Imagine Michael Moore with a Trained Brain

Thomas Frank – critical theory, prairie style

When John Quiggin reviewed Thomas Frank’s One Market Under God (2000) he was surprised to find a reference to Osama bin Laden. The book gave Quiggin the "eerie impression that Frank, writing at the end of the twentieth century, had access to the newspapers for 2001 and beyond." But what makes Frank so interesting as a thinker and writer is that his major influences lie in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Frank’s work is a curious mixture of Prairie populism and Frankfurt School cultural theory.

Frank discovered American populism as a freshman at the University of Kansas in 1987. According to the Washington Post‘s Bob Thompson:

One day, in the library stacks, he stumbled across a book called "The Populist Revolt." Up to that point, he’d associated the term "populism" with the kind of revolt Reagan was urging: of ordinary Americans against a too-powerful government. Now he discovered a radically different populism, in which late 19th-century Kansans, along with others, saw concentrated economic power as the main force citizens needed to confront.

After his first year at Kansas, Frank moved to the University of Virginia. In 1988 he and fellow student Keith White founded a literary magazine called The Baffler. Before starting university Frank felt that he belonged on the right: "I was a conservative when I was in junior high school and high school," Frank told the Wisconsin State Journal. "I watched that Milton Friedman documentary on PBS. A lot of people became conservative watching that show. And as an ideology, it fit together really well."

But by the time he was writing for The Baffler Frank had embraced the essential message of 19th century mid-western populism – working people need to organize against the power of big business and take back their government. As Frank wrote in One Market Under God, "Populism was the American language of social class."

Most Australian academics are too steeped in European ideas about populism to understand what it meant for American farmers and working people. European leftists tend to think of populism as an unpleasant form of false consciousness. They associate with racism and proto-fascism. But in on the Great Plains of America populism was a movement that challenged the power of corporations, fought for public ownership of essential infrastructure, and fought against America’s military entanglements abroad. The great populist dream was to unite small farmers with organized labor. As late as the 1920s, populism was a force to be reckoned with.

Frank went on to complete a PhD in American history at the University of Chicago (supervised by Neil Harris). And while in Chicago he continued to publish The Baffler. While not an admirer of his politics, Frank was influenced by acid style of H L Mencken. In 1992 The Baffler ran an article on how the New York Times had been hoaxed by Megan Jasper, a sales rep at the Seattle’s Sub Pop Records. According to Stephen Duncombe in his book Notes From the Underground: Zines and the Politics of Alternative Culture,

Jasper fed a New York Times reporter bogus lingo for a "Grunge Lexicon" that accompanied the paper’s feature story on the success of grunge music and style. Amazingly the reporter actually believed that such phrases as "swingin’ on the flippity-flop" (hanging out) and terms like "cob nobbler" (loser) were authentic sub-cultural "code" (p 145)

This ‘Great Grunge Hoax‘ story helped lift The Baffler‘s profile and Frank continued the magazine’s witty assaults on corporate America. In 1994 he graduated from the University of Chicago and eventually turned his PhD dissertation into a book – The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counter Culture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism. He considered becoming an academic, but his one university job interview was not a success. According to Bob Thompson, his interviewers were amazed that he managed to publish his dissertation. They wanted to know how he had done it.

This annoyed him. (“I was, like, ‘Well, it’s a quality book, that’s how.’ “) So did the fact that, having flown in at his own expense, he was given to understand that he had no real chance at the job. At the end, the interviewers asked if he had questions for them.

“Yeah,” he said. “Let’s go around the room and each of you tell me: If you had to be a vegetable, what kind of vegetable would you be, and why?”


If he has regrets, he doesn’t show them. He likes being an entrepreneurial provocateur.

Frank chose journalism instead. Since The Conquest of Cool he has written a string of magazine articles, newspaper columns, and books. Commodify Your Dissent (with Matt Weiland) reprinted a number of articles from The Baffler. One Market Under God (2000) attacked the bogus ‘market populism’ of conservatives and Third Way New Democrats and trendy British think tanks like Demos. And most recently, What’s the Matter With Kansas argued that the Prairie’s once subversive political life had been domesticated by conservatives and their corporate allies.

