The Rise of Market Populism | The Nation


The Rise of Market Populism

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There are critical differences between market populism and the earlier right-wing dispensation, of course. While the backlash was proudly square, market populism is cool. Far from despising the sixties, it broadcasts its fantasies to the tune of a hundred psychedelic hits. Its leading think tanks are rumored to pay princely sums to young people promising to bring some smattering of rock-and-roll street cred to the market's cause. And believing in markets rather than God, it has little tolerance for the bizarre ideas of the Christian right or the Moral Majority. Market populism has also abandoned the overt race-baiting of the backlash: Its "Southern strategy" involves shipping plants to Mexico or Guatemala and then describing this as a victory for the downtrodden Others of the planet. Market populists generally fail to get worked up about the persecution of Vietnam vets (they sometimes even equate new-style management theories with the strategy of the Vietcong); they have abandoned the "family values" of Reagan; they give not a damn for the traditional role of women or even of children. The more who enter the work force the merrier.

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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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By the middle of the nineties, this was a populism in the ascendancy. Leftoid rock critics, Wall Street arbitrageurs and just about everyone in between seemed to find what they wanted in the magic of markets. Markets were serving all tastes, markets were humiliating the pretentious, markets were permitting good art to triumph over bad, markets were overthrowing the man, markets were extinguishing discrimination, markets were making everyone rich.

In the right hands, market populism could explain nearly any social phenomenon. The "tiger economies" of Asia had collapsed, market populists told us, because they had relied on the expertise of elites rather than the infinite wisdom of the people. Similarly, the economies of Western Europe were stagnant because the arrogant aristocrats every red-blooded American knows run those lands were clinging to old welfare-state theories. Meanwhile, the NASDAQ was soaring because the buy-and-hold common man had finally been allowed to participate. And when the House of Morgan was swallowed up by Chase Manhattan, we were told this was because it was a snooty outfit that had foolishly tried to resist the democracy of markets.

More important, market populism proved astonishingly versatile as a defense of any industry in distress. It was the line that could answer any critic, put over any deregulatory initiative, roll back any tax. Thus economist Stanley Lebergott used it to blast a 1998 warning by Hillary Clinton against the values of consumerism. The consumer culture, he informed the First Lady from the New York Times Op-Ed page, and by extension the free market generally, was the righteous collective product of the people themselves. "Who creates this 'consumer-driven culture' but 270 million Americans?" he asked. Taking an indignant swipe at the carping snobbery of the "best and the brightest," Lebergott then asserted that criticism of business was in fact criticism of "other consumers," and that simply by participating in American life--by driving "a 1-ton car to the theater" or by "accumulat[ing] books and newspapers printed on million-dollar presses"--we authorize whatever it is that the market chooses to do.

On the Wall Street Journal editorial page, where the behavior of markets is consistently understood as a transparent expression of the will of the people, one saw market populism wheeled out to defend the advertising industry, to defend the auto industry, to bolster demands that the software industry be permitted to import more workers, to hail stock options as the people's true currency and, most remarkably, to defend Microsoft from its antitrust pursuers. Since a company's size (like the value of a billionaire's pile) was simply a reflection of the people's love, antitrust itself was fundamentally illegitimate, a device used by elitist politicians, the Journal once proclaimed, "to promote the interests of the few at the expense of the many." Even after the Microsoft verdict had been announced, the Journal continued to assert that the company "should have argued that we have a monopoly because our customers want us to have one." And when Al Gore began annoying the men of privilege with his recent attacks on big business, the paper responded in the most direct manner imaginable. "Mr. Bush should tell Americans," online Journal executive James Taranto opined in an Op-Ed late last summer, "when my opponent attacks 'big corporations,' he's attacking you and me."

Market populism can seem quite absurd at times. We are, after all, living through one of the least populist economic eras in the past hundred years. The "New Economy" has exalted the rich and forgotten about the rest with a decisiveness that we haven't seen since the twenties. Its greatest achievement--the booming stock market of recent years--has been based in no small part on companies' enhanced abilities to keep wages low even while CEO compensation soars to record levels. Market populism is, in many ways, the most blatant apologia for economic inequality since social Darwinism. But there can be no doubting the intensity of the true believers' faith. Only a few paragraphs after identifying "you and me" with "big corporations," for example, the Journal's Taranto went on to declare that "thanks to the democracy of the market" and the widespread ownership of stock, "the U.S. is now closer to [the] Marxian ideal than any society in history." And unless you have a spare billion to tell the world otherwise with a thirty-second spot during the Super Bowl, you can count on listening to proclamations like that for years to come.

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