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James Harden and the Death of Heliocentrism

Two of the United States’ dumbest obsessions are stardom and statistics, and nobody demonstrates the ultimate emptiness of both quite like James Harden. The 31-year-old basketball player, who just forced his way to the Brooklyn Nets after spending the last eight seasons with the Houston Rockets, is a perennial MVP candidate and a three-time NBA scoring champion. He’s also a living, breathing, endlessly dribbling embodiment of everything that America misunderstands about success. 

In 2019, the basketball analytics writer Seth Partnow wrote an influential article for the Athletic titled “The New NBA Heliocentrism.” The premise was that teams now revolve around their star players to a degree unprecedented in league history. Partnow used a complex series of formulae and some colorful charts to illustrate what was obvious to anyone who’d paid attention to the sport over the past few years: a small handful of star players like Harden were doing the vast majority of the “fun stuff” (i.e., holding the ball and, eventually, shooting it). Meanwhile, their teammates’ job duties had been reduced to a glorified game of fetch. They were expected to jostle with opponents, to hurl their bodies on the hardwood floor, to run in endless circles for the singular purpose of making it easier for Harden and his fellow sungods to score. 

The logic behind the heliocentric NBA is based on the type of “common sense” beloved by mainstream economists and boomer dads. Essentially, if X is good, then increasing the amount of X will lead to ever-increasing amounts of goodness. If a basketball team gets 100 attempts to score during a game, the team will maximize its scoring potential by giving more of those attempts to its most talented player. A team will optimize its offense even further if the star in question sticks to “high value” shots. This term refers to shots close to the basket (which are valuable because they’re the easiest to make), 3-pointers (which are valuable because you get an extra point for making one), and free throws (which are valuable because nobody’s allowed to bother you as you shoot). The heliocentric model of basketball is thus a data-driven one—in the 2020 playoffs, for example, Harden averaged 1.15 points per possession while feasting almost exclusively on high value shots. By comparison, his teammate P.J. Tucker averaged 0.98 points per possession. Letting Harden use all of your team’s possessions would give you one of the best offenses in the league. Letting Tucker do so would give you the worst (by far). 

To be fair, even the fiercest proponents of the heliocentric model wouldn’t recommend letting a team’s best player take all the shots. And following the repeated playoff failures of teams (like Harden’s) that stick to the “nothing but dunks, free throws, and 3s” diet, many data nerds have begrudgingly accepted the importance of “low value” shots during crunch time. Common sense is once again invoked—if you actually let Harden use 100 percent of the possessions, his teammates would probably be quite annoyed (as a Sports Illustrated KIDS book puts it, “nobody wants to play with a ball hog”). And if other teams know you’ll only shoot from a few spots on the floor, they can safely ignore the rest of the court. It’s hard to win basketball games when you’re that predictable, or when four out of five players on your team feel like underappreciated pawns. Plus, sometimes the star will need to rest. You have to ensure that all of their hard work isn’t erased during these brief absences. Start adding up all the qualifications, and suddenly heliocentrism starts looking less like a foolproof blueprint for success and more like a “rule of thumb” that got too big for its britches. 

Harden’s tenure in Houston ended because the tensions inherent to the heliocentric model couldn’t be resolved. It certainly wasn’t because the star wasn’t given enough opportunity to shine. The team’s former general manager, a data-minded MIT grad named Daryl “Dork Elvis” Morey, “spent [years] constantly churning the roster around Harden, searching for the right superstar players to pair with him and the right role players for the supporting cast,” as a 2018 ESPN story put it. Each time Harden decided he wanted to play with a famous friend, the team moved heaven and earth to acquire that player—and to get rid of them once they tired of playing Yoshi to Harden’s Mario. The entire team was designed around catering to Harden’s desires, which mostly involved taking a lot of shots and not playing defense. The numbers said this was Houston’s best chance at reaching the pinnacle of NBA glory. After several of the most remarkable playoff collapses in league history, and Harden’s subsequent proclamation that the team “[couldn’t] be fixed,” it’s fair to wonder if the heliocentric model has been discredited once and for all. The Rockets gave Harden every perk a star could possibly want, and in the end all they managed to do was choke in the biggest moments while pissing off almost everyone else on the team (along with most NBA fans outside of Houston).  

A clever defender of heliocentrism might argue that Harden’s failure in Houston is not an indictment of the model itself, but rather the excesses to which it was taken in this specific case. It’s easy to paint Harden as a uniquely selfish and reckless star. His penchant for egregious flops (pretending to be injured) and whining to referees has made him one of the most disliked players in recent memory. Even in a league where superstars are chummier than ever, many of Harden’s fellow A-listers think he’s kind of an ass. The fact that he skipped training to party (maskless!) at strip clubs around the country seems to support the idea that Harden is Just a Bad Apple™. 

Heliocentrism can go too far, to be sure. But in more sober and responsible hands—say, like those of LeBron James—the model can still be the most efficient way to achieve success. Right?

Heliocentrism and Musk-Worship: Two Symptoms of the Same Disease

It’s no coincidence that defenses of NBA heliocentrism sound an awful lot like defenses of contemporary capitalism and its rockstar CEOs. Data nerds can find numbers to show that capitalism is the most efficient way to reduce extreme poverty, improve gender equality, or even protect the environment. If you complain that this obviously doesn’t reflect reality, the nerds insist the model is sound—it’s just that the execution sometimes leaves a bit to be desired. When Elizabeth Warren said that “capitalism without rules is theft,” the implication was that, yes, it’s bad that employers steal billions of dollars from workers each year—but if those employers were simply more honorable, the power structures of the modern economy would be fine. When sex pest Joe Biden claimed to support an end to the “era of shareholder capitalism,” the catch was even more obvious. “We must reward work as much as we rewarded wealth,” said Biden, expressing an idea as impossible as it was insincere. The average full-time Amazon warehouse worker makes just over $31,000 a year. Jeff Bezos makes nearly $150,000 per minute. There’s no way to reward the former “as much” as the latter without significantly reducing the latter’s rewards. Clearly this would require changing the fundamental premise on which the current socioeconomic system operates. 

However, to paraphrase Upton Sinclair, it’s difficult to get someone to accept a truth when their salary depends on rejecting it. In the political world, no amount of evidence seems capable of persuading capitalism’s defenders that the world’s problems can’t be solved by the right means-tested tax credits. Elon Musk can make $15 billion in a single day, while a seething pool of investors pushes Tesla’s stock market valuation so high it would take the company 1,600 years to sell enough exploding cars to pay up—and yet somehow, respectable shapers of public opinion like Forbes chief content officer Randall Lane can insist that “Greater Capitalism” would put an end to such absurdity. In case you were wondering, “Greater Capitalism” is functionally indistinguishable from the current version except for a slight uptick in elite benevolence. The same power structures can remain in place as long as the people at the top aren’t jerks about it. As Lane puts it, “treating employees well doesn’t mean a conflict with business necessities. It just means giving them proper respect.” 

What exactly does “proper respect” mean, though? Like Anselm’s definition of God, it can only be described in the negative. “Proper respect” is not more money. It is not better healthcare or working hours. It is not more control over workplace conditions. “Proper respect” is a vibe, more or less, that can be conjured by the occasional pizza party or a pat on the back. The boss who needs more ideas for how to convey “proper respect” will find a vast industry of consultants ready to advise him, for a fee.

It’s much simpler in the NBA. There, proper respect translates directly into a chance to compete for the title. The league has long been notorious for its “ringz culture”—the notion that only winning a championship can validate a player’s career. Even decades of sustained excellence can’t compensate for the failure to win a ring. You can break historic records like Karl Malone, win multiple MVPs like Steve Nash, or change the entire culture of the sport like Allen Iverson. But if you don’t have a title to your name, you’re doomed to spend the rest of your life being viewed as a disappointment. A real baller is expected to sacrifice anything (salary, stats, pride, proximity to family and friends, etc.) for the mere shot at a ‘ship.

The obvious question—one that the basketball media tends to avoid as assiduously as the political media avoids confronting the failures of capitalism—is why? Who decided the raison d’etre of an NBA player is to have a championship on their resume? Did millions of people individually arrive at that conclusion by observing some natural truth, or was the idea drilled into their heads by a media built to churn out stories that benefit its corporate backers? On a personal level, it would seem obvious that having legions of fans and millions of dollars would be more desirable than a piece of jewelry and some memories. It’s not as if the mere possession of a ring determines one’s future prospects. In fact, the only players more widely derided than those without rings are those who do have rings they “didn’t deserve,” like the legendary bust Adam Morrison. Meanwhile, ringless ex-stars like Charles Barkley, Reggie Miller, and Chris Webber have gone on to lucrative broadcasting gigs and endorsement deals. Still, the heliocentric NBA—propped up by owners who can make billions off big-name stars and lauded by a cadre of notoriously fawning sportswriters—tells the vast majority of players they should accept their second-class citizenship in exchange for the warm fuzzy glow of “being a champion.” What tends to go unsaid is that the sacrifice is rarely worth it.

Both capitalist America and the heliocentric NBA are based on lies that have grown increasingly untenable in recent years. Ironically, “the data” show the assumptions that underpin both have been proven to be false. 50 years of trickle-down economics has not produced a rising tide that lifts all boats, as exhaustive research from the London School of Economics has shown. Maximizing the ball dominance of stars like Harden has not led to more championships for their teams (on the NBA’s all-time list of highest usage rates in a season, none of the top 20 players won a title). The sample size is big enough. These “data-driven” ideologies have failed.

The Myth of Star Power

Just as the death drive of capitalism has accelerated in recent years, so too has the NBA’s lurch into heliocentrism. In both cases, the most puzzling aspect is how fervently people have refused to acknowledge the obvious.

The birth of the NBA’s heliocentric age can be traced to 2010, when LeBron James left his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers to join forces with fellow superstars Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh on the Miami Heat. The three players’ massive salaries consumed almost the entire Heat budget, but most observers viewed that as a fair trade—such a starry triumvirate would render the rest of the roster largely superfluous. Were the Heat top-heavy? Sure. But the level of pure talent couldn’t be matched by anyone else in the league, and the prospect of riding the stars’ coattails to a title would attract seasoned veterans willing to accept minimum salaries. 

Then a funny thing happened. Almost from the moment James set foot in South Beach, there arose a chant: he needs more help. It turned out that collecting a handful of stars wasn’t the sure-fire path to success that many had thought. As the years went by and the Heat’s Big Three began to slip, the refrain grew louder. He needs more help! This was quite a conundrum, since the stars’ presence ensured there wasn’t enough money or playing time to attract the young players who would’ve provided that help. When James eventually jumped ship and returned to Cleveland—with so much leverage over the franchise he was able to pick his teammates and coaches—the song was the same. He needs more help! It wasn’t long before James’ penchant for short-term decision-making and paternalistic treatment of his teammates depleted Cleveland’s resources as well, and he decamped for the Los Angeles Lakers. Once he arrived in Hollywood, the cycle repeated itself once again. The King, as always, needed more help

Even for the brightest star in the NBA, under the most optimal conditions imaginable, a heliocentric approach has never really worked. James is a far superior player to Harden, and many consider him the greatest of all time. Yet whenever James has won a title, it’s never been thanks to his (or his fellow stars’) efforts alone. Whether it was Mike Miller draining seven 3-pointers for the Heat in the 2012 Finals or Rajon Rondo energizing the Lakers in the 2020 Finals, unheralded teammates have always been essential for James’ teams to succeed. It may be true that it’s hard to win a championship without a superstar—or two, or three—but it’s flat-out impossible to win without significant contributions from others. 

Likewise, despite the fetishization of individual “innovators” and “job creators” like Bezos or Musk, it’s become increasingly clear that a successful society is not determined by how many stars it boasts. The stock market has never been higher, and neither have our rates of depression and despair. Nearly 800 Americans now boast net worths exceeding $1,000,000,000, while over 50 million go hungry. Who can say, with a straight face, that the tradeoffs have been worth it? 

It’s always been a lie that great success comes from catering to the whims of “geniuses.” Capitalism didn’t invent the iPhone or save ordinary people from fear and destitution. Heliocentrism hasn’t delivered a single NBA title or made the game more enjoyable to play and watch. It’s time to acknowledge the obvious, and try something new. 

The Ministry for the Future, or Do Authors Dream of Electric Jeeps?

With his new book The Ministry for the Future, acclaimed science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson has done what perhaps no novelist has done before: he’s gotten liberal Vox’s Ezra Klein and the socialist periodical Jacobin to agree on something. Klein gushes that Ministry is the “most important book I’ve read this year” and that “it’s [sic] key virtue is it takes our present more seriously than we do,” while Derrick O’Keefe proclaims in Jacobin (originally Ricochet), “it’s one of the most important books in any genre to appear this year.” 

The Ministry for the Future has united more than just Klein and Jacobin: Barack Obama included the book among his 2020 favorites. Bill McKibben, one of the most prominent figures in climate activism, writes, “The New Yorker once asked if Robinson was ‘our greatest political novelist,’ and I think the answer may well be yes.” Naomi Klein thinks the book is a “scary and brilliant must read,” and longtime climate commentator Andrew Revkin tweets that it “perfectly matches the dizzying, mesmerizing, dangerous dimensions of the climate challenge itself.” Amy Brady described the book as “tremendously engaging,” and Phil Christman calls it “one of the most useful and important books of the year.” 

Just about every mainstream review and interview agrees: this book is Important. It’s not only Important, it is Serious. It’s not only Serious: “there is no shortage of sardonic humour here, a cosmopolitan range of sympathies, and a steely, visionary optimism.” (The Guardian.) The reviewers are as unanimous about this book as scientists are about the reality of anthropogenic warming. Kirkus did temper their praise a bit: “High-minded, well-intentioned, and in love with what Earth’s future could be but somewhat lacking in narrative drive.” Former Vox energy blogger David Roberts was one of the only naysayers, tweeting, “it’s just a bunch of position papers & blog posts & white papers, lightly fictionalized, and I mean lightly. I already know all this shit!” reasonably inquiring of his followers, “Does it get better in the back half?”

There’s no question: this is an important book. Moreover, Kim Stanley Robinson is very smart. He’s clearly done a lot of homework, displaying detailed knowledge on a broad range of climate-related topics, including some of the latest climate science, mitigation and adaptation technologies, economic policies and social science concepts, as well as various projects for wealth redistribution and workplace democracy. 

If you’ve been studying sustainability, climate, and energy politics for a while, then you, like David Roberts, likely already know this shit! Most of the concepts and examples will feel like an elementary overview (which may still be valuable for experts to have all in one place as teaching tools or whatnot). If you haven’t been immersed in these deeply depressing discourses—congratulations!—then the book will offer lots of ideas. That alone may be worthwhile, even if just as a hearty rebuttal to the vast, hegemonic silence that surrounds the climate issue. Climate silence is the overwhelming collective ignoring of the biggest and most vital issue in, arguably, the 350,000 odd years of Homo sapiens’ existence. It’s such a problem that there are multiple organizations whose sole aim is to get people, and elite media in particular, to talk about it. Just about anything that subverts the collective unwillingness to engage with this issue is a positive contribution. By introducing a mainstream audience to the dizzying prism of issues and the myriad proposals to address the climate crisis, Robinson is doing a great service. 

But while anything is better than nothing, it’s still necessary to critically examine the concepts in the book. Since so many commentators and critics are praising the book for its important ideas, let’s first approach it on those terms. After examining some of the ideas, we’ll then move on to ask whether the book holds up as a good novel, or even as good propaganda. Be warned: The Ministry for the Future is longer than it needs to be, so this review follows suit. The book is dense with concepts, policies, and opinions that would take many essays to sort through, so consider these several thousand words an abbreviated assessment. 

[Author’s note: if you’re reading this, Kim Stanley Robinson, please stop reading now.]

Do the Concepts Hold Up? 

The vast challenge of the climate crisis can be summed up like this: humanity has spent hundreds of millennia building momentum in transforming an increasingly greater proportion of the earth’s biomass to human needs. This has not been a linear process, and often it has not been conscious. For vast periods, it hasn’t always been particularly devastating, and more often the guiding principle of most Indigenous societies has been to remain more or less within ecological boundaries. Nevertheless, given that this process has increased its speed and scale exponentially in the last two hundred years with the mass implementation of fossilized biomass and its subsequent heating of the planet, this is a momentum that has to be reversed. Turning such a vast historical tide is the greatest possible challenge for a species. This book not only doesn’t articulate that challenge, it doesn’t understand it. 

One of the book’s main concepts offers a good example of some of its underlying problems. “YourLock” is a new open source social network and one of the central tools used to build Ministry’s post-carbon utopia. The Ministry for the Future itself (a quasi-UN entity, which, we are ceaselessly reminded, has a very small budget and no legal authority) creates this new website, which yields an entirely new internet “co-op owned by its users” and supplants the world’s other social networks. This website is a central requirement for achieving the decarbonized world depicted in the book, and unfortunately, it makes no sense. For one thing, vital details of how it works are glossed over or ignored. How is a co-op of billions of people governed and organized? Who controls and pays for the massive amount of space and energy needed for the data centers? Facebook’s data centers, for example, currently take up 15 million square feet of space and 5.1 terawatt hours of electricity (more than twice Luxembourg’s electricity generation). Who governs the many financial transactions that are supposed to take place on “YourLock”? It’s basically if Facebook were a credit union; how much damage could such a site wreak? We never learn. It just works like a miracle: 

We’re seeing an increasing rate of uptake on YourLock. Already a new internet: now its users may be turning into a new kind of citizen of the world. Gaia citizenship, or what have you. Earth citizen, common member, world citizen. One Planet. Mother Earth. All these terms used by people who are coming to think of themselves as part of a planetary civilization. Main sense of patriotism now directed to the planet itself. 

This of course would be phenomenal. Nationalism finally dead, superb: just show me where to sign over all my data. But there’s no reason a second internet would deliver this, especially given that the first has been so disastrously otherwise. There’s no depiction of why or how this would occur, no mechanism provided, not even a single sentence of explication on why such a miraculous outcome would follow, and how it would avoid being swallowed up by corporate entities. Given that people self-organize on the First Internet into in-groups and out-groups, even creating bubbles of alternate realities, the internet has—if anything—divided people more than brought us together. What about Internet 2 would prevent this? There’s no contending here with the complex psychology of nationalism and the psychological barriers to a universalist sort of ethics, and the barest grappling with why people behave the way they do. 

This problem recurs frequently. Later, an anonymous narrator proclaims, “Not since the Paleolithic have animals meant so much to humans, been regarded so closely and fondly by we their cousins. The land that supports these animals also supports our farms and cities as well, in a big network of networks.” But the events in the book do not reveal the causes or the mechanisms by which the whole of humanity’s value system changes in twenty years, nor does Robinson seriously engage with the challenges to such a miraculous turn of events. It just magically happens. 

