If the title of “No Future for You,” the third collection of essays from the The Baffler magazine, wasn’t bleak enough for you, Thomas Frank wastes no time driving the point home. “We have become a society that can’t self-correct, that can’t address its obvious problems, that can’t pull out of its nose dive.” It is tough talk for tough times — something The Baffler has long been known for.
Founded in 1988 by Frank (“What’s the Matter with Kansas?”) and Keith White, The Baffler set out to “blunt the cutting edge,” and gained a cult following by offering smart cultural criticism garnished with a wry, Gen-X sneer — an antidote to the Panglossian media boosterism of the 1990s.
The magazine challenged the consensus of the decade — a “fever dream predicated on the twin ideas of a people’s stock market and an eternal silicon prosperity” — and took every opportunity to lambaste the corporate commoditization of “cool” with pieces such as Steve Albini’s “The Problem with Music,” an efficient takedown of predatory record labels that became one of the magazine’s most widely shared essays.
A devastating office fire forced the magazine onto a sporadic publishing schedule for much of the first decade of the new millennium, but in 2010 it rose from the ashes under the auspices of a new, Cambridge-based staff led by editor-in-chief John Summers.
The 19 essays in “No Future for You” represent the best of this new era, and boast a murderer’s row of lefty thinkers, including Barbara Ehrenreich (“Nickle and Dimed”), Susan Faludi (“The Terror Dream”), and Rick Perlstein (“Nixonland”). The book’s scope is wide-ranging and relentless — tackling everything from the conspicuous consumption at the heart of “Fifty Shades of Grey” to the confluence of tech-sector money and political pusillanimity that’s transforming public policy.
Despite this variety, the essays in “No Future for You” all coalesce around a singular theme. They point an accusatory finger at a society that emphasizes the primacy of private enterprise over public investment, individual development over collective action, and “looking forward” over reckoning with the mistakes of the past — solutions that just so happen to benefit the entrenched, moneyed interests that work hardest to promote them.
Summers’s “The People’s Republic of Zuckerstan” is an epic analysis of the so-called innovation economy that is rapidly taking hold in Greater Boston. Summers focuses on his hometown of Cambridge and the encroachment of the corporate Kendall Square “dead zone” on the cultural diversity of Central Square. Where politicians and entrepreneurs see opportunity and progress, Summers sees a plot to “remodel society in the image of a private company.”
“The Innovation Economy’s futurist model of urban development is . . . propaganda for the present system of power,” he writes. “It’s class interest presenting itself in the guise of prosperity.”
He argues that while the emphasis on innovation may yield dividends for neighborhoods — rising property values, increased investment, and greater curb appeal — it does little to solve the real-life problems of the actual residents, particularly the working class. It merely pushes them out and replaces them with corporate professionals. He makes a compelling case, though it’s blunted somewhat by the essay’s meandering, discursive narrative and a penchant for romanticizing the grittiness of Central Square.
Faludi’s “Facebook Feminism, Like It or Not” fares far better, gamely juxtaposing Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” movement with the labor activism of the 19th-century mill girls of Lowell. She laments that feminism, “originally forged to move the great mass of women, has been hijacked to serve the individual (and privileged) girl.”
“Where industrial capitalism had driven women as a group to mobilize to change society,” she writes, “its consumer variant induced individual women to submit, each seemingly of her own free will, to a mass-produced culture.”
“No Future for You” is by no means a light read — it’s a litany of dark, downcast diatribes that assumes its readers already know that our “postindustrial” society is in the throes of “late capitalism.” But beyond the rhetorical theatrics, 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.Michael Patrick Brady is a writer from Boston. He can be reached at email@example.com.