The Critic as Radical
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I considered myself pretty clever for arranging an interview with cultural critic Thomas Frank at San Francisco's newest cineplex mall, the Sony Metreon. Not only had I proposed we meet in its 350,000-square feet of faux-futuristic gadget shops, where thumping techno and screechy R & B blare from thousands of competing speakers, I had suggested we first grab a coffee at the most loathsome retailer of the "New Economy:" Starbucks.
Starbucks, I imagined, would allow Frank, a writer with the acerbic punch of H.L. Mencken and the caterwauling wit of Tom Wolfe, to riff freely on the extremes of American consumer culture. I could imagine him passing a caustic eye on the Metreon's "multicultural bistro-style" restaurants and, after a knowing sigh, saying: "Consumerism is no longer about 'conformity' but about 'difference,'" as he had written in an essay published in his journal The Baffler. Or passing the Microsoft Store, whose entrance is flanked by ATM machines, and pronouncing: "Markets may look like democracy, in that we are all involved in their making, but they are fundamentally not democratic," as he had propounded in page after page of his new book: "One Market Under God: Extreme Capitalism, Market Populism, and the End of Economic Democracy."
But my plans for such a made-for-journalism mise-en-scène were foiled. Forty minutes passed before I discovered it was not Frank who was late but I who had misjudged the commercial reach of Starbucks. To my great horror, I was informed that there was not a Starbucks in the Sony Metreon but five and Frank, should he be in the complex that would have sent Aldous Huxley straight to the hospital, was in one of them.
I did find Thomas Frank, after much frantic searching. He is a surprisingly mild-looking man. Rosy-faced and bespectacled in a pink Oxford shirt and nicely tailored jacket, he looks more like someone given to spending time in a country club parlor chatting about stocks than in a cramped, book-lined office in Chicago, editing and writing articles on cultural co-optation and the demise of economic equality.
Frank is an anomaly in this day of intellectuals who have no audience beyond their Ivory Tower. Like the social critics Edmund Wilson and Susan Sontag, he is a man made for academia (he has a Ph.D. in American history from the University of Chicago) who decided not to pursue tenure track and go it alone as a writer and editor. He is also a scholar who believes he can fight for the working class. For the last five years he has written on how corporate life has dominated American culture, while his former fellow classmates have produced fashionable treatises on pop culture's "hidden loci of resistance" in TV series, rock videos, and shopping malls.
After noting that the nearby clamor was "barristas doing the Starbucks cheer in the Starbucks Number Three of the Sony Metreon," Frank told me that he wrote "One Market Under God" -- his book on the "fraud of the 'New Economy'" -- because an event similar in scale to the anti-Vietnam or the civil rights movement is soon to befall the post-'60s generation.
"I think very soon we're going to be faced with something not so far from those movements because of what we've done to the welfare state, because of what we've allowed corporations to do," Frank explained with no inkling of pleasure. "The huge issue is going to be getting the beast back into the box, bringing democracy to bear on economic life."
Frank, who grew up in the '70s in Kansas City, the son of a mechanical engineer, has found little salvation in the radical legacies of the Age of Aquarius. His first book, "The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism" became a national bestseller among twenty- and thirtysomethings because he argued that the '60s counterculture was a kind of marketing hoax, as much an invention of the advertising industry as a movement with authentic grass roots. For him, the last genuine progressive era -- uncorrupted by ad men and the chimeric media world -- took place longer ago, during the 1930s populist politics of the New Deal.
This frightens Frank to no end, since he is well aware that almost nothing is left, let alone remembered, about the labor movement, tax policies and social welfare systems that came out of the FDR administration. "That huge effort made by our ancestors to bring about economic democracy has been lost and now we'll have to do it all over again," said Frank, who admits he is not so sure how a New Deal revival will happen.
But Frank does not lack for words or ideas. "One Market Under God" is a brilliant blast through today's leading myth: the democratization of wealth through the 1990s bull market. The book has earned raves from reviewers. They have compared him to Thomas Carlyle, to Mark Twain, for showing that Americans leaders' overwhelming faith in the market has made a sham of democracy.
"[M]arkets enjoyed some mystic, organic connection to the people" in the 1990s, Frank writes in his preface, "while governments were fundamentally illegitimate . . . . Markets expressed the popular will more articulately and meaningfully than did mere elections. Markets conferred democratic legitimacy; markets were a friend of the little guy."
Frank moves his thesis along by coining and building on the term market populism, a 1990s ideology in which populism was severed from social justice movements and government programs and tied to the magic of the Dow Jones. To him, this conflation spells doom. While Americans were imbibing their nightly dose of upbeat market forecasts on television, investing heartily in Cisco and reading about the inevitability of laissez-faire capitalism in books by George Gilder, Warren Buffet and Lester Thurow, an insidious undercurrent, argues Frank, was at work: a politics for the rich by the rich that has resulted in the final smashing of the New Deal.
