Salvos The Cultural Miracle

Thomas Frank

Have you heard? The “affluent society” is over! Virtually every respectable organ of public opinion has now officially acknowledged its demise: the warm old world of general prosperity is gone forever; poverty and economic insecurity have made a triumphant comeback; the wealth of the nation has concentrated itself rapidly into fewer and fewer hands. Meanwhile every innovation in public policy further impoverishes those who work for a living: ‘welfare reform’ turns out to mean creating an army of docile, low-paid ‘workfare’ proletarians; so does any change in labor law; so does ‘free trade’; so does the explosion of the prison population; so does the growth of the temp industry. But for our cyber-masters, displaying their lifestyles in the New York Times Magazine’s special issue on “The Rich,” things just keep getting better and better. Tiring of our lo-res problems, they have decided that it’s best simply to secede from second-wave notions of public responsibility altogether, to seal the perimeter of the gated community, climb into their skyboxes, and jet off into the fully-secured sunset.

For all its great cable channels, the excellent new global cyber capitalism is turning out to be a lot like the simple, grinding, exploitative capitalism of a hundred years ago. The astonishment that so many commentators express at this fact, however, is in one sense profoundly dishonest: only the most naive can be surprised when a decade of policies designed to crush organized labor, enrich the rich, and render our entire national life subservient to the whims of the market achieve exactly those ends. But in a broader sense the alarm that is now so commonplace on the editorial pages of well-meaning publications is genuine: as we learned in the “Deprivation Theory” unit back in Sociology 101, inequality of this kind always begets social upheaval. It’s virtually a mathematical certainty: immiseration brings radicalization. We’re walking blithely down the road to disaster; we’re asking for a replay of the 1930s, for strikes and interfering brain-trusters; we’re pushing what’s known euphemistically in this country as “the middle class” to the known limits of its complacency, and this time it won’t just be a bunch of suburban kids flipping us off and smoking pot when we told them not to.

And yet the seismographs of public opinion show barely the faintest signs that Americans are preparing to redress what’s been done to them. Instead, we on the receiving end of the new inequality are turning out majorities that reaffirm the very politics that have so afflicted us, we are tuning in enthusiastically to hear millionaires and their hired spokesmen pose as rebels, revolutionaries, defenders of the forgotten man. We’re arising as one, a song on our lips, to strengthen the hands of those who smite us; we’re up on the rooftops of our flooded homes praying fervently for rain; we’re offering smiling shoeshines to the people who have come to take possession of our foreclosed farm.

Were the man in the skybox inclined to view events in long-term perspective, perhaps he would be more impressed by the world-historical cultural wonder of which he is the beneficiary. Perhaps he would get on his cell-phone right now and pledge ten or twenty thousand to the local televangelist. For this is the doing of the Almighty Invisible Hand as surely as were the “economic miracles” of postwar Germany and Japan, a deliverance from the fate of the strife-and-strike-fatigued Mexicans, French, and British that is so ineffable it can only be attributed to divine intervention. By some act of economic providence the American population seems to have become incapable of acting on its own behalf; ‘rational choice,’ at least for us sub-CEOs, has disappeared without a trace from the sociological radar screen. Every day the market commits some new outrage, offers some new demonstration of its worthlessness as a way of ordering human civilization; and every day the organs of official opinion respond with louder and louder declarations of faith in the providence of the market, tributes to the glory of the global economy, zealous denunciations of any organization that would check the market’s omnipotence.

Call it, then, the Cultural Miracle, an unprecedented unlinking of economic cause and social effect: a parting of impoverishment and action, of social reality from political consequences. It’s the cultural equivalent of the economists’ “black box”: in one side go the objective circumstances—the most vicious attack on the public well-being by private wealth in decades; and out the other comes the mysterious response—the most abject reverence for private wealth to characterize our public culture in decades. The nation’s owners are free to do their worst now: there’s no longer any substantial force out there that can counterbalance, challenge, or even question their choices. The only political ‘incentives’ we have created encourage them to make things worse for us still: layoffs and lowered wages not only increase profits, they appear to translate directly into hosts of new converts to the Limbaugh Legion, fresh ranks of grumblers vowing revenge against the ‘politically correct.’

We’ve all heard about the problem of conformity in flush times. The Cultural Miracle, though, is complacency in years of economic privation; it is the spectacle of both parties in free-fall to the right; it is Cold War military policies that, though now lacking any external justification, continue to propel themselves along for no reason but inertia; it is armies of temps and junior executives and blue-collar workers who imagine that the correct response to their own newfound economic precariousness is to smash what’s left of the welfare state.

Notions of ‘objective social reality’ have themselves become objects of easy retro derision.

