By Jim Miller
As Christmas approaches along with the end of the year, it’s time to assess some of the best and the worst of 2014.
For those of you out there who just can’t jump on the “Buy Nothing Christmas” train, 2014 is a particularly good year to think about buying your friends and loved ones a book to stuff in their stocking.
This year saw the release of an unusual number of truly groundbreaking books that should inform serious intellectual discourse on the great issues of our day for years to come. So give the gift of knowledge rather than a shiny commodity fetish.
Here are my top five picks:
1) Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century: Although the French version was released in 2013, the English translation hit the shelves this year and Piketty’s seminal analysis is a game changer. As Doug Henwood notes in his review of this groundbreaking work: “The core message of this enormous and enormously important book can be delivered in a few lines: Left to its own devices, wealth inevitably tends to concentrate in capitalist economies. There is no ‘natural’ mechanism inherent in the structure of such economies for inhibiting, much less reversing, that tendency.
Only crises like war and depression, or political interventions like taxation (which, to the upper classes, would be a crisis), can do the trick. And Thomas Piketty has two centuries of data to prove his point.”
Your Republican uncle may be hermetically sealed against such offensive facts, but perhaps you have some neoliberal Democrats on your list who might just be cured of their nascent market fundamentalism by a dose of this strong medicine.
2) Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History: This stunning book deserves a lot more attention than it has gotten. If we lived in an era that took important research and scholarship more seriously, it would be on every coffee table in America. In The Guardian’s review of the book, Robin McKie notes that, “It is a disquieting tale, related with rigour and restraint . . . ‘One-third of all reef-building corals, a third of all fresh-water molluscs, a third of sharks and rays, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles, and a sixth of all birds are headed toward oblivion,’ states Elizabeth Kolbert in this compelling account of human-inspired devastation. ‘And the losses are occurring all over: in the South Pacific, in the North Atlantic, in the Arctic and in the Sahel, in lakes and on islands, on mountaintops and in valleys.’”
Any serious person who reads this book will walk away shaken, indeed transformed. The climate change denying knuckle-draggers on your list will probably never read it, but your loved ones who don’t quite get how dire our planetary health is might just put environmental issues a little higher on their priorities list after reading Kolbert’s book.
3) Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism versus the Climate: If Kolbert’s book leaves you feeling mournful, Klein’s latest work will get you angry at the right people and perhaps spur you to start rethinking what environmental activism means. In a recent interview Klein puts it this way, “I think people should be angry. A lot of environmentalist discourse has been about erasing responsibility: ‘We’re all in this together… We’re all equally responsible.’ Well, no – you, me and Exxon (Mobil) are not all in this together. The idea we’re all guilty is demobilising because it prevents us from directing our anger at the institutions most responsible.”
I find Klein’s work particularly useful both for progressives focused exclusively on economic or identity politics and environmentalists who neglect issues like race and class and how they intersect with climate change. This book should also be a must-read for the neoliberal Democrats and corporate friendly environmentalists on your list. Klein’s exposé of the climate denial industry might not be news to many but her skillful and thoroughly researched demolition of the argument that market forces can be harnessed to save the world should inform every discussion of what is to be done to address climate change.
4) Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism: This is the book that inspired a brain dead review by The Economist deriding Baptist for engaging in “advocacy” rather than history and depicting whites badly. While that review was revoked and repudiated by The Economist, the controversy was illustrative of our current racial landscape. If the events of the last few weeks since the Wilson verdict in Missouri have shown us anything, it is that there are many in white America who either just don’t get or refuse to acknowledge either the presence of current racial discrimination or the deeply rooted history that informs it.
As Baptist puts it, “The idea that the commodification and suffering and forced labor of African-Americans is what made the United States powerful and rich is not an idea that people necessarily are happy to hear. Yet it is the truth.” Baptist’s book is part of a growing body of new scholarship on the history of capitalism in the West that points out that slavery was not an aberration from but indeed the model for what came later. Like the other books on this list, it is groundbreaking, paradigm challenging stuff.
It’s ironic that at the very moment when the neoliberal gospel of market fundamentalism seems most triumphant, a whole body of new work is exhibiting how it is the root of most of our ills on multiple fronts. So, for the clueless “nice” white folks on your list who think we are in a post-racial moment, this book might be an eye opener.
5) Peter Matthiessen In Paradise: This novel, the author’s last before his death, is a stark and moving story of a retreat of interfaith leaders, academics, and writers on the site of a Nazi death camp where they seek to come to terms with the horror that took place there. What is most compelling about the novel is how Matthiessen, most famous for his beautiful exploration of Buddhist ideas in The Snow Leopard, is still testing his convictions, still searching and seeking to bear witness. Despite some of the dismissive reviews of the book, Matthiessen’s final shout is an important contemplation of the meaning of life and human suffering from a master writer looking for “unholy exaltation” in a world overwhelmed by the heavy weight of history.
Lumps of Coal for Our Shadow Government
At the close of last year, I cheered the end of San Diego’s unlucky 2013, hoping that 2014 might bring better news. More specifically, I noted that it was not the Filner scandal but the local plutocracy’s effort to buy their way around democracy that was the worst thing about 2013, with the Barrio Logan referendum effort serving as exhibit A. As I put it then, “The forces behind this new strategy want the best government they can purchase and, when that fails, they want to be able to buy and lie their way around representative government.”
Well, as we all know, they got their man in the mayor’s race, defeated affordable housing, crushed the Barrio Logan plan at the ballot box, and checked the minimum wage using the same strategy. All in the name of saving San Diego from “job killers.”
Recently the readers of Politifact chose “Climate Change is a hoax” as “Lie of the Year” in national politics, but here in San Diego, that honor would have to go to “It’s a job killer.”
And, if having to stomach the triumph of the swill politically in San Diego was not bad enough for you, last week Sherri Lightner and her Republican friends on the City Council decided to put a cherry on top of it by deposing Todd Gloria as City Council President. More important than whether or not there was a violation of the Brown Act, however, is what this move says about our politics.
As Doug Porter here at SDFP and the folks at CityBeat have already pointed out, this is really a transparent move to punish Gloria for the sins of championing the aforementioned progressive causes, all of which had the interests of working class folks in mind.
While I have not always been a big fan of Gloria, there is much to be said for this analysis. Gloria, sometimes too much of a compromiser on principle for my taste, deserves credit for stepping up this year and showing some political courage (even when it meant risking losing) by standing up for working people.
As has been noted elsewhere, this Christmas coup didn’t start with the Republicans on the council, but elsewhere, in the dark shadows of our private government.
So this holiday season, we can be glad that San Diego will no longer be caught up with the “symbolic actions” that affect working people or other things that aren’t on the agenda of our local plutocrats.
And because this particular episode in San Diego’s pathetic political follies synthesizes so much of what is wrong with our city, it wins Lightner and her new pals a big lump of coal in their 2014 holiday stockings.
Mr. Potter from It’s a Wonderful Life has got nothing on us.
Buy Nothing Christmas
The grown-ups in my family buy each other nothing for Christmas every year, focusing instead on sharing our time and love with each other. The kids do get gifts but, on a lark, I asked my 10-year old son what he would want if he couldn’t have anything you can buy.
His response: “To meet a beaver.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because they are master builders and are a big part of their ecosystem,” he informed me. “And they are just amazing and cool. Who could have thought to make them up if they didn’t already exist?”
I agree; they are a wonder, extraordinary.
To the woods, dear reader.