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Perspective

Monday 10 October 2002

Thomas Frank, editor, ‘The Baffler’, Chicago, US

 

The Culture of Business  

 

The way I see it, the most critical factor in American culture in the 1990s was the reorganisation of life around the needs of corporations.  

 

This was the era of the great media monopolies, the rise of Microsoft and Bertelsmann and Time-Warner-AOL, of runaway conglomeration in banking, broadcasting, advertising, book publishing, newspaper publishing, and also the destruction of what Americans used to call the ‘countervailing powers’, the labour movement and the redistribution of State. 

 

Corporate power intruded into more and more aspects of everyday life. Americans worked harder and for longer in the 1990s than they had in previous decades.  

 

They saw more ads on more surfaces than they ever had done before. They took more personality tests, more drug tests, they rang up ever greater household debts, they had less power than at any time in the last 50 years, over the conditions in which they lived and worked.  

 

But with the man back in charge, were we all forced to stop jay-walking, or dress up in grey flannel suits, or become inner-directed organisation man, or to listen to muzak all day long? Of course not. 

 

On the contrary, what makes the businessman’s republic that we Americans live in so interesting, is not that it demands order and conformity and reassuring music, but that it presents itself as an opponent to those very conceptions of corporate life. Those who speak for the new economy aren’t puritanical, they’re hip.  

 

You know, they’re the bold new breed of millionaires flooding the Bohemian neighbourhoods, chatting with the guys in the band and working on their poetry in Starbucks. They’re going it alone with their millions and their out-of-wedlock child, they’re giving up stodgy ties and suits for 24/7 casual. They’re leaping on their trampolines, typing out a last few lines on their laptop before paragliding. They’re riding their bicycles to work, listening to Steppenwolf while they trade stocks, moshing at the Motley Crew Show, startling the board members with their streetwise remarks.  

 

Business is tattooed executives, snowboarding down K2, or doing a bungy dive over Niagara Falls or parachuting in a hurricane, or riding a mountain bike through a tornado, or kayaking down a lava flow, or running shrieking down the halls of the great bureaucracies, overturning desks and throwing paper. 

 

All of this makes for a very peculiar national culture in America, one that is marked by a strange coexistence of on the one hand, extreme political apathy and on the other, extreme commercial extremism. I mean politically speaking, dissent against the market order was negligible in the 1990s.  

 

In political terms, the ‘90s were a time of greater consensus and conformity than the 1950s. A guy like Adlai Stevenson would probably be considered a terrorist nowadays.  

 

But take a look at our advertising. Mainstream commercial America, at least up until September 11th was in love with revolution and alternative everything to a degree that would probably embarrass Henry Rawlins.  

 

To tune in to prime time TV programming at any time in the last ten years was to hear corporate America through its advertising, call for the smashing of rules, insist defiantly on ‘keeping it real’ and present everything from a two-tone sport utility vehicle, to tennis shoes, to lemon-lime soda pops as ‘badges of alienation’.  

 

Brands of toothpaste that finally ‘let you be yourself’, perfume dealers who liken themselves to indigenous peoples; software makers giving power to the common man; alternative stockbrokers, radical, red chewing gum. 

 

Not only can the centre not hold, but the centre ceased to hold, about 30 years ago, and almost nobody cares. I mean certainly the traditional guardians of order don’t care. Certainly the business community doesn’t care.  

 

So if there’s one point that I want to make today, it’s that hip is how business understands itself now, and if you think that the real problem with our business civilisation is that it forces people to conform, or to march in lock-step, or to go to church every Sunday or something like that, then I’ve got news for you: you don’t have a problem with our business civilisation, you’re going to do just fine in the new corporate order.  

 

Guests on this program:

 

Thomas Frank  

Editor  

The Baffler Journal 

Chicago  

United States

 

Publications:

 

One Market under God: Extreme Capitalism, Market Populism, and the End of Economic Democracy  

Alfred A. Knopf  

2001

 

The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism.  

University of Chicago Press 

1998