There’s a lot of gimmicky stuff thrown in that, again, elides how or why they would be valuable to confronting this particular problem. 3D printing (“3-D printed house, 3-D printed toilets…”), for instance, is featured in the novel, and it seems Robinson believes the technology produces something from nothing. Blockchains not only make an appearance but play a central role in decarbonization. Robinson is apparently unaware of how much energy they require: bitcoin alone, representing a tiny fraction of the economy, consumes 66 terawatt-hours of electricity annually, more than ten times Facebook’s servers and about the equivalent of the Czech Republic. An “Internet of Animals” runs to first base on page 359, but page 454 hits the triple: “There were discussions as to how much the oceans were still serving as a sink for carbon burned into the air, but now, in the Great Internet of Things, the Quantified World, the World as Data, all these aspects of the problem were being measured…” What? Why? Can the world be quantified like this, and should it be? An analyst in the Ministry states that “eleven policies would get it [global decarbonization] done,” but then lists things that aren’t really policies—including literally just “better urban transport.” At least half of the analyst’s proposals have no scalable political pathways in any high-emission country, much less at an international level, and certainly not in a couple decades.  

The book makes a naive mistake that, to be fair, much of the climate left makes. Nationalization of private fossil fuel companies is a primary method by which The Ministry of the Future and many people fondly imagine that the post-carbon utopia can be achieved. But in the real world, two of the top three oil companies are already state-owned, and one by the Chinese Communist Party. Why would the U.S. government—its modern iteration basically just a stack of private oil companies in a trench coat (like Canada)—nationalize ExxonMobil or Shell and then shut down their operations? Is the Republican Party going to allow that? The mainstream Democratic Party, which still takes fossil fuel donations and has refused to ban even the deadliest methods of petroleum extraction (such as fracking), would be unlikely to dismantle the industry. Ministry doesn’t show us radically reformed political parties, so why should the reader believe that nationalization is either likely or a realistic path to decarbonization? As long as petroleum continues to impart an incredibly important strategic advantage, economically and militarily, no nation-state is likely to dismantle their state-owned petroleum industries. One could just as easily imagine the opposite: nationalization accelerates and maintains the fossil fuel economy longer than even the currently subsidized market would. After all, even progressives’ cute and cuddly, social democratic, model petrostate Norway, whose sovereign wealth fund is powered by North Sea oil, is increasing oil drilling and hoping to expand into newly melted and accessible Arctic oil shales, jeopardizing the already strained ecologies there. Nationalization of fossil fuel industries as a path to decarbonization is a pipe(line) dream.   

Other such leaps of imagination are made without any real grounding. Robinson’s novel includes profiles of projects like the Mondragon Corporation, a real Basque worker cooperative in Spain, with the implication that if that model was just exported worldwide, everything would change: “If these principles were to be applied seriously everywhere,” Robinson writes, “they would form a political economy entirely different from capitalism as generally practiced. They make a coherent set of axioms that would lead to a new set of laws, practices, goals, and results.” But this is a lot like saying if everyone were a good person the world would be a better place. What would it take for real-life human beings, all over the world, to accept and adhere to these principles? What would happen when people went against them? 

It’s inspiring that Mondragon exists, and it’s good to share what it’s like and how it works, but to say “if everyone were like this, everything would be better,” doesn’t get us closer to a meaningful depiction of how such a utopia comes about, much less contributes to global decarbonization. A case study example like this can be convincing and useful, but it would have to contend with reality (even a fictitious depiction). For instance, there are very real barriers to making all corporations into worker-owned cooperatives—namely, corporations themselves. Corporate management teams frequently use all manner of tactics, such as union-busting consultants, to prevent such entities from emerging out of existing corporations. Amazon deploys tactics like surveillance, special proprietary software, and even advertising for in-house union-busters. Meanwhile, state and market barriers like monopolies and corporate legal structures prevent or disincentivize the creation of new co-ops. Further, even democratic workplaces in the Global North are susceptible to reproducing exploitation by relying on infrastructures of extraction and abuse in supply chains throughout the Global South. Workplace democracy is great, but to suggest that it will magically yield “a political economy entirely different from capitalism” requires ignoring all the existing obstacles to their scaling up, and makes unfounded assumptions about how fossil capitalism actually works. 

Ministry also makes errors such as suggesting that plastic manufacturing is a preferable alternative to burning petroleum while still keeping the petroleum economy alive. While it’s important to provide transition work for former fossil fuel employees, who cares about keeping the petroleum economy alive? Even if for some reason we did, this is still a weak premise: ecologically speaking, plastic proliferation is only somewhat less bad than climate change. It’s already killing wildlife at rapid rates, and microplastics permeate every biome and every human body in the world

But perhaps the most egregious failure is that the book frequently, consistently misunderstands the fundamental human-nature relationship crisis at the heart of climate change. Misunderstanding the problem results in misunderstanding the challenges inherent to it, and the solutions necessary to overcome them. This comes out in several ways.

First, let’s go back to the quote about animals: “Not since the Paleolithic have animals meant so much to humans, been regarded so closely and fondly by we their cousins. The land that supports these animals also supports our farms and cities as well, in a big network of networks.” Ecology is generally zero-sum in the sense that there is a scarce amount of usable energy and biomass available to species that inhabit the planet. We can’t have our farms and cities and also wildlife in the same places. It doesn’t work like that. Farms and cities are fenced off from the vast majority of wildlife for very real and practical reasons. Farms prohibit wildlife because wildlife would otherwise compete for the biomass growing there for human consumption. In cities, bears and moose would get in the way of traffic (and eat garbage). Deer can’t sleep in office buildings. Unless we dramatically redesign farms and cities, it must remain zero-sum. But there’s very little in the book on what these redesigned farms and cities look like, on the details that allow them to suddenly achieve a radically altered relationship with ecologies they inhabit, and even less on how we could dramatically transform them via existing politics and institutions in twenty years. 

This misunderstanding extends to the other primary decarbonization solution highlighted in the book, which drives the biggest part of the global bureaucracy plot. Alongside YourLock, the “carbon coin” is the second main intervention that delivers Robinson’s utopia. The carbon coin is essentially a currency issued by the world’s largest central banks that pays for companies to not burn carbon. For all the talk of Robinson’s “eco-Marxism” and the book’s positive nods to communism, the book achieves an impressive anti-materialism. It is purely idealist in the sense that it believes currency and economics, for instance, are simply ideas occurring in a human vacuum that can be easily manufactured or manipulated, rather than concepts tied to physical materiality. Again Robinson misunderstands the critical dilemma at the heart of climate change: overusing biomass and energy for human needs. It assumes that there’s equivalent value that emerges between using carbon energy and not using carbon energy. But this isn’t the case. Using carbon energy delivers an abundance of things that humans rely on, now, and delivers immense wealth to a privileged population. Not using carbon energy might deliver a habitable world in the future while depriving us of certain luxuries today. Those two things are not in any way materially equivalent and so cannot be tied to economic value in an equivalent way, but that’s exactly the kind of assumption Robinson’s plot relies on. Put another way, there’s a difference between paying to maybe not have future bad things happen for the sake of an ill-defined collective, and paying to have certain good things happen now, to individuals. People reasonably and necessarily choose the latter. Again, this comes down to the basic psychology that Robinson seems so reluctant to engage with. If you ask someone whether the food they need to eat for lunch and the abstract crisis they might avoid in five years are of equal value, they will ask if you’re insane and if you’re somehow not a human who needs to eat daily. Using carbon energy buys our lunch today; not using it may delay an abstract crisis in the future. 

This problem comes up again with the suggestion that fossil fuel companies can simply remain profitable by pumping water out of the Antarctic rather than pumping fossil fuels to sell. Or the suggestion that fishing for plastic is meant to replace fishing for fish to keep the fish-fishing businesses intact. But the profitability of pumping water away from the ice mass in Antarctica or fishing for plastic is artificially generated. The market utility and profitability of using carbon energy, on the other hand, isn’t an abstraction: fossil fuels are simply capable of delivering things that individuals and institutions want and need. Fossil fuels are liquid, material capital. They are biomass that translates very directly into material need and fulfillment, of food, movement, and goods extracted and manufactured. Fishing plastic out of the ocean might impact me and my loved ones, maybe, in an indirect way, but fish and chips are delicious, and they’re at the corner shop right now, and we need food to eat. Even if some ministry in Zurich declares that pumping carbon into the ground or pumping water out of the South Pole and abstaining from burning biomass for human needs has monetary value, it simply doesn’t possess the same kind of intrinsic, immediate material value as carbon energy burned for heat, light, and motion. More energy (density) equals more money, more money equals more activity equals more stuff equals more opportunity equals more everything equals the economy. 

Tom Murphy, professor of physics at U.C. San Diego, published an exchange he had with an economist that illuminates the connection between energy and economics: a continual 3 percent increase in energy production, the exchange reveals, has historically aligned neatly with a 3 percent increase in GDP. The idea of economic and energy decoupling has been debunked. And the idea that energy production can grow perpetually with the economy is also simply untrue, constrained by thermodynamics. If energy were to increase at this 3 percent rate, as Tom Murphy calculates in his debate with the economist, then within around 400 years, the heat the economy generated would make the Earth hotter than the sun, regardless of whether fossil fuels are used. This is the crux of Ministry’s misunderstanding of the problem. The actual value of carbon—and energy more broadly—cannot be replaced by arbitrarily assigning made-up value to activities that may ultimately reduce throughput and material things. Money isn’t just a social construct: the goods and services it buys are tied inextricably to energy production and expenditure. In Ministry, issuing the new carbon currency instantly makes Arabia (the Saud family has been deposed) one of the world’s richest countries, simply because of this accounting trick. But who would believe for a moment that any powerful and wealthy nation would allow another country to become one of the wealthiest overnight, dramatically increasing their relative standing and strategic power in a zero-sum world, just because the U.N. put a price on not using carbon energy? Would the U.S.—any version of it that has ever existed and is ever likely to exist, in fiction or reality—sanction such an outcome?  

A recent report at InsideClimate News found that eleven “super-pollutant” emitting chemical companies in China were happy to mitigate their emissions while they were subsidized to do so. As soon as the subsidies dried up, however, their emissions-capturing project stopped, even while cheap remedies were readily available. The deadly emissions continue today. This highlights the very real challenges of solving the problem of who pays polluters, who enforces them, and how you make the economics of not manufacturing more profitable than manufacturing. If the book critically engaged with this conundrum and developed a novel, imaginative way to deal with it, even if it were still in the realm of utopian science fiction, it would have provided far more value than simply hand-waving the problem away, or misunderstanding it in the first place. Robinson of course is not alone in making these mistakes. They are common in climate policy-making discourses, so it makes sense that he would echo them. But it’s the sort of error that detracts from the story, and dates it to a particular time and place, in which Serious People still thought that companies and nations could be paid to stop polluting—that there would be institutions willing and able to pay them—without making real structural changes, or that these changes would occur overnight with little friction.


Even with its errors, Ministry remains an Important Book; as I said before, it breaks climate silence and has successfully managed to help people think and talk about these issues. But is it a good novel? Surprisingly few of its reviews critically evaluate the book as a novel, exploring whether it has literary merit; it seems there’s been a precipitous decline in public discussion about what constitutes good literature, almost as marked as climate silence. I think this is a shame. The book was clearly the culmination of years of study and work: it deserves such analysis. Robinson explicitly claims to have prioritized writing a good novel (as opposed to a good collection of policy papers and activist signs), saying in a recent Rolling Stone interview, “I come at it as a novelist. I want, first, to write a good novel.” Did he succeed in the thing he claims to have prioritized above all else? The book deals with issues taking place from a few years to a few decades in the future; will it remain relevant throughout, or even beyond, the time span it depicts? Or are its 563 pages meant to be consumed now, quickly, as a form of mid-brow infotainment and activism fuel, and then discarded once we’ve gotten the gist of it? 

My second question has received even less attention in mainstream reviews: is it competently crafted propaganda? I do not mean this as a pejorative: decarbonization politics is in desperate need of better propaganda. Does the book further the political aim of mass, equitable decarbonization with effective persuasion? It may seem trivial, even harmful, to scrutinize a book that is so full of Important Facts and Ideas, particularly ones pertaining to the apocalyptic cataclysm bearing down with unprecedented urgency. But I think the reverse is true. It’s essential we evaluate this book as art and propaganda, not just because it’s more respectful to both the author and his audience to give these questions due consideration, but because literature has an extremely unique and important role in social life, and in social change in particular. 

Good storytelling is critical for having a culture worth living in, but also for achieving the social and political movements that will be necessary to stop (or adapt to) climate change. Narrative persuasion, as opposed to “rhetorical persuasion,” is a critical aspect of political change and just as important as explicit campaign messaging. As a recent Cambridge University study suggests: 

…there are strong reasons to think that ideas contained in fiction may have just as strong an impact on people’s beliefs and attitudes as nonfictional content, given that people tend to incorporate ‘facts’ they learn regardless of whether the source is labeled fiction or nonfiction, and the narrative structure typical of fiction is known to be exceptionally powerful in shaping cognition and persuasion. 

The study found that dystopian fiction in particular increased participants’ approval of radical political action, even to the point of condoning violence against an oppressor. A climate novel’s importance is more than just the sum of the facts it contains: the manner of its telling matters a lot. And this is a useful consideration when evaluating and improving the role of storytelling in climate discourse more broadly. It’s not a question of deciding whether Ministry  or any other novel crosses some arbitrary line of good art, but instead a question of  how literature can and should engage with this most important of issues, which in turn will engage the public. Given that prominent publications and authors have anointed Robinson the King of Climate Fiction, it’s worth interrogating how well the bearer of that crown reigns.   

Is It Good Art? 

Writing cli-fi is hard. The genre presents unique challenges to building compelling narratives, and, therefore, good literature. This is in part because climate change itself is a difficult topic to render at human scales, both temporal and spatial, regardless of the medium. The timescales are staggering and confusing. On one side, you have causes and consequences ranging from the century to the millennium, depending on what aspects you’re focusing on. Meanwhile, geological changes that naturally take centuries or millennia are now occurring at the whiplash pace of months or years. Timothy Morton deems climate change a “hyperobject” due to its unwieldy scales. Spatially, the mechanisms driving climate change—whether fossil fuels or fossil capital—are broadly diffuse, their effluence seeping from millions of factories and farms, millions of cars, buses, planes, and boats, millions of investment portfolios and strategic plans. This relates to Rob Nixon’s notion of environmental “slow violence” which, unlike the quick violence of interpersonal conflict, can be difficult to render in fiction. And on top of the inhuman scales, climate change is boring. Although climate disruption is by far the greatest destroyer of life and worlds in the history of planet Earth, in narrative terms, it languishes in the realm of the mundane. It’s as banal as talking about the weather. Actually, it’s not even that exciting: it’s an invisible, abstract transference of heat and energy. The weather is just one of the more concrete consequences of those hidden dynamics. Any one of these qualities would make designing a compelling narrative around the issue difficult; all three makes the task herculean. 

These challenges of containing climate change in a compelling narrative have vexed both novelists and campaigners in the 21st century. In the latter case, activists and their communicators in-house and in the media have leapt from one unsuccessful narrative to the next in the hope of sparking mass movements and elite investment in the problem. They’ve tried save-the-polar-bears stories reminiscent of Greenpeace’s somewhat successful save-the-whales campaigns. They’ve tried save-the-poor-people-least-responsible angle reminiscent of essentially unsuccessful aid campaigns aiming to white-knight the global South (this certainly hasn’t worked in Britain, where Jeremy Corbyn was famously booed for voicing concern for those most vulnerable to climate impacts). They’ve tried industrial war mobilization narratives reminiscent of World War II, with New Deal reformism tightly woven into it. This includes leftist shades fading from the Green New Deal into Andreas Malm’s ever redder “war Leninism.” Perhaps the favorite narrative of the global professionals who populate the U.N., World Bank, IMF, and the pages of The Ministry for the Future—a species of euroliberal possibly softer and more prosocial than the Anglophone variety, hedging more toward German ordoliberalism’s will-to-stability than Anglo-American neoliberalism’s disaster capitalism—is the tale of the plucky bureaucrat who uses science, reason, and technical expertise to stumble on the perfect combination of policy incentives and new technology to save the day. It’s the tale of the bureaucrat’s stone: the magic of procedural alchemy suddenly transforms inert bureaucracy into gold.

It remains to be seen which, if any, of these narratives will succeed in sparking that ever-elusive mass movement or elite investment. So far, none have seemed to capture enough public imagination to nudge greenhouse gas emissions down, or even stop their growth. 

Perhaps because of the challenges intrinsic to crafting climate narratives, and perhaps also because of the urgency the issue instills in those of us writing about it, nonfiction climate writing has sometimes fallen into tired patterns. Climate-focused opinion writers, for instance, are often rewarded for producing cloying yogurt-commercial style prose (to which I’ve contributed myself), or self-revelatory personal essays that center how bad we feel about it (have also done this one)—in either case succumbing to the prevailing dominance of activist sloganeering and the intimate self-disclosure of trauma-mongering. This is not necessarily bad; these approaches can be a very good way of helping to guide a collective emotional reckoning with the issue, which has long been lacking from the climate discourse. Much more frustratingly, climate change attracts established elite media figures like Matthew Yglesias and Jonathan Franzen, figures who have never before approached the issue and cannot claim any particular specialized knowledge of it, compelling them to suddenly make lofty pronouncements about our imminent, unstoppable demise, before they return to whatever more important projects they were working on before (like genocide apologia). Climate reporters, meanwhile, seem stuck on the Möbius loop of reminding us daily that yes, emissions are rising, fossil fuels are to blame, no, there’s no miracle carbon capture technology coming to deus-ex-machina capitalism (unless…), but solar costs are falling!!, and possible feedback loops like permafrost melt are progressing faster than originally believed.    

With nonfiction, it’s hard to determine how we can better write about this issue. Some of us have tried to focus on the political cause—the ideologies and economic systems ruling the world—rather than the morbid symptom (higher temperatures and its impacts). Others have addressed the minutiae of the technologies at the heart of the problem while again avoiding the minutiae of the climate itself. Still others take a big-picture philosophical tack. These can all produce some very compelling writing, but narrative-creation remains an obstacle.  

Some fiction writers have successfully gotten around these problems by broadening the focus beyond the particularities of carbon dioxide parts per million to the bigger ecological crisis. Ecofiction is a corollary genre to cli-fi that focuses on exploring the relationship between human systems and “natural” or non-human systems. This conflict—or ideally a harmonious if dramatic relationship—has been at the center of human art for as long as there have been humans or art. So it’s not surprising that it can generate some of the best literature being produced today. 

Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk, 2018’s Nobel prize winner, wrote a masterpiece of ecofiction, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. The book subverts crime genre conventions while providing a fascinating character study of a woman struggling with living biocentric values in a toxically anthropocentric society. Another gem of ecofiction, Lanny, by Max Porter, deploys inventive, experimental style techniques. One of the central characters of the book is a leprechaun-like trickster god, or a Pan-ish magical creature, or a sewer goblin, or all three, or something else not totally clear, never really revealed. This creature stalks an English village’s dirty corners slurping up short snatches of inane and insane conversation made by random anonymous villagers (not too dissimilar from scrolling Twitter). The disembodied words curl around the page and create the effect of a stream of collective human consciousness. The book conjures complex feelings toward humanity and nature as abstractions and the relationship between the two; it earns readers’ emotional investment in both the characters and the natural and social worlds they inhabit. The prose is often beautiful but feels effortless. Porter has a gift for capturing a world of meaning in a single small mundane object or action or bit of dialogue. You can sense the hours layered up behind each finely crafted turn of phrase. Porter trusts us as readers to pick up on subtleties, subtexts, various inflections of meaning, and expressed values; he takes the medium seriously and plays with it, seeming to delight in the act of its creation, meanwhile speaking to some of the most critical themes of the moment. 

