By Jim Miller
It’s Christmas week and as we do every year, the grown-ups in my family are keeping up the tradition of buying nothing for each other. But for those of you who must endure the fear and loathing of the consumer frenzy, here is my annual list of books that might serve as good stocking stuffers for the alienated progressives or other likely suspects on your list (with a special focus on some of the best work that received less attention than it deserved):
1) Steve Fraser’s The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power: In this seminal work, Fraser (a labor historian) explores the past to explain the present’s lack of sustained outrage despite the fact that we have gone back to turn of the century standards of inequality and corruption. As Naomi Klein puts it in her review of the book, “deepening economic hardship for the many, combined with ‘insatiable lust for excess’ for the few, qualifies our era as a second Gilded Age. But while contemporary wealth stratification shares much with the age of the robber barons, the popular response does not.”
Fraser’s book would be worth reading just for its lively chronicle of what he calls “the long 19th century” of populist resistance to oligarchical forces in America. What distinguishes this period from our own time, in his estimation, is that from the era of the robber barons through the New Deal, the memory of a time before capitalism as we know it was alive in the culture whereas today most Americans no longer have any sense that there was or ever could be something other than our present system.
Key to this transition, Fraser argues, was the enshrinement of anti-communism at the heart of American politics during the McCarthy period: “A systematic ideological cleansing accelerated the tidal shift in the direction of the corporate commonwealth.” This along with his thorough survey of the contemporary ideological tropes of neoliberalism make for a solid diagnosis what is at the root of our current failure of the political imagination.
2) Doug Henwood’s My Turn: Hillary Clinton Targets the Presidency: This is the best political book of the year that no one will read, but I can try. Henwood, publisher of Left Business Review along with several other books on Wall Street and American politics, systematically outlines the history of the Clintons from their beginnings to the present. In this smart, thoroughly documented volume, he highlights Hillary’s anti-union, pro Wall Street, hawkish, and deeply opportunistic political character as one of the standard bearers of “the left wing of neoliberalism.”
Henwood’s approach is simply to put the facts Democrats hate forward in a no-nonsense way in order to provide “an antidote to liberals’ fantasies about her as some kind of great progressive.” As for Clinton’s current primary-driven repositioning, Henwood wryly observes, “based on her record, there are few reasons for receiving them with anything but profound skepticism.”
So for all of the “pragmatic” New Democrats on your list, those folks who never tire of lecturing you on electability and not letting “the perfect be the enemy of the good”—get them this book and make them read it before their next recitation of that chapter and verse.
Maybe then we’ll have a real primary debate.
As Henwood puts it in his conclusion, “If people want to tell me that Hillary would be a less horrid option than whatever profound ghastliness the Republicans throw up, I’ll listen respectfully. If they try to tell me there’s something inspiring or transformative about her, I’ll have to wonder what planet they’re on.” Alas! Hillary’s history, as ably documented by Henwood, is the narrative that hurts.
3) Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last: Atwood’s latest dystopian novel was strangely absent from many of the largely boring conventional lists of “Best books of 2015,” but this “trashy dystopia,” as the New Republic review lovingly calls it, surely deserves more respect. I will say no more about it than that it deals with financial collapse, private prisons, and sex so as not to ruin the story. It is worth noting, however, that Atwood (along with other writers like Ursula LeGuin) is asking some important questions about the role of writing in an era when profound uncertainty about the future makes traditional stories less relevant.
Recently, when asked why dystopian fiction and fantasy are on the rise, Atwood observed, “I think they’re coming out of people’s feeling that things are going haywire, and you cannot depend on a stable background for ‘realistic fiction.’ And when there’s perceived instability that’s happening you can’t write that kind of novel and have people believe it.”
So perhaps the kinds of “unrealistic” dystopian narratives that Atwood delivers are closer to capturing the nature of contemporary reality than we think. And these kinds of critical dystopias just may help give us the tools we need to think our way out of the cage of the present hegemony.
Happy Winter Solstice, dear Reader!