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Idolatries Of The Marketplace

A cultural-studies intervention into the hegemonic language of neoliberalism, but occasionally Frank lets his penchant for polemic get the better of his judgment.

Idolatries Of The Marketplace
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One Market Under God: Extreme Capitalism, Market Populism, and the End of Economic Democracy
By Thomas Frank
Doubleday 414 pages; $26
The 1980s were a fine time to be rich in America—but the 1990s were fabulous. And if you were a CEO or a nose-ringed, dot-com entrepreneur, you were a figure of world-historical proportions, not merely a wealth magnet, but a very example of the New Man to whom the New Economy was giving birth. Here’s the view from the top: In 1990, average CEO "wages" were 85 times those of the average blue-collar employee. In the next decade, that ratio went from merely staggering to truly astronomical, winding up in 1999 at 475 to 1— a greater than fivefold increase in nine years. The CEO-to-worker income ratio in Japan, meanwhile, held steady at 11 to 1, and in Britain—"the country," writes Thomas Frank, "most enamored of New Economy principles after the U.S. itself"—it was 24 to 1.

The New Economy and its CEO speedwagon were fueled by the long Dow boom, but they got a few crucial pushes from the U.S. federal government. The result was that every so often, American free-market ideologues had to take a twenty-second timeout from their ritual attacks on government in order to count all the bundles of money that government policies had dumped in their laps. And after the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, media moguls really had to bundle up.

As Frank points out, once the act became law, the telecommunications industry "promptly embarked on a spree of buyouts and monopoly building, with telephone and cable systems merging and converging in a whirling tangle of free-market ebullience that continues to this day." Transferring public ownership of $70 billion worth of digital frequencies to private interests, the Telecommunications Act presented what Frank calls "one of those tableaux of greed, legislative turpitude, and transparently self-serving sophistry that American culture ordinarily delights in exposing and deriding." But there was little public protest about metastasizing CEO compensation—and nary a peep from anyone with any meaningful access to state or corporate power.

Why such silence, and so little gagging? Two reasons come to mind. One, cultural critics on the left were not significant campaign contributors, and could only fume on the sidelines while corporate dollars bought one entire major American political party and seven-eighths of the other. Two, the expansion of the stock market to middle-income Americans, largely by way of 401(k) mutual funds, allowed market apologists to claim that what was good for General Motors was now good for the country’s retirement portfolios. Frank quickly exposes the speciousness of this claim, noting that because "the vast majority of shares are still held by the wealthy . . . the booming stock market of the nineties did not democratize wealth; it concentrated wealth."

The economy as a whole thus followed the logic of right-wing tax cuts, namely, an extra ten bucks each for you and your friends, another $10 billion for John Malone, Rupert Murdoch, Jack Welch, and Bill Gates. And apparently, this strategy worked sufficiently well in the last decade to allow the right wing to propose a new and even more amazing round of tax cuts for the next decade.

One Market Under God, however, is not primarily concerned with such piecemeal, partial explanations as these. To his credit, Frank seeks bigger game: not the specific people, laws, or campaign contributions that secured neoliberalism’s current stranglehold over public policy, but the broader cultural formation (though Frank doesn’t call it that, for reasons I’ll get to below) that made it all possible. Frank calls this market populism, "a curious but ideologically potent cultural hybrid bringing together the antiauthoritarian strains of traditional populism with the most orthodox faiths of classical economics."

In one sense, market populism is nothing more than the traditional libertarian equation of free markets with free societies, according to which humans are most free from persecution when corporations are most free from government regulation. This equation, notes Frank, has been "part of the cultural wallpaper for years," but has become standard-issue wallpaper only very recently:

 

Market populism began in nearly all its varieties as an ideology of business, as a PR scheme for this industry or that, as a simple management tactic, as a dream of the media conglomerates, as an official slogan for the New York Stock Exchange. What makes it worth studying, though, is its recent triumph in the larger world of American culture, the process by which even non-bankers, non-CEOs, and non-Republicans learned to accept the logic of the market as the functional equivalent of democracy.

The triumph of market populism thus renders it something other than garden-variety libertarian social theory, since in order to dominate the landscape, market populism has to appeal somehow to people who don’t subscribe to Reason magazine or Investor’s Business Daily. In explaining this triumph, Frank has a twofold task: to describe market populism and its apologists and to account for the relative collapse of other ways of thinking about the world.

Much of One Market Under God is devoted to parsing and exposing the remarkable idiocies of what passes for "management theory" these days, and surely one of the delights of the book is the dexterity and élan with which Frank skewers the genre and its gurus—Tom Peters, George Gilder, Peter Senge, and company. Here are the business world’s paeans to the soulful corporation, glassy-eyed treatises on the Tao of Dow, and hymns to the cosmic rightness of free trade, all of which give Frank his title, and all of which earn his well-deserved scorn. Frank’s reaction upon reading Thomas Friedman’s fatuous The Lexus and the Olive Tree pretty much sums up his relation to most of the material he’s immersed himself in for the past few years:

 

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.