Drive Your Plow and Lanny aren’t alone. Plenty of 21st century literature is focused on the relationships between humans and nature, ecological destruction, extinction, the climate crisis, and the likely necrocenic dystopia coloring so many of our visions of the near future. George Monbiot has called Cormac McCarthy’s The Road “possibly the most important environmental book ever written,” hailing it, “a thought-experiment that imagines the world without a biosphere.” Though the implied cataclysm that kills life on earth is probably lots of bombs, the destructiveness aligns closely with the climatic and ecological bombs that our economy is deploying daily. The Soviet Union’s tsar bomb, the largest bomb humanity has ever detonated, released 1,500 times more firepower than the combined tonnage of the U.S.’s Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. The global economy generates greenhouse gas emissions with the heat energy equivalent of the tsar bomb every twelve minutes. (There’s an argument, only somewhat Swiftian, that nukes are less apocalyptic than climate change.) The Road achieves the sublime with its prose and emotional sincerity even while depicting the ugliest atrocities and circumstances humanity is capable of creating. Mingled with horrific scenes of a charred newborn and cellar of people waiting to be eaten, it is a heartfelt lament of lost species, ways of life, and celebration of enduring human love in the midst of the worst possible calamity. Reading McCarthy’s earlier work, it feels like the culmination of a technique that has been decades in refinement. And it’s both good art and, whether intended or not, good propaganda: for me at least, it elicits both tears and renewed vigilance for protecting a living earth, reinforced surety in the moral rightness of preventing at all costs the slow (and fast) violence that is yielding the beginning of the dead world McCarthy depicts so vividly. 

David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, meanwhile, manages the scope problem of ecological and climate crises masterfully with a symmetrical structure of interconnected narratives that span several (unspecified) centuries. Mitchell captures the political, social, and technological roots of the climate and ecological crises as well as their deep future consequences, and does so with compelling, interwoven characters. The Southern Reach trilogy, by Jeff Vandermeer—which, by the way, bears virtually no resemblance to the supremely mediocre Hollywood movie Annihilation presumably based on it—is an eerie and masterful feat of ecofiction, subverting tropes of the genre and complicating human-nature relations through a tight, suspenseful, unsettling story that remains emotionally authentic and meaningful throughout.  

This is all to say that writing about climate change is hard, but it’s doable, and I wish The Ministry for the Future had managed any one of the techniques that makes celebrated ecofiction so compelling. Unfortunately, as a novel, it misses the mark in some critical ways. 

For one thing, the book suffers from what a lot of other contemporary fiction (climate or otherwise) seems to suffer from: a feeling of being rushed. I’m not sure why so much fiction today strikes me as dashed off. I don’t know whether it seems that way or is that way. But it’s the best way I can articulate the phenomenon of so many plots, dialogue, prose, and characters feeling as though they are rushing through a flat landscape. Perhaps authors assume their readers have all had their brains sanded down into smooth Twitter marble, unable to concentrate on anything too long or weighted with too much subtext. Or perhaps many authors themselves have tragically developed chronic online brain poisoning, craving the fast high of likes and retweets, the satisfaction of completion after composing, at most, 240 characters. Or maybe it’s not the fault of authors at all, but instead of systemic publishing industry practices. Maybe deadlines have been severely shortened by a business model that favors cranking out high quantities of low quality (or, to be fair, medium quality) stories hoping that one will stick and yield a large enough return to pay back their many unprofitable investments, or better yet, a franchising opportunity that can be milked dry over decades. 

Or it’s the urgency of the immiserated, precarious artist. Young writers in particular (and young writers of color even more so) are underpaid and overworked and often living paycheck to paycheck. Perhaps the absence of the generational wealth transfer urges the cursor forward, compelling writers to submit before thorough revisions so that they might get their word in before it all collapses, receiving their commission before the next month’s rent is due. Impatience is fatal for novices; some masters might get away with it, but in the case of a book as ambitious and important as Ministry for the Future, I wish this master had combined his decades of practice with a little more patience. 

Whatever the case, meticulousness seems to be a dying art. And this is not great for literature, or any art really, because the inescapable fact of creation is that quality takes time. Good prose and good plots must be boiled down, reduced like a sauce, distilled for years like a single malt whisky, before they reach their finest form. For many, this means uncounted rounds of editing and hours of quiet rumination. Of course there are some exceptions. Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro claimed to have completed The Remains of the Day—arguably his masterpiece—in four weeks (of course it helps when your wife does your “share of the cooking and housework” in that time). Nathan J. Robinson, editor of this magazine, seems to be able to produce both prolific quantity and consistent quality simultaneously, but he is a rare bird [author’s note: no editor pressured me to include this grotesque display of sycophancy, I debase myself at my own discretion]. For most of us, though, writing requires lots of time, edits, rumination, and energy. 

While I’m sure Kim Stanley Robinson has accumulated the knowledge he incorporated in Ministry over many years—and it truly is an impressive display—the novel itself reads more like a rushed first draft whipped together as an afterthought, avoiding those many hours of edits and rumination. The too-big-to-edit problem isn’t just one of pundits leaving well-paid media jobs for the golden shores of Substack and its freedom from editorial tyranny. Fiction authors, too, sometimes grow too famous, powerful, or lucrative to be controlled by any editor. I wonder if that was a problem here. The prose and the dialogue may be the best indicators of this. Too frequently when reading Ministry, my eye stumbled and faltered along lines of sloppy prose, an extra line or word here or there (“irregardless”), and weak dialogue. 

In one exchange that feels lazy and dashed off, Mary—the bureaucrat running the Ministry for the Future and one of the novel’s two protagonists—speaks with her Russian colleague, Tatiana.

Tatiana shrugged. “Rule of law is all we’ve got,” she said darkly. “We tell people that then try to make them believe it.” 

“How do we do that?”

“If the world blows up they’ll believe it. That’s why we got the international order we got after World War Two.”

“Not good enough?” Mary suggested.

“No, but nothing is ever good enough. We just make do.” Tatiana brightened, although Mary saw the sly look that indicated a joke: “We make a new religion! Some kind of Earth religion, everyone family, universal brotherhood.”

“Universal sisterhood,” Mary said. “An Earth mother religion.”

“Exactly” Tatiana said, and laughed. “As it should be, right?”

They toasted the idea. “Write up the laws for that,” Mary said. “Have them ready for when the time comes.”

“Of course,” Tatiana said. “I have entire constitution [sic] already, in here.” And she tapped her forehead. 

Another bit of dialogue with Tatiana has the same abrupt, disconnected, note-taking style, but now the quote marks are inexplicably omitted:  

I like that, Tatiana said, feeling buoyed at the thought. I want to sue some people here real bad. 

Help me and I’ll help you.

As always. So let’s get off this fucking bridge and go find a drink.

As always. Time for kiryat

Time for kvasit.

We will anoint ourselves with one hundred grams.

Or two hundred.

No wonder you’re getting fat. Alcohol has calories you know.

Good. I’m hungry too. I’m cold and I’m hungry and I need a drink.

Welcome home.

It’s great to pass the Bechdel test, but please, for god’s sake, at least make it good. Too much of the dialogue sounds like a doctored transcript of boring conversation you overhear in public. Hell is other peoples’ conversations; the novel is meant to escape that or meaningfully stylize it like Porter. Too little of the dialogue conveyed something narratively relevant, or even just delivered lines in ways that were funny, witty, otherwise entertaining, philosophically insightful, or character-building. Most of the time, the conversation served only non-narrative, non-fictional fact-delivery ends. It’s not that dialogue shouldn’t sometimes convey mundane information, but it shouldn’t mostly do that. Or if it does, it should hold within it some greater meaning to be teased out by the reader’s own intelligence. But when all the dialogue speaks in the same voice, uses the same verbal tics and vocabulary regardless of character, or reads like dashed-off Socratic dialogues, it’s clear it was an afterthought.

The prose, meanwhile, seemed written for the least active readerly engagement possible. For instance, “In one of the smallest bars she sat down with Badim Bahadur, her chief of staff, who was hunched over a whisky reading his phone…She nodded to the waiter, pointed at Badim’s drink. Another whisky.” We don’t need this described to us; what would be brief scene-setting in a screenplay is totally unnecessary in prose. When the book slips, as it rarely does, into an ecological sublime, it reads like this:

Flower-filled meadow, wild beasts grazing all careless of them, the young ones literally gamboling, defining the word as they popped into the air and staggered around on landing, then did it again. Gray wall above, with a window in it to make it Alpine-strange. Blue sky. It was definitely a cheerful sight. Even a little hallucinogenic. Breeze flowing over the flowers like a tide, so that they bobbed in place. The young marmot still there near them continued to draw grass stalks to its mouth. The oily sheen of the bunched seeds it had caught in its paw gleamed in the sun. Quick little fans of food. The demon eyes of the chamois just a bit farther away, placidly chewing their cuds, unafraid of anything.

The Road ends with a lament for such a scene made impossible by human agency. The contrast in prose is striking and a good illustration of what’s lacking in Ministry

Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery. 

It’s not just the ten-dollar words McCarthy deploys, which may or may not be to everybody’s taste. Instead, it’s the density of meaning and expression, the suggestion of larger things projected out by those often unexpected turns of phrase. This density is almost entirely lacking in Ministry

Whole chapters are written in terse, barely conceived sentences. The austerity of Robinson’s language—those sentences beginning with sudden, jarring nouns or adjectives—seem to serve no artistic or narrative purpose and so comes off more as illiterate or impatient than purposefully stylistic. Reading fiction should be pleasurable, or at least stimulating and challenging, not a dull grind to get through for caches of factual information. Chapter 34, for instance, is written as a character’s notes and almost seems to relish denying the reader any pleasure: 

M questions this last assertion and C testy in response. Monsoon variability increasing for last thirty years, somewhat like California weather in that the average is seldom hit, most years much higher or lower than average, which is an artifact only. M objects, says thought monsoon was regular as rain in Ireland, crucial to crops and life generally, July through September daily rain, how variable could it be?

It goes on like that for five pages. And five pages is about the average length of a chapter, perfect for online-addled attention spans. 

The structure of the book, while we’re on it, also runs into some issues. I respect the desire to experiment with form, but Robinson doesn’t quite pull it off. It’s essentially lots of vignette, all of which are short: some are single paragraph-long riddles that reveal the answer explicitly at the end “I zing and I ping and I bring and I bling [….] What am I? You must have guessed already. I am a photon.”) Some are anonymous disembodied narrativized policies and programs, like the first-person experience of a (probably) Patagonia-clad Angelena Hippie kayaking through a flood or an Indian pilot dispersing sulfur dioxide particulates to block solar radiation. (It’s odd that Robinson so casually throws in these sorts of geoengineering projects without seriously addressing their many potential risks, such as the possibility of cutting rainfall by 30 percent in the tropics, decimating rainforests and releasing the carbon stored there (and therefore potentially worsening climate change), or increasing drought in Africa, or killing crops, or the many other known and as yet unknowable negative side effects.)

Then there are the nonfiction micro-essays. These offer descriptions or opinions on a variety of mitigation and adaptation policies and programs (David Roberts’ “position papers & blog posts & white papers”). These micro-essays, in theory, could have worked: they could have offered original takes on the policies or ideas they depicted, or imagined in depth the likely consequences of those policies that aren’t often discussed in policymaking circles, or focused a critical eye on such policies that only a perceptive novelist could bring, or even invented new policy ideas. At the very least, they could have engaged with each other and achieved some emergent quality as a macro-essay that crescendos to its grand point. But they don’t: the micro-essays stand alone as discrete units that are variably interesting. Had they added anything that can’t already be found in nonfiction analyses, they would have felt more like creative writing and less like pills hidden in dog treats, or—sincere apologies, KSR—dashed-off weed revelations, shower thoughts, and the-more-you-know trivia. If I’m already reading a dense sci-fi book, I can also read nonfiction essays. If a reader feels condescended to, there’s no reason to reciprocate respect, and no reason to trust the author’s opinions. The occasional vague command to the reader to do something about the problem highlighted in a given micro-essay (“Arranging this situation is left as an exercise for the reader”) feels less like the author-reader relationship of reader-as-participant in engaging with the prose and ideas of the author and more like reader-as-audience for the author’s intellectual performance or pupil to the author’s pedagogy.   

Perhaps the idea of writing dozens of concept-heavy micro-essays and vignettes was to aim for a quantity-equals-quality approach in which good literature means the more pages printed, the more struggle to get through, and therefore the better the book. In some cases, an onslaught of non-narrative text can have real merit. Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 includes a mass of police reports which create a powerful effect that the narrative alone doesn’t achieve. The mass in Ministry, unfortunately, doesn’t have the same emergent quality, and feels too often like self-indulgence. 

Some chapters achieve really impressive granularity of data. Chapter 34, for all its grating prose, and chapter 45 both present very nice overview depictions of agroecology and hydrological systems. But why am I reading a blueprint overview in a novel? The medium is better suited to tell me what it feels like to live in an agroecological economy. Why not show me with scenes and dialogue how that society functions, use vivid imagery and weave that feeling into the whole narrative to make me desperately crave an agroecological economy? It’s another example of Robinson apparently not taking the medium seriously. And while there is often impressive granularity, there’s also a lot of (sometimes literal) hand-waving of detail, particularly when it comes to questions of how we get from the current status quo to the utopia depicted:

When both taxes and carbon coins were applied together, the modeling and social experiments got much better results than when either strategy was applied by itself. Not just twice as good, but ten times as good. 

Mary said, Why is that?

Confessed did not know. Synergy of carrot and stick, human psychology—waved hands. Why people did what they did—that was her bailiwick [but apparently not Robinson’s or this novel’s].

Woven between the micro-essays, riddles, and disembodied narratives, there is a plot, following the lives of two characters whose arcs eventually meet and whose relationship drives much of the drama. This alone is rather thin and would have made a much smaller book, but it does have its moments. The opening scene kicks off by doing what only fiction can do, showing in vivid imagery the real scope of climate tragedy, not just the brutal destruction of lives and property, but the lingering inner traumas of survivorhood. The novel’s other protagonist, an American aid worker named Frank living in Uttar Pradesh, lives through a fatal heatwave that kills everyone else in the town where he’s working. (On a superficial reading one might be angry with an American being the only survivor of a disaster in India, but a fairer reading suggests it’s more a depiction of the realistic and unjust fact: wealth can, for a while, buy salvation from climate disasters.)     

While the relationship between Frank and Mary did contain its touching moments, one thing lacking throughout—as in a lot of contemporary fiction—was a dense network of relationships. Robinson’s characters, while mostly avoiding cliche, are simply given too little time, too few interactions, too little interiority, and too few relationships to be really compelling and multidimensional. A recent study in Proceedings for the National Academy of Sciences found that one thing that makes A Song of Ice and Fire (the series on which the show Game of Thrones was based) so compelling is its realistic illusion of social complexity. Although the story includes more than 2,000 characters, the character networks tend to max out at around 150 other characters, which is the likely maximum size network that humans are able to build in reality. Not only does this network create convincing verisimilitude—the sense of being believable and true to life that literature depends on—but it also provides lots of fuel for conflict, action, and drama. And if you don’t like A Song of Ice and Fire, this kind of network analysis has been applied to classics like Don Quixote and Mrs Dalloway, too. Many novels do not have networks like these, of course, and manage verisimilitude without them, but Ministry is concerned with networks, and with networks of networks. The many vignettes in Ministry could have readily been woven together with each other and with the central plot, forging that dense web of character arcs and relationships, giving the central plot much more engaging movement. But that would have taken time to create.

Verisimilitude isn’t just a nice artistic quality: it’s also a useful bridge to the question of whether this book is successful propaganda. Kim Stanley Robinson agrees with the importance of verisimilitude in writing compelling fiction; as he told Rolling Stone: “The reality principle is that when you’re reading a novel and you come to something you say, ‘Yeah, that’s right. That’s the way life is.’ This is what you read novels for, is that vibe, that feeling. And I want that.” Unfortunately, Ministry’s transcript-like dialogue, flat characters, and poverty of relationships yields less than the vibe Robinson was looking for. But what about the arc of the plot, in which humans ultimately triumph in achieving equitable decarbonization in time to save civilization? Like literature, propaganda depends on its own kind of verisimilitude. Does The Ministry for the Future deliver that? 

Is It Good Propaganda?

While reading Ministry, I was also watching Downton Abbey for the first time, and—full disclosure—enjoyed the early seasons before the show abandoned good writing for cheap sentimentality. It’s generally well acted, well shot, with enjoyable costumes and sets, and—perhaps most importantly and most lacking in a lot of contemporary fiction—the plot is paced in such a way as to provide space to develop characters and their relationships. Like Game of Thrones, it achieves that relationship network verisimilitude. But it’s not just a nice little British show about nice little British anxieties. It’s also exceptional propaganda. Not the hard propaganda of war recruitment posters, Fox News, and Leni Riefenstahl, but the softer kind delivered in literature or ubiquitous cultural production. It weaves strands of doubt through your understanding of the world, it structures the foundations of another value system around the corners of your mind, and it reinforces certain biases. It opens psychological doors, empties out some of the material already in there, and makes space for alternative ways of perceiving and judging the world. All literature does this in a sense, but those with political ends we can consider propagandistic. 

Downton Abbey was written and created by Julian Fellowes, an aristocrat descendent and current Conservative peer in the U.K. House of Lords. And sure, Downton provides some obvious nationalistic sentiments, faith in the British justice system and military, and nostalgia-laden reivisionist history of bygone—or rather, less covert and complicated—class hierarchies. But it’s more subtly propaganda for a certain notion of societal progress. Although the lovable patriarchs of the working and leisure classes—Mr. Carson and Lord Robert—occasionally grumble about the trappings of the modern world in a curmudgeonly way, and the cook Mrs. Patmore’s luddism toward kitchen gadgets is a running joke, modernist progress is ultimately not only welcomed, but the hero of the show. It’s not just cars and telephones and medical technology: progress is celebrated as a broadening of employment opportunities for workers and a loosening of gender roles and rules for everyone. As ever, the rewards of this latter effect seem to primarily go to wealthy women, whom we are meant to cheer for: one of the aristocratic daughters, for instance, gains controls of a magazine publisher. In Ministry, Mary Murphy and women central bankers save the day. But the institutions they control, the class relations they exist within, and the fundamental hierarchies of these high-energy-density economies remain intact. Although in Downton there’s a sappy lament of the decline in the traditional aristocratic model of individual families owning massive estates of thousands of acres, this is a sleight-of-hand trick. The show rests on the successful effort of our aristocrat protagonists to maintain their wealth and power into this new age, and we’re meant to root for them. It’s basically propaganda for the current state of land ownership: in England, one percent of the population—aristocrats and corporations—still owns half the land (it’s even worse in Scotland). To its credit, the show humanizes working people in a way that very few costume dramas do today, if they show workers at all. It even has a sympathetic socialist character (Tom, an Irish revolutionary), which is basically unheard of in mainstream shows. But again, this is a certain literary sleight-of-hand; the arc of the show moderates Tom’s politics, integrates and reconciles him with the aristocratic family, and goes out of its way to humanize the aristocrats to an absurd, fantastical degree (like all landlords, Lord Robert is so benevolent that he pleads with the family to let the poor tenant farmers stay on the land without paying their rents).  

