "Creative Revolution" on Madison Avenue -- in which marketing campaigns gave up embarrassing '50s earnestness in favor of the irony and audacity we all know and love today -- Frank said, "What happened in the '60s is that hip became central to the way capitalism understood itself and explained itself to the public." That idea is at the core of almost everything else he's written, and in 2000, with brand-name sneakers selling themselves as agents of self-actualization, insouciant young tech millionaires lionized in fawning magazine profiles and endless commercials set to au courant dance music or classic punk, it's hard to doubt him.

A good part of "One Market Under God" has Frank explaining the way the digital economy has parlayed hipster cred into cultural legitimacy. "Business wanted us all to know: It had changed. It had become cool. It had become sensitive, youthful, soulful," he writes. "Business was no longer wearing pinstripes or tuning in to the old boys' network. In decades previous, perhaps, business had rewarded the well-born and pompous, but now everything was different. In the '90s business was a truth-device; a friend of humanity; a powerful warrior for global democracy; a righteous enemy of pretense and falsehood."

Everyone has seen business' attempts to convince us of these notions through ads and journalism; Frank has had the infinite patience to wade through swamps of marketing literature to see how business convinces itself. This is one of the book's great services -- it's incredibly jolting to come face to face with the awesome, almost Wagnerian idiocy of the writings of, say, Tom Peters and then realize that people with power over your life take this shit seriously. "Now," he quotes Peters, "-- the people who lift 'things' (the ... rapidly ... declining fraction) are the new parasites living off the carpal-tunnel syndrome of the computer programmers' perpetually strained keyboard hands."

Peters isn't alone in trying to cast the working class as a new privileged elite while painting the real elite as somehow oppressed. Frank quotes a Wired manifesto stating, "The rich, the former leisure class, are becoming the new overworked. And those who used to be considered the working class are becoming the new leisure class." It's stunning to realize that would-be architects of our economy consider unemployment or underemployment "leisure."

In addition to cheerleaders like Peters, business has also been helped, Frank writes, by its putative opponents, the self-described radicals of university cultural studies departments, where scholars devote themselves to analyzing the "subversive" elements in pop culture. Frank's indictment of the way cultural studies reinforces the status quo mirrors the argument Russell Jacoby made in last year's penetrating "The End of Utopia." The cultural studies professors both writers reprove tend to regard any criticism of consumer society as elitist, since it questions the taste and intelligence of ordinary consumers. Jacoby quotes cultural studies professor Alan Wolfe: "[W]hatever the literati once denounced, cultural studies will uphold: romance novels, 'Star Trek', heavy metal, Disneyland, punk rock, wrestling, Muzak, 'Dallas' ... If shopping centers were for an earlier generation of Marxists symbols of the fetishism of commodities, then contemporary advocates of cultural studies ... find them "overwhelming and constitutively paradoxical." These academics may regard themselves as latter-day Marxists, but this position ensures that they'll forever be defending the market.

Surveying literature on the ostensible left and the business right, Frank paints a disturbing picture of a society that has neutralized most kinds of dissent through irony, fatuous theorizing and the transformation of alienation into a niche market. So if Frank's analysis is so right on, why is "One Market Under God" occasionally maddening? Partly it's because his master narrative of the symbiosis between hipsters and capitalists stamps out ideological nuance. Sure, if you believe that things like abortion rights, gay marriage and free speech online are simply distractions from economic issues, then there is no real difference between Grateful Dead lyricist-turned-cyberlibertarian John Perry Barlow and Newt Gingrich.

Yet the fact is that civil rights do remain under attack. In Frank's preface, "Deadheads in Davos," he faults Barlow and his ilk for objecting to the Telecommunications Act of 1996 because of the Communications Decency Act and not because it ushered in an orgy of media mergers. The CDA attempted to criminalize the transmission of "indecent" material online. Frank dismisses the seriousness of this threat to free speech, writing that it was "destined from the get-go to be struck down by courts. But that hardly soothed Barlow ... who proceeded to sound the tocsin of cyberlibertarianism."

It seems strange, though, to suggest that a public outcry against the CDA was unwarranted. Even if a Supreme Court's overturn was completely assured (which it wasn't -- moderate Sandra Day O'Connor and Chief Justice William Rehnquist dissented), Congress' blithe dismissal of elementary free speech rights surely merited anger. Besides, the issue of free speech on the Internet has only grown more serious. Under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, the Motion Picture Association of America succeeded in convincing a judge to ban Web sites from even linking to code for reverse-engineering DVDs. A clothing company has been sued for printing the code on T-shirts. Imagine being taken to court for making a shirt that big business finds threatening -- that alone should prove free speech isn't a moot issue. In their way, the cyberlibertarians are capable of challenging the culture industry -- they're not always simply stooges for capital.

But given the scope of Frank's book, this is a relatively small point. The bigger problem is, in a way, not even Frank's fault -- it has to do with the decline of the left generally. Frank is right -- there is a mainstream consensus that laissez-faire capitalism is inevitable. But this consensus results as much from the left's failure to offer a coherent strategy for dealing with global economics as it does from big business's PR savvy.

