Saturday, 14 July 2012

ONE MARKET UNDER GOD

Dick Pountain/17 March 2001 15:12/Political Quarterly/Tom Frank

TITLE: "One Market Under God: Extreme Capitalism, Market Populism, and the End of Economic Democracy"
AUTHOR: Thomas Frank
PUBLISHER: Secker and Warburg, 414pp
PRICE: £18.99


"The men, for their part, wore four and five-button leisure suits, corporate goatees and nose rings. One group of Planners periodically donned bright red fezzes while another set wandered around the proceedings in camouflage." 

The event that author Thomas Frank was witnessing was not a film premier nor a record launch but an Account Planning conference for the US advertising industry: these were the bright young people who invent and nurture new Brands and guide them "under the radar" of increasingly sophisticated and resistant consumers. Brands are those all- valuable but abstract entities that have taken over from old-fashioned, gross material entities like products (and workers), which Naomi Klein has dissected in her best selling 'No Logo'. This fascinating, if chilling, volume by Frank could be read as a powerful supplement and corrective to Klein, which documents the bizarre revolution that has so far gone mostly unnoticed this side of the Atlantic, but which underpins both the 'dot.com' bubble and the rise of Brand-lead marketing.

I do not use the word revolution lightly here but in its most literal sense, a great overturning of the way things have so far been. Frank's contention, crudely summarized, is that the extreme free-market fringe of American politics has succeeded in turning the world upside down in a most remarkable way by stealing the clothes of the radical left; by preaching the destruction of all 'conservative' institutions (oddly enough this means trades unions, public services and federal regulators); by proclaiming that the will of the people is sovereign (expressed not by voting, but by purchasing shares); and by browbeating down all criticism of the market, the profit motive, or popular culture as the work of 'elitist snobs' and 'naysayers'. In short, the Republican Right has appropriated the very Populism that was its undoing after the depression of the 1930s - the Populism that powered Roosevelt's New Deal - and has turned it against itself.

This phenomenon, which Frank dubs Market Populism, has provided the highly-combustible fuel for the greatest Bull Market of all time, from 1982 to March 2001, and has, at least for a while, persuaded the majority of the US population that the market will take care of all their needs if only they will kick the State out of the way. Stock prices appreciated hundreds of times over (86% in 1999 alone) while at the same time job security and union membership fell to long-term lows and the ratio between top management and blue-collar salaries increased from 85:1 to 475:1 in one decade - and all of this with the enthusiastic consent of the governed (and a six-fold increase in incarceration of the ungoverned). Frank analyses the unfolding of this hijack in painstaking detail - indeed, some may find it repetitive - using as evidence the reams of books, newspaper and magazine articles produced during the 1990s by a loose coalition of free market evangelists. Here are the stock hypers of the Wall Street Journal; the mutual fund gurus; the little-old-lady stock pickers of Idaho; the quack management theorists like Tom Peters ("If you can't say why you make your company a better place, YOU'RE OUT!"); the techno-evangelists of the Internet and the Account Planners with their goatees and nose rings. The academic cultural studies movement is shown to have colluded in the process, discovering in popular culture a 'radical politics of difference', 'trangression' and 'contestation' which could be simply lifted by the Market Populists to provide grapeshot for their cannonade against the 'elitist snobs' of high culture. The market is always and everywhere right, so if Eminem outsells Mahler, all argument is over. The sneering Market Populist slogan "If you so smart, how come you ain't rich" found itself a respectable academic defence.

We are shown the hesitant first steps by which the free-market Right detached itself from the religious Right during the early 1990s, realising that cultural attacks on permissiveness, liberalism and the legacy of the sixties were not working, and that the very radicalism and hedonism they had been attacking could be hijacked to support their ultimate end, namely the undoing of the last traces of the New Deal, the unfettered reign of the market and the obtaining of a true popular consent for capitalism that it had never quite achieved. The ultimate battle should have been fought out over the policy of privatising the US Social Security fund, though as I write (in March 2001) the frightening gyrations of the stock market have made this less of a certainty than it was even three months ago.

As to what Frank himself stands for, he is very open: he is an American labour-movement radical, in favour of union rights and government regulation, who finds his golden age in the period from World War II to the 1970s when the US working classes were employed, organized and affluent (a period he pointedly calls the "middle-class republic"). In other words he is what we would call a left social democrat this side of the Atlantic, and consequently homeless given the current state of US politics. Anyone who has passed even close to the European Marxist tradition may find his elision of middle-class and blue collar cavalier, but those are the terms of debate in the USA, accepted by all participants. My own cavill is that Frank displays some ambiguity as to whether Market Populism is a conscious and cynical ploy or a genuine conversion, a sort of belated "tuning in and turning on" of right-wing ideologues to the "creativity" of the market. However this slight uncertainty of tone cannot detract from the fact that he has written a persuasive and provocative book which will be deeply unsettling to anyone who has had trouble making those accommodations with the market that are required to support New Labour. I almost shaved off my goatee.

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