Doubleday · 2000 · 414 pages · $26.00
Reviewed by Brian Doherty
Thomas Frank is the hippest leftist theorist around. He publishes The Baffler, a journal of cultural criticism mostly aimed at the evils of corporations. Frank is a hero at Harper’s and gets his books—essay collections of social criticism, not generally considered hot properties—published by the biggest New York publishers. His first book, The Conquest of Cool, lamented that corporations and advertisers have co-opted the language of radicalism and rebellion, tamed them, and made them meaningless.
Frank is one of the most well-known exponents of a widely spreading trope among socialists: that the laissez-faire free-market mentality has completely conquered the worlds of intellect and policy; that we live in a free-market dystopia where everyone is poor and getting poorer, on the verge of unemployment, and where no one dares suggest, much less act on, the idea that unfettered corporations in an unbounded free market should be interfered with in any way.
This may strike actual advocates of radical laissez faire, who haven’t noticed their decisive victory, as peculiar. It might be interesting to actually see the evidence this intellectual wunderkind musters to buttress this notion. Alas, Frank thinks his assertions are beyond argument. His book’s almost infinite ratio of derisive summation to actual argument against his opponents indicates that, despite his weird claim that free-market ideology reigns uncontested, Frank believes his readers already agree with him. He’s merely the high priest at the ritualized verbal flaying of the heretics.
He starts with the assumption that laissez faire has triumphed, and says his book will tell “the story of . . . how the American corporate community went about winning the legitimacy it so covets, persuading the world that the laissez-faire way was not only the best and the inevitable way, but the one most committed to the will and the interests of the people.”
What this means, in practice, is hundreds of pages of witlessly ironic summations of writers to whom Frank attributes this supposed laissez-faire rout. People who say the Internet could be liberating, like George Gilder, or that the microchip has profoundly changed the world, like Kevin Kelly, are gibbering jerks. Those who hyped the ’90s stock-market boom and growth in mutual-fund ownership are enemies of the people, from Peter Lynch to the Motley Fools to the Beardstown Ladies. Those who suggest even partial privatization of Social Security are deluded dupes of Wall Street barons. Boosters of the changing nature of business management, from the Body Shop’s Anita Roddick to pop-management consultants like Tom Peters or Peter Senge, are all liars and charlatans.
Frank is correct that the triumphalist blatherings of certain neo-globalists like the New York Times’s Thomas Friedman are overdone, and that the contentless “constant change” rhetoric of pop-management consultants is frequently laughable. Alas, it’s hard to get a chuckle even out of those parts since Frank’s relentless tone of haughty sneering leaves little room for the joy of a skilled, witty evisceration of the deserving.
Like most post-Soviet leftists, Frank avoids explicitly articulating his vision of a just and proper world. In effect, Frank argues, the only valid definition of “radical” is: that which is opposed to those with more money than me. (One couldn’t say Frank thinks radicalism should be aimed at “the rich,” since by any objective definition the American workers whose burden Frank assumes are fabulously wealthy compared to the overwhelming majority of humans, living or dead.)
Frank believes that the world of business and work is one of pure coercion and the destruction of the weak. No one who works is doing what he wants to do, and attempts to make the workplace more appealing—casual days, free juice, a more decentralized structure—are laughable attempts to paper over this reality. And yet, he simultaneously seems to think that losing one’s position in this hellish system of coercion is a crime, too, as witness his excoriations of anyone who dares lay off an employee for any reason.
Though he doesn’t spell it out, Frank seems an old-fashioned socialist looking forward to the day when no one has to work because the government is—somehow, some way—giving them everything they want. He’s the ultimate anti-Hayek, whom Frank singles out for typically unargued derision: Frank believes that, through the glories of labor unions and activist government, the people have the power and ability to manipulate the market and the world to get everything they want, at the expense of everyone wealthier than they are. That vision no longer holds much power; perhaps the error at the root of this misguided and dull book is mistaking the collapse of pure socialist doctrine for the victory of unbridled laissez faire.
Brian Doherty is an associate editor at Reason magazine.