September 21, 2003
A fault line ran right through the middle of the Sixties. On one side were the hippies, on the other the politicos -- the counterculture and the New Left – waging two conflicts, related but distinct: a culture war and a class war.Broadly speaking, the counterculture won and the New Left lost. For better or worse, American mores haven’t been the same since that delirious decade. But America’s class structure has not budged an inch; on the contrary, economic and political power are now even more unequally divided between those who work and those who own or manage. Dissent is feeble: the phrase “free market” suffices to quell (in fact preempt) any fundamental criticism. How did it acquire this magical potency? Why has market-worship become America’s secular religion?
Just about the only place where these questions are intelligently pursued today is a remarkable little magazine, “The Baffler.” Begun in 1988 by a small circle of academic dropouts, it has become the most original and influential left-wing journal around. The first “Baffler” anthology, “Commodify Your Dissent” (1997), and editor Thomas Frank’s “The Conquest of Cool” (1997) and “One Market Under God” (2000) stirred much comment. A second anthology, “Boob Jubilee,” has just arrived.
The nub of the “Baffler”’s critique is that culture has ousted class from our social imagination. As the American economy’s center of gravity shifted from manufacturing to entertainment/information/finance/personal services – from the tangible to the intangible – commerce in ideas and images went from peripherally to centrally important. So with its customary ruthless efficiency, capitalism colonized the culture business, placing, as the Bafflerites say, “an ad on every available surface, a demographic on every face, and an A&R man [i.e., a corporate talent scout] in every avant-garde.” Even the briefest market research into the national psyche would have revealed to the enterprising adman that ranking high among Americans’ most cherished self-images (thanks largely to the Sixties) are the nonconformist, the individualist, the anti-organization man. The resulting conceit – the consumer as creative rebel, empowered by that one special brand of running shoe, micro-brewed beer, jeans, software, whatever – is ubiquitous in the advertising of the last two decades. Consumption as liberation, brand choice as self-expression: this theme was implicit (often enough explicit) in one commercial message after another, on one medium after another, aimed at one target demographic after another. Tracing the evolution of this marketing strategy through the pages of hip, high-end glossies like “New York,” “Spy,” “Vanity Fair,” and “Details” yields many revelations.
Many pleasures, too. Frank and his co-conspirators write with the energy and wit of H. L. Mencken, whom they claim as their inspiration. (“Boob” was Mencken’s favorite epithet.) Their savage sarcasms on the advertised life would certainly have amused that great scoffer. None of them, it’s true, achieves the amplitude or grace of Mencken’s prose. But this is more than compensated, for me at least, by the fact that unlike Mencken, they actually believe in something. Mencken was a nihilist: he thought that the common run of humanity pretty much deserved whatever it got stuck with, and that complaints about inequality or injustice were so much sentimental twaddle. The Bafflerites are democrats.
Which is why they’re so indignant over what follows politically from the corporate hijacking of the counterculture. If consumer choice is the truest form of freedom, then the market, where those choices are made, where we “vote” with our dollars, must be the truest form of democracy. As the market enthusiasts incessantly remind us, no one is forced to buy one product rather than another, or take one job rather than another, or live in one place rather than another, and one person’s money is as green as anyone else’s. The practical corollary of this market-defined individualism is that no one’s problem is anyone else’s, and certainly not the government’s. The ferocious propaganda barrage of the last two decades against “big government” and in favor of deregulation, privatization, and reduced public services may have originated with conservative partisans, but it found cultural echoes everywhere. “Wired,” “Fast Company,” self-help literature, Madonna, Amway, and countless other surface phenomena are brilliantly X-rayed by Dr. Baffler, and their ideological skeletons displayed.
The academic left also comes in for some hard knocks. As Sixties radicals retreated into academia, many could not accept their defeat. They convinced themselves that culture war was the guerrilla form of class war. In every new naughtiness on TV, and in every reference in ads, contemporary management handbooks, or the frothings of cyber-prophets to “revolution,” “breaking the rules,” “resisting the usual,” etc., academic leftists saw a rebellious gesture, an anarchic impulse straining to “subvert the dominant paradigm.” The Bafflerites consider this deluded. The dominant paradigm eats rebellious gestures for breakfast.
The left badly needs this sort of cant control, and so does the right. Boobs and smarties on both sides will be entertained, edified, and occasionally mortified by these mischievous moralists.