One Market, Under God

One Market Under God

One Market Under God

One Market, Under GodThomas Frank

Oh, Thomas Frank.  Returning to things that one loved in high school and college when you’re reading them as an adult is always a little bit scary.  After all, what if you don’t like them anymore?  I loved Thomas Frank in college, partly because one of my favorite professors did, and I still have a heavily underlined and margin-noted copy of Commodify Your Dissent: Salvos from the Baffler on my bookshelf.  But reading One Market Under God, a book I’d somehow missed the first time around, I was left wondering: was I wrong then, or am I wrong now?

In this case, it might be a little of both (or rather, neither. I do hate being wrong.)  One of the big challenges, of course, is that the world has changed.  One Market Under God was written for a different world, in 2000.  Life always changes, and I actually often enjoy political works written a decade or more ago, since I think it’s very good for our historical memory.  However, some books hold up better than others.  Any book that tends to argue repeatedly that there is no difference between the two parties is going to look a little foolish now that we’ve had nearly 15 years of evidence to the contrary.  And it’s especially painful to read for those of us who volunteered for Nader in a swing state in 2000 and still feel the need to make penance.

When it comes to the economy, of course, the parties are closer together than any of us would like, and in 2000 there didn’t seem to be any home at all for those who were concerned about growing inequality and the perils of globalization.  There is still a challenge for many of us, but it’s difficult to understand how different the debate about the Trans Pacific Partnership is than the debate was over NAFTA and globalization in the 90s.  There was barely even any acknowledgement that there was a debate, and anyone who disagreed with the shape of the debate or saw problems with globalization was a radical, an anarchist, a naive youngster, or a lazy unionist who didn’t want competition.  It was absolutely a surreal time, and the more people willing to join in shouting that things were not perfect-pointing to growing inequality, the horrible conditions that lack of labor laws made possible, or potential critiques of the International Monetary Fund-the better.

The problem with Frank is that he never really gets beyond shouting.  His argument critique is not to gather proof or numbers or facts, but merely to use big words and sarcasm to say what he thinks.  And since much of what he’s doing is cultural critique, it’s never quite obvious why we’re supposed to agree with his view of culture rather than others.  Take, for example this paragraph from page 122, where he’s criticizing the rise of interest in day traders and financial advice shows:

Before long the changes underway began to impress themselves on financial commentators of established wisdom and discernment, and the first of what would prove to be an exceedingly long series of hymns, hosannahs, and praise-God-almightys began to pour forth from the organs of cultural and financial orthodoxy: The People and Wall Street have come together at last!  As fell the Berlin Wall, so had fallen that nasty, un-American idea of social class!….The soaring popularity of the mutual fund was, in particular, a sign that equality had trumped hierarchy…..

And so on and so forth for another 6 pages…. in that section.  The entire book is written in that vein, though, strictly through argument by assertion.  I can tell by his tone that Frank disagrees that the Market ushered in an era of democratization, but there’s very little in the book to actually show that.  My AP History teacher would never have let me get away with something like that, and that would only have been in an essay a few pages long.  It’s a very thin premise to build a 373 book upon.

So, with regret, I have to say goodbye to Thomas Frank.  I’ll certainly keep Salvos on my bookshelf, if for no other reason than nostalgia, and to be reminded of political argument in the 90s.  But I doubt I’ll be reading anything new.


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