geert lovink on 6 Feb 2001 01:20:15 -0000


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<nettime> review of thomas frank's one market under god (by naomi klein)


(has anyone on nettime read already read frank's book? I am curious.
best, geert)

New Statesman (London) | www.newstatesman.co.uk
05 February 2001

     <http://www.consider.net/forum_new.php3?newTemplate=OpenBookObject&newTop=200102050045&newDisplayURN=200102050045>

Book  Reviews  -  Voting  with  your  wallet.  After a huge propaganda
campaign,  the stock market is now seen as noble and democratic in its
promise  of  riches  for  everyone.  Naomi  Klein  on  the myth of the
People's Market

One Market Under God
Thomas Frank Secker and Warburg, 425pp, 18.99
ISBN 0436276194

How  did  investment  become  a  hobby  for  little  old ladies in the
American  Midwest,  rivalling even bingo? How did stock tickers become
more  ubiquitous  on television than weather forecasts? And whose idea
was it to market day trading as an extreme sport - something you would
want to do on your PalmPilot from a mountaintop in the Himalayas?

One Market Under God is the story of the mass-marketing of the market.
Thomas  Frank, one of America's most scathing cultural critics, argues
that  the market is no longer seen simply as a way to get rich, but as
a  much  nobler entity: a quasi-socialist income redistribution scheme
and an infinitely responsive, never-ending town-hall meeting. For many
Americans,  the  market  has  become  the  primary  political  sphere,
obscuring all others - from unions to community organising to politics
itself.  Likes  and  dislikes,  approval and disapproval, protests and
endorsements: all are now expressed almost exclusively by "voting with
your wallet".

This  book is about a powerful consensus - suffocating in America, and
almost  as dominant in Britain - which holds that the interests of the
market  are indistinguishable from the interests of the public. What's
good  for the Dow is good for society, even if stock prices are buoyed
by  the formation of a new cartel that will erode consumer choice, and
even if the market celebrates fresh statistics about stagnant wages in
the  middle  of  an  economic  boom.  Frank  calls  this conflation of
capitalism  with  the  public  will "market populism", and sets out to
answer a deceptively simple question: how did the market become us?

His  thesis  is  that  the stock market became the voice of the people
through  a process of mock-revolution. According to the script of this
alleged revolt - as pieced together by Frank from management seminars,
advertisements  for  online  trading,  articles in Wired magazine, and
zany  business  books  -  the  proletariat  has,  in  under  a decade,
overthrown  the pinstriped corporate suits who used to control all the
money.  This revolution was fought not by anti- capitalism protesters,
but  by "regular people" who oppose "elitism" in the capitalist class.
And  the  happy  results  are  already  in:  we  now  have  democratic
capitalism,  a  stronger  and  more pervasive role for the market than
ever  before.  Frank  calls it the "People's Market", after that other
great icon of faux populism, the People's Princess.

In  Frank's  telling,  the  pseudo  revolution  has been waged on many
fronts.  Much  of it has involved simply recasting the market, so that
it  is no longer a world of old white guys in suits and is now willing
to  accommodate, and indeed celebrate, infinite diversity. The face of
business, as seen in ads on CNN and CNBC, is multiracial, casual, cool
and,  above  all, young. More than that, the face of business has been
remade  to  be  actively  anti-business, contemptuous of all that came
before, and determined to break with every tradition.

The  overwhelming  message  of the past decade was that riches were no
longer  for  the  rich  only;  they  were  for everyone. Better still,
getting  rich  was  easy: 15-year-olds were doing it messing around on
their  laptops; your next-door neighbour did it by reading mass-market
self-help  books;  and  semi-literate  people  did  it  by polling the
audience  on  Who  Wants to Be a Millionaire?. As Frank documents, the
task  of  market  populism  was  not  to  make  everybody rich, but to
convince  a  majority  of  people  that they were about to become very
rich.

