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  January 29, 2001 This month in Lingua Franca  

Frank Talk
by Matthew Price

Hailed as an "authentic culture critic who mixes academic theories with smartass prose," Thomas Frank is a zealous foe of the so-called New Economy. From his perch as editor of The Baffler, Frank hurls razor-sharp arrows of contempt at the marketers of hipness, who promise to sell you revolution in a perfume bottle. And in his new book One Market Under God: Extreme Capitalism, Market Populism, and the End of Economic Democracy (Doubleday), Frank mercilessly demolishes the pretensions of the new-fangled capitalists of the roaring Nineties. Dissecting the fatuous rhetoric of management gurus like Tom Peters and vigorously questioning the irrationally exuberant stock touters of Wall Street (one wonders if Alan Greenspan hasn't found an unlikely ally in Tom Frank), Frank has struck a nerve in his critics, who seem to have found him irrationally gloomy.

"One Market Under God is but another in a series of superficial, ill-informed, poorly thought out screeds on the shortcoming of modern capitalism," harrumphed Steven Pearlstein in the Washington Post Book World. The book, he went on, is "a long and self-indulgent sneer from a writer who seems more intent on rallying his band of true believers than on marshaling facts and analysis that might enlighten a wider audience."

The National Review also looked askance. "Frank's punches fly so furiously that he ends up completely missing his target," opined NR's reviewer, Jacob Heilbrunn, who wanted more from Frank than mere grumbling, reminding readers that "for all the plangent notes... he never offers much of an alternative...there are no proposals for, say, raising income taxes or strengthening campaign finance laws." The Financial Times's Andrew Hill found the book "an entertaining polemic against the free market," but he echoed Heilbrunn's criticism: "the book is short on solutions. Organized labor-marginalized and despised by advocates of the new economy-should provide the heroes for Mr. Frank's thesis, but he comes up with few names around which the backlash to market populism might rally."

Rob Walker, in The New York Times Book Review, grew impatient with Frank's jeremiad, calling it a "414-page exercise in skepticism that possesses all of the subtlety of a Molotov cocktail." Scott McLemee, in Newsday, also detected some glibness in Frank's tone, commenting that "he tends to be quick and dirty just where his analysis should be most cogent." But McLemee also commended Frank's critique as "incisive and often witty".

Indeed, there were those who welcomed Frank's dour thoughts. Alan Wolfe, in The New Republic, cheered the book "as far and away the best of a recent spate of books critical of consumerism." And Michael King, in a notice for The American Prospect, offered hearty praise. 'Frank is to be commended for his extraordinary endurance in simply collecting and cataloguing the range of atavistic poppycock that sustains most conventional commentary on the markets. That he does so with an engagingly dry wit ... is worthy of gratitude." Most enthusiastic was The New York Observer's Ron Rosenbaum, who wrote that the book was "just about the smartest work of cultural criticism I've read in years. A brilliant, bracing slice-and-dice job on the pop culture of the New Economy.."

Matthew Price

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