One Market Under God: Extreme Capitalism, Market Populism, and the End of Economic Democracy
by Thomas Frank
Doubleday, 2000, 414 pp., $26.00
This is the story of a bizarre and, according to its narrator, victorious cultural counterrevolution. Thomas Frank calls it “market populism.” The phrase captures a stunning reversal in the way many people think about the free market. Old-fashioned populism held that laissez-faire capitalism presented the gravest danger to freedom, democracy, equality, and the material well-being of most citizens. Market populism turns that skepticism inside out. It persuades us that the market is the gateway to universal liberation. Egalitarian beyond compare, the free market eviscerates every authoritarian instinct, every hierarchical institution, every form of elitist snobbery. It conducts a twenty-four-hour-a-day plebiscite on the people’s preferences, an exquisitely more sensitive barometer of popular desire than the cumbersome and rickety apparatus of democratic political wrangling. Actually, market libbers argue, it is precisely those collectivist institutions, those legislative restraints, those ideological delusions standing outside the charmed circle of the marketplace—trade unions, government regulatory agencies, safety nets, codes of fair conduct, the leftovers of a smart-ass social engineering mentality, in a word, all the paraphernalia of the old populism—that short-circuit a full emancipation.
Here then is a counterrevolution that looks to the future, is not hung up on the past. Frank takes a certain pleasure in reciting “market populism’s” transparent contradictions just to make its triumph that much more marvelous. Market populism champions choice, but leaves no room for doubt that the market is the only choice. It cherishes democracy, but is out of temper with every form of popular government or social movement with the chutzpah to challenge the market’s omniscience. While the marketeers work up a Jacobin rage against each noxious sign of class pretension, they worship a pantheon of CEOs in an ascending order of cupidity. Inspired by the free-spirited, anything goes anarchy of the market unchained, dripping with contempt for the bureaucrat’s iron cage, these avatars of free agency nonetheless live out their lives under a regime of great corporations as hierarchically put together as the Vatican. Full of reassurances that in the long run nothing works better than the market in leveling the playing field, market populism blesses unprecedented levels of income and wealth inequality, measuring progress by the growth in the earth’s square acreage of billionaires.
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