The Cultural Miracle is the Great Disconnection of the American intellect, the virtual extinction of popular thinking in terms of social class at the exact moment when social class has made a most dramatic return. It is a prodigious uncoupling of the language and imagery of everyday life from that whole plodding Second Wave world in which ‘interests’ were organically connected to action and in which economics provided identifiable ‘motives’ for social behavior. We’ve come loose at last, slipped the surly bonds of history, geography, and social reality itself.

Even economics, it seems, is no longer concerned with the production of things but with the manufacture of imagery, with the health of a culture trust whose every arcane fluctuation or celebrity-swap receives the instant scrutiny of both ‘business’ and ‘lifestyle’ editors nationwide. Culture causes and simulacrum is in the saddle of everyday life to a degree that perhaps only Jean Baudrillard can imagine, that the laughably archaic studies linking TV to ‘real-world’ violence can only begin to suggest. Notions of ‘objective social reality’ have themselves become objects of easy retro derision, as distant and cliché as the strange impulses that once prompted our ancestors to attempt to control the world around them.

What desultory feelings of discontent that manage to penetrate the veil quickly assume a savagely retrograde aspect. As in previous hard times, the language of rebellion, of class resentment, and of egalitarianism have taken center stage; once again the elemental battle of the People against the Elite is joined. But don’t look for a Clifford Odets comeback or a Eugene Debs postage stamp anytime soon. The characteristic political expression of these miraculous times is a stunningly misguided variant of the old populist formula, this time turned neatly inside out. When we talk about the People we’re talking about businessmen; when we heap scorn on snobbish Elites it’s those meddling unions and their pals in the government who are our target.

Vox Mercatus, Vox Dei

Right-wing populism has a long history, marked prominently by the racism with which earlier leaders sought to turn the working class against its own interests. But whether its current avatar is Pat Buchanan, Steve Forbes, Newt Gingrich, or Rush Limbaugh, the Cultural Miracle is driven by a different and far more powerful ideological fuel, an anti-intellectualism that is almost metaphysically resolute in its hostility to ideas. However its various nostrums and slogans—the flat tax, the Contract with America, the gold standard, the protective tariff—flicker across the national media consciousness, the guiding impulse of the new cultural dominant remains the same: to think about exerting human control over the marketplace (unless you’re a CEO) is somehow elitist. Sometimes, of course, the language that its Republican devotees use is familiar Jacksonian stuff: rantings against effete Harvard, ravings against treasonable experts and their values-eroding expertise, and boasts of their own offensiveness to established policy institutes and schools of government administration. And, as usual, they make their announcements of cultural mistrust not in smalltown PTAs and letters to sundry editors, but from positions of real power: magazines and newspapers subsidized by some of the largest fortunes in the country, radio and TV programs that reach vast audiences, the floor of the House of Representatives.

But the latest bearers of the proud tradition of Joe McCarthy, Billy Sunday, and Davy Crockett unleash their powerful new version of the assorted old prejudices not simply against thinkers or the college-educated—many of the inquisitors hold assorted PhDs and MBAs themselves—but against particular kinds of thought. Nor is it merely ‘tradition’ or that Old Time Religion that they want to defend from the ravages of modernity: on the contrary, for the new Right these are Second Wave ideas as obsolete as ink and paper. The adepts of the Cultural Miracle are fundamentalists of a different sort, prophets not of the angry God of Jonathan Edwards but of the omnipotent market. Read a handful of the sharp-edged editorials of the Wall Street Journal, through which the faithful are called to action; scan the pages of the latest business advice books: the market is eternal, the market is unchanging, the market is all-solving, the market is all-seeing, the market is everywhere. The market is both the natural condition of mankind and the unique blessing of the American Eden. The market is also synonymous with democracy: since it gives the People what the People want, the market is, by definition, the incarnation of the People’s will. Those who speak for the market speak with the Vox Populi. Most importantly, though, the market is a fantastically jealous god, deeply offended by the puny efforts of mere mortals to improve on its creations with government, tariffs, unions, or culture.

Having replaced God with the market, the new anti-intellectuals take on targets more colossal than their forebears could have ever imagined. For Gingrich and Co. the elitist enemy is not mental ability per se but Enlightenment itself, portrayed now as the exclusive affectation of bureaucrats and professors, as an intolerable affront to Nature and the omnipotent market. The heresy which must be rooted out is the basic notion that people can control their world, can, through exertion of human intelligence, improve their situation; the bedrock value with which it must be replaced is a Zen-like doctrine of no mind, of bodily and spiritual attunement to the deep rhythms of the market. Buying and selling are holy acts, the source and end of human meaning; all else is empty sophistry and deceptive tricks by which scheming professors propose to get themselves ahead.

