Book Review: One Market Under God

One Market Under God, by Thomas Frank

Frank’s book is a study of the pro-business, pro-"free-market", new-economy-and-stock-market-worshipping rhetoric of the 1990s. It was written in 2000. The overall theme of the book is that in the 1990s, business and its friends in the media made a renewed push to claim that they were for the little guy, that they were against elitism, that they were in favor of breaking up hierarchy wherever it existed. Ads and editorials gushed that now that everyone owned stocks, and everyone was an entrepreneur, old-economy constructs like labor unions and government regulation were no longer necessary. Some of the funniest parts of the book discuss the lunacy that is management theory and the management consulting industry– cultish guru-worship at its worst, led by charlatans, in service of power and profit, but dressed up as intellectual and even spiritual advice.  Of course, this kind of thing has been going on for a long time in the U.S.– if this country is about anything, it’s about making lots of money by teaching people the secret to a good life (see Dale Carnegie, Steven Covey, etc, etc). Long before that, the U.S. has always been a haven for religious nuts and their (sometimes deluded) followers.* As for criticism of management consultants, they’ve got that covered too: Frank notes a common conceit of management consultants is to claim that all other management gurus (or even they, at earlier stages) are frauds, but they are the real thing. Another wonderful (and scary) section of the book is its depiction of a conference of young PR industry hipsters, who seem to think that designing a brand is a revolutionary act. This section stands besides the better sections of Naomi Klein’s book No Logo, in describing the grandiose, culture-altering importance that the PR industry and business intellectuals give to The Brand.

You’d think that a book with rhetoric as one of its main themes would be written in ghastly postmodernist jargon. But you’d be wrong. Frank harshly criticizes "cult studs" (cultural studies theorists) of the 1990s for focusing their attention on inane analyses of "sites of subversion" within pop culture and within miniscule subcultures, rather than on the massive demolition by business of New Deal-era and Progressive-era ideals of social democracy and collective action. He notes that cult studs have often been willing participants in the 90s-era transformation of consumption into a liberating act and "the market" into the world’s main (or only) democratic arena– this dovetails beautifully with the goals of the PR industry and editorialists like Thomas Friedman. Although they make much noise about fighting the "demon" religious right in the political correctness wars (and thus give hipster/outsider cred to some management theorists and new economy libertarians who subscribe to their theories), they have astonishing blind spots.** Thomas quotes media critic Robert McChesney (p. 291):

Perhaps the stupidity– and there is no better word for it– of some cultural studies is best shown by its stance towards the market. I have heard leading figures in cultural studies argue that the market is not the top-down authoritarian mechanism that political economists claim, where bosses force the massed to swallow whatever they are fed. To the contrary, they exult, the market is where the masses can contest with the bosses over economic matters; it is a fight without a predetermined outcome. One cultural studies scholar goes so far as to characterize the market as ‘an expansive popular system’."

Frank’s weaknesses stem in part from the timing of the book, and in part from the goal of his book. Since the book was written in 2000, and was focused on the overheated internet/New Economy rhetoric of the 1990s, Frank misses the fact that IT can be fruitfully used to help social movements. He uses "internet" almost as a dirty word. Of course, it nearly impossible to use the internet 100% ethically, without supporting corporations that deny workers’ rights for collective representation (hello Microsoft), that lobby for monopolistic and civil-liberties-destroying laws  (hello Verizon, AT&T, Microsoft), and that benefit from huge privatization giveaways (hello Google/M-Books).

But there’s no easy way to lead an ethical life, online or offline. Of course, one could argue that court decisions and legislation over the past 15 years has molded the internet into a place where you can’t click a link or view a web page without giving money to a huge corporation. That would lead one to support the Free and Open Source Software movement, in so far as it is possible. As with environmental issues, I think it’s a waste of time to become an individual purist. Much better and more effective to advocate for societal change that will make it easier for everyone to use alternatives to huge corporations, or reform the worst aspects of those corporations.

* Yes, yes, I know, the alternative of no religious freedom is much, much worse. Of course, the American ideal of religious freedom is a great ideal, and the "religious nuts" sometimes have good ideas that use the best part of their own systems of ethics.

** Thomas acknowledges that these blind spots, and cult studs’ entire outlook, are in part an overreaction to charges of economism levelled against the Left. He also notes that a large part of the standard cult studs argument is derived from sociologist Herbert Gans’ criticism of the Frankfurt School for the latter’s "elitist" critique of mass culture, though this is rarely acknowledged by cult studs (p. 279-80).

Cross-posted from my blog.

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