For readers like me, this is a seductively satisfying account of Newthink (they have the power, but we have the brains), but it’s not the best thing about Frank’s book. Rather, what makes Frank worth studying is his unerring eye not only for the pomposities of market populism but also for their consequences.

Opening the book by noting that free-marketeers treat union supporters as dupes and automatons, "people lacking agency of their own, empty vessels filled with the will of others," Frank teases out perhaps the most important feature of market populism, its strategic confusion of who counts as an "agent." According to market populists, people can only act freely and rationally in a free market; thus, anticorporate activists are really Stalinoid puppets, duped by leftist rhetoric. Furthermore, the globalization of the free market is inevitable, and resistance is the work of flat-earthers and fools.

Now, the first proposition—that trade unionists are dupes—is prima facie absurd, since it entails the ancillary claim, as Frank shows, that "workers weren’t victimized by downsizing and job insecurity; these were things they wanted, things they fought for, things they needed in order to realize their full humanity, to escape from the corporate conformity of yesterday." But the second proposition—that free markets are inevitable—is not merely absurd but (in tandem with the first) incoherent, for it undermines the very notion that free markets free people: "How," asks Frank, "can we really be ‘free agents’ or ‘empowered’ or ‘liberated’ if we are in the tight grip of inevitability?"

Something at once odd and odious masks this contradiction, a cultural shift that has drawn Frank’s fire before—namely, the corporate "conquest" of cool. Appropriating the language of populist revolt and post-punk bad attitude, corporate America has managed to define itself precisely against what most people think of as corporate America, and the terrain of cultural criticism has been transformed accordingly. The symbolism runs like so: twenty-somethings with interesting hair configurations are revolutionizing the culture of the corporation. The new Wall Street’s attitude toward the old, pinstriped Wall Street is like unto the Sex Pistols’ attitude toward, say, Elvis. And the Internet? Dude, the Internet changes everything.

So pervasive is this self-representation of the financiers of the New Economy that Frank is hard put to lampoon it. Take, for example, Jonathan Hoenig, P.O.V.columnist, National Public Radio commentator, and author of Greed Is Good: "A dramatic shout is being heard in America these days. It’s the voice of new money. It’s young people who are determined to be themselves." The best parody Frank can muster in response, alas, is mere paraphrase: "It’s the George Gilder model of social conflict—righteous new money vs. snooty old—only spiced up in this telling with a few tired slogans from the sixties, as filtered through decades of TV commercials. . . . So disgusted are we by the materialism of our wealthy elders that we must break with them altogether and become . . . wealthy!" (second ellipsis Frank’s).

Nevertheless, Frank does not lose sight of the political reality driving this symbolic shift, namely, Wall Street’s ideological investment in inducing Americans to think of themselves as shareholders rather than as citizens, and thus, as in the passage of the Telecommunications Act, refashioning privatization as an enhancement of the public good. This is surely the main point of the enterprise of private enterprise, the force behind not only the dot-com bubble but also the related and perhaps incipient privatization of Social Security.

I admire Frank’s project in One Market Under God. And I’ll admit to having learned a good deal from it—particularly about the transformation of American business culture and the millennial pretensions of management theory. The book does, however, have some flaws. Among the most minor of these is the indiscriminateness of its outrage: On one page, Frank insists that "there is no social theory on earth short of the divine right of kings that can justify a five hundred fold gap between management and labor." On another page he’s complaining about the Nortel ad in which an executive recites the lyrics of "Come Together." Well, yes, it’s annoying that the surviving Beatles don’t control the rights to their own oeuvre and that Lennon’s trippy exhortation to simultaneous orgasm has been rewritten as the script of the company meeting, but it has been sixty years since Walter Benjamin warned us of the amazing conscriptive powers of the bourgeois apparatus.

Surely the next Nortel commercial will find some visually arresting way to quote Benjamin on the amazing conscriptive powers of the bourgeois apparatus. Likewise, you can only fulminate about the smug self-congratulation of the movie Pleasantville once in a book. Three times bespeaks either poor editing or repetition compulsion. And you shouldn’t still be defining "market populism" on page 111. But then, there’s a lot of repetition here: too many management theorists and not enough workers, too much about TheStreet.com and not enough about government.

These, as I say, are minor flaws. For One Market Under God attempts to chart a new cultural terrain—the details by which "making the world safe for billionaires has been as much a cultural and political operation as an economic one." The book is, in other words, a cultural-studies intervention into the hegemonic language of neoliberalism; and yet these are "other words" indeed, for if there is one intellectual tradition with which Frank does not want to align himself, it’s the tradition of cultural studies. The book’s chapter on cultural studies, as a result, will prove nettlesome for some of Frank’s academic readers, and though it will win him admirers and blurb-suppliers among those who (a) know nothing more about cultural studies than what Frank tells them or (b) know just enough about cultural studies to hate, hate, hate Andrew Ross and his earrings, too, it will also cost him some credibility among precisely those cultural critics who need most to read this book.

