One Market, Under God

By Thomas Frank

Being rich in America wasn’t always as much fun as it is today. The slogan “one nation, under God” expresses a dedication to principles of equality and a suspicion of ungodly worldliness that once made accumulating massive wealth seem almost indecent. For some early tycoons great fortune came with strings of guilt attached. Andrew Carnegie declared that the man who dies rich, dies disgraced, and dedicated much of his later life to giving his ill-gotten stash away.

Carnegie’s conscience was also soothed by the sanction given to wealth by his favourite philosopher, Herbert Spencer. Spencer’s great contribution to the history of ideas was Social Darwinism – a theory that viewed inequality as the inevitable result of economic competition. “Survival of the fittest” became a universal principle, as applicable to business as it was to birds. As John D. Rockefeller put it to a Sunday school class, it was simply “a law of nature and a law of God.”

As science Social Darwinism was nonsense, but as ideology it was powerful stuff. You can still see elements of it around today, though rich people don’t have to worry as much about the stigma of wealth. And yet America’s second Great Barbeque, the long bull market of the 1990s, had no shortage of its own apologists and ideologies. In One Market Under God, culture critic Thomas Frank takes a look at one that he calls “market populism.”

What Frank means by market populism is the idea that the market is a great engine of democracy, the transcendental people’s voice. The way this message is communicated is through a nifty inversion in the meaning of the words “populist” and “elite.”

Since, according to market populism, markets express the will of the people, any group which dares to criticize business is defined as a cynical elite. What these undemocratic snobs (typically, government) don’t understand is that the market only dictates what people want. Despite clear evidence of growing income gaps and sliding standards of living, the new economy is heralded as the home of a newly empowered workforce of entrepreneurs.

And exclusively entrepreneurs at that. After all, who needs unions when we can all be “free agents” selling our services in the booming marketplace? That for most people this means taking temp work without benefits is a downside that goes unstated. But since all of these changes are the result of market forces (global, democratic, inevitable), any resulting social inequality has to be an expression of the people’s will.

If nothing else, the effort Frank has made to read all of the leading market populist and management theory texts, including the runaway bestseller Who Moved My Cheese?, has to be acknowledged. And his analysis does provide an antidote to some of the more grating platitudes about how all things are becoming better for all people with the new economy. The fact that more people than ever are invested in the stock market, for example, is not evidence of the democratization of wealth, but rather the opposite. Over 80 percent of the market’s advance in the last four years of the bull market in the US has gone to the wealthiest 10 percent of the population. “One dollar, one vote” is, despite Thomas Friedman, one of the least democratic slogans imaginable.

Frank’s message is valid, but not new, especially for readers of LeftLit. While he seems to have read every right-wing business book published in the last ten years, Frank has less regard for the fact that much of what he is saying will be familiar to his target audience. The chapter on corporate brands, for example, adds nothing to Naomi Klein’s No Logo. One Market Under God is also like Klein’s book in that it gives the impression of being a collection of magazine articles rather than a single argument in need of book-length development.

And while Frank does help to clean up the “resilient language of democracy”, he remains vague on some key elements. What is “the market” anyway? A giant global casino run by powerful interests? Or a chaotic free-for-all reflecting the billions of decisions made by individual consumers every day? And was it really the market that “killed” journalism, academia, and organized labour (as Frank claims), or did those institutions choose to sacrifice themselves on its altar?

Few of us are simply victims of an ideology.

Review first published December 30, 2000.


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