Even Frank’s conservative foes give him credit. Columnist George Will describes him as a formidable controversialist, "imagine Michael Moore with a trained
brain and an intellectual conscience. Frank has a coherent theory of
contemporary politics and expresses it with a verve born of indignation." The New Democrats at the DLC see the Michael Moore connection but aren’t impressed. In his review of Frank’s most recent book Ed Kilgore writes:

Part economic and social analysis, part autobiography, and most of all a jeremiad, What’s the Matter With Kansas? is wonderfully written, sloppily reasoned, and ultimately far off base. But as a lively portrayal of the mentality of middle-class social conservatism — what Frank calls “the backlash” — this book deserves a readership beyond those who share his political conclusions.

Kilgore argues that Frank’s attachment to 19th century populism makes him irrelevant to the political battles of the 21st century. But Frank has never accepted that. In 1998 he told Casey Walker:

To this day, I honestly believe that if the Democrats were to run on a platform much like the one they ran on in say 1936 or 1940, they would win by a massive margin. They need to talk about social class and going after the corporations. But they don’t want to do that, the people in office now are perfectly comfortable with their ties to money. They’re not planning on passing any great, sweeping legislation anyway. These things can be taken on, though; they can change. I don’t mean to be a complete pessimist. I think the public would go for something like this; I don’t think they’ve been co-opted by entertainment and pleasure and don’t care anymore about their real lives.

And maybe there’ll be a job here for people like Mark Bahnisch. According to Frank things are falling apart in the universities, "There is a floating army of unemployed Ph.D.s, thinkers and readers. Historically, whenever this happens, there is always a great deal of theorizing that goes on. At times like these, all sorts of wonderful things come about."

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Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2021 years ago

Excellent, Don – this is becoming the Thomas Frank blog! I should add to what I wrote below – when I call Frank’s work “ahistorical” I’m not suggesting that he doesn’t know a lot about 19th century populism – which I find fascinating, and I’m immensely gratified for your giving us more info on his take, but rather that I don’t think in his political writing he tells us a fully fleshed out story about how we got from there to here.

In other news, I have a job interview on Wednesday so if it goes anything like Frank’s, I’m always heartened to hear about the contribution academically trained folks can make outside academia!

cs
cs
2021 years ago

“Yeah,” he said. “Let’s go around the room and each of you tell me: If you had to be a vegetable, what kind of vegetable would you be, and why?”

Wish I knew the rest of the story! Thanks Don.

Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton
2021 years ago

I haven’t read Frank’s latest book, but One Market Under God is by far the most readable anti-market tract I have come across. It also quotes extensively from pro-market writers, which is a nice change from our local anti-economic rationalist authors, who mostly cite other left-wing commentators and get things very wrong as a result. Obviously Frank did not change my pro-market stance, but the book is worth reading.

Francis Xavier Holden
2021 years ago

nob cobbler has a certain resonance. Although I do prefer the (authentic) local homies description “knob jockey”.

Don
Don
2021 years ago

Hi Mark, you say that you “don’t think in his political writing he tells us a fully fleshed out story about how we got from there to here.” Even if he fleshed it out I suspect I wouldn’t agree with it.

I’ve always got a kick out of reading Frank’s work, particularly the way he sends up management gurus. I love his writing.

But I’ve never been entirely won over by the arguments. Frank is a bit too Frankfurt School for me. It’s a bit like reading Dwight Macdonald, it’s fascinating, fun, and thought provoking… but not entirely convincing.

Sometimes I think that whether or not he’s right is beside the point.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2021 years ago

Don, I’d certainly agree that a writer of his acerbic style and insight is worth reading!

trackback
2021 years ago

Coping with defeat

“I feel like somebody’s died,” lamented Hunter S Thompson near sunrise Wednesday morning: “I’m just not sure who it was” … But despite his disappointment, Thompson remained remarkably upbeat. “Their army is how much bigger than mine? Three percent? W…

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2021 years ago

American populism

In the previous post I mentioned that Michael Thompson characterised conservative populism of Middle America as a backlash against social liberalism. But he failed to describe the backlash. What does help us here this post by Don Arthur over at Troppo …