American civil society has combined “Hamiltonian means and Jeffersonian ends.”

This, then, is the new consensus worked by the Cultural Miracle: the market is natural, normal, and irresistible. Efforts to control its vagaries, however, are artificial, dictatorial, arrogant—and undemocratic. One can watch the new faith that buttresses the Cultural Miracle emerging in documents like Terry Teachout’s reworking of H. L. Mencken, in which the great scoffer is no longer the hated tormentor of the booboisie, but the ally of the market-wise peasants in their eternal battle against the verbal prestidigitations of the know-it-all bureaucrat. Or in Rush Limbaugh’s recent statement of theoretical principle, borrowed almost verbatim from the stripped-down 1880s social darwinism of William Graham Sumner: nobody has any obligation to anyone else, under any circumstances (unless they’ve signed a contract). With one contemptuous snart he dismisses a hundred years of social theory as so much airy fantasy, needless complexities taking us away from the straight and true faith of Gilded Age capitalism. Or consider the bizarre speech given a few years ago by P. J. O’Rourke to the Cato Institute, the thinking hun’s think-tank, in which he declared himself for “no political cause whatsoever” and hailed the group’s dedication to “nothing,” all of which he derives from a hostility to intellect and a relativism that should make those hated deconstructionists envious:

I don’t know what’s good for you. You don’t know what’s good for me. We don’t know what’s good for mankind. And it sometimes seems as though we’re the only people who don’t.

But while the public is coached with a steady chant of stop thinking, the market proceeds on its benevolent way, unhindered by the corrosive disbeliefs of the New Right: It does know what’s good for us. The errant ways of bureaucrats and the hubris of policy makers are to be excoriated in resentful small-town editorials without number, but the market moves serenely along, now and forever, beyond our earthly powers of reckoning. Its booms and busts are as natural as earth and sky, and our duty is not to engage in insolent schemes by which we might control the market, but to reconcile ourselves to its majestic ways; to make our own culture as “flexible” as Third Wave capitalism demands, to offer up unquestioningly the prosperity of generations when “competitiveness” calls. To appease the market we will surrender every vestige of self-government, abandon the ways and beliefs and tastes and faiths of centuries, turn our cities into warehouses of the “amenities” by which the mobile, transnational yuppie can be served. And history is the baggage least needed of all, the dethroned god whose every trace the zealots of the market seek to efface, rationalize, or enclose conveniently in a glass display case. And in the wake of the market’s workings lies a trail of cultural and social devastation that the Enlightenment’s most grandiose makers of theoretical systems could only dream about.

It’s a strange species of populism that declares the people’s will to be the destruction of the people’s way of life. But the crowning mind-fuck of this panorama of intellectual obscenity has to be the perversity of the label fancied by the architects of this chaos—they like to call themselves “conservatives.”

Twilight of the Patriarchs

Even the best-established proverbs of American democracy are rendered obsolete by the strange politics of the Cultural Miracle. Back in the days of the great liberal consensus, historians would relate for their bright-eyed young charges the tale of the titanic clashes between founders Hamilton and Jefferson. Their mythical battles and the continuing struggles of their heirs afforded eternal lessons in the modalities of the American political character: Jeffersonian democracy squared off against Hamiltonian aristocracy, the will of the people against the interests of an economic elite. Of course the realities were always much messier than this neat parable implied. Progressives and New Dealers looked back to Hamilton’s vision of a powerful state in order to legitimate their egalitarian plans, and the central elements of Hamilton’s economic scheme—Federal Reserve system, regulated industry, managed debt—eventually became the sacred causes of public-minded reformers. Historian Clinton Rossiter proposed one last version of the old Hamilton-Jefferson formula in the early 1960s just before the market for such metaphors collapsed permanently. Both democratic and capitalistic, he wrote, American civil society has combined “Hamiltonian means and Jeffersonian ends.”

To describe the America of the Cultural Miracle one might invert Rossiter’s maxim: we live in a time in which the accomplishment of the ugliest of Hamilton’s aristocratic fantasies is legitimated with the purest of Jeffersonian principles. In his later years Hamilton lived in constant dread of the menace posed by the Jeffersonian mob to his beloved wealthy friends. That the two classes were eternal enemies he took for granted: Give the general public the slightest voice in national affairs and the next thing you know they’re making off with the public treasury, they’re ransacking your palace, they’ve got you in a tumbril and you’re on your way to the guillotine.

