One Market Under God: Extreme Capitalism, Market Populism, and the End of Economic Democracy
By Thomas Frank. Doubleday, 352 pages. $26.
REVIEWED BY BEN GREENMAN
One of the founding editors of the Chicago-based political and cultural journal The Baffler, Tom Frank made his authorial debut in 1997 with The Conquest of Cool, a sprawling polemic that detailed how big American advertising firms had co-opted the rhetoric of ’60s liberalism. This time around he looks at the deluge of propaganda used to promote market capitalism in the late ’90s — and in particular, the practice of equating the free market with the democratic political process itself. In this new economy, the theory goes, the key to wealth is not mindless participation in a corporate or government order, but economic self-determination carried out largely through the stock market. Coupled with a virulent hostility towards traditional corporate culture, this principle gives rise to what Frank calls “market populism,” a belief that open and unregulated trade represents the purest form of democracy.
Needless to say, Frank does not buy this theory any more than he buys the notion that the tooth fairy steals in through the window while children sleep. He does, however, have a grand old time debunking some of market populism’s more persistent myths. Like the one in which investors like Warren Buffett are portrayed as common men who made billions simply by listening to other common men, sussing out the word on the street and then picking the appropriate stocks. Or the one in which corporate trends like stock options and outsourcing are hailed as means of returning long-denied freedom to employees rather than as convenient retreats from the traditional responsibilities of employers. “Top managers were enriched in proportion to the amount of power and security that workers lost,” Frank notes. “This is the single most important thing one needs to know to understand the corporate thought of the Nineties.”
As he barrels through his argument, Frank identifies a rogues’ gallery of forked-tongue free-market prophets, from management theorist Tom Peters to futurist George Gilder. He repeatedly exposes their paradoxical habit of borrowing the language of the Old Left while demonizing traditional corporate philosophy as quasi-socialist. Unfortunately, having identified this game of ideological musical chairs, Frank does little except condemn its stupidity: There are few solutions suggested, and precious little optimism.
Frank is at his strongest when his argument stays specific, mocking the evangelical pretensions of business magazines like Fast Company, lamenting the rise of corporate “listening” and the demise of the labor movement, or analyzing the absurd subtexts of liberation in the TV ads of online brokerage houses (readers will be especially grateful to see him skewer the Ameritrade commercials featuring “Stewart,” the hip day trader who converts his stuffy boss to the new populist gospel). Much of the book speaks to the best tradition of political criticism: It provokes not just intellectual reaction, but emotional response as well. But having started provoking, Frank can’t stop, and One Market Under God begins to drift. Repetitions and digressions abound, along with a tone that ranges uncomfortably between academic discourse and sucker-punch sarcasm. By the end, cooler heads not only fail to prevail, but disappear entirely, and Frank’s final warning — that senseless pursuit of individual em- powerment through free-market mania will have chilling long-range consequences — reads more like the tail of a screed than the summary of a coherent argument.
Ben Greenman is an editor at the New Yorker. His work appears regularly in Timothy McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and other publications.
The Great American Tax Dodge: How Spiraling Fraud and Avoidance Are Killing Fairness, Destroying the Income Tax, and Costing You
By Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele. Little, Brown. $22.95.
For the first time in U.S. history, Barlett and Steele reveal, tax fraud is rampant: By their calculation, it costs the government a minimum of $300 billion each year. And while the cheaters come from all economic backgrounds — low-income folks wrongly claiming tax credits, self-employed professionals lying about business expenses — it is the ultrawealthy users of offshore tax shelters who reap the greatest benefit.
The authors, investigative journalists who spent most of three decades at the Philadelphia Inquirer and now write for Time, demonstrate that the main culprit is not the Internal Revenue Service. It’s Congress, which continues to make tax laws more complex and unfair, then refuses to give the IRS adequate resources to ferret out fraud. If the tax code isn’t reformed soon, the authors warn, the United States “will become a test case to determine whether a democratic society can exist in a nation where wealth and income are concentrated in a comparatively few hands, where taxes fall most onerously on those least able to pay.” —Steve Weinberg
Blood of the Liberals
By George Packer. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $26.