In some sense, The Ministry for the Future and Downton Abbey are propaganda for the same thing: a modernist, 20th century vision of progress in which a high-tech, high-energy density, complex consumer society remains intact and class relations superficially—but not substantively—shift. And they’re geared to the same audience: educated middle-class technocrats and those who believe in their utopian vision. Ministry includes frequent sentimental mentions of “stolid burghers” (burgher being the germanized form of “bourgeoisie”), and the protagonists all hail from this class. In Downton, they are the inheritors of the future: the aristocrats who survive are those who become shrewd businesspeople while the servants must make the same adaptation and become business-savvy opportunists. Many upper-class and lower-class characters in Downton are sort of absurd and bumbling, in contrast to those held up as pillars of modern society: the educated burgher solicitor Matthew and his wife Mary, whom he trains to be an equally ruthless Homo economicus. It’s the economically rational Matthew and Mary (plus Tom, the socialist) who try to convince Lord Robert to increase rents and evict tenants—and, we are shown, they are right to do so. Ministry, too, seems often an appeal to this class, as well as a celebration of it. Its heroes are always already in the critical positions to save the world, whether they’re bankers or bureaucrats. Toward the end pages, it’s explicitly stated that this is indeed the savior class:

Looking at the central bankers listening attentively to her, Mary saw it again: these people were as close to rulers of the world as existed. If they were now using their power to protect the biosphere and increase equity, the world could very well tack onto a new heading and take a good course. Bankers! It was enough to make her laugh, or cry. And yet by their own criteria, so pinched and narrow, they were doing the necessary things. They were securing money’s value, they still told themselves; which in this moment of history required that the world get saved. She had to smile, she couldn’t help it. Saved by fucking bankers.

There’s tonal irony here of course, yet these are still the events on the page: the world is saved by fucking bankers. In the background, there’s a suggestion of important (and frankly realistic and necessary) eco-saboteurs, whose class associations are murkier. In some of Robinson’s more imaginative moments, fleets of drones disrupt air travel and threaten CEOs, and tightly organized cells of eco-warriors, working in the shadows, take Davos attendees hostage. Robinson, however, rarely explores these characters, keeping these scenes to suggestion and rumor. They are not as critical to stopping climate change as the burghers and the bankers. 

One way to tease out what sort of outcome a work of fiction serves—a work whose agendas and sympathies may be subtle and even deliberately covert—is to get a sense of where the author places their faith. In Downton, Fellowes places his faith in modernity, a certain definition of technological and social progress, in staid institutions like the courts and military, the benevolence of aristocrats, and in some more disruptive institutions like modern business. The aristocrats modernize, maintain their place in society, and all is well: class hierarchies remain harmoniously intact. 

The Ministry for the Future places its faith, somewhat bafflingly, in the United States Navy. A whole chapter begins with the musing, “So, what if the whole world ran more like the U.S. Navy?” and goes into depth on why it is such a well-run institution, further suggesting it should be in charge of electrifying infrastructure. To be fair, the chapter is mostly making a point about tying the lowest income to the highest. But what a horrifying thought: the whole world run like a branch of the military? This is not an isolated incident: the book frequently puts faith in police and security forces, depicting them as relatively benign or even heroic, as they show beneficent restraint in dealing with a violent mob of refugees, as well as demonstrating attentive, affectionate devotion to Minister Mary Murphy.  

Robinson has great faith in the Paris accord, stating in an interview, “The Paris Agreement is a major event in world history and inspires great hope in me that it will serve as a framework for the world’s many nation-states to cooperate in decarbonizing rapidly enough to save civilization from all kinds of climate change damage and death.” In Ministry, he writes, “Indeed it can never be emphasized enough how important the Paris Agreement had been…” It should be noted here that it requires living in a special kind of delusion to look at the past thirty years of U.N. climate conferences and their annual failure to deliver meaningful change, and believe that salvation will come from its latest iteration. To see such negotiations as anything other than cynical political theater intended to prevent meaningful mitigating decarbonization requires willful self-deceit and powerful ideology. 

Here’s an extended exchange in which Robinson opines on Paris: 

You have faith that the Paris Agreement will reassert itself?

Yes. This is another leftist truism that isn’t true, that the Paris Agreement is irrelevant or meaningless or not good enough or whatever. It’s the framework by which we’re going to make all this happen. It’s a major event in world history. It is obviously toothless and it doesn’t call for enough and the voluntary commitments by the individual nation states are only about half of what’s necessary. But it’s what we’ve got. And to dismiss it out of hand, and then what’s the replacement? Instantaneous world revolution? I mean, give me a break. It’s so crazily idealistic where the perfect is being the enemy of the good.

The “perfect is being the enemy of the good” line is particularly revealing as it’s the go-to phrase for centrists defending the status quo and inadequate policies against the kind of reforms that scientists have deemed necessary to avert collapse. And Robinson even makes the elementary logical error of saying that it is sufficient because “it’s what we’ve got”: it has to be good enough, therefore it is good enough. But it simply isn’t: even if Paris goals were met, which they are very far from being, they still would warm Earth to the perilous extreme of 3 degrees Celsius or more. Not only is Paris not perfect, it’s not even good. In this case, the more accurate truism would be: the woefully inadequate is the enemy of the possibly sufficient. 

In general, Ministry places great faith in development ideology as a net positive and blames the rich for, of all things, abandoning notions of progress. This is ludicrous: the super-wealthy are among the only ones still aggressively trying to sell myths of progress. The Gates Foundation and the Koch brothers fund think tanks and media sites (including Vox, Reason, and Human Progress) that promote their conception of “progress”: that things have never been better, that life is getting better everyday, that the future is bright, and that it’s all thanks to the status quo. Their promise of progress essentially goes: we have built the golden age we’re living in, and we’re going to build the even better golden age that is just on the horizon, as long as you allow us to hold onto power. It’s their greatest tool for justifying their own existence. Billionaire investment in AI and space travel are corollaries of this narrative-manufacturing campaign to protect their position as socially indispensable innovators, pioneers, and funders of technological advancement. 

Robinson puts great faith in the ability of both national and global institutions to peacefully, rationally, and quickly abandon neoliberal tenets in favor of more benevolent alternatives. For all the book’s vocal denunciations of neoliberalism (and occasionally capitalism more broadly), Robinson doesn’t seem to understand it. Neoliberalism isn’t just million-dollar football advertisements featuring Pepsi’s revolutionary side, Twitter grifters Yas Queening for the dark site torturer Gina Haspel, and the slow violence of the IMF. Neoliberalism—the contemporary ideology of economic liberalism and the system of exchange it reinforces, global capitalism—is also Pinochet’s helicopters, Argentina’s murderous military junta, factory suicides and fires, predator drones, mercenary death squads killing environmentalists, solitary confinement for protestors, and globe-spanning surveillance. To think that its adherents won’t gleefully turn to torture, murder, and extrajudicial terror to protect a penny of share prices from activists (whether those in ministries or on streets) requires living in a fantasy world every bit as ridiculous and credulous as QAnon—and is far, far more dangerous.  

In Robinson’s fantasy, nation-states and international institutions are inherently good, and will all jump into action when India suffers a major catastrophe and millions of deaths from a heatwave (maybe he forgot that Britain once deliberately contributed to 3 million Indian deaths and has essentially purged it from collective memory, or that the more than 70,000 European deaths in the 2003 heatwave yielded no international action). And Robinson has faith in the arc of history bending toward justice: “That’s what our ministry is about. We’re trying to set things up so that in the future, over the long haul, something like justice will get created. Some long-term ledger of more good than bad. Bending the arc and all that. No matter what happened before, that’s what we can do now.”

Despite claiming, “I don’t like fantasy,” Robinson conceived this book in a dream. One can find iterations of this dream throughout the world, perhaps most feverishly in the Global North, but not only there. It is a transboundary dream, international, cosmopolitan: it fills the corridors of compounds, skyscrapers, and villages. We could call it the technoliberal dream if we’re feeling a bit ungenerous, or progressivism if we’re content with weasel words. In this dream, most politicians and bureaucrats operate more or less in good faith, and most people are earnest actors (if not always rational ones). Of course there are some bad apples, but most people simply have different ideas about what’s good for the country or world or economy, and are actively working to that end. In Ministry, Robinson characterizes the “nineteen largest organizations killing the world,” as being populated by “good people.” Those who are wrong simply lack sufficient facts and perspective. The direction of the future comes down to success in a marketplace of ideas. People, meanwhile, are parceled out into their respective roles by an admittedly imperfect Darwinian meritocratic system with a general equality of opportunity. If we all band together, each working at the levels the meritocracy has decided for us (whether in Downton Abbey’s basement or reception room), and agree on the problem and the solutions after the triumph of facts and science in the marketplace, there’s no hurdle we can’t overcome. 

The dream rests on a cheerful inverse of the apocryphal Einstein quote about the infinitude of human stupidity. Instead, the universe is no match for human ingenuity. The common, historically recurrent triumph of selfishness, cruelty, and impulse over rationality, justice, and restraint—at least since the foundation of complex states and hierarchical societies around 5,000 years ago—has no place here. The ecological boundary lines encroaching on human existence have no place either. The deeply entangled, often paradoxical, networks of causation and competing interests intrinsic to energy transition, or non-carbon energy’s dependence on fossil fuels for manufacture and construction, or of food production and distribution chains entirely dependent on synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and petroleum, and of a whole financial and economic sector dependent on cheap, limitless electricity are also missing entirely. They have been—fantastically—solved. 

In this dream, the police are largely a positive force, or at worst, a sometimes unfortunate necessity; the government-contracted mercenaries who rampage around the lawless locales where the most intensive resource extraction occurs, killing environmentalists without consequence—places like the Amazon, Congo, South Asia—are cheerfully ignored. The global economy’s pathocracy—institutional and government management cultures ruled largely by narcissists, psychopaths, and machiavellians—has disappeared. Instead, Davos attendees and politicians are either West Wing-style nobles thwarted by ignorant constituents and procedural inertia, or, at worst, bumbling incompetents just waiting for someone smarter and more professional to set them straight. There are no Panama Papers, and there is no assassination of journalists involved in covering them. The rule of law exists; billionaires and politicians somehow do not constantly get away with breaking it. (Robinson: “But I will say this. Rule of law, as weak a reed as it is, is all we got…. it’s rule of law or nothing.” Sorry buddy, it’s nothing. Always has been.) 

The Ministry for the Future is a fantasy novel, whether it knows it or not: it relies on technocratic and technological miracles, the maintenance of a liberal world economic order that not only overcomes climate change, but thrives in the process, producing a perfect Whole Foods Silicon Valley paradise (California is carbon neutral, on its way to carbon negative!). It includes benign European police forces reluctant to mete out violence against unruly migrants from North Africa (perhaps Robinson isn’t aware of the often callous policies of European countries which end up actively killing refugees). Mary Murphy, an Irish bureaucrat vocally dismissive of Irish republican struggles, is a plucky international minister imperfectly navigating institutional barriers, but whose noble heart and incisive head are in the right place. While there is a lot of (sometimes excruciating) detail in this dream, and a great breadth of attention paid to the various interconnected challenges of decarbonization, still the most difficult details of the transition—such as the untangling of the intractable infrastructure challenges of a world entirely dependent on dense, cheap, portable, reliable energy—are largely glossed over, except as gordian knots to be invisibly cut in brief, hasty narrative exposition. Climate change is averted, and not too much else must change. We can chug along basically as is. History is still ended. 

Gerry Canavan, writing for the LA Review of Books, suggests Robinson “has always also been a we-can-win-the-argument, marketplace-of-ideas liberal at his core, at least up to now.” But I’m not convinced of that last clause. It’s true that Robinson himself identifies as a leftist. (He told Rolling Stone, “Well, I am a leftist, an American leftist…” and a member of the DSA. However, he added, “I loved Bernie. I love Biden.”) But in Ministry we get something close to a statement of ideology: 

One scary thing, there has to still be money, or at least some exchange or allocation system that people trust, which means the already-existing central banks have to be part of it, which means the current nation-state system has to be part of it. Sorry but it’s true, and maybe obvious. Even if you are a degrowth devolutionist, an anarchist or a communist or a fan of world government, we only do the global in the current world order by way of the nation-state system. Or call it by way of the family of languages, if it makes you feel better….It is what we’ve got now, and in the crux, when things fall apart, something from the old system has to be used to hang the new system on, hopefully something big and solid. Without that it’s castles in the air time, and all will collapse into chaos. So yes: money, meaning central banks, meaning the nation-state system. It’s a social agreement, nothing more. 

There’s a lot factually wrong here. For one, when collapses have occurred, people haven’t had to hang the next system on the prior system. Central banking doesn’t have to be part of the solution, and probably can’t be, at least not as currently constructed. Nation-states and money are much more than a “social agreement,” given that they are defended by violence and are tied to material realities. But at least we know where this leftist stands.  

Very well: Ministry is propaganda for technoliberals. Is it effective? Well, they all seem to adore it. And to be fair, if Ministry is propaganda by, for, and about educated technoliberals, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Climate change is massive. It demands top-down, bottom-up, but also middle-out approaches to political change. The first two get most of the attention: top-down in the form of Paris, Obama’s meager interventions, the recent Democratic stimulus including clean energy, and Biden’s weak climate plans; bottom-up in the form of water protectors, Indigenous land defenders, Democratic Socialists for America, Fridays for Future, the climate strikes, Sunrise Movement, gilets jaunes, and so forth. But the middle-out approach entails enlisting professionals, journalists, middle managers, grunt-level institutional actors, and industry insiders. Maybe this is why Jacobin and Vox agree on the book’s importance: they are part of the middle-out strategy that Ministry is speaking to. Even if they disagree on some fundamental facts, they are representing the same industry and are invested in the same system. Maybe, in some ways, that’s a good thing.  

And this isn’t to say there are zero radical notions in the book. There are, but they feel more like that sleight-of-hand move: show the radical notion, then hedge and try to moderate it. Robinson mentions degrowth and the Jevons paradox. He takes several satisfying swipes at economics, referring to the economics Nobel as a “pseudo-Nobel”, and states “macroeconomics as a field was ideological to the point of astrology.” The ethics of righteous extrajudicial executions are even explored explicitly. The book more generally includes a respectable consideration of the need for violence in forcing concessions from fossil-fueled capitalism. These sorts of realpolitik realities puncture the technoliberal dream, and they are welcome diversions from the kind of fiction that generally denigrates environmentalists as the villains, and the forces that murder them as heroes. But the real-world barriers to eco-vigilantism are not depicted, or not taken seriously, rendering the depiction more fantastical than aspirational or inspirational. After Mary’s friend and Ministry colleague Tatiana is murdered (by random Russian mobsters, not state security forces), Mary thinks: 

Tatiana. Their tough one, their warrior. Her brother in arms. They kill the good ones, Mary thought bitterly, the leaders, the tough ones, and then dare the weaker ones to pick up the torch and carry on. Few would do it. The killers would prevail. This was how it always happened. This explained the world they lived in; the murderers were willing to kill to get their way. In a fight between sociopathic sick wounded angry fucked-up wicked people, and all the rest of them, not just the good and the brave but the ordinary and weak, the sheep who just wanted to get by, the fuckers always won. 

The book says this, but does not believe it. Toward the end, after all these hints at radical actions taking place in the shadows, the book timidly renounces all the shadow operations that came before: 

Mary…heard rumors to the effect that the Ministry for the Future had been thousands strong and had waged a savage war against the carbon oligarchy, murdering hundreds and tipping the balance of history in a new direction. Bollocks, no doubt, but people dearly loved such stories.

We do indeed. It would have been nice to have read that one.  

This is not to say that climate fiction needs to be hyper-violent, or that a socialist utopia can only be built on blood, or must always be written in one particular way. But if it aims for realism, then it needs to be realistic, both about the scope of the problem and the available solutions. The technocratic dream of maintaining the capitalist order as it has been, with minor tweaks to banking incentives and the magical transformation of every company worldwide into a Mondragon-style co-op without a fight, is less realistic than abolishing evil by throwing a ring in a fire (at least that story demonstrates real tolls and toils when it comes to confronting evil). The neoliberal dream must be systematically dismantled, dissolving before the bright cloudless glare of reality and realistic depictions of human behavior, not propped up by 563 page tomes.

A rigorous utopian novel would sketch out in as much detail as possible the current conditions that exist, and leave blank spaces for the new vision to fill, or for more opaque paint to cover. But climate change and ecological collapse blur the canvas. Whatever comes in the 21st and 22nd centuries, which is about as far as we can realistically imagine, there will be more chaos than there is now. The Holocene is over: disrupted weather and growing patterns will make the reliable agriculture we have taken for granted for nearly ten millennia much less reliable. Increasingly volatile seas and skies will make supply chains and long-distance travel less reliable. Even telecommunications will be impacted by these weather events. A relatively small migration into Europe from Syria fueled right-wing political violence all over the continent: imagine the billion or more people moving, many from South to North, that have been projected by midcentury. Chaos is inevitable. Utopian imaginaries often set up a dichotomy between a high tech, complex global economy growing ever more complex until it spans the solar system, versus a return to what’s imagined as “primitivism,” foraging for scraps, or toiling as a vast agrarian peasantry. But there’s something in between and beyond that we need to envision. It takes imagination, and for those who make a living using theirs to render it.    

To both prepare for and prevent the most chaotic iteration of the future, we need better stories. We need them now. But whether political or literary, nonfiction or fiction, many such stories lack the verisimilitude that is the particular provenance of successful and artful storytelling. Many seem to fall utterly short of the immensity of climate change, as if they don’t really take it seriously, don’t really understand the problem they’re trying to solve. They lack the imagination and scope to feel meaningful and true. Unfortunately for us, as our time to avert collapse dwindles and each year becomes more precious, this most important book of the year is no exception.

The Nature of Money

Even as the pandemic and financial crisis introduce us to new and grotesque ways to suffer, it seems as if the rich have been spared the worst of it. Their net worth has increased by $637,000,000,000 while poor friends of mine beg for rent money on social media. It can feel as if there are two economies, one for us and another for the rich. This is wrong, however. There is only one economy. The difference between how the wealthy and the working classes experience the same world is not just in the amount of money we have and what that can buy—it’s built into the nature of money, as I learned when I was studying to become an accountant.

The first two classes in an accounting major outline a handful of extremely basic equations, standard forms (like the balance sheet and the statement of cash flows), and the theoretical underpinnings of accounting. They are considered “washout” courses—ones so difficult a significant number of people drop the major—and it’s not because of the math. Accounting requires no more than middle school algebra. If you want to know why it’s so difficult, here is one of the very first thought problems I was presented with in one of my classes: 

A hospital bought a painting to decorate its office from a then-unknown painter in the late 1800s for a dollar. Since acquiring it, its painter became very famous. The art would now sell for millions at auction. How do you record the value of the painting?

