One Market Under God, and Heaven Help Us All

“‘Bullshit,'” writes Thomas Frank, “certainly appeared in my own conversation that day when I flipped through my first book of management theory-Tom Peters’ 800-page 1992 opus, Liberation Management . Peters’ zanier 1997 book, The Circle of Innovation , is bullshit on wheels. ‘Bullshit’ was also my response when I sat amongst an audience of hundreds of paying businessmen and heard my first ‘futurist’ tell how Hegel, whom he had evidently confused with Francis Fukuyama, so long ago predicted liberal democracy’s victory over fascism and communism; describe the rich personal friendship of John Locke and Adam Smith; and pronounce on the complete and laughable irrelevance of Newtonian physics now that all of Einstein’s theories were ‘laws.’ Anybody who has had any experience with the management theory industry can tell similar stories: of quotes and dates wildly misplaced, of an alarming and misinformed credulity about science, of anecdotes that prove nothing, of patently wrong syllogisms, of meaningless diagrams and homemade master narratives.”

The passage just quoted is from One Market Under God: Extreme Capitalism, Market Populism, and the End of Economic Democracy , a new Doubleday book that should be arriving in the bookstores in October. It will be interesting to see what happens to Thomas Frank, the author. Will he and his book simply not get reviewed in The New York Times and elsewhere, or will he be covered with contumely, lava’d over with scorn as ice cream in a sundae is blanketed in chocolate sauce? Thomas Frank is a rare voice asking what the hell is going on in America: How comes it that, in the matter of a couple of decades, 10 percent of the population own 70 percent of everything of value and are using the money power to do whatever they want whenever they want, and it’s supposed to be a new and higher form of democracy.

The man has a refined bullshit detector, plus he has been standing near the rear ends of our best paid propagandists. Close in and knee-deep in it, Mr. Frank has made his determined way through lakes of sludge to ridicule, shred, mock and expose the latter-day propagandists of business globalism, the pump-and-jump artists and the whorish hacks preaching New Age economics and New Order authoritarianism-James J. Cramer, the Motley Fool, Joseph Nocera, James K. Glassman, Lawrence Kudlow, Peter Lynch, the aforesaid Tom Peters, Lester Thurow, Thomas Friedman and not a few more. The commies used to call such writers the “running dogs of capitalist imperialism.” This form of invective has gone out of style, but I like the sound of the words, if only because I haven’t heard them in a while. Running dogs have teeth, of course, so the question is will they choose to ignore Mr. Frank, treat him as a crank unworthy of notice, or subject him to a fang attack? The one thing they will not do, you may be sure, is answer the arguments and observations in this book.

If others have accepted without question the announcements that the political and social arrangements of the nation have been altered by the onward march of technology, as it has been deployed by venture capitalists, Mr. Frank detected the hoax which would have us believe that billionaire and busboy are now the same; that, though the rich get richer and the rest do not, all are getting more equal and more democratic, living the high-tech life on the level playing field. Hence, he writes that “the ‘New Economy’ was a narrative of class warfare as much as anything else: Wherever its dynamic new logic touched down old money quaked and faltered; the markets of inherited wealth were superseded by more extreme tastes; the hip was separated from the square, the opera-going CEOs gave way to those who wore goatees and fancied the phatter rhymes of the street. The scions of ancient banking families finding their smug selves wiped out by the New Jack trading of a working-class kid; the arrogant stockbrokers of old being humiliated by the new billions of the online day-traders; the public school boys with their regimental ties being bought out by the guys in jeans and T-shirts; the white men of the world getting their asses kicked by the women, the Asians, the Africans, the Hispanics; the buttondown whip-cracking bosses getting fired by the corporate ‘change agents’; the self-assured network figures reduced to tears by the Vox Populi of the Web.”

It is claimed in 10,000 corporate TV ads every day that “One Market Under God”- liberating, fulfilling, leveling, sweeping away pretension, infusing in us a perfect efficiency-has replaced the flawed principles of the earlier, less successful formulations of 1789. The new political economy of the United States, as corporate America repeats via every known medium, is market populism.

But Mr. Frank writes that “market populism … is a fraud. Tom Friedman’s formula, ‘one dollar, one vote,’ is not the same thing as universal suffrage.” He can’t swallow it “when the richest people ever in history tell us they are ‘listening’ to us, that theirs are ‘interactive’ fortunes or that they have unusual tastes and work particularly hard. Markets may look like democracy, in that we are all involved in their making, but they are fundamentally not democratic. We did not vote for Bill Gates … “

Mr. Frank has put his hand on what might be called a silent coup d’etat, carried out in full view via advertising, on the same scale that Hitler and Mao used to inculcate the truths of their new world orders. The landscape of our minds is being rearranged by incessant fusillades of new-era propaganda on a scale never seen in a non-totalitarian society. The Web, brought to you by Cisco Systems, will make you free and make you equal and make you feel like you’re rich.

Part of Mr. Frank’s thesis is that our society is under attack by propaganda neutron bombs. When the firing stops, the real estate will be in place, not a brick disturbed, the laws will be the same, but our heads will have been so changed that we will now believe that the business executives are the “revolutionaries,” fighting “the elites” in the struggle for freedom, meaning a society in which markets, emancipated from every form of control (except manipulation by the brokers) decide everything. In the CEO-cracy aborning, a population taught to believe that all blessings flow from the board rooms will assist in the dismantling of public power and hence in its own neutering.

In the personal realm, most of us have already had our powers reduced to a near nullity. In the interactive age, we were placed on hold 15 years ago, and we’re still waiting. We are on a universal automated telephone menu, the electronic circle ever returning to the announcement that tells us, “To hear these options again, press star, press pound, press any old goddamn number you want-and you’ll still get a recorded horselaugh.”

It is odd that so many of us are so upset about the possibility that our guns might be made illegal. We must have them to defend ourselves, although virtually none of us will ever be in a threatening situation which can be saved by firearms. We need weapons, all right, but not ones that fire bullets. We have no market power, we have no unions, we have no candidates. Politically, we have been de-sexed. We’re sterile, impotent-and most of us, it seems, are too dumb, too greedy, too silly or too bedazzled to notice.

But Thomas Frank knows, and he ends his book with an eloquent paragraph which says that which begs to be said: The so-called New Economy has brought about “the destruction of the social contract of mid-century, the middle-class republic that our ancestors spent decades building. We burnt it up in one great bonfire in order to toast a few marshmallows. Millions found themselves trapped in casual jobs with no benefits, but our shares … did OK. We caught the Qualcomm wave and acquiesced as the last of the social safety nets were removed. A good education for our kids ascended out of our reach, but our position in Cisco paid off; our neighborhoods collapsed and our industries decamped and our neighbors were rounded up for a lifetime in Joliet, but we had an amply funded 401(k) to show for it … we surrendered any control over our own future … we frittered away what little workplace power we had managed to achieve; convinced that the Internet ‘changed everything’ we eased ourselves into a state of induced forgetfulness; for the sake of ‘democracy’ we signed away some of our most basic rights as citizens.”

One Market Under God, and Heaven Help Us All