A casserole of American history, family biography, and political analysis, Blood of the Liberals doesn’t lack for subject matter. George Packer’s maternal grandfather, George Huddleston, was a turn-of-the-century Jeffersonian populist and Democratic congressman from Alabama; his father, Herbert, was a Jewish New Englander who served as a top Stanford University administrator in the ’60s. And the youngest Packer once worked for the Democratic Socialists of America in Boston, yet remained politically moderate enough to be temporarily heartened by Bill Clinton’s election in 1992.
Packer uses the family lineage to demonstrate how race, class, and identity politics have continually reshaped — and bedeviled — liberalism. Huddleston lacked the courage or vision to include blacks in progressive reforms that benefitted farmers and coal miners. Herbert Packer’s ivory tower altruism and faith in rational discourse left him ill prepared for the turbulence of student uprisings.
Surveying the current political landscape, Packer shrewdly observes that in a sense the Reagan revolution of the ’80s complemented the cultural upheaval of the ’60s: “They were both about freedom, and both won, and we’re living with the consequences.” Neither the book nor any of its three flawed protagonists effectively resolves the tensions between individual “freedom” and genuine community. But Packer’s narrative steers clear of both petulant whining and prescriptive nostrums, and the victories earned by the liberals’ nobler instincts — while sometimes Pyrrhic — are not discounted. —Britt Robson
Double Trouble: Bill Clinton and Elvis Presley in the Land of No Alternatives
By Greil Marcus. Henry Holt. $25.
The genesis of this book by rock critic and Salon.com columnist Greil Marcus clearly hinged on two intersections of popular and political culture. First: the simultaneous 1991 “elections” that placed Bill Clinton on the presidential ballot and “young Elvis” on a U.S. postage stamp. Second: candidate Clinton’s 1992 decision to try his luck with “Heartbreak Hotel” on the “Arsenio Hall Show.”
Whether you see these events as coincidences or signs of some deep cultural synergy will likely determine how seriously you take Marcus’ book, a collection of essays whose lack of thematic cohesion suggests they were selected by a Boolean word search — “Clinton or Elvis.” The few pieces that actually attempt to flesh out a connection between the two men would be laughable if they weren’t so frighteningly naive.
Marcus insists that Clinton’s election and subsequent persecution stemmed from some national Jungian reaction to superficial similarities between the President and the King, as if the only thing to like about Clinton were his sense of rhythm and — more alarmingly — the only thing to object to were his Southern sensuality. For all the hyperbole of the Lewinsky affair, it’s hardly fair to equate frustration over presidential duplicity with a prudish condemnation of rock ‘n’ roll. —Ana Marie Cox
Upside Down: A Primer for the Looking-Glass World
By Eduardo Galeano. Metropolitan Books. $24.
Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano may be the last living believer in the transformative force of collage. His work — from the classic trilogy Memory of Fire to the more recent Soccer in Sun and Shadow — has ranged across the postconquest Americas, rubbing against the grain to uncover a heritage of oppression and resistance beneath the varnish of official stories. Call him, in his idiosyncratic way, a conservative, but he keeps the radical faith with dry wit, endless curiosity, and an unceasing appetite for absurdity. Upside Down, rife with subversive aphorisms and revealing statistics — to catch 100 criminals a year, Mexico City requires 1,295 police officers, while London makes do with 18 — might well be his best work yet. Designed as a short course in seeing clearly (complete with “Lectures on Fear” and a “Master Class on Impunity”), the book refuses to be taken in by the “twin totalitarianisms [that] plague the world”: consumerism and “obligatory injustice.” Funny and bleak in equal measure, Galeano deals the globalist cheerleaders a much-needed pie in the face. —Jesse Berrett
Scottsboro: An American Tragedy
Barak Goodman and Daniel Anker. 90 minutes. Social Media Productions.
