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The Contrarian Manifesto

Social critic Thomas Frank says big-market capitalism rends democracy's fabric.

November 12, 2000|DAVID L. ULIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

You don't hear much about class anymore. If you believe the pundits, the whole tricky issue has been rendered moot by the emergence of the "new economy," in which everyone can buy into the market and stake out a piece of the pie. During the recent campaign, in fact, every time Al Gore attacked the Bush tax plan as a sop to the rich, his ideas were criticized as musty, hopelessly mired in the past. What, after all, does class have to do with the brave new world of spreading affluence and global business? How can such an obsolete political language speak to our post-ideological times?

These, suggests Thomas Frank, remain fundamental questions, but then Frank has never doubted that class is an important factor in our lives. In his new book, "One Market Under God: Extreme Capitalism, Market Populism, and the End of Economic Democracy" (Doubleday), he argues that present-day America has become an economic oligarchy, with the majority of consumers manipulated into financial serfdom under the guise of market choice.

"Let's face it," he says by phone from the Chicago offices of the Baffler, the journal of social criticism he has edited since 1988, "abuse of the language of choice is a hallmark of the age. The conglomerates like to say they're giving people what they want, but so many choices are taken off the table before the conversation begins." Nowhere, Frank believes, is this more true than when it comes to what he calls "market populism"--"a powerful new mythology" in which "the market and the people . . . [are] essentially one and the same."

According to this perspective, Frank writes, "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, government. The market was a community. The market was infinitely diverse." For Frank, the notion that the market could ever signify a purer form of democracy is ridiculous, a bit of sophistry to say the least. "I coined the term 'market populism,' " he laughs, "to represent a system people invent to further their own interests. That's what market populism is, a bogus system of thought."

On the one hand, there's a certain incendiary rhetoric to such a statement, as if Frank were slinging word bombs just to see where they might land. Yet if he gleefully admits that this is part of his intention--"one of the points of the book," he says, "is to expose all this and make it laughable"--he's also among our most insightful social observers, an expert at cutting through the cant of contemporary culture to pinpoint all the contradictions underneath.

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"I think his work is extremely important," says critic and author Barbara Ehrenreich, "the kind of intelligent dissent that, for the most part, is no longer being done." Frank's first book, "The Conquest of Cool," vividly delineated the relationship between consumerism and the counterculture, tracing the rise of so-called "hip capitalism" as a social force. "The Baffler," meanwhile, has honed the art of Mencken-esque invective to a rapier-sharp point. In that regard, "One Market Under God" makes for something of a natural progression, bringing this same sensibility to bear on a broader area of discourse: the way our entire society seems to have lost sight of itself. "There's been a gradual shift, since the 1960s, in the way we think about ourselves," Frank points out. "Ad agencies in the 1960s didn't talk about the market; they were cool capitalists, who wanted us to think they stood apart. Now, though, it's become cool to talk about the market instead of people, which is really just conservative common sense. So what you see is a melding of hip ad culture with this conservative worldview."

In many ways, the process Frank's describing is not merely a function of the marketplace. Rather, it's come to influence almost everything, from our sense of style and family to the increasingly homogenous world of politics. If there's one idea the political landscape has in common with the market, after all, it's a distrust of the dissenter, a scrupulous avoidance of debate. Surely, this was one of the hallmarks of the 2000 election, and, Frank argues, it's a defining ethos of the new economy, as evidenced by the language of its most rabid boosters, from management theory avatars such as Tom Peters to free-market gurus George Gilder and Jeffrey Bell, who deride opposing viewpoints as the grumblings of a cynical and discontented elite.

On some level, Frank notes, that's a continuation of the country's 30-year-long culture wars, translated from the ethical to the financial sphere. The irony, though, is that by framing things in terms of elitism and populism, the market gurus return us to the language of social class.

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