“New Economy” Humbug

One Market Under GodThe new era came with a real-world price tag, and the things we permitted to happen just so that we could live in its brilliant light for a few years are things we may never be able to undo or escape. In other lands where the advance of free trade is cheered on by our columnists as the greatest sort of empowerment, the battle to make the world safe for outsourcing has turned as bloody as any of our own nineteenth-century labor wars. In Colombia, recipient of a billion-dollar Clinton administration military aid package, union organizers have been assassinated every year in such numbers (around three thousand overall since 1987) that in 1997 they accounted for fully 50 percent of the trade union activists murdered worldwide. Our political thinkers imagined our money frolicking open-mindedly through the economies of the world, chasing the best return without regard to color or creed. But what ensured those returns was not the “inevitability” of the microchip but the guns and the muscle and the hard unanswering face of economic power. Wherever one turned, old-fashioned coercion was the silent partner of “New Economy” ebullience.

Here at home the price was the destruction of the social contract of mid-century; the middle-class republic itself. Our portfolios may have appreciated graciously, but they did so only to the extent that we countenanced the reduction of millions to lives of casual employment without healthcare or the most elementary sort of workplace rights. We caught the tail end of the Qualcomm wave and pretended not to notice as sweatshops reappeared on our shores. We wondered like tots at the majesty of Cisco, at the generosity of Gates, and we stood by as the price of a good education for our kids ascended out of our reach.

The less tangible cost of consensus was the atrophy of the idea of conflict. Economic fairness, many of us came to believe, was something that just happened, that materialized at the mall like a new line of Pokémon products. Democracy was a thing served up to us like a Happy Meal; it required no effort on our part. To be sure, it had a mysterious, counterintuitive quality to it: if we unilaterally gave up our power to compell humane treatment from the boss, like magic there would come some karmic payoff, some show of money from heaven, some ten-bagger in Yahoo! If we acquiesced to the holy process of deregulation, to the tossing of millions of single mothers out into the labor force, we would one day stumble upon some vast picnic spread out just for our gratification by the Archer Daniels Midland Company or JDS Uniphase. Someday we, too, would be invited to help ourselfs to the complimentary after-dinner mints. To board at our leisure.

But for others of us — the ones with no access to the Senator’s ear or the hip ad agencies or the prime commercial time on CNBC — the nineties only sharpened the sense that something had gone drastically wrong. To the casualization of work, to the destruction of the social “safety net,” to the massive prison roundup, the powers of commerce added the staggering claim of having done it all on our behalf. Out of the roaring chaos of everyday speech, they told us, they could hear the affirmations rolling up; from the chirped warning of the car alarms to the screeching of the modems they could hear America singing. But the great euphoria of the late nineties was never as much about the return of good times as it was the giddy triumph of one America over another, of their “New Economy” over our New Deal. Though they banged the drum with a fervor almost maniacal, the language of the euphoria still rang so patently false, sounded so transparently self-serving that it threatened to collapse in on itself almost as quickly as it bubbled up from the talk shows and the celebrated think thanks. And in the streets and the union halls and the truck stops and the three-flats and the office blocks there remained all along a vocabulary of fact and knowing and memory, of wit and of everyday doubt, a vernacular that could not be extinguished no matter how it was cursed for “cynicism,” a dialect that the focus group could never quite reflect, the resilient language of democracy.

—Thomas Frank
One Market Under God

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