Divine Commerce

One Market Under God: Extreme Capitalism, Market Populism and the End of Economic Democracy, Thomas Frank. Doubeday, 414 pages, $26.00

Some years ago, a newly minted corporate lawyer attempted to explain to me the mysterious workings of the free market. His handiest analogy for the market's just and equitable distribution of goods was the way cigarettes are bought and sold inside a prison: Unimpeded by "government" (that is, the warden), smokers purchased their addictive product and entrepreneurs accumulated their wealth. What could be more natural?

The joke was not entirely on my friend the lawyer; he had found his ham-handed metaphor in some conventional economics text. While reading Thomas Frank's One Market Under God, I often recalled that lawyer and his uncomplicated faith in the omnipotent deities of the capitalist marketplace. Frank's subject is not the market per se but the mythology of the market and how that mythology has come to dominate much of what passes for Western culture, high and low.

In The Conquest of Cool (1997), Frank described how the presumably countercultural 1960s notion of hipness had been disseminated--indeed, to a great extent had been manufactured--by the business culture, especially the new wave of advertising agencies and fashion mongers. In One Market Under God, Frank (founding editor of The Baffler) is after even bigger fish: the ways in which "market populism"--the unexamined presumption that the market and democracy are one and the same--has become the dominating ideology of our time, perhaps the closest thing we have to a civic religion.

From Deadheads to Nobel-laureate economists, from paleoconservatives to New Democrats, American leaders in the nineties came to believe that markets were a popular system, a far more democratic form of organization than (democratically elected) governments. This is the central premise of what I will call "market populism": That in addition to being mediums of exchange, markets were mediums of consent.

Frank notes that the equation of free markets and democracy--"the standard-issue patter of corporate lobbyists like the National Association of Manufacturers"--is at least a century old, but he insists, "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." The book is a history of how that triumph took place, mostly in the 1990s--of how the dominant culture was persuaded that "the laissez-faire way was not only the best and inevitable way, but the one most committed to the will and the interests of the people." Frank goes on:

This is a study of business culture--of the literature of Wall Street, of management theory, of the conventions of marketing and advertising--and of the ways in which business ideas were reflected in the broader culture... . It is above all the history of market populism: its origins, its coalescence in the thought of certain business writers, its concentration in the worldview of certain industries (Internet theorists, for example, seem to be particularly fervent market populists), its rise to orthodoxy under Newt Gingrich and then with the seemingly less partisan dawning of the "New Economy," and its consequences for American culture and American democracy.

It will be no surprise to most readers--in fact, to most sentient beings--that for many years advertisers have identified consumption with liberation. "You're Gonna Love the Freedom," declared a convenience store chain in 1984, "at Your 7-11!" Nike is only the latest in a long series of multinational conglomerates to declare that rebellion and conforming to fashion are one and the same (indeed, that cultural project was much the burden of Frank's earlier book). What is extraordinary in One Market Under God is the depth and breadth of Frank's catalog of ideological consensus in support of market populism. From George Gilder to Newt Gingrich, from Walter Wriston to Joseph Nocera, from Daniel Yergin to Thomas Friedman, from "Adam Smith" to Anita Roddick, from pop journalism to kiddie TV to culture studies, from John Peter Barlow to Al Neuharth--and with many stops in between--Frank has accumulated an astonishing and overwhelming historical record of free market theology masquerading as independent thought, indeed as expertise. And the author, who is invariably astute and witty about the inherent contradictions in free market ideology, is quick to point out that a central principle of market populism is, of course, that there are no experts--only the divinely inspired market.

I had been prepared to take Frank's title with a grain of salt--an offhand allusion to the Pledge of Allegiance as a way of emphasizing the ubiquity of market propaganda. But in fact the title is no exaggeration. As Frank demonstrates from the opening chapters, both advertisers (such as IBM and Merrill Lynch) and their apologists (Tom Peters, Kevin Kelly, and others) have been happy to conflate the omnipotent power of the market with that of the god best-selling self-help author Laurie Beth Jones refers to as "Jesus, CEO." Frank barely touches upon the explicitly biblical defenses of capitalism common among southern tycoons, yet his reading of ads and of popular business writing demonstrates that there is essentially no limit to the ecstatic declarations of blind faith generated by these supposedly hard-nosed market propagandists. And where faith is the answer, the greatest sin is disbelief. The book's epigraph is from Randolph Bourne--"In a time of faith, skepticism is the most intolerable of all insults"--and Frank traces with a wry hand the relentless attacks on "cynicism," popularly defined as the expression of any doubt whatsoever in the all-powerful and all-beneficent workings of the "free" market (which in any case rules our every action, whether we believe or not). Indeed, for many of these well-rewarded propagandists, the only thing holding the rest of us back from instantaneous wealth is our refusal to believe. "Everywhere [skepticism about markets] prevails," wrote George Gilder, "poverty persists and spreads."

