the moneychanger's temple:
thomas frank and the new capitalism

One Market Under God: Extreme Capitalism, Market Populism, and the End of Economic Democracy
Thomas Frank
(Doubleday, 414 pages)
one market under god cover
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Sometime after the 1987 stock market crash that ended the market boom of that decade, a new kind of business rhetoric was born that has managed to do the impossible: In the course of the economic recovery that followed, and with evangelical fervor during the fantastic rise in stock prices that ensued, it was discovered that implicitly religious faith in the market and dour social conservatism need not follow each other with tedious, and increasingly unfashionable, devotion.

Thomas Frank, editor of the Baffler (a renowned, if sporadically published, journal of the earnest yet ironic left), charts the history of this brave new rhetoric in his new book, One Market Under God. The title is particularly apt - economic ideology began to replace religious theology as the philosophical engine of modern, democratic governments at the end of the eighteenth century, but it took the twentieth century, and the holy war between capitalism and communism, to sanctify the faith and, incidentally, to provide plenty of room for sects and cults to thrive.

Frank’s obsession is with “market populism”, the belief that the most perfect instrument of popular will and democratic striving won’t be solved government, trade unions, or law, but by abandoning everything to the superior wisdom of the market, the most perfect product of civilization. The roots of this economic theology lie deep and tangled, and range everywhere from the imperfect understanding of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” taught in every business school, to the triumphalism that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union.

It found its most perfect expression, however, in the virtual abandonment of traditional labour constituencies by political parties like Bill Clinton’s Democrats and Tony Blair’s New Labour, in the concentration on “share value” by companies that embraced “downsizing” as a quick fix to stock prices, in loony trends in “management theory” that resulted in best-selling books by writers like Tom Peters (Liberation Management), and in magazines like Wired and Fast Company, with their quasi-mystical belief in technology and warmed-over sixties rhetoric of “virtual communities” and “permanent revolution”.

The result was the closest thing to a really “bipartisan” movement in American culture since civil rights, albeit one that imagined the perfect capitalist not as a rich white WASP, but as a tech start-up CEO with a goatee and nose ring, billions in the bank after his IPO, listening to the Chemical Brothers in his BMW SUV on his way to sushi with his VC. It was, ultimately, a vision as shallow and false as it sounds, and meant conveniently to ignore growing disparity in wages, the unemployment that resulted from downsizing and “outsourcing”, and the obscene pressure the “new economy” put on developing countries to join the party, even if only by providing low-wage labour and lax environmental laws in which “outsourced suppliers” would thrive. 

It’s not hard to divine Frank’s basic thesis: “The logic of business is coercion, monopoly, and the destruction of the weak, not ‘choice’ or ‘service’ or universal affluence.” It isn’t one that’s likely to appeal to true believers smarting after the past year’s NASDAQ nosedive, business executives who repeat the mantra “big government is bad” like supplicants at Mecca, or politicians cynically playing along with the “small government” game while ensuring the perpetuation of their own careers. The querulous will complain that Frank doesn’t offer much in the way of solutions beyond a revival of trade unions and a vaguely articulated militant democracy. 

Oddly enough, there have been defectors from the conservative wing of the free market camp, ranging from Thatcherite John Gray and Reagan-era military spending advocate Edward Luttwak, to moral conservatives like William F. Buckley, dismayed at the purely monetary, “amoral” character of market populism. Buckley has even speculated that, were he a young man today, he might be “a communist”, of all things. If market populism’s moment passes, as the onset of a recession might accelerate, Frank could find himself with some very strange bedfellows. 

©2001, 2002 Rick McGinnis