There are multiple answers. For internal figures (called managerial accounting), the painting is worth whatever management would find most useful at any given time. How that’s done, and what figures are recorded there, is unregulated. On the other hand, when preparing numbers for people outside the company, there are rules. For tax reporting purposes, the hospital (with some exceptions) needs to have it assessed and recorded at fair market value. Fair market value is a different figure—usually a more conservative one—than what you’d expect the painting to fetch at auction. For the purpose of enticing investors or seeking a loan, there’s yet another answer: it depends on what the hospital plans to do with the painting in the near future. If they’re willing to sell it in the next year or two (especially to repay a debt) then they should report it at fair market value. But if they wouldn’t part with it under any circumstances, it should be recorded at the price it was acquired for—a dollar. The painting is worth a lot of money, but if they’re not planning to make use of that value, then they can’t treat it as a resource. 

To summarize, there are two correct ways to record the value of the painting, either “fair market” or “acquisition” value (i.e. the original purchase price), and neither of them are what the painting would actually “be worth” in the conventional sense. Which value the accountant chooses depends not on anything objective, but on what the business plans to do with the painting.

This example breaks the kind of people who find an accounting major attractive. We’re creatures who love objectivity and order, and accounting is not that.

The thought experiment about the painting isn’t a weird edge case—it’s a typical day on the job. I used to audit natural gas companies, and there are many whose distribution systems are bringing in tens of millions of dollars a quarter, yet their infrastructure is worth zero dollars. The first time I saw a company claiming to literally be worthless, I brought it to my boss because I swore it couldn’t be right. He said, “depreciation,” and I toddled off back to my desk. 

We record the wear and tear infrastructure goes through as depreciation—we slowly reduce its value, in other words—and we do that in a standardized way. Usually this involves an evenly allocated reduction of value per year over the expected life of the asset—for example, if a new oil pipeline is expected to last 10 years, we might subtract 10 percent each year until it’s worth nothing. For other industries or assets, the rate of depreciation might be based on the number of units produced—the more widgets are made, the less the widget stamping machine is worth. The different models are used so we can compare companies apples-to-apples. We do this regardless of whether their infrastructure is still functioning or not. This isn’t a mistake: it is the right way to record the value for the purpose of comparison to other companies and for taxes. 

But if I worked for that same company and wanted to sell it to a buyer, the considerations would be totally different. For example, depreciation for tax purposes is usually accelerated faster than actual wear and tear. A car with a 15 year life, for tax purposes, has to be depreciated over five years. This is the government encouraging companies to build and buy more for political reasons. Depreciation is an expense that is deducted from income to arrive at taxable profit, and so accelerating it is effectively a tax break—but one only companies that rapidly build and expand can reliably use. However, that same infrastructure, when being assessed for sale, is often worth more money than even its depreciated value. When buying or selling infrastructure, businesses take into account how much cash that infrastructure is generating regardless of its age. These differing considerations change the numbers on the page.

Therefore, a business infrastructure’s value may swing millions of dollars based on the market and the needs of a business. A 1992 Geo Metro’s value will not. That giant fluctuation is characteristic of assets which make money (like an oil pipeline or intellectual property) and assets which store value (like fine art or some kinds of real estate). The same holds true for the portfolios of rich people. The wealthy who depend primarily on their assets to sustain them (rather than wages) will have many, many large assets, and their entire net worth will swing millions of dollars simply based on their plans for the coming year.

Accounting is less of a science and more of a language with grammar, vocabulary, and ideological underpinnings. Recording something with a number, especially one with decimal places, gives a false sense of precision and objectivity to what is being quantified. Even in the “hard sciences,” which also use numbers with decimal places and high degrees of certainty, there is a subjectivity. A human being chooses what to count and what the criteria is for counting it for an intended audience. That influences what number makes it onto the page. Accounting as a field is perhaps more aware of this subjectivity than most disciplines that work with numbers. Business accounting’s grammar is set by an organization called the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB), which regularly publishes guidance on how to present figures for public consumption. Those standards evolve as part of an ongoing process of polling the industry and holding open discussions, along with formal appeals. 

In short, accounting is an ever-evolving language that records the day-to-day workings of a life or a business. It is designed to describe the flow of assets, assess it, and make arguments about what should be done. It’s not objective because it can’t be. All I can do as an accountant is be clear about the purpose of why I am presenting specific numbers, what assumptions I am making, which set of accounting standards I’m using, and how closely I hew to those standards.

What Money Reveals (and What It Obscures)

We know shockingly little about the mega rich. Lists like the Forbes 400 are the only available resources we have on who is wealthy because governments don’t really track individual wealth, and the wealthy themselves don’t advertise. The first Forbes 400 was an immense feat of journalism, digging through public property records in order to compile estimates. But roughly half of wealth is either privately held or in cash—not a matter of public record, and so unavailable to journalists. Even the public record is easy to evade. The rich routinely use shell corporations and trusts and elaborate tax evasion schemes. We gained a small window into that complex web of financial entities the wealthy use to evade taxes through the Panama Papers. That leak, which comprised millions of documents, detailed many billions of dollars of schemes (legal and not) from only one law firm. One estimate says about eight percent of the world’s wealth is in offshore tax havens, and 80 percent is untaxed. Because of the sheer complexity of where the wealthy keep their money and how it’s accounted for, it can be literally impossible for a rich person to quantify what they themselves are worth. The richest person on earth may have no idea they are the richest person on earth. The wealthier someone is, the more the relationship between value and currency breaks down, and so the title “wealthiest person on earth” may actually be meaningless.

On the scale we workers live, money seems very precise because it is precise. For young accountants, that’s the appeal. They come into adulthood with some experience of money. A Coke costs $1.75. If they’ve ever filed taxes before arriving at school, the accounting was very straightforward. It was either correct or not correct, with an accuracy to the dollar. But all that lovely order and certainty falls apart outside the realm of small personal finance.This precision in the micro and lack of it in the macro comes down to the function of money.

The purpose of money is to establish an exchange rate between labor and finished goods. It allows capitalists—not us, we are not the primary “users” of the tool—to compare worker to worker, good to good, investment to investment, and translate between them. It does a pretty good job of describing the lives of wage earners because that’s what it’s designed to do. Our hours worked, productivity, and consumer habits are all numbers in a spreadsheet. But any attempt to turn it back on capitalists is like an amoeba trying to look at a human being with a microscope—the lens doesn’t go both ways. A poor person’s tax liability can be calculated to the cent. But when a wealthy person does their taxes, there are a number of arguments to be made about how much they own, how much they made, and how much they lost. Your net worth is a number. A capitalist’s worth is a conversation.

That difference has material outcomes. Among the capitalist class, fraud is rampant. In 2001, Enron—an energy and commodities trading company from Texas—committed fraud on such a large scale (and more importantly, so undermined the credibility of the entire industry’s figures) that it prompted a reform of accounting practices. The Sarbanes-Oxley Act greatly tightened the standards on how figures must be reported outside of a company. The “language” of accounting became more standardized. Financial statements presented to investors must now be audited by independent, outside accountants. And while these reforms seem necessary given the stakes, I can’t find firm figures either way on whether they helped at all.

I am not a fraud investigator myself, but as an auditor I was privy to how several fraud investigations turned out. Without exception, my experience is that whether law enforcement is called is a matter of how much money was stolen. Petty theft is always prosecuted. But if someone embezzles $10 million, a company tends to prefer to keep that person employed with them and treat it like a loan. Someone in a position to steal that much money has connections. 

One white-collar criminal who comes to mind—I personally had some contact with him—was in a niche industry. He was a deal broker for commodities, and his customers would only deal with him. Ten million dollars is a lot of money, but in relation to his commission, it was not that much. His placement in the industry, his relationship to labor, was what made him wealthy, not merely the dollar amount of his salary and his assets. He himself didn’t work to produce a product, or really provide a service. He maintained a set of relationships with business owners (who also didn’t make anything with their own hands—they had employees for that) and acted as a gatekeeper of  information about who needed what. Within the very specific parameters of his work, he was trusted. Of course his embezzlement wasn’t brought to the police. Focusing on the numbers rather than seeing their movement as descriptive of something, as pointing towards his relationships, is the same kind of mistake a dog makes when you point at the moon and he sniffs your finger.

Debt, Theft, and Other Money Problems

This gets at what David Graeber was talking about when he outlined the origin of money in his book Debt: The First 5000 Years. Before the wide use of currency for everyday transactions (which only became common in the 1800s), poor workers relied on credit almost exclusively. Credit in this sense meant “trust.” People did not directly barter (e.g. eight eggs for one shoe), they kept track of what they owed one another over time and paid as they could. These were relationships built on trust. The switch to currency-only transactions had to be imposed by state force. For example, in the very early days of industrial capitalism in England, shipyards were routinely a year or two behind on wages, so workers took tools and food and other things they could barter to pay their rent and their grocery bills. This wasn’t a sign of economic collapse—this was the economy. In order to force a switch to currency, the government criminalized taking tools and goods from the shipyards (previously it was not just legal, but precisely how compensation worked), and the shipyards instituted whippings for this now-theft. Samuel Bentham, an architect, redesigned ship yards with a new central surveillance tower to curb this new kind of theft, an idea lifted by his brother, the architect Jeremy Bentham, for the now infamous prison panopticon. 

Before that, in medieval Europe, the legal penalties for defaulting on a debt were harsh and involved mutilation or death. However, they were almost never used. Debt was considered a private matter between two individuals, worked out between them in whatever units of barter and timeframes suited them. As Graeber put it, capitalism is “the story of how an economy of credit was converted into an economy of interest; of the gradual transformation of moral networks by the intrusion of the impersonal—and often vindictive—power of the state.” Relationships have always been the fundamental underpinning of money: the thing money reflects for the wealthy and destroys for the poor. In a way, the wealthy fraudster I met is a throwback to an older, kinder, more personal concept of money—one most of us will never experience.

Today, prosecution rates for white collar crime are the lowest they’ve ever been and trending downwards. Theft itself becomes a conversation, rather than just a crime, when a wealthy person does it. When one capitalist robs another, my experience is that they tend to discuss among themselves how to restore the thief to good standing without destroying anyone’s life, livelihood, or privacy. There are of course exceptions. Bernie Madoff and his $50 billion investment Ponzi scheme springs to mind. But Madoff’s position was dependent on resources and connections that turned out to be fictional. He had no realistic means to ever repay the investors he scammed (or even to return their initial investment), and so he went to prison. But for those that genuinely are well connected and do have the means to repay the people they rip off, the wealthy already have the restorative justice prison abolitionists fight for. 

Petty theft, on the other hand, is prosecuted mercilessly. I find this especially strange given how much more of a problem fraud is than theft. The FBI estimates that burglary and petty theft cost Americans about $3.4 billion in property losses. White collar crime costs between $426 billion and $1.7 trillion annually. This kleptocratic culture isn’t harmless. Enron was a natural gas company whose entire business was propped up by fraud. When they were no longer able to continue to hide the extent of their debt, they both crashed that industry and spurred massive reforms in accounting practices and fraud controls. Perhaps those reforms worked, but I doubt fraud has dropped at the rate fraud prosecution has. 

Personally, I wonder if the lesson companies learned was about keeping a lid on scandal rather than about curbing white collar crime. They preserve the social relations that money points to at risk to everyone else. And I guess it’s easy to see why—it seems on the surface short-sighted to protect thieves who can crash an entire economy, but the fraudsters and their wealthy connections aren’t the ones who suffer in a crash. They still have the power which underpins money, which their money merely gestures towards. The figures in a spreadsheet are shadows cast by power, and during financial crises their power preserves them. The wealthy are so completely insulated from the consequences of what they do, good or bad, it’s very hard for me to understand what motivates them at all.The future itself feels obscure. Here, the lack of imagination that makes me a good accountant makes me a poor visionary: I’m not sure what to do about money beyond believing something should be done. Depending on the study, between eight and 26 people own half of the world’s wealth, and if money isn’t a good means to describe them, then that is a failure to describe the world as it is. Marx advocated abolishing money, as do some foundational anarchists. There are also thinkers on the left (like Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and David Graeber) who believe public ownership of the means of production is more important than exactly how we account for it, and so are fine with markets and currency, albeit in forms that would be nigh unrecognizable. A full survey of left thought on money and a weighing of the pros and cons of each approach is beyond the scope of a single article. However, on the road to a better society, we will have to grapple with money as it exists. As of now, it’s a tool used to describe workers with the goal of extracting wealth and labor from them. It is an incredibly poor tool for holding the wealthy accountable, and so we will have to come up with other methods.

Build Back Better for Whom? How Neoliberalism (Re)creates Disaster Risks

“Better?” I say, in a small voice. How can he think this is better? “Better never means better for everyone,” he says. “It always means worse, for some.”Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale

On November 23, 2020 a ripple went across social media—Joe Biden’s transition website was now registered as “buildbackbetter.gov.” For most people the news here was that the website had received a .gov web address, signifying the official move of the Biden team from contesting an election to wielding power. For people who study disasters though, the news was another chapter in this odd detour of the concept “Build Back Better.”

Build Back Better, a phrase familiar to disaster researchers, international development experts, and others of the lanyard set who tend to see disasters as  “natural events,” has suddenly, strangely, penetrated into the year 2021 as a political slogan. For many who have been operating under the standards of Build Back Better—or those of us who have been actively seeking to critique it—the reaction to this odd parallel life has ranged from enraged and perplexed to dismissive and indifferent. However, for those of us who understand  disasters as part of a socio-political process, this new domain for the slogan was not totally surprising. The origins of Build Back Better are easy enough to pin down—it was found floating around the international development/post-disaster reconstruction world by Bill Clinton following the 2005 Indian Ocean tsunami. Since then Build Back Better has become a set of best practices for international frameworks for post-disaster recovery.

While the origins of Build Back Better as a concept are simple to outline, the baggage it carries and its relevance to our current moment may not be clear to people who have not grappled with the concept in the context of disasters for the past decade. 

At the close of World War II, a new order of governments and government-backed international agencies latched onto international development as a tool to even out the inequalities of a global capitalist economy. Both international development and post-disaster reconstruction would develop in an intertwined relationship. The elite actors steering the world economy shared a fundamental belief that prosperity, as brought about by development, would become the stabilizing factor in the post-war world. To this end, trade, globalization, and urbanization were seen as drivers of stability. In the developed yet damaged world, this prosperity was to be revived. In the developing world, this dynamic was brought about through policy and restructuring influences, often imposed by the developed countries. 

The United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference was convened at the Mount Washington Hotel in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, in July of 1944. It brought together the 44 member nations of the Allied Powers in an effort to prevent a widespread international economic disaster resulting from the destruction and disruption caused by World War II. The participants in what is now informally referred to as Bretton Woods understood that fascism and the destabilization of Europe that had led to the war was in part the result of an ineffective, if not poorly considered, international approach to the aftermath of World War I. The Bretton Woods strategy gave birth to both the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which was designed to stabilize global financial markets, and the World Bank, which would engage in reconstruction and development.

One of the roles of the capitalist state is to mediate unrest. A disaster is the possibility for unrest— not just in terms of panic or riots, but in the creation of spontaneous alternatives to the present formation. At the end of World War II, the Allies worked to confront the mass destruction of the physical environment and the radical political changes that were necessitated by a mass military confrontation. For example, the reconstruction of Japan led not just to new urban forms for cities across the country, but to a new constitution as well. Likewise, the reconstruction of Germany involved the construction of buildings, as well as the early infrastructure of the Cold War. The moment called for radical action. However, this radical action could not be allowed to disrupt the dominance of capital. As these powerful actors considered the fate of the future world, they sought to maintain their own stability.  

Building Back, Neoliberal-Style

Institutions formed to repair a world scarred by war—namely the IMF and the World Bank—would find other crises to apply themselves to. These institutions were created in line with the ideology of international development, but this ideology was not static. Over the decades this globalized effort to move beyond the destruction of World War II transformed into a new formation of ideology, policies, and laws known as neoliberalism. During the 1960s embedded liberalism suffered multiple breakdowns in individual countries, spreading outward to the international economy. This crisis of capitalism reached a breaking point with the stagflation of the 1970s. Both Thatcherism and Reaganism came to power, in the U.K. and the United States respectively, offering austerity, privatization, and a deconstruction of the social safety net as solutions to this crisis. As neoliberalism became the pervading ideology and policy set of the Global North in the 1970s, it would also establish itself as the predominant driver of international development and post-disaster reconstruction.

The United Nations defines Building Back Better as, “The use of the recovery, rehabilitation and reconstruction phases after a disaster to increase the resilience of nations and communities through integrating disaster risk reduction measures into the restoration of physical infrastructure and societal systems, and into the revitalization of livelihoods, economies, and the environment.” Since its formal introduction to disaster risk reduction (DRR) by the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction in 2015, “Build Back Better” has been adopted by various INGOs, including the IFRC, the Asian Development Bank, and many others—and has stayed largely within the DRR domain until very recently. During the COVID-19 pandemic it has become a slogan for economic recovery: the OECD used Build Back Better to outline the post-pandemic plans for a more resilient and sustainable economy; the European Commission used the slogan in May when announcing their €750 billion stimulus fund. 

Build Back Better also became a cliché on many policymakers’ lips. On  June 30, 2020, the U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised to undertake “the most radical reforms to our planning system since the Second World War” as this will help to “build back better, build back greener, build back faster” in order to boost spending on infrastructure as a way for “levelling up the country” and avoiding economic recession.  It was also used by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and became a centerpiece for American President-elect Biden’s campaign (and now presidential transition). The emphasis of BBB is on continuity–i.e., to keep on going no matter what. The goal is not to alleviate the original conditions that created a crisis, but rather to quickly move past the crisis without altering the underlying political, economic, and societal structures. This emphasizes the core of neoliberalism: not as a mode of economic management, but as a mode of political rationality and government reasoning that constructs and regulates the realm within which a disaster—and then the reconstruction—occur .The contradiction here is that a disaster exposes, and is grounded in, the underlying inequalities in society while neoliberal capitalism relies on the maintenance of those same inequalities. 

In a disaster, people can lose their livelihoods, shelter, family, sense of dignity, and the physical infrastructure that makes their daily lives possible. What we should always keep in mind, however, is that disasters do not affect everyone equally. Those who are most marginalized in our day-to-day existence are those who are most harmed by disasters. For African Americans forced by geographic segregation to live in flood-prone low-lying areas, or Sri Lankan fishing communities eking out a subsistence living in wooden shanties in the shadows of international resorts, a disaster is not a new, sudden, or unexpected danger. It is a continuation of everyday harm inflicted on those relegated to the margins of society. Disasters don’t simply bring about suffering—they expose it. For those who have no voice in decision-making, no claim to an official place to live, a livelihood tied to meager natural resources or a degraded environment, trauma, suffering, and displacement are not unique to a disaster event. 

Yet, disasters offer an opportunity—often at a large scale— to improve the material conditions of everyday life for masses of people. This is not only in terms of higher standards of safety and construction, but also in the possibility to address the root causes of disasters—i.e., inequality and injustice rooted in our socio-political structures. Disasters can be a chance to make things better. For example, the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995 led to a strengthening of building codes across Japan, which saved many lives during the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011. However, in the context of neoliberalism, the “better” in the slogan Build Back Better does not always mean good for all, meaning that the benefits are not always (and in fact, are rarely) fairly distributed. In order to find the answers that can truly lead to disaster risk reduction instead of disaster risk (re)creation and the re-establishment of the status quo, we need to first consider the following questions:  Who decides what is better? Better for whom? What do we need to do better?