Although the book is focused on market ideology, Frank notes throughout that the recent boom times for capital and its apologists have meant the opposite for most Americans, as prosperity for the privileged steadily drives down real wages and creates inequalities of wealth unique among industrialized nations and unknown in the United States since the 1920s. That reality would seem to make market populism not just false but trivial, mocked and contradicted by the actual economic facts. But Frank argues the opposite.

[Market populism] is a set of beliefs (importantly, beliefs first enunciated by Ronald Reagan) that, once enacted into public policy, has permitted an upward transfer of wealth unprecedented in our lifetimes; it's a collection of symbols and narratives that understand the resulting wealth polarization as a form of populism, as an expression of the people's will.

Frank is to be commended for his extraordinary endurance in simply collecting and cataloging the range of atavistic poppycock that sustains most conventional commentary on markets. That he does so with an engagingly dry wit and an apparent personal immunity to hyperbolically ignorant prose is worthy of gratitude. At moments he seems (almost) overwhelmed by the task, as when he mordantly dissects the stupefying inanities of New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman.

[Friedman's] collected works constitute a veritable dictionary of the market-populist myths of the age, awesome in its inclusiveness: Enthusiasm for the "rebranding" of Britain, pointless ponderings about the physical weight of each country's GNP, facile equating of Great Society America with the Soviet Union. Each of them is preposterous in its own way, but thrown together they make a truly dispiriting impression, a feeling akin to the first time I heard Newt Gingrich speak publicly and it began to dawn on me that this is what the ruling class calls thinking, that this handful of pathetic, palpably untrue prejudices are all they have to guide them as they shuttle back and forth between the State Department and the big think tanks, discussing what they mean to do with us and how they plan to dispose of our country.

To his credit, Frank does not lose heart for the rest of us and, after this moment of eloquent despair, goes on to analyze in excoriating detail the corrosive workings of market-populist mythology and how it has invaded virtually every form and forum of public thought in the United States. In a chapter called "The Democracy Bubble," he recounts how business commentators, while devoted to the notion of the inherent democracy of markets--such as the "democratic" power of mutual funds--see as a terrifying threat every manifestation of real economic democracy (especially as expressed by unions). In "I Want My NYSE," he follows the 1990s myth of "The People's Market," in which every blip and irrational movement of the stock market is gratefully interpreted as the profound expression of the popular wisdom and will. In "Casual Day, U.S.A.," he explores the widespread delusion that neo-entrepreneurs and corporate mavericks will be the new sources of both inevitable workplace democracy and social revolution--that telecommuting or bringing a pet to the office is akin to political emancipation, and that being laid off, made temporary and benefitless, is the new path to social liberation. "The market, if we would only let it into our hearts and our workplaces," Frank summarizes, "would look after us; would see that we were paid what we deserved; would give us kind-hearted bosses who listened, who recycled, who cared; would bring a democratic revolution to industry that we could only begin to imagine."

And so on. After reading One Market Under God, it is difficult to conceive of any free market idea so preposterous that some analyst has not already been trumpeting it on the Internet or the Fox News Channel or MSNBC. Frank is especially devastating on the contemporary political fantasy of the power of the Net, and he explodes the ideological balloon that the World Wide Web makes real political and economic democracy obsolete. But he does not confine himself to popular targets, although they are myriad. In one chapter, he recounts the curious contemporary history of the "cultural studies" university intellectuals, many of whom have turned the academic defense of popular culture into an institutional apology for the "democratic" wisdom of consumption, and at least some of whom have defected to ad agencies and consultantships, where the rewards are definitely greener and the subjects--the target markets, that is--are truly interdisciplinary. While deftly deconstructing the self-proclaimed "cult studs," Frank notes ironically (much of the funniest and most telling detail is in his backnotes) that One Market Under God will likely get its only thorough reading among the inhabitants of such university departments.

The book should instead enjoy better luck, a much wider and wiser market. And when you take it up, I would recommend having a literary antitoxin readily at hand--something to read when laying Frank aside, as a partial defense against the truly dispiriting leagues of perniciously inane prose he has collected and anatomized here. (I employed for the purpose David Bradley's unforgettable 1981 novel The Chaneysville Incident, but I suppose something out of Beckett or Stendhal would do as well.) And though his book is primarily devoted to describing the depths of the cultural problem represented by the triumph of market populism, Frank is under no illusions about its real-world solutions. "I believe that the key to reining in markets," he declares in his preface,

is to confront them from outside, to do exactly the sort of things that have so infuriated [Jagdish] Bhagwati, Friedman, and the rest of the nation's op-ed writers in recent months. 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.

A people's movement devoted to creating that countervailing power and tumbling the idols of the market might well begin by consulting Frank's digest of the enemy's theoretical saints. ยค