This year for the left was both terrible and groundbreaking – depending on how you look at it. Terrible, because Capitalism continues to ratchet in new and innovative miseries for more of the populace: inequality grew, bigotry flourished, the environment was tortured and violence spread across the planet. Groundbreaking, because these calamities are radicalizing the left and catalyzing increasingly ferocious opposition.
The best writing of 2014 often captured this tension between the horrors of today and hope for tomorrow.
In easily the year’s most important piece – and probably one of the most important political essays of the last decade – Ta-Nehisi Coates shattered the silence on a topic many Americans would rather ignore: the debt we owe black Americans. Wielding a formidable command of history, a rigorous analysis of data and an uncompromising insistence on basic justice, Coates demolishes one right-wing excuse after another and builds on their wreckage an impregnable argument that Americans must atone for our original sin. To glimpse just how powerful this piece is, just consider how our country’s most belligerent, rabid racists could only bring themselves to criticize him in the most cowering, grudgingly respectful terms.
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall 25 years ago, conventional wisdom has maintained that the Soviet Union’s transition to Capitalism launched an age of significant progress for its people. But as Branko Milanovic demonstrates – using exceedingly simple and objective measures like income and the Democracy Index – only about 1 in 10 residents have seen any improvement at all, and many have seen dramatic reversals in their quality of life. Milanovic’s article is a succinct but devastating challenge to a central historical narrative of Capitalist apologetics.
Matt Bruenig spent much of 2014 demolishing libertarian ideology with patient, methodical argument – a needful if often thankless task in an age where much of the left would rather write about hashtag wars. Wonks probably found his data-driven posts on Demos more interesting, and his feud with Scott “Grandpa” Sumner was certainly funnier, but Violence Vouchers was his most insightful piece. Leftists have long recognized a basic relationship between property and violence, but in this piece, Bruenig elaborates on that observation with a formal, systematic account of property as a de facto voucher our society offers that legitimizes violence.
While Republicans are busy threatening the left for “vilifying” sociopathic sniper Chris Kyle, it’s worth taking a moment to remember the most vilified American soldier in history: William Sherman, General of the Union Army during the Civil War. In his article, Gary Brecher (aka the War Nerd) reminds us that Sherman’s storied march on Atlanta isn’t the tragic atrocity of Confederate mythology – it was a glorious triumph in a righteous war that ended slavery and saved our country from a massive, treacherous rebellion.
Amid the nonstop onslaught of spurious, inflammatory and politically odious criticism leveled at the president from the right, Ian Welsch reminds us that in decision after decision Barack Obama has opposed the left – with disastrous consequences. It’s not clear to me what the takeaway is here, since the argument that Obama has failed is not an argument that we have any better electoral options. But this is what honest criticism of the president looks like, and it’s criticism that the left absolutely has to grapple with.
An outstanding article by Amber A’Lee Frost that sparked one of the most ridiculous internet controversies of the year: Jacobinghazi, in which a band of odious liberals waged a shameless smear campaign against their critics on the left. It’s too bad, because the scandal had nothing to do with Frost’s argument: that neither leftism nor feminism should be placed at odds with the rigors of math and basic rationalism. It’s an essential point, and it’s even more essential to hear women making it.
It’s become a truism to describe America’s democracy as “dysfunctional,” and to understand that dysfunction as “gridlock” of some sort. But what do we actually mean by any of this? In the wake of the 2014 elections, Jamelle Bouie outlines a grim prognosis: a Republican Congress, a Democratic White House, enormous political incentives against compromise, and no change for the foreseeable future. With our mechanism for democratic legislation broken, circumstances will favor increased latitude for unilateral executive action – and as Christopher Brunet argues, increased judicial power as well. This is the dynamic likely to govern our democracy for some time, so we’d better get familiar with it.
It’s tempting to call this piece prescient, since it anticipated so precisely the transient factionalism and causes du jour that defined the politics of 2014. The left in particular seems utterly hypnotized by the rhythm of the news cycle, assembling and disassembling around the latest scandal to pop up on The Daily Show, festooning virtual identities with trending hashtag slogans and symbolic profile pics, frantically trying to flashmob their way into political relevance.
But as so often is the case, Dr. Leo Strauss reminds us that this isn’t an entirely new moment in history. Will our democracy find a way out of it? Let’s hope for a better 2015.
Photo: Ta-Nehisi Coates speaks at 92YTribeca. [Flickr, 92YTribeca]
Carl Beijer is a Marxist working in Washington, DC to slowly but surely inaugurate the dictatorship of the proletariat.