Hamilton’s Republican heirs, though, know better. Today the majestic will of The People is summoned constantly to endorse the entrenchment of the overclass, to cut off assistance of any kind for the destitute, to disembowel whatever workplace legislation still survives from the 1930s, to tar liberals and union leaders as the worst sort of elitists. The rhetoric of the triumphant Republican freshmen and their journalistic boosters returns again and again to this point with the kind of glibly intransigent conviction we were once taught could only be found among the commissars of Vietnam and North Korea: there can be no conflict between Hamilton’s market and Jefferson’s people because the market is the people; business leaders incarnate the General Will with an earnestness and devotion unimaginable in a self-serving politician of the older variety. Hamilton had no reason to worry about what the people wanted. It has turned out to be exactly what the corporations give them.

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But unlike his ideological descendents, Hamilton believed in limits, even for the capitalist class he was so anxious to inaugurate. Bringing fiscal responsibility to the errant and impossibly short-sighted new nation, for example, was the premier goal of his labor as Secretary of the Treasury. Today, though, the idea is as foreign to our new breed of Hamiltonians as anarcho-syndicalism. One fine day a few years ago the nation’s CEOs woke up and discovered that something had changed, ineffably, inexplicably, miraculously: They were the dreaded People! Corporate interests were by definition public interests! And there was no longer any power on earth that could prevent them from doing just whatever the fuck they wanted. Drunk on their apparent command of the popular mind, Hamilton’s heirs have engaged in a spree of looting and liquidating and permanent-replacing that would have made the hated Jacobins envious.

So while poor old Hamilton worked tirelessly to pay off American debts and regarded what he quaintly called ‘repudiation’ as the most dangerous and subversive of political misdeeds, his descendents in Orange County just say ‘fuck it! I’m not to blame!’ Hamilton saw the government’s credit as the nation’s greatest asset, the bulwark of aristocratic affluence: Gingrich and company prepare to impeach another secretary of the treasury for believing the same. “Shut it down!” his colleagues cry. Fuck ‘em all!

Gold Diggers of 1996

If the characteristic political maneuver of the Cultural Miracle is a Buchananesque transformation of inchoate public resentment of business depredations into support for pro-business policies, its characteristic intellectual maneuver is even more counterintuitive: endless lessons in the esoteric logic by which the uncoupling of the economy from the public well-being should prompt us not to get angry, but to reconcile ourselves to the wisdom of the market. The cover story of the January 8 issue of Newsweek, a choice bit of pseudo-history penned by journalist Robert Samuelson, offers a useful glimpse of the mental processes of the Cultural Miracle in action. Things have gotten worse for ordinary people in the last few years, the pundit admits. But the problem is not business (“what we today call ‘the market,’” Samuelson notes in a pious aside)—it’s us. All these years we’ve been thinking about things wrong, expecting too much, waltzing irresponsibly through an “Age of Entitlement” during which we believed that prosperity was somehow our right. Most importantly, we never understood “the market” correctly: for years we thought of it as a big “machinery” that we could adjust and control. Ah, the folly of yesteryear!

Now we know better, Samuelson smugs. The market is not a tool for human advance, but an elementary and irrational force of nature, “a vast river” that floods and recedes, and over which we can exert no control. But it’s a well-meaning deity, if its ways seem whimsical: when it fires people, puts others on twelve-hour shifts, and smashes wage scales, we must remember that it is acting in the best possible interests of all, that “the process can be harsh and crude, and although some suffer, more benefit.” Our response to these petty misfortunes should not be to challenge the market’s omnipotence, but to reconcile ourselves to its overarching wisdom. And there is a long litany of lessons that we must re-learn as we humble ourselves, do our penance, and prepare to resume the path “toward reality” that was forsaken after World War II: everything from shopworn notions about “human nature” (you know, that basic acquisitive urge that never, ever, ever changes) to the entrepreneur-worship of Tom Peters to the fundamental tenets of the new apostle’s creed: Government cannot help and must stop trying; if we’re poor, it’s our own fault. Thankfully, there’s a New Right out there teaching us these lessons, although Samuelson admits that even they aren’t going far enough in their attack on backward-looking welfare-state policies.

If the people know what is happening to them, the people act.

More importantly, there are a few historical facts that we must forget. We must not think about where we came up with this mistaken social system in the first place: apparently it just happened one day after World War II when that abstract and irresponsible entity, Big Government, started promising people things. Above all we must not remember that social change happened because people organized themselves in unions, co-operatives, and political parties and made them happen; that the non-rich once had power because they took power. Such behavior is doctrinally impossible, and any evidence that it ever occurred must be ignored: only the market has the ability to act with historical effect. And we must strive to erase any recollection of events that were not filmed in color, to convince ourselves that Big Government is a product not of the 1930s but of the misguided generosity of the postwar boom; now that prosperity has departed, so must that Government.

