The Rise of Market Populism | The Nation


The Rise of Market Populism

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This may seem egregious, but it was hardly atypical. Wherever one looked in the nineties entrepreneurs were occupying the ideological space once filled by the noble sons of toil. It was businessmen who were sounding off against the arrogance of elites, railing against the privilege of old money, protesting false expertise and waging relentless, idealistic war on the principle of hierarchy wherever it could be found. Their fundamental faith was a simple one: The market and the people--both of them understood as grand principles of social life rather than particulars--were essentially one and the same. As journalist Robert Samuelson wrote in 1998, "the Market 'R' Us." This is how a "Fanfare for the Common Man" could turn into yet another salute to Bill Gates and his fellow billionaires; how the New York Stock Exchange, long a nest of privilege, could be understood in the nineties as a house of the people; how any kind of niche marketing could be passed off as a revolutionary expression--an empowerment, even--of the demographic at which it was aimed.

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Thomas Frank
Thomas Frank is the author of the just-published Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback...

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And as business leaders melded themselves theoretically with the people, they found that market populism provided them with powerful weapons to use against their traditional enemies in government and labor. Since markets express the will of the people, virtually any criticism of business could be described as an act of "elitism" arising out of despicable contempt for the common man. According to market populism, elites are not those who, say, watch sporting events from a skybox, or spend their weekends tooling about on a computer-driven yacht, or fire half their work force and ship the factory south. No, elitists are the people on the other side of the equation: the labor unionists and Keynesians who believe that society can be organized in any way other than the market way. Since what the market does--no matter how whimsical, irrational or harmful--is the Will of the People, any scheme to operate outside its auspices or control its ravages is by definition a dangerous artifice, the hubris of false expertise.

This fantasy of the market as an anti-elitist machine made the most sense when it was couched in the language of social class. Businessmen and pro-business politicians have always protested the use of "class war" by their critics on the left; during the nineties, though, they happily used the tactic themselves, depicting the workings of the market as a kind of permanent social revolution in which daring entrepreneurs are endlessly toppling fat cats and picking off millions of lazy rich kids. Wherever the earthshaking logic of the "New Economy" touched down, old money was believed to quake and falter. The scions of ancient banking families were said to be finding their smug selves wiped out by the streetwise know-how of some kid with a goatee; the arrogant stockbrokers of old were being humiliated by the e-trade masses; the WASPs with their regimental ties were getting their asses kicked by the women, the Asians, the Africans, the Hispanics; the buttoned-down whip-cracking bosses were being fired by the corporate "change agents"; the self-assured network figures were being reduced to tears by the Vox Populi of the web. A thousand populist revolts shook the office blocks of the world, and the great forums of market ideology overflowed with praise for in-your-face traders from gritty urban backgrounds, for the CEO who still retained the crude manners of the longshoreman.

How did populism ever become the native tongue of the wealthy? Historically, of course, populism was a rebellion against the corporate order, a political tongue reserved by definition for the nonrich and the nonpowerful. It was a term associated with the labor movement and angry agrarians. But in 1968, at the height of the antiwar movement, this primal set piece of American democracy seemed to change its stripes. The war between classes somehow reversed its polarity: Now it was a conflict in which the patriotic, blue-collar "silent majority" (along with their employers) faced off against a new elite, a "liberal establishment" with its spoiled, flag-burning children. This new ruling class--a motley assembly of liberal journalists, liberal academics, liberal foundation employees, liberal politicians and the shadowy powers of Hollywood--earned the people's wrath not by exploiting workers or ripping off the family farmers but by contemptuous disregard for the wisdom and values of average Americans.

Counterintuitive though it may have been, the backlash vision of class conflict was powerful stuff. Until recently American politics remained mired in the cultural controversies passed down from the late sixties, with right-wing populists forever reminding "normal Americans" of the hideous world that the "establishment" had built, a place where blasphemous intellectuals violated the principles of Americanism at every opportunity, a place of crime in the streets, of unimaginable cultural depravity, of epidemic disrespect for the men in uniform, of secular humanists scheming to undermine family values and give away the Panama Canal, of judges gone soft on crime and politicians gone soft on communism. The thirty-year backlash brought us Ronald Reagan's rollback of government power as well as Newt Gingrich's outright shutdown of 1995. But for all its accomplishments, it never constituted a thorough endorsement of the free market or of laissez-faire politics. Barbara Ehrenreich, one of its most astute chroniclers, points out that the backlash always hinged on a particular appeal to working-class voters, some of whom were roped into the Republican coalition with talk of patriotism, culture war and family values. Class war worked for Republicans as long as it was restricted to cultural issues; when economic matters came up the compound grew unstable very quickly. Lee Atwater, an adviser to Presidents Reagan and Bush, is said to have warned his colleagues in 1984 that their new blue-collar constituents were "liberal on economics" and that without culture wars to distract them "populists were left with no compelling reason to vote Republican."

Fortunately for the right, as the culture wars finally began to subside in the aftermath of the impeachment fiasco, a new variation on the populist theme was reaching its triumphant zenith. Market populism was promulgated less by a political party than by business itself--through management theory, investment literature and advertising--and it served the needs of the owning community far more directly than had the tortured populism of the backlash. While the right-wing populism of the seventies and eighties had envisioned a scheming "liberal elite" bent on "social engineering"--a clique of experts who thought they knew what was best for us, like busing, integration and historical revisionism--market populism simply shifted the inflection. Now the crime of the elite was not so much an arrogance in matters of values but in matters economic. Still those dirty elitists thought they were better than the people, but now their arrogance was revealed by their passion to raise the minimum wage; to regulate, oversee, redistribute and tax.

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