"I must drawn your attention to a recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal by Peggy Noonan, Reagan's speechwriter," said Frank by way of example. "Noonan argued Americans should vote for Bush because he is a man of the people, a humble person, who understands business, rather than Al Gore, an affected, elitist snob who believes in the power of government to fix things." In other words, Frank concluded, "the common people are identified one-to-one with the market -- and Bush, as a man of the market, is a man of the common people."
Frank is adamant that the rhetoric of market populism has been the grand wool-over-the-eyes of 1990s America. And to a great degree he is right. Never before has there been such uniform consensus about the ability of the stock market to do the work of government. (Who 40 years ago would have imagined that a presidential candidate could find support to privatize Social Security? Or that so many people would believe the vast salaries of CEOs would trickle down to meet the needs of over-worked, recently down-sized employees?)
Frank has been lauded for his insights in "One Market Under God," but attacked for his methods. Some critics like Michelle Goldberg of Salon.com have faulted him for not offering a coherent strategy for dealing with unchecked global economics. Others, like Rob Walker in The New York Times, have accused him of looking at corporate America too much like a literary theorist and not enough as an economist.
The latter is absolutely true. Frank's analysis focuses mostly on the literature of Wall Street and management theory, books he insists are the cultural handprint of the "business-as-God" fever that has struck America. This critical tack, however, is what makes his book strident and original. Frank is at his best analyzing how business writers, journalists and politicians have adopted the language of populism as a means to cast the market as the one true democratic force.
"New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman is one of the worst market populists," Frank assured me. "One of his favorite arguments is that there is no alternative to the market. Every country will be forced to accede to its politics, which means there can be no dissent." Frank, who voted for Ralph Nader in Illinois, added: "The other day Friedman proposed Nader should be appointed ambassador to North Korea because that's where policies like his go over." Frank called this vicious red-baiting and a bullish approach to political alternatives. "If I wrote something like that at any publication," he said, "I'd be fired."
Of course, Frank writes for himself. When I asked him who he thought his audience was, he seemed uncertain. "I know that almost every magazine editor in the world starts with the question: Who is our target audience? Let's write to that audience." Frank said he has never done that at The Baffler or in his books. This is evident from almost any random Frankian phrase. Try, for example, this riff on the new Everyman of the market populist decade:
"What emerged as the decade wore on was a curious hybrid of 'Adam Smith's' Neitzschean traders and Peter Lynch's everyman-as-expert: Everyman as his own cigar-chomping, commodity-broking, devil-take-the-hindmost asshole, hovering over the office computer (fuck the boss!) to spread rumors on the Raging Bull message boards and scalp the gains on E*Trade, all the while listening to the scabrous ranting of Limp Bizkit, cultivating a goatee, and dreaming about Xtreme sports. Generation X and stocks, it now seemed, went together like Kurt and Courtney."
"One Market Under God" is certainly worth reading for passages like this. In fact, it has been too long since a cultural critic has had the guts to draw together history, philosophy and pop anything, rage like an over-educated madman, and come up with controversial theories on American culture. Think: Marshall McLulan, Frederic Jameson. But it is unclear whether this frenetic style of academic analysis will detract readers from his broader political message.
Frank wants to get readers thinking about why it has become acceptable that the country's richest 1 percent hold an estimated 40.1 percent of the nation's wealth, why corporations have retreated from their traditional responsibilities to workers, while America's ruling class has pretended, like Bill Gates, to be "just folks." He wants people to understand that "What beat the left in America wasn't inflation and uppity workers, it was the culture war" -- and not the culture war over families values and political correctness, which he identifies as a right-wing feint, but the war over the language of economic democracy.
"What I was trying to do was something along the lines of what Richard Hofstadter or Christopher Lasch used to do: serious history, serious thinking, but for a general audience," Frank explained. "I think my ideas and solutions are more by implication than overt strategy. And those are: to start talking about social class again; to take the language of social class back from the right, from the market; and to try to rebuild a movement based on the idea of economic and social democracy."
Frank admits he has no idea how influential his book will be. But he said that labor organizers, academics and friends of all stripe who have read "One Market Under God" have understood his argument. "People across the spectrum understand how incredible it is that critics of market capitalism, like myself, have been branded elitists while those who support it get to wear the nametag of populists."
As for those who say "One Market Under God" is too in thrall to picking apart all the pro-business messages -- from management literature, the advertising industry, Wall Street, newspapers and conservative politicians -- to make the New Economy appear anything more than a hideous unstoppable joke, a kind of Grendel in a land of defenseless Lilliputians, Frank can only react with puzzlement and exhaustion.
"You know, I brought it home to myself today, quite by accident," said Frank in reference to an earlier interview. "You see, my wife and I are about to have a child. And I don't know how I'm ever going to pay to send that child to college. I went totally on financial aid and need-based scholarships, stuff that now only exists for a very limited number of people. And so, I will never be able to afford to give my child the kind of education I had unless I live in a social democracy."
Frank paused for a moment, after an hour of talking about his role as a cultural critic, after days of talking about the democratic failings of 1990s market capitalism, and said: "You know that's a horrible realization, that I was the first Frank to get a degree in liberal arts, and guess what: unless something really, really good happens, I'll be the last."