Interview with Thomas Frank

About One Market Under God

During the nineties I only vaguely heard about a zine called The Baffler, a cool and rigorously critical theory magazine, coming out of Chicago. It was only when I read the Baffler anthology “Commodify your Dissent” that I got a grasp of what their radical critique of US-American business culture was all about—and what role Thomas Frank, Baffler’s founding editor, was playing in this unique intellectual undertaking. Late 2000 his critique of the New Economy appeared. In One Market Under God Frank provides the reader with an overall analysis of 90s “market populism.” Dotcoms in Frank’s view are only a symptom of the believe that “markets were a popular system, a far more democratic form of government than (democratically elected) governments.” This particular ideology is not monolithic. Thomas Frank shows that market populism is an idea riven by contradictions. “It decries ‘elitism’ while transforming CEOs as a class into one of the wealthiest elites of all time. It deplores hierarchy while making the corporation the most powerful institution on earth. It salutes choice and yet tells us that the triumph of markets is inevitable.” The explicit contradictory nature of the New Economy tales might explain why this religious system attracted both libertarian progressives and conservatives, all betting on quick success. Only few years later the ‘greed is good’ atmosphere has evaporated. One Market Under God captures the millennial rush in a brilliant bitter, detailed fashion, knowing it is all about to tumble. In the following email conversation we are looking how dramatically the mood has changed since the announcement of the AOL-TimeWarner merger at the height of dotcommania, early 2000. The question what elements of the New Economy discourse remains uncontested is also put on the table. Thomas Frank is a historian and journalist, writing for The Nation, NPR, Harper’s and other outlets.   The interview was originally conducted for the Chicago new media festival Version >02 ( but could not be completed in time.

GL: After the NASDAQ crash, the following recession, 911 and the Enron scandal, do you believe there is a backlash against New Economy values unfolding? How would you position your own book, One Market Under God in the presumed swing of mood against utopian free marketers and unbounded global corporatism?

TF: The change has really been staggering. The newspapers have had a field day hounding the celebrity stock analysts of the 1990s. And there is popular outrage against the Enron executives of a sort that we haven’t seen in this country for many years. It just seems to get worse as more facts are revealed-today’s New York Times, for example, affirms what electricity consumers in California suspected all along, that Enron was able to play the deregulated market like a piano.

But by focusing on these two easy targets-Enron and the dot-com boosters-there is the risk that we are missing the larger, systemic problem. It wasn’t just Enron that played accounting games and exaggerated earnings and screwed its employees and used the power of the State Department to further its brutal agenda in foreign countries; it was numerous companies. And it wasn’t just analysts at Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley who puffed the Internet; it was newspaper columnists and TV commentators and politicians of both parties. My argument is that the New Economy, among other things, was a political maneuver, a claim that free market capitalism automatically expressed the will of the people, and that any force restricting the operations of the free market (government, labor unions) was by definition antidemocratic and elitist. This is what should really be discredited, and along with it the pro-corporate, deregulatory politics of the last twenty years.

But it isn’t. There’s grass-roots anger, to be sure, but it’s important to remember when discussing this issue that the biggest institutional boosters of the New Economy-the Wall Street Journal, Forbes magazine, the Cato Institute, etc.-are still in business, and they have no intention of shutting up. They are putting everything they’ve got these days into limiting the damage, into denying any connection between, say, Enron and the larger corporate world. What’s more, the biggest individual boosters of the New Economy are discovering that there’s no downside at all to having been so wrong. George Gilder is still on TV and at conferences; James Glassman (author of Dow 36,000) has written a new book of investment advice and is still a hot item on the right-wing lecture circuit; James J. Cramer and Larry Kudlow, two of the most rabid theorists of market populism, have actually been rewarded with their own TV show on CNBC.

GL: Who are the economic advisers of George W. Bush? This is not so apparent to me. Would you say there is an economic policy in this administration? It’s so tempting to see a dominance of the national patriotic forces and the Pentagon over a more liberal, Clintonesque globalist agenda in which the USA not just seen as an old school imperialist but has itself to fit in the capitalist Empire structures (if we want to follow Negri/Hardt’s arguments at this level in their book Empire).

TF: It’s a funny thing to say, but it now seems like Clinton was something of an idealist about globalization and the New Economy, at least compared to Bush. He was a true believer in the utopian powers of something really shitty. With the Bush administration it sometimes seems as though there’s no program at all greater than simply giving campaign contributors whatever they want, while using whatever popularization tool is at hand to slide it by the general public. Some of his team-Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, for example-are true believers in the most fucked up sense. But by and large, the rule seems to be to let industry write the laws that affect them-credit card companies get to write the bankruptcy laws, Wall Street gets to write the banking laws, and so on. Vice President Cheney’s deliberations on the administration’s energy plan, for example, merely amounted to a series of meetings with executives from the country’s largest oil and gas companies.

GL: What does business culture look like these days? There aren’t that many fancy concepts for sale.

TF: I pretty much gave up following management theory when I finished One Market Under God. Every now and then, though, I pick up a copy of Wired or Fast Company, or a hot new management book will show up in my mailbox. “Chastened” seems to be the appropriate word. What’s really sad is how Enron caught them all by surprise. I got a management book in the mail the other day in which the author went on and on about Enron as the most innovative company of all time, comparable to a collection of artists, really. Thanks to the long lag-time of book publishing, this book came out at the most embarrassing moment.