The  more often these stories were told, however unrepresentative they
were,  the  more  people decided to try their luck on the stock market
(last year, 49 per cent of US citizens owned stock). This was cast not
as  a  measure  of  Americans'  loss  of  faith in social security and
pensions,  but  as  a populist victory for "Main Street USA"; "regular
people"  -  a  staple in mutual fund ads - were getting a piece of the
big city action. For Generation X, meanwhile, investing wasn't pitched
as  ordinary,  but extraordinary: rather than trusting their future to
stuffy  brokerage  firms, they were - remarkably! daringly! - going at
it  by DIY, cutting out the middleman and trading their stocks online.
According  to  magazines  such  as  Fast  Company  and  Business  2.0,
investing  wasn't buying into the system; it was cashing out, a way to
get rich without ever having to work for The Man.

At  which  point, the populist spiral became self-fulfilling: the more
people  who  owned stocks, the more plausible it was to argue that the
market  was  democratic,  a supreme form of self- government. "Markets
were  not  merely  organs  of  exchange,"  Frank  writes; "they were a
never-ending  election . . . a combination voting booth and prosperity
machine for the common man."

Add  to  that  the influence of e-commerce and you have a regular coup
d'etat.  Thanks  to new technologies, goes this flattering fairy tale,
there now exists a race of "super-empowered indi- viduals", a "digital
generation" who have multinational corporations quaking at their every
click.  These  people  don't wait for companies to give them what they
want;  they demand it from eBay and Video-on-Demand. The new consumers
are  not  spectators, but participants, writes Frank, with the sarcasm
that will be familiar to readers of his journal, the Baffler; they are
not  buyers, but de facto producers. Just as the stock market has been
recast  as  a voting booth, the online shopping mall has become a site
of  popular  control,  with  regular  people in the driver's seat once
again.

All  of  this  populist rhetoric has had a profound effect not just on
economics, but on politics, too. Because market populism has us voting
with  our  dollars  many  times  a day, when (and if) we get around to
voting  with  our ballot papers, it has tended, at least in the US, to
be  for  candidates promising to give our money back to us. This, too,
was cast as a triumph of the little people: the more money left in our
pockets,  the  more  we  have to spend expressing our true will in the
market  place.  According to this theory, to interfere in the people's
market  -  with taxation, government regulation, union organising - is
to  be a terrible elitist, scornful of "the people" and their choices.
Meanwhile,  politi-  cians  who  place  a Zen-like trust in the market
enact a kind of laissez-faire participatory democracy.

As  if  the  internet and day trading weren't enough to prove that the
market   had   an  umbilical  connection  to  our  souls,  along  came
"branding".  Suddenly,  corporations weren't just selling products and
image,  they  were  selling  democracy,  community,  empowerment. "The
brand,  in  short,  was  us,"  Frank writes. And if we ever started to
think  otherwise, we were pulled back into the fold with more populist
folk  stories.  Come  now,  said  the brand managers, gather round the
corporate  campfire  and  hear  the  one about how the Nike empire was
started  by a couple of guys selling shoes from the back of their car.
Or about how Bill Gates used not to get any respect from the suits.

Frank's  argument is an important contribution to the discussion about
how  to  rein in corporate power; many anti-corporate critics argue in
favour  of public-interest regulation on the grounds that corporations
are  accountable only to their shareholders, rather than to the public
at  large. One Market Under God documents a huge - and extraordinarily
successful - propaganda campaign that has taught millions of people to
stop  thinking  of themselves as citizens, and even as workers, and to
begin thinking of themselves primarily as shareholders.

This idea of collective ownership is an illusion. As "the people" were
storming  Wall Street, their jobs were being casualised and wealth was
being  concentrated  into fewer and fewer hands, an upward transfer of
prosperity  that Frank describes as "a gigantic heave-ho". This is not
new information, but Frank's analysis of market populism helps explain
how  a huge PR campaign touting our fantastic empowerment and imminent
riches made these disparities socially acceptable.

What is not clear is how long this illusion can hold. One Market Under
God  is  the  anatomy  of  a  boom, and of the tulip-mania that always
accompanies  such  economic  moments.  But  how  deep  does  the  mass
identification  with  the  interests  of the market run? It is easy to
love the market in good times, but what happens when things go bad, as
now  seems  rather  likely?  There  are  some  signs  of  an  imminent
disassociation.  In  his inaugural speech, George W Bush felt the need
to  urge  Americans  to  seek  "a common good beyond your comfort" - a
shocking  admission that the pursuit of our individual comforts is not
itself  the  creation  of  the  common good. Still, the only heartfelt
applause came when he said those two magic words: "tax cuts".

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