This Sundance award-winning documentary film examines the grim race relations of the Depression-era South, reconstructing the true story of nine black teens falsely accused of raping a pair of white women on a train passing near Scottsboro, Alabama, in 1931.
From the real estate agent-turned-defense attorney, to the all-white jury, to the fact that the defendants testified as their own sole witnesses — the nine death sentences come as no surprise. The real drama begins once word of the verdict spreads North, sparking both outrage and support for the “Scottsboro Boys.” With the financial backing of the then-powerful Communist Party of America and the services of a hotshot New York lawyer, the young men embark on a marathon appeals process that thrusts them into the international limelight and ultimately saves their lives.
The filmmakers resurrect the courtroom battle — and its divisive issues of racism, regionalism, and inequality — with newsreels, recorded testimonies, and interviews with aging Scottsboro residents. Many historians now point to the trial as a turning point for judicial reform in the South. But, as the film poignantly drives home, the true legacy remains the shattered lives of nine young men whose only crime was choosing the wrong train to ride. —Monique Murad
Shari Robertson and Michael Camerini. 119 minutes. The Epidavros Project.
There are currently more than 300,000 asylum cases pending in the United States, and filmmakers Robertson and Camerini provide an unprecedented glimpse of how the Immigration and Naturalization Service decides each haven seeker’s fate. Their documentary expertly juxtaposes differing points of view, without choosing sides. Cameras first follow INS officers, and we appreciate the difficulty of deciding whether an applicant has a “well-founded fear” of returning to his country of origin. Do we believe the tearful Chinese man’s tale of forced sterilization? Are the death threats the Algerian woman claims she received truth or fabrication?
But no sooner have we adopted this professional skepticism than the filmmakers take us into a waiting room full of refugees. As we watch their interviews, we sympathize when they confuse the details of their stories or sound eerily detached from the horrific events they describe. Ultimately, we realize that asylum granting is both arbitrary and subjective, and that there’s no easy way around that. It’s a credit to the filmmakers that they avoid steering our judgment and allow us to wrestle with the disconcerting ambiguities their camera presents. —Linda Weber
Maceo Parker. W.A.R.
For his years spent backing James Brown, Parker will doubtless be remembered as one of the Godchildren of Soul. But as Dial Maceo confirms, the funky bandleader is also an engaging front man on his own.
The album spotlights Maceo’s understated vocals and intricate saxophone licks. But this is no solo show: Parker shakes it with an all-star cast including Prince, Ani DiFranco, and Sheryl Crow. Even James Taylor — not a man often associated with the funk — gets down on the soulful duet “My Baby Loves You.”
Jumping from hip-hop to a Wings cover to Parker’s signature, knockdown funk, Dial Maceo has the feel of a party — where anything could happen and you never know who’ll show up next. —Andrew Rosenblum
Love Comin’ Down
Sue Foley. Shanachie.
Like the young Bonnie Raitt, this Canadian-born guitarist combines a keen sense of tradition with a strong identity of her own, imbuing timeworn forms with vitality and spunk.
Though not a beautiful singer, Foley is a passionate and persuasive one. Her salt-and-honey vocals suit both wistful ballads and defiant rockers, and cut especially deep on “Let My Tears Fall Down.” Amid a new generation of blues poseurs, Sue Foley is the real thing. —Jon Young
The Best of Broadside: Anthems of the American Underground (1962-1988)
Various Artists. Smithsonian Folkways.
This superb anthology draws on the wealth of music first published in Broadside magazine — the legendary journal that printed (and recorded) tunes by such folk titans as Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, and Pete Seeger. The strummy five-album set celebrates renegades and working men, and speaks out plainly on the horrors of war. Anchored by classics like Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam,” the collection also unearths gems such as the Reverend F.D. Kirkpatrick’s incendiary “Nothing But His Blood.” A few hokey sing-alongs aside, these underground anthems remain fresh, intense, and delightfully subversive. —Keith Meatto