Frank’s argument is that the cultural-studies wing of the academic left has aided and abetted the spread of market populism by undertaking analyses of "subcultures" in which consumers of mass culture turn out to be empowered by the very practice of consumption. In Frank’s parlance, "cult-stud" scholars are little more than cheerleaders for the New Economy, endlessly burbling about how people use products in ways their makers never intended and thereby perform the important cultural work of "resistance." To this Frank adds a loosely related bill of particulars: cultural studies is too insular; it’s too preening and faux-hip; it’s too invested in its own European lineage, not sufficiently aware of American sociologists like Herbert Gans; it’s too proud of its opposition to the Christian Right; it was badly embarrassed by the Alan Sokal/Social Text affair; it did not attend to the crisis in academic labor; and it has been co-opted by neoconservatives like libertarian economist Tyler Cowen and the irascible, incoherent advertising critic James Twitchell.

But most annoying about Frank’s attempt to cast cultural studies as the academic wing of Market Populists Inc. is that he has a point. He’s not always sure how best to make it, and he keeps fingering the wrong suspects and missing the easy openings, but still, I have to give him his due: he must be among the very few nonacademics in North America who’s read all of Larry Grossberg’s We Gotta Get Out of This Place, a volume ritually memorized by Grossberg’s graduate students but usually unreadable for anyone else. When Frank goes after the consumption-as-empowerment school, though, he doesn’t mention its leading exponent, John Fiske, whose scholarly career is basically that of the austere Adorno scholar who one day discovered that wow, hot dogs really taste good and has since devoted himself to the celebration thereof.

Similarly, Frank seems to score a point against "cult studs’ strange fantasy of encirclement by Marxists at once crude and snobbish," but he misses the real antagonists at stake in subcultural analyses of World Championship Wrestling—not the League of Adornian Marxists, certainly, but the tweedy, Moynihan-liberal elders whom DJ the Mozart show on public radio every second Sunday and who just happen to be the distinguished senior colleagues whose scholarly sensibilities cultural studies is supposed to offend. In this academic economy, of course, the critic with the coolest, most transgressive subculture wins, which is why you don’t see many cultural studies essays on the Amish.

Yet here, in roundabout fashion, is where Frank lands his most palpable hit. Cultural studies, whatever its other real or imagined failings, has not said boo about the cultural formation Frank describes in One Market Under God, and that’s one reason why Frank won’t use the phrase "cultural formation": "for all its generalized hostility to business and frequent discussions of ‘late capital,’ " he writes, "cultural studies failed almost completely to produce close analyses of the daily life of business." There’s simply no disputing this claim.

Of all Frank’s complaints about cultural studies, this is the one cult studs should take most to heart; for with few exceptions (of the Michael Denning and Richard Ohmann variety), American cultural studies has indeed broken with the Hall-Williams-Thompson tradition of British cultural studies and devoted itself instead to the unearthing of "counterhegemonic" practices of TV watching. Subcultural analysis has too often proceeded from Angela McRobbie’s delusional belief that the market is "an expansive popular system," and cult studs who promote the model of "the intellectual as fan"—not addressed by Frank, though it should have been—usually manage to forget that fans are often quite critical of their objects. (Perhaps what is required here is a model of the intellectual as Chicago Cubs fan.) Overdrawn and partial as Frank’s case may be, his main charge has too much merit to ignore: all the while the New Economy was building us a house of cards, most cult studs were churning out Gramscian readings of MTV’s House of Style.

Frank is more than smart enough to know, and honest enough to admit, that some of the most trenchant critiques of cult-stud populism have in fact been launched by cult studs themselves (and here he should have cited Judith Williamson’s classic "The Problems of Being Popular"), but occasionally he lets his penchant for polemic get the better of his judgment. Early in the chapter, Frank cites a fairly innocuous sentence I wrote in 1992 about how cultural studies tries "to discover and interpret the ways disparate disciplinary subjects talk back," and proceeds to make this out to be a refrain for the market populism of cultural studies professors everywhere, as if we’re all chirpy proponents of town meetings and focus groups in the mode of GOP pollster Frank Luntz.

This is great fun, no question, but anyone remotely familiar with the practice of anthropology since Levi-Strauss, let alone the history of prisons and mental illness, knows that the question here is a profoundly ethical one. And Frank knows it, too: the idea that people can talk back to the institutions and discourses that structure their lives is absolutely essential to any populism—and any theory of democracy—worthy of the name. This is why Frank himself closes his book with, of all things, the ringing cadences of people talking back:

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