Editor’s note: The long-serving, indefatigable Peter Lewis prefaced his review of One Market Under God, by Thomas Frank, with this rare but powerfully persuasive note: “Important book below. Send it to the inside front cover piece, by jiminy.” And so, by jiminy, here it is:
From social critic Thomas Frank, editor of The Baffler, the legendary magazine of high-culture criticism: a refreshing, salubrious argument that says nay to all the snake-oil about free-market super-democracy.
The New Economy, Frank makes abundantly and maddeningly clear, is in actuality a “tableaux of greed, legislative turpitude, and transparently self-serving sophistry.” Yet this new market is packaged and sold as a medium of consent as much as exchange, as a far more democratic venue than government, a force battling elitism and cynicism, leveling the playing field, bestowing and protecting. The market is where we are fully human, we hear, where we reveal our souls. Beware nationalization, regulation, and union troublemaking, for all snakes in this garden of economic delight where the sons of toil are welcome and the entrepreneur is god. Well, don’t buy this bill of goods, Frank advises. He proceeds, simply, elegantly, in writing that’s fervent and aware – in the hip world but not of it – to debunk all this nonsense. The market is not inherently democratic, he says, agog at the very notion (and he’s no political radical): “the logic of business is coercion, monopoly, and the destruction of the weak, not ‘choice’ or ‘service’ or universal affluence.” Democratic prosperity has never coexisted amid unbridled free markets, but only amid markets with countervailing forces built in to resist the imperatives of profit, and with progressive unions and elected officials to keep a protective eye out for the poor, the strange, the marginalized. And yet now, remarkably and grotesquely, a combination of forces has acted to drape the free market in a cloak of kindness and respectability. Frank charts the constellation of populist symbols and words that equate it with the will of the people and that are spouted by academic flacks, by journalists from Rush Limbaugh to Wired magazine, politicians from Clinton to Gingrich, and management theorists from Walter Wriston to Tom Peters, whose pronouncements grow ever more bombastic in direct proportion to the enfeeblement of checks on the market. Far from a bastion of democracy, Frank points out, the free market of the 1990s brought about a decline in real wages, job security, and benefits, not to mention a disparity in income distribution that should be experienced as shame rather than awe. So much for the social contract, human rights, the future.
Tip this book. Pour some of its bracing tonic into your hands. Slap it on your face. Ah, you needed that.