News & Criticism

The Baffler is Back

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The Baffler is back, the journal edited by Thomas Frank. For those who don't remember the 20th century, that magazine was the leading stylish and snide 1990s voice of opposition to what it saw as phony co-opted "alternative" culture and the silly and dangerous hyping of supposedly liberatory "new business models" and cyberculture.

America's sources of cultural capital–dubbed by the Baffler boys as the "Culture Trust"–love nothing more than to scuff the heads of rascals who place flaming bags of dog crap on their steps. This seems especially true if in so doing those rascals are essentially promoting a magical world in which the state gives everyone all the goods, community, and culture they could ever want, with integrity, grace, and most importantly without a profit motive.

Thus, in an inflationary reputational bubble even the Federal Reserve has failed to burst, Frank has risen in the past decade or so from publisher of a hip-but-obscure culture zine to best-selling author and Wall Street Journal columnist, largely on the strength of his knowing better than you do what's good for you, as blinded by the hucksters of business (and later in his rhetorical evolution, the Republican Party) as you are.

Frank is also one of the leaders in the curious meme among the left that libertarians' laissez-faire vision has absolutely and totally conquered the intellectual, cultural, and political worlds, and that defenders of activist government and unions are hunted and abused partisans sending their frantic signals from safe houses across the heartland, burning old Tom Peters books and issues of Wired for fuel and fearing the sound of Milton Friedman's bludgeon swinging down on their delicate heads.

Frank is smugly assured that this is the right time for Baffler to come back, with the economic crisis proving they were right all along that big business sucks, as see this New York Observer piece on the journal's return:

"We developed this critique of consumer culture and business culture, and lo and behold, a lot of the things that we were saying, instead of being this out-there stuff from the fringes of self-publishing land—it's stuff that I think will make sense to everybody nowadays," Mr. Frank said. "The world has come a lot closer to our way of seeing things. It's funny how obvious it is now!"

Alas, one finds little about Federal Reserve policy, the moral hazards of "too big to fail," or Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in Baffler's back pages.

We at Reason have been grappling with the mindset behind the Baffler and Frank for a long time now. To welcome The Baffler back to its barricades, a collection of observations from our past coverage.

Nick Gillespie took on Frank and Baffler's basic trope of critiquing The Man's advertising machine selling back to you and co-opting your own rebellion in "Rebel-Rousers: Why Right and Left-Wingers Both Hate Advertising" back in May 1998. Gillespie found the man of the Left sounding interestingly conservative and quasi-authoritarian:

Frank, however, is concerned that radical social change–that is, real revolution, the sort in which the workers of the world unite–is being stymied by commercial appeals to faux-rebellion…..Frank notes that as consumers, we are taught to spend, spend, spend, whereas "the workplace still demands the…values of diligence and sublimation." Frank suggests that "[h]ip consumerism resolves the `contradiction,' at least symbolically….

Frank recognizes that "capitalism" is quick to outflank such vanguard tactics and create its own brand of "perpetual revolution."…But different as they may be on an overt political level, [right-winger Bill] Bennett's and Frank's concerns are nonetheless rooted in a common source: an embrace of top-down authority as the ultimate, rightful source of value and structure in society….

Transposed into discussions of culture, this common tendency leads to an exclusive focus on the producer rather than the consumer as both the creator and definer of value and meaning. The Conquest of Cool, writes its author [Tom Frank] at the outset, "is a study of cultural production rather than reception, of power rather than resistance; it does not address the subject of consumer evasiveness except as it is discussed by advertising executives and menswear manufacturers."

….in Bennett's and Frank's analyses, consumers drop out of the equation–or, what amounts to the same thing, are infantalized. By definition, they–we–must be cared for by parents of some sort, whether right-wing, left-wing, or corporate…..

Ultimately, such an approach to culture relies too heavily on the intentions of the producers (an especially unwise approach when dealing with ad men), cutting out the fuller social context. Just as the final selling price of a good or service is not set by producer fiat, neither are psychic value and meaning solely a function of producer intent. These things are subject to intense, ongoing negotiations between buyer and seller, producer and consumer, author and reader; their ultimate meaning is hashed out in the no man's land of the commercial, intellectual, and emotional marketplaces.

Frank was so annoyed by these sort of "consumer power" arguments that he called out Gillespie on the matter in his book One Market Under God, which I reviewed in the Freeman. My conclusion:

Though he doesn't spell it out, Frank seems an old-fashioned socialist looking forward to the day when no one has to work because the government is—somehow, some way—giving them everything they want. He's the ultimate anti-Hayek, whom Frank singles out for typically unargued derision: Frank believes that, through the glories of labor unions and activist government, the people have the power and ability to manipulate the market and the world to get everything they want, at the expense of everyone wealthier than they are. That vision no longer holds much power; perhaps the error at the root of this misguided and dull book is mistaking the collapse of pure socialist doctrine for the victory of unbridled laissez faire.

Frank shifted in the new century from a culture critic to a more specifically political one. Rather than grappling with the selling of phony rebellion and un-alternative culture, he now writes books attacking the American people for falling for the lies of the GOP and the conservative movement.

Jesse Walker reviewed two of Frank's books along those lines for us: What's The Matter With Kansas and The Wrecking Crew. Walker notes in the former (while praising the book's quality as literature) that Frank fails to notice where liberals really do act as a know-it-all elite whom the "little guy" from Kansas or anywhere might well dislike or fear; and in the latter that Frank scores polemical points by ignorantly conflating true free markets with existing crony capitalism.

I also wrote back in 1998 on Frank's failed attempt in Harper's to limn the power of the phony Culture Trust (through a story that Frank failed to notice is really about the frequent impotence of that Culture Trust), as Frank's buddy Chris Holmes fails to hit it big with his pop band Yum-Yum which was really, according to Frank and Holmes and no one else, a critique of pop bands. Or something.

Maybe somewhere in the pages of the new Baffler Frank and his crew will get more precise about whether they hate business for using the state, or just hate it for corrupting the state, or just hate it because it's oh-so-phony and crass. Some acknowledgement of the fact that crony capitalism is a problem of statism and not of free markets would also be nice. I'd also hope they could be more precise about exactly what sort of social and business world they want, and exactly how one could get it, or if their real complaint is that, given enough rope, all those jerks out there just buy and sell the rope.

That sort of specificity, though, can make you a lot less popular than pointing out that corporations can be pushy and phony, and rich people (well, people richer than you, dear reader) can really gripe your gut.