Frank's chapter on cultural studies hints at the left's lost bearings, but in other ways he skirts the issue. Surely, part of any challenge to a consensus should include an alternative vision, but on this Frank is uncharacteristically vague. "I believe that the key to reining in markets is to confront them from outside," he writes. "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."

The closest that Frank comes to identifying what this countervailing power might be is in the book's last sentence, which says, "And on the streets of Seattle, just as on the prairies of Kansas a hundred years before, a truly eclectic coalition astonished the world with the power of the language of democracy." This hardly solidifies Frank's position, since the agenda of the protesters in Seattle, Washington and Prague has remained diffuse. As the Economist smugly notes, even Naomi Klein, author of the celebrated anti-corporate book "No Logo," has called the protesters "a movement of meeting-stalkers, following the trade bureaucrats as if they were the Grateful Dead." They may speak the language of democracy, but what are they saying?

Of course, some of the protesters champion issues that anyone with lefty sympathies would support -- protection for the environment and debt relief, for example. But on the larger issue of globalization, the protest movement, like the left in general, has yet to come up with a workable scheme. Frank lambastes the pundit class for painting Seattle union protesters as "the deluded, racist foot soldiers of protectionism." Yet old-fashioned protectionism is indeed what many of them are fighting for.

A liberal might wish to support them, but the globalizers targeted by these new activists can now claim to have one of the left's most cherished ideals on their side -- improving conditions in the Third World. In a recent issue of the Economist, an editorial states, "In terms of relieving want, 'globalization' is the difference between South Korea and North Korea, between Malaysia and Myanmar, even (switching timespan) between Europe and Africa." Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn sound a similar note in a recent New York Times Magazine excerpt from their book "Thunder From the East." "Fourteen years ago, we moved to Asia and began reporting there. Like most Westerners, we arrived in the region outraged at sweatshops," they write. "In time, though, we came to accept the view supported by most Asians: that the campaign against sweatshops risks harming the very people it is intended to help." Kristof and WuDunn are careful to decry brutal, abusive conditions in many sweatshops, but they insist "Asian workers would be aghast at the idea of American consumers boycotting certain toys or clothing in protest. The simplest way to help the poorest Asians would be to buy more from sweatshops, not less. For all the misery they can engender, sweatshops at least offer a precarious escape from the poverty that is the developing world's greatest problem."

The left must refute this idea, conceive a better economic policy that incorporates it, or risk devolving into a kind of ugly nativism. So far, it's hard to find much evidence that contradicts Kristof and WuDunn's view (Frank mocks it, but doesn't offer anything to challenge it). Until the left devises a better plan for lifting people in the Third World out of poverty, it won't be able to mount much of an ideological challenge to unfettered capitalism. A widespread loss of faith in socialism and other grandiose plans for economic reordering has robbed most left thinkers of any enthusiasm for that task.

Ultimately, "One Market Under God" exposes a profoundly depressing situation, whips up our righteous indignation and then leaves us with no real place to channel it. It recalls the conclusion of "The End of Utopia." After bemoaning the demise of the left's utopian fervor and the rise of both cynicism and reform-minded practicality, Jacoby writes on the last page, "What is to be done? The question, routinely addressed to all critics, insists on a practicality inimical to utopianism. Nothing is to be done. Yet that does not mean nothing is to be thought or imagined or dreamed." If nothing can be done but dream, that brings us right back to the meaningless symbolic politics that he assails. The few sentences Frank devotes to solutions are less resigned, but equally amorphous.

Frank's critics have called him on his refusal to offer answers to the problems he so deftly elucidates. In a Baffler debate between Frank and Jay Rosen over public journalism, Rosen asked what good comes of Frank's talent for satire and corruption-spotting in the absence of a positive objective. To this, Frank responded, "Rosen's most serious accusation is that I spend comparatively little time proposing real-world solutions to the problems I describe ... It seems odd, to put the kindest spin on it, for a superjournalist like Rosen to assert that shaping opinions through well-reasoned argument, as I attempt to do, is somehow a less legitimate pursuit than shaping opinion through foundation-backed blueprints for the production of feel-good anti-argument."

To a point, he's right. "One Market Under God" is valuable simply because it points out the way a moneyed elite has enlisted the media and popular opinion in its cause. But until Frank or someone starts seriously grappling with how to save American jobs and curb corporate power without sacrificing Third World workers or dampening prosperity, the fury his book stirs up feels impotent.

Obviously, there are real things we can do to ameliorate inequality -- increase the social safety net, improve education, raise taxes on the rich, end the wholesale imprisonment of young black men engendered by the drug war. But none of those reforms really challenges the consensus about globalization, hypercapitalism and an economy that benefits investors at the expense of workers, and Frank doesn't propose anything that does. We're left with the conviction that the current system is bad, but little clue about how to make a better one.

By Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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