If these excerpts sound overly critical, well, that’s the point. The magazine is very much a journal of criticism, under the assumption that rigorous social criticism is a necessary condition for substantive social change. Before assuming control of The Baffler, Summers edited books of essays by C. Wright Mills and Dwight Macdonald. Mills turned his critical faculties on the body politic, Macdonald on contemporary culture; both detested organizational mediocrity. There are few contemporary analogs to Mills and Macdonald, a fact that frustrates Summers but doesn’t surprise him. “Society has decided we don’t need critics, don’t need social criticism, that criticism is superfluous,” he says. No matter: The Baffler has never shied away from superfluity. So while other magazines of ideas sell societal solutions to “thought leaders,” The Baffler is content to be a “thought destroyer,” as Chris Lehmann said at a Baffler event last year. The journal’s tagline phrases the same sentiment in slightly different fashion: “The Baffler: the journal that blunts the cutting edge.”
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At the end of 2012, about 100 people gathered at the Housing Works Book Store in lower Manhattan to celebrate the launch of The Baffler’s third new issue while simultaneously mocking Ayn Rand, the long-dead polemicist and novelist who argued, at great length, that greed was a virtue. Rather than organize a reading or a panel discussion, Summers and company were hosting something they called the Ayn Rand Game Show. Wearing a severe suit with a gigantic dollar sign on her lapel, an Ayn Rand impersonator led two contestants—Thomas Frank and comedian Julie Klausner—through a series of questions about books: “Rand” would describe classic works of literature, and the contestants had to guess the title. (Rand: “I actually love this book and I wish it were a memoir.” Frank: “Is it Lord of the Flies?”)
Later, the Rand impersonator led Frank and Klausner through a rousing round of “Fuck, Marry, Do Not Resuscitate,” in which she named three fictional characters, and the contestants had to guess which character fell into which category. “John Galt, Tiny Tim, Scrooge McDuck,” Rand said. Frank hesitated before giving his answer: “Marry Scrooge, fuck John Galt, and Tiny Tim must die.” The crowd roared. Afterward, they lined up to buy copies of the latest issue.
People are paying attention to The Baffler. Events across the country have drawn similar crowds; an “impact statement” prepared by the magazine compiles pages worth of acclaim the magazine has received from national and international media outlets. And as the magazine has become more prominent, Summers has had to become something he thought he’d never be: a businessman.
“I didn’t grow up wanting to be a writer or an editor or any of those things,” he says. “Least of all a manager. I hate managers. The whole magazine hates managers.” Nevertheless, he is now managing six full-time employees, and actively looking for funds to hire more.
Basic funding for The Baffler now comes from a deal Summers struck in 2011 with MIT Press: The publisher would give Summers $33,000 per issue over the course of the next five years. While that’s more than the magazine historically had to work with, it’s not enough to fund everything that Summers wants to do. He talks about raising several million dollars to found a research institute—“like the conservatives have”—that would employ writers like Frank, Lehmann, and Graeber and give them license to explore their interests without having to hustle for book contracts and freelance assignments. “[We’d be] making the free-market dogma seem as ridiculous as it is,” he says.
So he has been forced to fundraise, to seek out the sorts of rich donors who might be willing to fund an anti-free-market organization. “We estimate there might be 200 to 500 of them,” Summers said last fall. “But you can’t just send them a letter.” At first, it was rough going. “One woman, we’d have very pleasant conversations,” he said. “At the end, there was nothing. And I realized: I paid for lunch. Every time. I lost money.” With some coaching, Summers has gradually learned how to approach these people and solicit donations.