Characterized as a way for people and societies to become “more resilient,” Build Back Better epitomizes the problematic ideology of resilience. Disasters are often portrayed as unexpected external shocks and are frequently naturalized and framed as inevitable, meaning that their root causes cannot be altered, and thus it is we who must adapt. Resilience and its ability to resolve all contemporary issues has become a useful neoliberal narrative to explain anything from how individuals should act and cope with hazards, risks and disasters, to a mainstreamed approach to development. Portrayed as something “good,” resilience has become an important goal that needs to be achieved no matter what. Under neoliberal conditions, resilience therefore can be interpreted as the ability to survive under the conditions of destitution. Such resilience is profitable because “resilient” people can—as sociologist Sarah Bracke notes in her 2016 essay “Bouncing back: vulnerability and resistance in times of resilience”—“absorb the impact of austerity measures and continue to be productive.” As such, the resilience message essentially tells the most oppressed that they should keep taking knock after knock and get better at coping.

In a post-disaster setting, the calls for resilience highlight the idea of “self-reliance,” dismantling the redistributive functions of the state instead of providing for the emancipatory social change that is needed in a post-disaster reconstruction if it is to truly reduce disaster risks. Resilience fetishizes the status quo of our social system, to which only few want to go back. The discourse of resilience is highly compatible with the neoliberal ideological frames that, just like resilience, are malleable, nebulous, multifaceted, and replete with contradictions. In fact, resilience has only become popular because it fits so well with the neoliberal discourse. 

“Better” for Whom?

In his propositions for Build Back Better, Clinton stated that “disasters and the response to them can exacerbate existing patterns of vulnerability and discrimination within societies” and that “it is incumbent upon governments, donors, and assistance providers to ensure that relief and recovery efforts do not exacerbate historic patterns of vulnerability, discrimination, and disadvantage.” But is this possible in a society based on neoliberal values that do not coexist well with the values of equality? Here, a famous phrase that states neoliberalism is socialism for few and hardcore capitalism for many comes to mind.  

Treated as apolitical, Build Back Better is enclaved as a non-political matter, whereas in reality it relies on markets and re-establishes the existing status quo, given that governments need to lead the way. This process re-inserts, or introduces, neoliberal capitalism rather than seeking any alternative. It is also a process of re-establishing “normality,” in which “normal” refers to the hegemonic social structures by which certain subjects are rendered “normal” and “natural” by contrasting them with other subjects deemed “perverse” and “pathological.”

Build Back Better has been proposed as a technocratic managerial solution to a crisis. However, such a solution does not stop the spread of precarity. Moreover, given that a crisis is often rooted in extraction, weak governance, or profiteering, one triggering crisis should not be the narrow starting point for a Build Back Better strategy. The concept of Build Back Better needs to focus on eliminating processes that created risk in the first place instead of reconstructing these processes. 

The ideal of Build Back Better is commendable, but as it is founded on a Western neoliberal tradition, the slogan seems to be missing a somewhat important part: “building back better for a chosen few.” In its current implementation, Build Back Better and its calls for rebuilding the economy, infrastructure, and revitalization of human resources, keeps the subaltern invisible. It allows elite actors to define what is and what isn’t a risk, who is and isn’t responsible for them, and what forms of action are to be taken in response to these risks. It shows a capacity to accommodate (i.e., make “better”)—but not actively change—social and political systems that create risk in the first place.

People affected by disasters are offered a choice: be left to suffer through a disaster with little to no organized international assistance, or to be integrated into globalized neoliberal development that would oppress them further. Of course, this is not a choice but a hostage situation—decades of manufactured inequality with the only avenue of escape being through a disaster recovery managed by the same elite technocrats who brought them inequality in the first place. This is the same dilemma facing Americans under the Biden transition—accept the capable technocrats of the existing order or be branded as a fan of the chaos of the Trump administration. 

Recent Biden cabinet appointments have trended in this direction: Tony Blinken as Secretary of State, Janet Yellen as Secretary of the Treasury, and John Kerry as special climate envoy are defended as experienced steady hands who will make sure that the gears grind effectively. This, of course, avoids the question of what is being ground in the gears and whether or not we need these gears to turn at all. This dynamic is all too familiar to anyone who studies post-disaster recovery. The only alternative given to being absorbed by the blob of consultants, technocrats, and international agencies is turmoil and squalor. But this shouldn’t be the case. 

If we believe that another world is possible, then we do not have to accept the false binary choice of lesser evils. Disaster recovery—political or otherwise—presents us with the opportunity for revolutionary change. But it is an uphill battle. 

Life in Revolutionary Times: Lessons From the 1960s

“We can’t afford a scenario where it comes down to Donald Trump with his nostalgia for the social order of the 1950s and Bernie Sanders with his nostalgia for the revolutionary politics of the 1960s.” — Pete Buttigieg, Feb. 25, 2020 (deleted tweet)

“There were times when I found Reverend Wright’s sermons a little over the top… Often, they sounded dated, as if he were channeling a college teach-in from 1968 rather than leading a prosperous congregation that included police commanders, celebrities, wealthy businesspeople, and the Chicago school superintendent.” — Barack Obama, A Promised Land

There was a period in my life around age 13—and now I can hardly believe I did this, but I did—when I would only listen to music recorded between 1965 and 1969. I was very strict about this. “Abbey Road” was okay, because even though it was released in 1970 it was recorded in 1969. “The Who Live At Leeds” was not okay, because while the songs on it were from the ’60s, the concert itself took place in February of 1970. A difficult case was Jimi Hendrix’s “Band of Gypsies album, which had been recorded at concerts held on New Year’s Eve 1969 and New Year’s Day 1970. Was it Sixties? Or was it Seventies?

This was, of course, bonkers. I have thankfully shed my obsessive youthful tendency, and come to appreciate the music of many eras and many lands. I now understand units of temporal measurement are an artificial human construct and that nothing magically changed on the day a seven displaced a six in the calendar. But it was not entirely arbitrary of me to select those particular five years out of the entire span of cosmic time. The ’60s, particularly the later ones, have a special place in the American collective memory. Those who grew up during the time often speak like some weird spell came over the world for a few years. “That time changed all of us, and scarred many,” Annie Gottlieb writes in Do You Believe in Magic? The Second Coming of the 60s Generation. “Between 1965 and 1970, all the mental and social structures we’d grown up with were trashed in an orgy of anguish and extravagance, political outrage and cosmic revelation, drugs ‘n’ sex ‘n’ rock ‘n’ roll.”

Gottlieb interviewed countless Baby Boomers who described themselves by saying things like “60s people are like an island, different from everyone around us” and “I feel like an exile in time.” SNCC activist Casey Hayden called her days in the movement a “holy time” that she has sometimes “longed for so profoundly.” Hunter S. Thompson likened the coming and going of the era’s zeitgeist to the cresting of a great wave, but warns those of us who want to understand that “no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world.”

Certainly, a hell of a lot of things happened in the ’60s in very rapid succession, and many were profoundly different from anything Americans had seen happen before. After gliding through the staid Eisenhower era, the story goes, the country suddenly exploded, politically and culturally. Lenin’s observation that “there are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen” seems particularly applicable to those years, during which something new and often unprecedented was happening seemingly every week. SNCC, CORE, and SDS were challenging the existing racial economic hierarchy. Martin Luther King expanded his public demands to encompass not just civil rights but an end to American imperialism and capitalism. Students went on strike and occupied administration buildings. Groups like the Yippies and the Diggers pushed anarchistic and utopian alternatives through stunts and “happenings.” Women’s liberation, gay liberation, the American Indian Movement, the United Farmworkers—marginalized people decided they had had enough and organized themselves.

Any attempt to enumerate what happened in those few short years goes on and on. Vietnam. The environmental movement. The consumer movement. Love-ins, be-ins, freak-outs, and acid tests. Malcolm X, then the Black Panthers. The creation of Kwanzaa and “Black is Beautiful.” The Free Speech Movement, the Back to the Land Movement. The Mississippi Freedom Summer. The uprisings in Detroit and Los Angeles. The Young Lords and the Chicano movement. Student strikes and the occupation of administration buildings (“Two, three, many Columbias”). The spread of uprisings around the world, from the Movimiento Estudiantil in Mexico to the Prague Spring to May ‘68 in France. Film and literature were changing (e.g., the Latin American Boom, the French New Wave). LSD was horrifying the government with its potential to make people think new thoughts and “drop out” of decent society.

The stunning amount of musical innovation—Motown and “Sgt. Pepper” and Stax and folk-rock and heavy metal and proto-punk and “James Brown Live at the Apollo” and psychedelic pop; top 40 hits had fuzz guitars and Moog synthesizers and mellotrons and sitars. Could the chants of “Black Power,” the Panthers patrolling with semi-automatic weapons and berets, have been anticipated during the run of Leave it to Beaver (1957-63)? As Eldridge Cleaver put it in Soul on Ice, things had suddenly begun “deviating radically from the prevailing Hot-Dog-and-Malted-Milk norm of the bloodless, square, superficial, faceless, Sunday Morning atmosphere that was suffocating the nation’s soul.” It was something else, and you can easily tell why living through it may have been bewildering.

It is very difficult to write about the 1960s without lapsing into stock images and clichés and familiar names. This turbulent decade was transformational, there was social upheaval and generational conflict during which people questioned authority. The ’60s come to us as a collage and the collage is always the same: Allen Ginsburg, Martin Luther King, love beads, The Beatles, Walter Cronkite talking about the Tet offensive, riots in the streets, etc. It is the Boomer memory-stew seen in Forrest Gump, a succession of striking pictures with a groovy soundtrack. Since, as Thompson said, it is impossible to actually get an understanding of what it felt like to be alive at the time, those of us who didn’t live through it are left looking at a set of artifacts and trying to fathom the civilization that must have produced them.

Importantly, even to talk about “the 60s” or a “generation” obscures certain facts. For one thing, there is no such thing as “what it was like to be alive at the time,” because people’s experiences were so varied based on their position in society. The portion of Americans who were hanging out in the Haight-Ashbury district in San Francisco (which is about 10 blocks long in its entirety) or participating in the Freedom Rides, is vanishingly small. Hardly anyone was actually at the 1968 Democratic National Convention protests, which is one reason the Chicago police were able to brutalize the demonstrators with such impunity.

The ’60s are often talked about as if “everything changed” from the 1950s. But for many people, the Big Social Changes filtered down to the individual level only in scraps. Overheard conversations, snippets heard on the news, things seen briefly out a car window. My father, for instance, was working in an aircraft factory in the late ’50s and still working in an aircraft factory all through the ’60s. He remembers seeing hippie folk-rocker Donovan, pre-fame, out playing his guitar on the grass in Hatfield, England, when both were teens there. He had also vaguely known the future lead singer of The Zombies when they were at school. I believe this is the sum total of the interactions my dad had with the ’60s counterculture.

Some people’s ’60s (especially middle-class American white people who were not drafted, who could enjoy the Monterey Pop Festival and see light shows at the Fillmore) may have been worthy of nostalgia, but for those sent to Vietnam, their dominant memory from the period might be: being extremely frightened, watching friends die violently, or killing a stranger. (Of course, with “All Across The Watchtower” playing on the radio in the film version) For the people of Vietnam, the ’60s were not the slightest bit groovy. They were terrifying years in which the country was bombed to smithereens and a million people died. If you were an Indonesian communist in the mid-’60s, you would likely have been among the 500,000 to 1 million people murdered as part of an anti-left purge. If you were a Polish Jew in 1968, you may have been declared an enemy of the state and forced to leave the country, and if you were a Black resident of Zimbabwe (then absurdly named “Rhodesia” after the same British racist for whom the prestigious Rhodes Scholarships are named) or South Africa you may have been engaged in a difficult and perilous struggle against white supremacy.

But the wild divergence of individual experiences, the fact that a “social trend” used to define an era may be made by only a small percentage of people, does not mean we must avoid all generalizations, and what we truly cannot afford to do is talk about a mere turbulent time. “Turbulence” is liberal-speak; it suggests that the delicate social order was unbalanced and needed righting. The ’60s are best understood as a decade of uprising against an intolerable status quo, met with extreme violent resistance and backlash. The same thing happened over and over, in different permutations. The Black Panthers tried to build an independent Black revolutionary party that declined to moderate its demands for freedom. They were infiltrated, arrested, and sometimes murdered. Reformists in the Czech Republic attempted to democratize the country, and were crushed by the Soviet Union. Protesters in South Africa marched against apartheid, and were massacred by police. Cops tried to raid the Stonewall Inn and arrest its patrons for the crime of being gay, only to find that the patrons were disinclined to comply this time, and instead issued cries of “Gay Power!” and refused to be arrested, with men in drag fighting the police physically (and winning), in part by joining together in a can-can style kick line dance and kicking the cops while shouting “We are the Stonewall girls / We wear our hair in curls! / We don’t wear our underwear / To show our pubic hair!” to the tune of “Ta-Ra-Ra Boom-De-Ay.” (Yes, this happened.)

Sometimes they succeeded and sometimes they didn’t. The Stonewall uprising kept the police at bay, and stood at the beginning of a 50-year gay rights crusade that would end up bringing fully legal same-sex marriage to a homophobic country. The armed Black students who took over a building at Cornell helped bring about Black Studies departments in American universities. (Right-wing economist Thomas Sowell calls the armed uprising “the day Cornell died.”) The country is moderately less sexist and racist now, and while we must be careful to note that this is only true relatively speaking—i.e., because white patriarchy was so total in the 1950s—it happened because people made it happen. Men can wear long hair without getting pulled over and roughed up for it. The environmental movement got us an actual federal agency charged with environmental protection, while the consumer movement got us at least some government action to prevent the sale of unsafe and defective products.

For people like Pete Buttigieg and Barack Obama, the phrase “The ’60s” connotes chaos, a bit too much radicalism, things getting out of hand. They see only the collage: those crazy times when all that stuff was happening. Sometimes the ’60s are even spoken of as a time of excess democracy, when people got drunk on the idea of freedom and started going crazy. But we know better: Black Power, gay liberation, feminism, the New Left—they were good, actually. The ’60s radicals won and they lost—the Reagan Revolution destroyed some of their accomplishments and turned the clock back. But everything they did win made the country and the world better. They were on the right side.

When we see the ’60s this way, what it becomes is not a Turbulent Time Of Upheaval, but an unfinished revolution, a moment when a lot of people became idealistic and raised their expectations of what was possible and necessary, and started putting in incredibly hard and dangerous work in order to make their dreams come true. We know that, but many of us don’t think that much about it, because the ’60s have been sanitized and softened. The “I Have a Dream” speech is repeated so often in snippets, so cynically invoked by “colorblind” racists, that hardly anyone remembers that it praised the “marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community” and spat at “gradualism”:

We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice.

Colorblind? King called for a militant, urgent, uncompromising fight for racial justice. He didn’t just demand integration, but economic equality: “the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.” He called for a permanent condition of dissatisfaction until “justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.” (And King was criticized by fellow activists for being too compromising.)

Those of us on the left need to start examining the movements of the ’60s closely, even if eventually the counterculture was subsumed into the culture and some of the organizations fell apart and some of the leaders sold out or turned conservative or became bitter. After all, what happened was a series of awakenings in which people began to think and act in new ways, to challenge that which was previously accepted. That was true of the civil rights movement, of course, a sudden shift from quiet resistance to white supremacy to loud and confrontational resistance. But it was also true on the cultural side. LSD genuinely did expand minds and make people think, despite the bad trips. The importation of Eastern spiritual traditions may, in retrospect, seem somewhat cheesy and even offensive (and the hippies’ casual appropriation of Native American clothes is often painful to look at today). Yet it was good for Americans to stop thinking of “Western Civilization” as the only culture with value.

The ’60s generation did create permanent political and cultural changes, and while it’s tempting to downplay the extent to which the United States has made moral progress (unequal country then, unequal country now), doing so risks understating the accomplishments of social movement participants. Some of the changes were remarkable in their rapidity. At the beginning, half of the country was literally an apartheid state. The atmosphere was unbelievably stifling and repressive. Lenny Bruce was arrested for saying that if we’d lost World War II “Truman would have been strung up by the balls”—to mention Harry Truman’s balls was considered a matter requiring state intervention! Abortion was a crime. Annie Gottlieb quotes a woman who distinctly remembers being told that she needed to stop smiling so much if she ever wanted to be married. But then, women who had been expected to obey their husbands suddenly decided to give a giant middle finger to the patriarchy. They did not actually “burn bras”—though at one protest they did throw some bras into a “Freedom Trash Can.” But they made new demands despite intense hostility and violence. (Think about the hostility that gender studies departments get even today and then imagine what it was like for those who were trying to create these departments in a country where spousal rape was legal in every state.)

I am probably not telling you anything you don’t know, but I do think we ought to contemplate it more. (Frequently the problem is not that people don’t know things but that they don’t think about them enough or work through their implications.) We should do this not merely for the purpose of being grateful to activists like Herbert Lee and Medgar Evers and Viola Liuzzo who died because they believed in equality, but because we, too, are people in a society that needs work, and they offer an example. Those that come out of the ’60s radical tradition like Jeremiah Wright and, well, Bernie Sanders—who was getting arrested at desegregation protests in his teens—have a sense of moral urgency and commitment that people like Buttigieg and Obama lack, which is part of why young people flocked to the Sanders campaign. It was fresh and new, because it was old.

I recently interviewed Lee Weiner, who was part of the Chicago 7, and was struck by how he did indeed seem like a person out of a different time. He had a pure and energetic idealism that was jarring. He wasn’t cynical, even thought he had no illusions. It did feel strangely dated. It did feel ’60s. But it also felt good. I wished more people were like that. I’ll take beautiful hippy dippy flower children over the doomsaying. ’60s leftism has a sincerity to it, the audacity to say words like love and mean them. Power to the people. Give peace a chance. They meant it. CORE leader Floyd McKissick declared: “1966 shall be remembered as the year we left our imposed status as Negroes and became Black Men.” This kind of transformative ambition (this year!) is audacious. But why settle for scraps? And why wait?
On the ground, it did appear as if things were changing overnight. Peter Berg of the radical Diggers collective recalls how it looked:

One day the doorman at the Village Gate was a guy in a coat and tie, complaining about a bunch of weirdos showing up. A couple of weeks later, it’s a new guy, only he’s wearing a beard, lots of jewelry, and a leather vest, and a leather pouch hanging on his side. It really felt like we were in the forefront of a massive social transformation. American society of the 1950s was being left behind. There was a lot of cracking of walls, and there was going to be a flood. But was it going to be up to the ankles, the knees, or the neck? It was a very exciting time.