The People, Sort Of!

Till the Day I Die, a predictable populist fantasy written by Clifford Odets in 1935, is a drama of economic information, its concealment, its display, and its forgetting. The play opens with a scene in which a group of German communists surreptitiously crank out leaflets with which to plaster Nazi Berlin. One hero boasts to a comrade that “This particular leaflet’s going to make some of our Nazi friends perspire once it gets into the workers’ hands. Workers might like to know … wages are down one-third and vital foods are up seventy-five per cent.” The Nazis, meanwhile, maintain their grip on power by keeping such inherently explosive facts from the people and by torturing to the point of mental collapse those who dissent openly. Information is connected unproblematically to unrest in Odets’s world; if the people know what is happening to them, the people act.

The Cultural Miracle is Odets’s 1930s turned upside down, information severed from action and populism itself tamed and in the service of its old archenemy. The people can have all the data they want, but it turns out they’d much rather have the sappy Hollywood photoplays Odets was eventually hired to write. The culture of the ’90s looks a lot like that of the ’30s, with all the old genres intact but—just as the daily terrors, political battles, and strange passions of that time now seem as mysterious to us as events on another planet—with the poles of meaning neatly inverted, the symbols and the metaphors magically reversed.

It’s not that we don’t feel anomie: just as the audience at the first performance of Odet’s Waiting for Lefty joined the actors chanting “Strike!”, we can be easily worked up against the mysterious forces that make life so unfulfilling. But for us rebellion has come disconnected from the tangible change it once promised. Now it only appears publicly as an existential thing, a sort of limp craving for self-expression so closely associated with consumer products and brand loyalty that we are virtually incapable of imagining it without a corporate sponsor of some kind: finding our own road in a Saab, dreaming of all our best liberatory moments in a Volvo, plowing through a mud puddle in a sport utility vehicle. It is Reebok, not the union, that lets you be you, Red Dog that permits you to be your own dog, and Nike—hell, Nike offers all-out revolution, just like Newt Gingrich.

Just as in the 1930s we push the envelope of ‘realism’ ever farther, but ‘reality’ seems to work differently now. Bigger Thomas reappears as Clarence Thomas, surviving a persecution mounted by crazed leftists this time. Studs Lonigan is back as a character on Cops, a selfish union worker being gratifyingly taken down by the market he tried to defy. Forget the millionaires who run the place; what we want is TV vengeance against the poor Lonigan next door, we want his union broken, we want his unemployment benefits stopped, we want his health care taken away, we want stiff laws demanding that he behave just so, we want him locked up; and we want to watch the resulting tragedy on television, see him hauled off half-naked and bleary from drinking too much Colt 45, pleading pathetically with some stern law enforcement officials.

Broadcast demagoguery, never in eclipse for long, has made a triumphant comeback. Limbaugh battles Buchanan for Father Coughlin’s old market niche and the anti-democratic nightmare from Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe is acted out in real life, with thousands of ‘common folk’ crowding into convention centers and mouthing empty slogans at the behest of some power-mad millionaire. But the Cultural Miracle does Capra one better—not only are the millionaires no longer required to conceal their involvement or hire “John Does” to do their populist fronting, but we find it hard to imagine mass movements (or magazines, for that matter) that have arisen without a responsible millionaire at their helm. Being men of the market, millionaires are the people, and we cheer them ecstatically as they ascend their skybox to watch the performance of the Gary Cooper character, played by Bruce Springsteen, of course.

The saga of Everyman continues during the commercials, filmed always in Olympian slow-motion as he relaxes on the jetplane, gazes out the window of his office, carries the way of the market to all those benighted lands that have yet to experience American culture. It’s hard times, so the thing to do is to get those CEOs up on those pedestals as fast as possible, take that federal government apart as quickly as we can, surrender any notion of controlling the market, and learn our place in the great global scheme. And through the miraculous intercession of its 24-hour radio prophets, the market is calling its people back from their effete and complex ways, back to the paths of righteousness. The marketplace, in its gracious bounty, will provide all—from Pearl Jam rebellion to 9 mm security—and all that it asks in return is loyalty, the cessation of thought, the forsaking of all those other gods like tariffs and government and workplace organization. You’ll get that raise when you stop thinking about that union.

And after the new Ma Joad reconciles herself to the loss of her farm, congratulates her son for killing that Red agitator, and takes up the fulfilling life of a transient worker in next year’s remake of The Grapes of Wrath, she will no doubt turn her thankful eyes to heaven and announce, “We’re the people, we keep on a-movin, just wherever that ol’ market wants us next.”