“Smart and sobering, eye-opening and irascible, hopeful but not optimistic, this collection offers a clear-eyed perspective on post-recession America and pays readers the ultimate compliment of being able to think for themselves.”—Publishers Weekly
“The collection serves as a powerful summation of the systemic challenges we face as a nation, and a welcome reminder that we need strong, dissenting voices like The Baffler more than ever.” —Boston Globe
“Every age has a magazine that matters. For our age, it’s The Baffler. Feeling left behind? Here’s your chance to catch up.” —Andrew J. Bacevich
“Did our system ever work? Will it ever? The fact that it is not working right now is rendered sadder by our knowledge of the U.S. Constitution. If you want to feel sadder still, read The Baffler.” —William T. Vollmann
WATCH a panel discussion of No Future for You, w/ Thomas Frank, Rick Perlstein, and John Summers at Town Hall Seattle, October 20, 2014.
INTRODUCTION, by John Summers, Chris Lehmann, and Thomas Frank (editors)
This book of salvos from The Baffler magazine comes with a smile and a simple message: There’s no future for you.
We mean this with only a slight dash of metaphor, since our goal is to enlighten, not depress. The forces presiding over our country’s disintegration have already robbed a generation of jobs and money, ruined our private aspirations, and sunk collective confidence, on which, we are often told, depends the vibrancy of the market itself. All too true, alas and uh-oh. This book, though, offers a different perspective, one that also bears a gleam of hope. Our current economic depression and stratification follow materially from the great financial crash of 2008. But it was the erosion of belief in the future in the years leading up to it that’s made the slump so difficult to imagine transcending now—long after we’ve discovered the full scale of damage done to our institutions by a greedy and fraudulent leadership class posing as defenders of individual liberty and general prosperity.
For a quarter of a century following America’s victory in the Cold War, our most celebrated executives, theorists, politicos, and pundits enjoyed a virtually unchallenged monopoly over the future, which, they insisted, belonged to the manifest destiny of the market—and which, in practice, extended not much further than the next business cycle. It was their magical thinking that drew our pensions, mortgages, and careers past the gates of the celestial city, perched so invitingly high above history and politics. So long as we chose well from life’s opportunities, exercised the requisite mental determination, elbowed aside the competition, and went shopping a lot, we were sure to flourish.
The achievement of the market consensus was to produce a mental world in which alternatives to capitalism did not seem conceivable—much less attainable. The key, it seems, was to make the principles of rapacity and plunder into a new catechism for economic policymaking, and then to watch our culture collapse into miniature idols and our technology shrink from prosthetic gods to prosthetic pals. Cutting taxes for the rich and slashing social spending, down-sizing workers and deregulating financial speculation, how can we help you disrupt and exploit, mister marketplace?—this cruel tic was once, in the recesses of the mid-twentieth century, the provenance of crack pots, and it’s always had principled opponents. But its cultural power has become so concentrated among our leaders that it’s produced a nearly unbroken fog over the past twenty-five years, shrouding a tiny elite from the disasters inflicted on the rest of us.
The Baffler, born in ye olde 1988, was present at the uncreative destruction of American thought and culture. We declined back then to bow before the golden calves of the one-and-only future, freshly polished and hosannahed by the cyber-prophets, and generally greeted the messaging campaign of the boom years with a chorus of derisive horselaughs. And when the gilded swindle finally collapsed from the weight of its own sleaziness and the country embarked on its present course of jobless recovery, progress-free innovation, and unparalleled corporate profits, we heard the call. Consensus-makers from both parties woke up in 2008 long enough to rescue the perpetrators of the fraud, then fell promptly back to sleep while the banks went back to business and we began writing the salvos you now have lodged between your eyeballs.
To anyone who’s stayed awake to observe the weakness of liberal and progressive reform as it conducts its lockstep dance with the Right, it’s been a bloodshot sight to behold. To a magazine devoted to blunting the cutting edge, the partisan skirmishes that fill the news and opinion cycles are a case study in missing the point. The inability of any of our leaders to offer an alternative to this wreck of dogmas and miseries—a future worthy of the name, fundamentally different from the present—might very well rank with the sorriest examples of learned idiocy in the whole dreary chronicle of America’s business civilization. The overall effect has been uniformly conservative, and by design and default, much to the benefit of the entrenched political class. Well, we have seen their future, and it doesn’t work.
No Future For You, like our two previous collections, Boob Jubilee (2003) and Commodify Your Dissent (1997), gets a great deal of mileage simply out of listening to the way that certain Americans in positions of power avoid talking about class. Proceeding from this simple method, plus an ardent desire to smash the icons and pet utopias of the 1 percenters, we piece together a counternarrative from within the country’s three main power centers of stagnation.
Welcome to Washington, D.C., with its armies of hireling blowhards and donor-directed research groups, legacy liberal media providing ammunition and endless cover stories in the center. Welcome to New York and its bicoastal culture trust—the trophy art collectors, the painters of pretty light, the foundation grandees hustling after vibrancy, the publishers of sadomasochistic fantasy fiction for the hard of feeling. And welcome to Silicon Valley, home to a corps of nerds, popes, and gurus, whose revolutionary improvements in the technique of living always seem to come packaged in the disciplines of the office park.
Along the way, we hope to smash in a space for alternatives, for those whose time has come. Don’t expect marching orders to fall from between these pages, though. Those you will have to think up on your own. We set out neither to sell you a Replacement Concept on the secondary market of ideas nor to unlock the secret of history, and least of all to flatter the ladies and gentlemen who serve as the standard-bearers of correct liberal and left opinion. How is it possible to reform a society that no longer recognizes itself ? How can we mobilize a collective sense of agency when our life chances are subcontracted to the market? Somehow, the great questions that once preoccupied our traditions have become distressed intellectual properties, fallen into receivership and snapped up by the culture trust.
Criticism bearing our abrasive tone and uncompromising stance is sometimes derided as lowdown or (worse yet) easy. But the truth is, this kind of criticism is the hardest thing in the world to produce if you happen to live in a culture ruled by the dicta of positive thinking and dread of the existential crime of being negative. Ordinary complaining is permitted; it might even be a virtue from time to time. But your compliance is ultimately expected, and the enterprise of criticism in America has to contend with a culture of consensus that reduces conflicts over values to matters of individual attitude.
And so we present this third collection of writing from The Baffler with the usual leap of confidence and act of faith, plus a dedication. You may recognize the name Aaron Swartz from the outpouring of spontaneous grief that followed his 2013 suicide, at age twenty-six, after a two-year prosecution for downloading scholarly journals without permission. Aaron was a genius computer programmer and democracy activist who seemed to have the most brilliant of futures ahead of him, and when we resumed regular publication of this magazine and began firing off these salvos, he was handy in lighting fuses.
The irony was inspiring. Printed magazines like ours were supposed to have laid down arms and withdrawn quietly from the scene eons ago, along with the rest of the traditional culture. And young technologists endowed with Aaron’s gifts typically came programmed with orders to betake themselves to Silicon Valley, where they were expected to, you know, start networking companies, optimize things, and maybe even affect to save the world.
In the end, there was no future for Aaron. But in his memory, let us dedicate our own gleam of hope.