Things did happen that seem almost unimaginable today. When the British Home Secretary (a Labour Party member) tried to give a talk at Oxford University, students tried to throw him in a fish pond in protest of the Vietnam war. In fact, the spread of radicalism to elite institutions was remarkable. Consider this exhortation produced by students at the Harvard design school during the 1969 student strike there:

Today a good part of the social order has been restored, and the university’s students are dutifully bound for McKinsey and Goldman Sachs. The students do not go on strike or stage armed takeovers of administration buildings.
It can be very rewarding to comb back through all the “’60s stuff” and try to see it with fresh eyes, to defamiliarize ourselves and appreciate it anew. For instance, I recently went back and listened to some of Pete Seeger’s live albums, the ones where the audience sings along. I used to find sing-a-longs cheesy. No longer. I tried to hear “We Shall Overcome” the way it sounded to the people singing it. When you do it that way, it can bring you to tears.
There’s a lot of rubbish from the ’60s, and some very bad ideas. The attraction to Mao and Castro among some leftists was, to say the least, unfortunate. The “White Panther Party” was a solidarity organization for its counterpart, not a white supremacist group, but that’s not something you want to have to explain at the beginning of every conversation. The drug culture produced some great art, but broke a lot of lives. I liked the Merry Pranksters’ colorfully-painted bus, but they seem to have done little but drop acid and hang out with the Grateful Dead. Timothy Leary seems like he was a goofball. When you read the announcement for 1967’s “Human Be-In” it’s impossible to take seriously:

A new concert of human relations being developed within the youthful underground must emerge, become conscious, and be shared so that a revolution of form can be filled with a Renaissance of compassion, awareness, and love.

Far out. But what the fuck does it mean? Still, I want to suggest that there’s value even in this. There’s something charming about it. It’s drivel, yes, but sweet drivel. I’m not going to make fun of people for being this idealistic, for believing that an actual renaissance of love could take place. I wish some people believed that today. Everyone I know seems to think we’re doomed. In the midst of the Cold War, there was just as much reason to believe the world was doomed, but a few people dared to be utopians and felt that not only could you make marginal improvements to the operation of the political system, but there could be a society-wide change in people’s entire consciousness. Consider the 1962 Port Huron Statement’s sincere utopianism:

Theoretic chaos has replaced the idealistic thinking of old—and, unable to reconstitute theoretic order, men have condemned idealism itself. Doubt has replaced hopefulness—and men act out a defeatism that is labeled realistic. The decline of utopia and hope is in fact one of the defining features of social life today. The reasons are various: the dreams of the older left were perverted by Stalinism and never re-created; the congressional stalemate makes men narrow their view of the possible; the specialization of human activity leaves little room for sweeping thought; the horrors of the twentieth century symbolized in the gas ovens and concentration camps and atom bombs, have blasted hopefulness. To be idealistic is to be considered apocalyptic, deluded. To have no serious aspirations, on the contrary, is to be “tough-minded.”

It’s a mistake to write off all stuff that feels dated, because some of it has great value and should be appreciated more. Take, for instance, the peace sign. It has utterly lost its meaning today. People might see it and think the word peace, but it certainly doesn’t conjure up the original aspirations of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament toward a world free of advanced weaponry where all nations lived in harmony. Instead, it’s so closely associated with cartoonish hippiedom that hardly anyone wears or displays it sincerely (save for the cartoonishly hippieish). British artist Gerald Holtom, who created the peace sign for the CND in 1958, during a moment of personal despair, combined the semaphore symbols for “N” and “D,” and was also inspired by the position of the peasant’s arms in Goya’s painting “The Third of May 1808,” which depicts the execution of Spanish resisters to the Napoleonic occupation.

The peace sign was immensely effective—everyone knows what it means. It may be one of the most well-designed logos a social movement has ever had. In fact, it’s too well-designed, because it became iconic, and having become iconic, it became vague. It does not mean to us what it meant in the 1960s, when it was fresh and seeing it might have made you think about how insane nuclear weapons are. But perhaps we ought to bring it back, proudly and without embarrassment. Perhaps all that language about changing consciousness, All You Need Is Love, “turn on, tune in, drop out”—well, maybe instead of cringing or laughing we can take it a little more seriously. Not that we should do it all again. (I’m not going Back To The Land, thank you very much, and I would have detested the mud-caked Woodstock experience—though I am persuaded by my Current Affairs colleague Garrison Lovely’s argument that America would be better off if more people did psychedelics). But we could be just a little bit inspired.

The visible manifestations of cultural and political change, the stuff you actually witness, can seem to occur by some magic force. That force is often spoken of in the passive voice—people were moved, the country was changed. The force’s origins and directions were murky. It seemed unguided. It was a mishmash of things that all happened all of a sudden and then seemed to slow down.

But it’s people who do things, not “spirits of the era,” and there are all sorts of forgotten individuals whose work we can look to and draw on for present-day inspiration. Richard Oakes of the American Indian Movement, for instance, organized the seizure and occupation of Alcatraz Island by a group of Indians, an occupation that lasted 19 months and successfully touched off a new indigenous rights movement. Oakes was 30 when he was shot to death by a white racist, and one important reason the ’60s movements “died” is that so many great potential leaders were literally murdered (see also: Fred Hampton). The achievement of Oakes and the AIM in holding out against a federal siege for so long (with the government cutting off power and water) should have made him a household name, but so many great projects and people from the time are forgotten.

I am always finding out about figures and actions I overlooked before; I only recently heard of Doris Derby, who co-founded the Free Southern Theater, which traveled around the South putting on free-admission all-Black productions of everything from Ossie Davis’ Purlie Victorious to Samuel Beckett’s Waitng for Godot in rural Black areas. Derby was from New York City, and to go into Mississippi as a young Black woman during Jim Crow to put on theatrical productions took idealism and courage. She may even have been called unpragmatic—surely voting rights came first, theater second? But the Free Southern Theater worked, and was popular wherever it went. It died in 1980—free tickets can’t keep a theater going, and the wealthy couldn’t give a shit about letting sharecroppers have great theater—at the beginning of the Reagan years and the end of so much that had been accomplished.

Underground newspapers and magazines and comics, G.I. coffee houses—there was even an independent leftist wire service, the Liberation News Service, to compete with the AP and give college newspapers an alternate source for national news stories. Some of the books of the New Left are still worth going back and reading, like Kwame Ture and Charles V. Hamilton’s Black Power and C. Wright Mills’ The Power Elite. I keep a bunch of out-of-print ’60s books around for inspiration. The New Left was intellectually rich, focusing primarily on race, gender, and economic justice but also critiquing culture, technology, and the bureaucratic structure of the university. Paul Goodman, forgotten today, was a utopian anarchist whose Growing Up Absurd caused many young people to start questioning the American Dream and demanding a more meaningful existence. Valerie Solanas is known today mostly for her art criticism (specifically, she shot Andy Warhol) but her SCUM [Society for Cutting Up Men] Manifesto is an extraordinary piece of writing that begins with the most memorable opening sentence for a manifesto since “a spectre is haunting Europe”:

Life in this society being, at best, an utter bore and no aspect of society being at all relevant to women, there remains to civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and destroy the male sex.

It gets more aggressively radical from there. (Read it.)

Every time I open a leftist book published in the ’60s, I feel both refreshed and saddened. Saddened because the spirit of the times largely melted away, but refreshed at finding new comrades. I draw little bits of insight here and there. I don’t subscribe to Herbert Marcuse’s social analysis, but I always think about a point he makes in One-Dimensional Man about the way acronyms eliminate meaning—eventually we come to talk about the U.N. rather than the United Nations, which slowly turns our conception of it into a bureaucratic agency rather than a project to unite all nations. When Elizabeth Warren ran for president, one reason I was so cynical is that I remember a passage in Vine Deloria, Jr.’s 1969 Indian manifesto Custer Died For Your Sins about how remarkable it is that white people always have Cherokee grandmothers. Deloria is not the only one to notice the phenomenon itself, but he specifically notes the fact that the tribe is always Cherokee and it’s always a grandmother rather than a grandfather—Deloria speculates that this is because an “Indian princess” is romantic while an Indian man is still seen as savage. This is the tiniest scrap from a brilliant book, one I wish I’d been assigned rather than having to discover through personal curiosity about the ’60s. From Abbie Hoffman to Jane Jacobs to Murray Bookchin to Angela Davis, reading works by 60s idealists has sharpened my moral vision and turned me into a more cheerful and committed person.

Our task, 50 years after the end, is not to be nostalgic for the ’60s or to try to recreate them. They were a dark and violent time, and while there’s much to love in the clothes and music and movies, the Vietnam War was such an atrocity that it makes viewing the era through rose-colored day-glo granny glasses seem twisted. Depoliticized portrayals like Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time In Hollywood, which eliminates the dark side of the ’60s by literally imagining an alternate reality in which the Manson murders did not take place, miss all the stuff that matters. ’60s radicals did change their society for the better. They didn’t create a utopia, and many of their projects failed. But the country, and the world, were better off because of the work that hundreds of thousands of individuals put in, because of their creativity and their refusal to accept that the way things are is necessarily how they have to be.

Anyone who feels the need for more social transformation here and now should study the ’60s, not to see them through the haze of white Boomer nostalgia—times that happened and then ended and are not coming back—but as offering live and relevant lessons. The reduction of the ’60s to a collage of chaos has obscured what is most important about that time, namely that a lot of people woke up and started trying to remake their world. Their work should have been the beginning of something that it is our job to pick up and continue. We need to figure out what went wrong and what went right, and to understand that what went right can happen again, if we make it.


I have made a Spotify playlist to accompany this article, because it wouldn’t be a Sixties thing without a soundtrack, would it?

Why We Don’t Need a New Domestic Terror Law

The events that transpired at the Capitol on January 6 were terrifying. Many questions remain, but it seems like things could have gone even worse. Some rioters carried zip ties, as if they intended to take hostages. Rep. Ayanna Pressley described how the panic buttons in her office were stripped. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said she and other members of Congress “were nearly assassinated” and that she was reluctant to shelter alongside some of her Republican colleagues, because she believed they would disclose her location.

The impulse to “do something” is perfectly reasonable, but it’s also important to critically assess the proposals being made.  

In the aftermath of these events, Joe Biden has said he would prioritize passing domestic terrorism legislation. This response, from the man who supported the Patriot Act and bragged that it had been based on his legislation, is an unsurprising but troubling development. 

Liberal pundit Bill Scher, echoing Biden’s comments, boldly proclaimed in the Washington Monthly, “It’s time for a domestic terrorism law… we can meet the domestic terror threat and preserve civil liberties.” 

Anyone with even a passing familiarity with the War on Terror and the deleterious effects it has had on civil liberties should be intrigued by this proposal. A way to balance these two often competing concerns? Let’s hear Scher out! 

Scher begins by contextualizing the danger posed by the rioters, quoting Jonathan Greenblatt (head of the Anti-Defamation League, an organization with a long history of disregarding civil liberties) who explains that the events at the Capitol were a “watershed moment for the far-right extremist movement” and these groups “are certainly not going anywhere.”

This leads Scher to declare: “We are dealing with terrorists. We need a counterterrorism strategy. And that will require a new domestic terrorism law.”

One may wonder why we need a new domestic terrorism law to prosecute already-illegal activities, but Scher doesn’t give us much of an answer. He dismisses these and related concerns from Glenn Greenwald and Luke Savage as “knee-jerk reactions, removed from any specific, detailed proposals.” Scher goes on to assert that: 

[R]eflexive denunciations are no more helpful than mindless cheerleading for new laws. We should have a clear-eyed understanding of the Constitution, the current law, and the growing terror threat and proceed accordingly.

Ok, so what does he have in mind?

First, Scher recommends that “Congress should, at minimum, pass a law establishing a permanent, sufficiently funded domestic counterterror program, either as part of a larger domestic terrorism bill or while other legal changes are debated.” A fully-funded program dedicated to monitoring, infiltrating, and disrupting worrying domestic activities? What could possibly go wrong

Scher also describes a piece of legislation he hopes will pass once Biden takes office, crafted by Illinois Democrats Rep. Brad Schneider and Sen. Dick Durbin, which would “authorize three offices, one each within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Department of Justice (DOJ), and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), to monitor, investigate, and prosecute cases of domestic terrorism.” 

It takes a special type of delusion to look at the sprawling American surveillance state and conclude that the issue is inadequate monitoring. These departments can already monitor, investigate, and prosecute people engaged in alleged wrongdoing, and the notion that legislation expanding their mandate and powers further will in some way make us all safer is plain wrong.

That’s not just my opinion. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Vice Chair of the Oversight Subcommittee who ran investigations into domestic terror laws, has said that “Our problems on Wednesday weren’t that there weren’t enough laws, resources, or intelligence. We had them, [and] they were not used.”

But don’t take Rep. AOC’s word for it, here’s former FBI Agent Michael German:

First, what I want the public to understand is that no new law is necessary. …

There are five federal hate crime statutes. There are 51 federal crimes and terrorism statutes that apply to domestic terrorism. There are organized crime statutes. There are conspiracy statutes. There’s plenty legal authority to address these crimes …

Law enforcement already has the power to address violent crime. They’re choosing not to. What Congress needs to do and what the new administration needs to do is get to the bottom of why they’re choosing not to.

Another piece of legislation Scher approvingly references is by Rep. Adam Schiff. The California Democrat’s bill, according to Scher, would (among other things) further expand what’s called the material support statute. Shayana Kadidal, a Senior Managing Attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights who served as counsel on major cases challenging the constitutionality of the material support statute, explained that:

[T]he material support statute is designed to make it criminal to do almost anything beyond independent professing agreement with an organization that the President places on the list. If, for instance, an overseas chapter of the Proud Boys were listed under the material support statute, and we wrote a[n op-ed] stating that the law was overbroad and the group should not be listed, that could be held to be a felony if we wrote it in any degree of coordination with members of the group.

Feel free to swap in another organization that is more sympathetic for left-wingers (like antifa or Black Lives Matter) if it helps you understand the dangers of this statute. According to Kadidal, a government lawyer once said in court that the goal of the statute was “to make these groups radioactive” so that Americans would be afraid to have any kind of association with them. “That’s not good for the health of our democracy,” Kadidal observes.

It’s not only Americans who are harmed by the material support statute. The Trump administration has just moved to classify the Houthi rebels in Yemen, who control territory where 80 percent of Yemenis reside, as a terror group. As a result, aid efforts may be seriously impeded in a country that has been described as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. 

Expanding the statute further, as Rep. Schiff, Scher, and some Biden advisers seem to want, could cause even more trouble. “A domestic material support statute,” Kadidal explains, “would permit the government to criminalize a variety of associations traditionally protected by the First Amendment, without ever producing evidence of specific intent to further the criminal ends of these organizations.” Is Scher oblivious to these civil liberties concerns, or does he just not care?

Scher’s response to another concern raised by law professor Francesca Laguardia should give you an indication. Commenting on Rep. Schiff’s bill and two other pieces of legislation, Laguardia asks: “would these statutes call it terrorism to throw a brick through a window, provided there was a swastika on it? The low level of damage required for a charge of terrorism renders the three proposed statutes frighteningly extreme.”

Scher’s glib reply is “don’t throw a brick through a window with a swastika on it.” Reasonable people can disagree about whether property damage, as a tactic, is the right approach for advancing a political agenda, but hopefully we can all agree that spray painting “kill all the billionaires” and smashing a window is a far cry from terrorism. The fact that Rep. Schiff’s legislation and other legislation even potentially raises the possibility of prosecuting petty vandalism as terrorism should be seriously disturbing to everyone, particularly people like Scher who profess to be concerned about civil liberties. Living in a country with the largest, and most punitive, prison system in the world, is it really necessary (let alone a good idea) to make prison sentences harsher and give prosecutors one more tool to lock people up?

It may be true, as Scher contends, that white supremacists have committed most of the lethal domestic terrorist attacks over the last two decades. But this does not necessarily mean that most of the people surveilled, prosecuted, and punished under a new domestic terrorism law will be white supremacists. In fact, given what we know about how our criminal justice system and other government agencies operate, there is good reason to believe that people of color, Muslims, and leftists (like those involved in antifascist organizing) will be disproportionately surveilled, prosecuted, and punished under a domestic terrorism law.

It’s worth remembering that despite occasional lip service to the contrary, the FBI, DHS, DOJ, and other American government agencies are not made up of people who share your or my politics. The gingerly (and in some cases outright cordial) treatment that rioters who stormed the Capitol received when met by police provides a good indication of the type of disparate treatment they and other conservatives and white supremacists might receive if a new domestic terrorism law is enacted. 

Even if you expect a Biden administration to be more sympathetic toward people of color, Muslims, and leftists, the legislation and prosecutorial powers will remain after the Biden administration ends. I don’t especially want authoritarian President Tom Cotton whose administration is run by genteel American fascist Dan Crenshaw, QAnon Looney Tune Marjorie Taylor Greene, Hitler Youth Madison Cawthorn, and Attorney General Alex Jones to have these powers. I shudder to think how they would wield them.

Indeed, the terrorism laws we already have on the books allow for things like imprisoning a lawyer for sending a press release to Reuters, imprisoning a man for 15 years without charge who never was accused of raising arms against the United States but was a cook for the Taliban, and the criminalization of advising terrorist groups on peace negotiations. The former FBI Director under Obama, James Comey, did not believe the Charleston church murderer was a terrorist, but the FBI had no trouble accusing two animal liberation activists who released some minks and vandalized various properties of “domestic terrorism.” Protesters who participated in the George Floyd uprisings have also been charged with terrorism, often for property damage.

We already have all the laws, resources, and intelligence we need to prosecute people for doing things like conspiring to harm federal officials. Biden, Scher, Rep. Schiff, and others will try and persuade you otherwise, but their case doesn’t hold up. (A former chief prosecutor at Guantanamo urging that “we start a domestic war on sedition by domestic terrorists” should give everyone who claims to care about civil liberties pause.) All passing a domestic terrorism law will do is invest the government with even more power to spy, prosecute, imprison, and punish. There is no shortage of those things in this country already, and anyone who tells you otherwise is selling you a fantasy. And, as usual, the people who will be disproportionately affected will be Muslims, people of color, and leftists.

Let’s not fall for it.

Rachel Cohen on the Great Charter School Controversy

For much of the past year, America’s schools have been at the center of a heated debate: should they re-open for classroom learning, or stick to the Zoom classes widely despised by teachers, students, and parents? But before this conundrum captured the popular imagination, there was a different school-related question that inflamed passions across the political spectrum:

Are charter schools the future of education in the United States, or just another billionaire-backed technocratic scam?

That question was also the subject of a podcast interview featuring our beloved outgoing host Pete Davis and journalist Rachel Cohen. The following transcript of their conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Pete Davis

Hello, Current Affairs listeners. It’s your host, Pete Davis, here [with] Rachel Cohen. Hello Rachel! Welcome to the Current Affairs World Headquarters.

Rachel Cohen 

Hey. Thanks for having me.

PD

So glad to have you here. Listeners, Rachel Cohen is an amazing journalist. She writes primarily now for the Intercept but has been published all over. And though she covers many issues, she’s one of the leading lights covering the education beat, which is why I brought her here today because I have so many questions about American education policy. 

It has been so, so strange following it over the past 10 years, it’s like a hall of mirrors—so many terms, so many interlocking concepts, so many shady things going on, and Rachel is here to unpack it. And the biggest mystery of all is that 10 years ago, I [was] in college and everyone [was] talking about education “reform.” Teach for America [was] the cool thing to do after college. Michelle Rhee [was] on the cover of magazines. Charter schools [were] popping up everywhere. Everyone [was] talking about how teachers’ unions [were] bad and standardized tests [and] beloved data [were] good. This movie Waiting for “Superman” [a documentary about the U.S. public school system] comes out to bring it all together, and Obama is cheering on all of this. 