One interesting theme that has started showing up everywhere is the identification of patriotism with big business. Just a few years ago business was equating itself with internationalism, with the gorgeous mosaic of the world. The state was dead. But that is forgotten today as though it never happened. Now, we are told, consumers are buying because they love their country, stockholders are standing pat because they love their country, workers are acquiescing to management because they love their country. The cover of Fortune a few weeks ago showed two grimy blue-collar workers holding a pristine American flag between them. The headline was, “The Die-Hard Economy.” See, we’re beating this recession out of sheer love for country. As always, the real purpose is to silence dissent. Equating business with love for country transforms those who doubt or criticize business into something akin to traitors.

GL: It is tempting to believe that nothing has changed. Apart from a few new regulatory measures financial markets, consultancy and auditing firms, including their management gurus can’t wait for the economy to pick up again, forget the bankruptcies and losses of previous years and sell some new hype.

TF: I was listening to an NPR broadcast this morning in which the reporter interviewed a factory manager somewhere in China, and the guy was using pure, unadulterated New Economy language as though the crash had never happened. And the NPR reporter was simply passing it on uncritically, as though the reason China was building factories and Illinois was tearing factories down was actually the arrival of a “knowledge economy” and so on. As I mentioned before, the institutional puffers of the ideological bubble of the nineties are still in place, still telling the world, still making the same arguments. And they’re not just going to stop because they’re wrong, or because some guy in Chicago historicizes them. As anyone who has ever covered a strike can tell you, being on the right side of an argument just doesn’t matter a whole lot in the land of money.

GL: Is there any way that you see a fundamental criticism of market populism can gain a political momentum and achieve something? What do you think, for instance, of the ATTAC movement, which promotes the Tobin tax? I don’t want to ask the old question whether capitalism should be reformed from within or fundamentally attacked from outside. This seems such an outdated choice.

TF: Except during the wildest of boom times, unregulated, free-market capitalism has never been a particularly popular social order. Indeed, leaders of business thought like the Wall Street Journal are forever worrying about the political dangers (regulation, taxation) that lurk behind each corner. The real question is, how has unregulated, free-market capitalism managed to triumph? Consider what it’s done in America, where it has managed, after seventy years of ideological warfare, to overturn much of the still-very-popular welfare state program known as the New Deal. What an achievement! What interests me is how this ideological victory was won, and the role of market populism—the equating of free markets with democracy—in winning it.

I don’t know much about the ATTAC movement, but the Tobin tax seems like a good idea to me. As does the estate tax and the progressive income tax. The problem, of course, is not a shortage of good ideas but the absence of a popular, grassroots left movement to insist that they are implemented.

GL: What is the role of the cultural critic today? Is there a new breed of ‘organic intellectuals’, in tune with the Seattle protest movement? Repeatedly you have criticized the academic cultural studies wave as an integrative, politically correct yet powerless force. The only option available in this media age seems to be to accept the role of celebrity thinker. What other strategies do you see emerging? Is it the task of the critic to be negative, no matter what?

TF: I would very much like to see a new generation of intellectuals who aren’t strictly creatures of academia. By this I don’t mean celebrity thinkers; I mean people who write for audiences larger than simply their fellow PhDs. And maybe such a generation is coming: After all, the American universities grievously mistreated people who got their PhDs in the 1990s, and gave them every incentive to pursue careers outside the academy. But I don’t know for sure if that’s actually happening; all I have is anecdotal evidence. And, no, critics don’t have to be negative all the time.

GL:   Could you say something about the influence of One Market Under God? There is very little criticism of today’s business culture. We can’t expect much from economists to understand the mythological aspect of guruism. At the same time postmodern cultural studies has walked away from the economy, perhaps in a response to earlier over-identification with Marxist economic determinism.

TF: The world of management theory really has gone unscrutinized by academic cultural studies, for precisely the reason you mention. Cultural studies mistakenly imagines that all discussions of this subject must either be mechanically Marxist or else must follow the cult-stud path, must hymn the empowered consumer and find subversion everywhere, etc. And since obviously nobody wants to be a vulgar Marxist, you only have one choice. What this overlooks, of course, is that there is a vast literature that deals with business and American life in an intelligent manner and without making either error. We call it history. My model was Richard Hofstadter’s 1963 book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, which has always been one of my favorites. I wanted to write the history of an idea—market populism. And I was also taken with the notion of writing an intellectual history of a period of rampant anti-intellectualism.

I will admit that I hoped, in the back of my mind, that business people would pick the book up because they wanted to read a debunking of management literature—a genre which everyone suspects is largely bullshit. I thought they would want to read a book telling them just why it was bullshit, and how it got to be so bullshitty. But by and large this didn’t happen. It turns out the business community—regardless of all its propaganda about encouraging dissent and going to extremes and tolerating wacky creative individuals and treasuring innovation and all the rest of it—isn’t interested in seeing itself historicized and critiqued.

Thomas Frank, One Market Under God, Extreme Capitalism, Market Populism and the End of Economic Democracy, New York: Doubleday, 2000.