One Market Under God – Thomas Frank

Once Americans imagined that economic democracy meant a reasonable standard of living for all, that freedom was only meaningful once poverty and powerlessness had been overcome. Today, however, American opinion leaders seem generally convinced that democracy and the free market are simply identical. There is precious little that is new about this idea, either: For nearly a century, equating the market with democracy was the familiar defense of any corporation in trouble with union or government; it was the standard-issue patter of corporate lobbyists like the National Association of Manufacturers. What is "new" is this idea’s triumph over all its rivals; the determination of American leaders to extend it to all the world; the general belief among opinion-makers that there is something natural, something divine, something inherently democratic about markets. A better term for the ‘New Economy’ might simply be ‘consensus.’

The quote above is from the introduction to One Market, Under God: Extreme Capitalism, Market Populism, and the End of Economic Democracy, the latest assault on contemporary received wisdom from Chicago-based writer Thomas Frank. For years, Frank has been one of America’s most iconoclastic social critics, attacking the creeping corporatization of our culture and politics with a razor wit and a keen sense of history. He, and his cohorts at the small magazine The Baffler, seem to be working alone in the darkness only because their perspective is so radically different from the major voices of our time. Frank’s writing hearkens back to that of Lincoln Steffens, John Dos Passos, and Upton Sinclair; the reformers and muckrakers who championed the working class through some of America’s toughest economic times. In One Market, Under God, he attempts to bring that reformist spirit, and the keen eye for hypocrisy which accompanies it, to a much tougher arena: the boom times of the late 1990s.

In an era when those who form opinion are mostly multi-millionaires talking to each other through the pages of hundreds of newspapers and media outlets, all owned by the same dozen corporations, it can be difficult to paint a less-rosy picture without being derided as a bitter crank. For years, Frank has been painted as just that: a lone, lurking figure, scuttling around in the corners and trying to bring down everybody’s economic buzz. What makes Frank one of America’s most important social critics, though, is not merely his role as doomcrier, but the accessibility of his writing. One Market, Under God is not an abstruse tome published by a university press with a vanity print-run; it’s intended for the mass market. Frank believes that everyone should know what’s really going on in America; touchingly, he also appears to believe that if they did know, things might change. Fortunately, his message is couched in an extremely acerbic, but hilarious, tone:

Americans in the nineties seemed to love the rich. The robber barons of old with their miserly, ground-out fortunes, had always had to confront a hostile, suspicious world. But now it was "Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire?" And hell, who didn’t? This plutocracy was cool! They were flooding into bohemian neighborhoods like San Francisco’s Mission District, chatting with the guys in the band, and working on their poetry in Starbucks; they were going it alone with their millions and their out-of-wedlock child; they were abjuring stodgy ties and suits for 24/7 casual; they were leaping on their trampolines, typing out a few last lines on the laptop before paragliding, riding their bicycles to work, listening to Steppenwolf while they traded, drinking beer in the office, moshing at the Motley Crue show, startling the board members with their streetwise remarks, roaring down the freeway in their Lamborghinis, snowboarding in Crested, racing their jetskis by the platform at Cannes and splashing all the uptight French people.

Frank’s assaults on the dot-com "things will just keep getting better and better, forever" worldview will make the reader laugh out loud. His dissection of writings by leading "New Economy" shills Thomas Friedman (of the New York Times) and George Gilder (of Forbes FYI) are brilliantly vicious, and truly refreshing. Still, though Frank’s diatribes are blackly hilarious, his message is very serious. The distortion of perspective in America today is so pervasive it’s difficult to see past it. One Market, Under God is exactly the right tool for readers who wish to begin viewing the world of high-speed economic power-games a little more cynically, and a lot more rationally.

Phil Freeman

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