And then 10 years later, Teach for America and charter schools and standardized tests are viewed with a lot more skepticism. Michelle Rhee has been deposed from Washington—run out of Washington, D.C. Teachers’ unions are striking everywhere to great fanfare. And many Democrats—not all, but many—are taking the union’s side against the charters and the “reform movement.” There is so much going on here. 

So Rachel, I thought you could help guide us through all of this. Let’s start 10 years ago. What was this so-called education reform movement?  Where did it come from?

RC 

Well, that was actually an excellent summary because you are right that in, at least as I think about it, [2009-2011] was the peak. That was really the most powerful time for this movement, and I think to explain how that came it [helps] to go back a little bit further. 

So one funny thing is that there is this myth that charter schools were actually invented by teacher unions. And the narrative goes: Albert Shanker, who was the head of the teacher unions in the late ‘80s, [wrote a] New York Times op-ed where he said we could have this new kind of school that could be called “charters,” where teachers could innovate new educational approaches and have more freedom to experiment out of the rules. And this idea that charters came from teacher unions is something that both reformers and unions say because it is a narrative that could be helpful to both sides. 

Teacher unions can say, “Oh, we have always been for innovation and reformers co-opted it and ran away and took it from us and it was co-opted by billionaires, and our vision of charters was stolen.” And then reformers can be like, “It’s so crazy [that] unions are bashing on charters because it was their idea. They are selling out the thing that they originally supported.” I do not know if this is all making sense, but my point is there is this narrative that is still pretty strong. It is really easy to find both Randi Weingarten, who is the head of the [American Federation of Teachers (AFT)], [and] the head of big charter organizations claiming that charters were really a union idea. 

But the truth is charters actually got their start a decade earlier. They sort of came out of the same movement for deregulation that we saw in other industries, like airlines, in the ‘70s breaking up large parts of the economy. There were these people who were like, “Let’s break up the monopoly of school districts, and we will inject competition into school districts, and then they will compete with each other and improve.” So that was the original thinking. And then while you can definitely find some more progressive people who were like, “Yeah, this could be a way to have teacher-led schools or more progressive [ones], maybe we can use the charter idea to inject new things into education,” the real power behind the movement was never really coming from them. 

And so then what happened was, in the ‘90s, Bill Clinton and the New Democrats—the [Democratic Leadership Council (DLC)], they got very excited by the idea because it was a way to seem creative on education while also not advocating to spend more money, which they did not want to do because they were those people. And it was also sort of this exciting opportunity for them to distance themselves from teacher unions who they cast as “special interests.” So this whole idea that Democrats would [call] teacher unions “special interests” that we should distance ourselves from—that is a very destructive idea that really carried all the way through the Obama administration, and now we are seeing a shift away [from it]. But that really has been a two decade-long journey.

PD

So, we have talked about two strands so far, and I really want to unpack them for listeners. [One] strand is charter schools. On the surface, [the] nicest case for charter schools is the one that they put forward, [which] is a charter school is a way to innovate and try [something new]. It sounds very lefty and dreamy. It says there is a high-bound way we do education. We can experiment with this new way of doing education, with a blank canvas that does not have all this bureaucracy. It sounds like something a utopian dreamer would think up. Usually our listeners would be like, “Oh, that sounds like a great idea.”  But what is the insidious aspect of charter schools? Just back to the basics—what is the problem with [that]?

RC 

Well people have different opinions on what exactly is the problem. But certainly charters—while they do not have to be non-union—the majority are [not unionized]. The big funders behind the movement want to keep them non-union, and I have been [following] the movement by charter school teachers to try to get unions. 

But by and large, the idea is we will not have unions [in charter schools], which can make the schools more flexible. [Most] of them are nonprofits or for-profits. They are publicly funded, but they are not publicly managed like a traditional public school. They are run by private organizations like any nonprofit or for-profit company, and so you have less access and control over that institution than you would a traditional public school. There are a lot of concerns about democratic control, democratic access, privatization, and teacher rights, and things like that, [plus] general oversight and accountability for these schools. So those are sort of some of the main challenges that people have [raised].

PD

So it’s a roundabout way to [break] teachers’ unions. [It’s] kind of crazy that there are for-profit charter schools in the first place. But even if they are nonprofit, there is no democratic oversight, and it is kind of a form of privatization with public money.

RC 

Just to say, some states do a better job with imposing rules over what you can do for oversight. But in Washington, D.C., where I live, I have just been writing and complaining for several years about how we are so bad at [this].

PD

I have heard vaguely that [charter schools’] big claim is that they will be able to do better with this hard challenge of providing quality education in a poor neighborhood or something. But what I have heard from folks like [former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education] Diane Ravitch, is: does the data even show that they are doing any better at achieving ends? What is the state of the data on the outcomes for charter schools?

RC 

For a long time, it was showing that charters were performing no better than ­­traditional public schools and in a lot of cases that is still true. There are some cities, like notably Boston as an example, where the charter schools, study after study, their kids score higher, and they are going to college more. There are some places where charters are doing well. 

But I think what gets really lost in those studies is that when people like [charter school advocate] John Tate cite them all the time, [they obscure the reality] that having some limited number of [successful] charters in a district in a city with above-average regulation and control [does] not mean that if you then triple the number of charters in that city it is all going to still be successful. Even though Boston, for example, has relatively high performing charters compared to other parts of the city, in 2016, voters (including the majority of Boston residents) rejected the idea of expanding them because the proposal would have been to massively accelerate the expansion of charter schools, and all of the reformers were like, “We need to, because Boston charters are good.” And everyone was like, “No, that would be a disaster. Unfettered growth does not mean that the success that we have seen would continue.”

PD

And isn’t the whole idea that the charters could produce experimental results and then the public schools could change to learn from those results? It’s not that you would expand the experiment, it would be that you would take the learnings and bring it back to the [normal school with democratical oversight].

RC 

Yeah. And that does not happen at all. That has not happened. And some reformers try to say, “Oh, well you know, just being around charters spurs the district schools to get better. They have to compete and so they all get better.” I find that research very weak and not convincing. But there are definitely reformers who say, “We just expand charters, and the district schools will feel so stressed that then they will be motivated to be better.” And there is some evidence that sometimes that happens, but I do not think it works as they want to believe. 

PD

So, there is this second element of the education so-called reform movement, which is not just charters—it’s people in the public schools demanding more data, more standardized tests, more accountability, [more Race to the Top-type policy] saying, “We will fund you if you take this data and follow this data.” What was that branch of the education reform movement?

RC 

Yeah. That was a super powerful idea in the Obama administration. Well, it really started with No Child Left Behind, which said we need to collect more data. There’s a positive way to look at it. Civil rights groups are really behind the idea [that] if we don’t know where the gaps are, then we can’t better target resources to where they should go. And underserved, [vulnerable] students are most likely to be missed or overlooked. So there is a big civil rights framing to the drive for data, and that was how the Obama administration and all of the liberal education reformers [see] themselves: as these civil rights advocates for pushing [data-centric policies]. But they went really strongly overboard, in my opinion. 

Because then [the reformers] said, “Well, if the data shows that this school is not producing [good enough] test scores, then we should hold them ‘accountable’ and maybe close their school…. Oh, if your test score says this, then we should get rid of this teacher,” things like that. And collecting data is not bad necessarily, but they all wanted these consequences that very understandably started a huge backlash politically.

PD

You wrote this article on D.C.’s school miracle and the measurement questions around it. [The basic idea of] the article was D.C. had this kind of miracle success. Everyone agreed D.C. was one of the best-reformed school systems. But then when you looked into the data, it gets really, really complicated and there are scholars out there that are saying, “This is way, way overstated.” 

And I am just interested in the theory of measurement. Because here are a few weird aspects about measurement. One is the famous case of “juking the stats,” which [means that] as soon as you start measuring something, everyone starts [focusing on] making that measurement go up without holistically doing things, so they drill and kill for the specific tests while ignoring everything else. 

[Then] there is this other aspect which [that] so much [depends on] demographics. Like if you just have an increase in rich families in the schools your test scores go up. I’m from a wealthy suburb of D.C., Falls Church of Virginia. We brag every year [that] we’re the No. 1 school in Virginia, but then I look, and [we] have the lowest [rates of students receiving] free and reduced lunch. That’s why we’re No. 1, that’s why our SAT scores are the highest—because it is just a measurement of the economy around your school, not of the school itself. So I would love to hear, as an expert in this, what has been your experience of what can we actually measure?

RC 

I mean, we can measure a lot—and that’s also why it was so obvious that the people that were pointing to D.C. were exaggerating it because it was so clear what they were ignoring. While there were some gains for some groups, once you have controlled for demographics, a bunch of the other gains disappeared. 

At the same time that some scores were going up, socioeconomic gaps were widening, and the gaps between white and Black proficiency rates was still 60 points. But there was this push to claim success—and not only claim success but replicate the model being used so quickly—and this was incentivized through Race to the Top, which was the Obama administration’s $4 billion program that pushed states to expand charter schools, tie teacher evaluations to test scores, make it easier to close schools—sort of the gamut of what we think of when we say “education reform.” 

And so, so much of that they pointed to Washington D.C. as like, “Oh, let’s see if it’s working. We’re now going to jangle a lot of money in front of states, so then they do what D.C. does.” [They] were also really overstating the effectiveness of [D.C.’s reforms] at the same time, but no one wanted to talk about that. 

PD

Two more branches of this education reform push. One is TFA, Teach for America. What is the story with them, and what has been their role in this push?

RC 

[So] Teach for America, for basically the first two decades of its existence, was so rarely criticized, critiqued, or thought about skeptically. It was just treated like the way we think of joining the Peace Corps or AmeriCorps or any sort of these public national services. At the same time—and I have actually wrote about this recently for the Intercept—Teach for America is and has been one of the most politically powerful bipartisan education organizations in Washington shaping education policy, and it was very effective at getting millions of dollars in grants and earmarks from federal agencies, from Congress. 

[Sometimes] I think we think all of these organizations are just bankrolled by billionaires, but I think it is also really important to realize [that] the federal government has funded Teach for America’s model to the tune of tens of millions of dollars, and that is not what most nonprofits get. Teach for America… [has] this model where they take recent college graduates, they put them through a short five- or six-week summer training program, and then they put you in schools for two year stints, although not everyone stays two years. It’s not super uncommon for people to stay three years, but they do not expect you to. [You] can stay for longer, but most people do not. So it is generally thought of as a two-year commitment. 

And Teach for America inspired a lot of resentments among long-term teachers. One of the [reasons is that] Teach for America started in the ‘90s by saying, “We are going to help attract people to schools that have trouble attracting teachers, so we are going to help with the teacher vacancy problem,” which is a real problem in a lot of places in the country. But then what became clear was then they definitely shifted that goal in the mid-2000s, where then you had Teach for America teachers going into schools that were not having trouble attracting [teachers], like in San Francisco, in Washington, D.C., and popular cities, till it suddenly became not an organization to fill teacher vacancy gaps, but actually they really thought of themselves as better teachers. Like, “Our candidates are actually more talented than these deadwood, old teachers who are not even trying, and we are going to put bright, young energetic teachers who can work long hours.” 

[Teach for America teachers] also were really tied to charter schools, so the idea was if charter schools are expanding [in] the city, we now have this ready pipeline of teachers ready to go into them. Not all Teach for America teachers go to charter schools, but tons did and lots of Teach for America alumni then started charters. 

[I] remember when I started really following this stuff in 2013, people were barely even critiquing it then. It really started the next couple of years. And then there [were] alumni from Teach for America who started organizing and saying, “Hey, wait, this model has a lot of problems,” and that sort of helped give voice to some of the stuff that unions had been saying for a longer time that people had not been listening to. And so I have thoughts on how the critique of TFA ties into some of the other stuff we have been saying about ed reform, but I can wait and shut up for a second.

PD

No, tell us a bit about that. How is it tied in?  I want to see [how] this whole network—you know, we’re on the bulletin board with the red string—how do they all connect to each other?

RC 

So, the growing criticism and skepticism with education reform is wrapped up in, in my view, a couple other very, very powerful narratives that were unimpeachable a decade ago. And now more and more people are like, “Wait, no, that is actually bullshit,” or “That really isn’t founded.”  

So one of them is this idea of the skills gap. And the skills gap theory, which is so popular in Washington, D.C. among both parties and all the think tanks, [states] that the reason that people are struggling to pay their bills and in the economy is just because they do not have the skills necessary to get good jobs. And so, we need to train and educate workers and reskill them and give them the tools to be successful in the modern 21st century economy. [This] was such a—I can’t even stress how powerful this narrative is, everybody said it. 

And it really was not until maybe 2016-2017, even kind of more recently, [that] people started saying, “Wait, people working in tech and engineering, no one is getting raises in those sectors either. The only people who are getting raises are in the top 1 percent.” And then people also started to notice, “Hey, wait. People with these good credentials and qualifications are actually now taking jobs that previously required fewer [qualifications],” like people with bachelor’s degrees were now taking jobs that would not have normally required a bachelor’s degree. [People] without bachelor’s degrees [were] sort of being forced out [of the labor market]. 

[I] remember I interviewed Marshall Steinbaum, economist, on this when I was at the Prospect. [There] was a study that came out that showed, yes, a STEM degree—a degree in engineering and science—[can] protect you a little bit, but actually what they found was [people with these degrees] are still way less protected than they used to be prior to the Great Recession. So, the idea that just going and learning to code or getting an engineering degree would suddenly give you the security that you deserved or needed was suddenly coming under attack. And that was a very powerful narrative that was also very much tied to the education reform movement which said, “Our job is to give these children the skills they need to be successful.” 

PD

Yeah, I’ve always wondered [about the logic behind] the skills gap [theory]. [It’s] these CEOs saying, “I can’t fill my positions. Therefore the country needs to educate workers to fill my positions.” But the funny thing is, [according to] Economics 101 [doesn’t] it say: if you don’t have enough people wanting to fulfill your positions, you need to raise the wages of the positions and that will induce people to want to fill them? 

But the answer is never, “Let me raise the wages of the position to attract more people.” It’s always, “Socialize my problems and have the government pay for it.”

RC 

Or provide on the job job-training, which companies use to do.

PD

Internalize the cost, yes. We will take you as you [are], and we will train you how to do this. 

RC 

The idea that we should be having first graders learn to code so that maybe when they are 22 they could get a job is actually so sick, because technology is going to change so much in that time. [It] really revolts me.

PD

Amen. 

RC 

The second [argument for charter schools]—which is similar but a little different—… is that the best pathway out of poverty is through education. And everybody says this. Obama said it, like every [time he gave a speech on the topic]. This is the mantra of education reform, of the Democratic Party, and then some people started challenging that. 

I remember reading Matt Bruenig when I was in college, and he was like, “Well, actually Social Security was the most effective pathway to bring people out of poverty.”  I wrote a story in 2017 called “Why Education Is Not the Key to a Good Income,” and it was looking at this growing body of research that showed it was not your level of education that determined your chances of rising economic mobility. It was these other factors—like what kind of industries were in your community, union density, some of it was marriage. 

[So] I just basically [argued that the research’s conclusion] doesn’t mean that we should abandon school improvement, because there are a million other reasons you can think of for why people should go to great schools. But the idea that we should be doing school improvement in order to boost someone’s economic position when they are older is not really an efficient or coherent [strategy]. [It’s] not really the right way to be thinking about society, public policy.

Anyway, I wrote this piece, and I can tell you I have never gotten more vitriolic responses to anything I have written. Reformers hated this piece. They were like, “How could you say this?” and, “This is a blasphemous concept.” And it was so interesting because I have never had that before but now, I think more people are finally being like, “Well the evidence is kind of overwhelming.”

PD

It’s so funny how, when you strike a nerve and people just start irrationally yelling at you, it really reveals the dominant ideology of the day. It’s like it shows you the water that we’re [swimming] in. These things that we take for granted, like “Oh, education is the path to everything,” that is like the meritocratic ideal. 

I’m also interested in—this is maybe one of my weird hobby horses—but I always think that we totally undervalue the network elements of school for the literal things you are learning. The high school movement at the turn of the century that established public high schools was a positive addition, you know. And Bernie pushing for free college and getting more people into college, people seem to love going to college. But [the real value of college is] not what you learn in the classes, it’s not how good you do on the tests—it’s a civic institution that attaches you to a network of the community, so you’re not alone in your house. And that network introduces you to a bunch of mentors and it introduces you to a bunch of things in the community and attaches you to a bunch of possibilities.

[Having] these institutions of community connection seem to be more important than if you are learning to code there. And the problem with these neighborhoods is: if a neighborhood has been completely marginalized and completely disconnected from the broader economy, if it has been deindustrialized, it doesn’t matter how much you are learning in the school. If you’re embedded in a social network that’s not connecting you to the connections that get you into the college, that get you the job, that get you the internship, you are not going to be able to use it as a thing to ascend like the rest of us are. I do not know, does that resonate with your research at all or… ?

RC 

I mean, just personally, I think that totally hits at what another part of the backlash of the past decade. Which is: with the education reform theory and school choice in general, [the goal is to do] whatever you need to do, [to find] the best school… so that you can get the skills so that you can succeed in this highly competitive global economy. 

And there are just a lot of people that are like, “Wait, no, we want to protect our communal institutions that serve the public, that are for everyone.” I think what you said about schools being for more than just skill acquisition, but actually just being parts of society [was correct]. [There] were these waves of school closures that happened because we said, “Oh, if we close these schools, we’ll be able to open up better schools and that’s good,” and a lot of people were like, “Wait, is that good? I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s good that this school that was in my neighborhood for a hundred years is now gone and replaced with a charter school.” There were all of those feelings. 

And I also think, speaking to what you said about marginalized communities and networks, the argument was if kids can score a certain level, if we can get kids at a certain level of proficiency, then they can go to college, and then if they can succeed in college, then they will be able to get a certain job, and then they will be living a certain life, and then we will have done our part. [It] was this assemblage of school successes getting kids in the position where then they could get into college and succeed in college. [It’s] not that that is bad, but I think there’s now just a much broader understanding [that] everyone should have the ability to go to college and they shouldn’t drown in debt if they do. [That’s] where the free college movement is really powerful. But there’s also a recognition that if we think just sending everyone to college is going to get you a good job, why do we not just send everyone to law school? Why do we not just send everyone to medical school because doctors make a lot of money? If everyone just got a bachelor’s degree, that would not actually solve the problems of our economy that we have right now.

PD

Yeah, and I guess that’s connected to what you’re saying—which is we have had a lot more people get bachelor’s degrees in the last 30 years, but [because they ended up working jobs that previously didn’t require bachelor’s degrees, they’re not actually advancing]. If the structure of the economy doesn’t have enough slots at the top, you need to change the structure, not just get more people into the slots. 

So here’s a question about [the charter school] movement before we turn to the [argument] against it: how much of it is earnest [idealism] and how much of it is a secret anti-union privatization push? Because this is what’s so hard when you’re looking at it. Like you look at [activist] Geoffrey Canada, and you hear speeches of the [educational organization] Harlem Children’s Zone, and you talk to some of these Teach for America teachers [who say], “I was inspired, I want to be part of the civil rights movement of our time.” They sound very sympathetic, and I think many of them really believe that they want to help with this. 

And then meanwhile you have the [billionaire] Walton family, which has shown no care at all for this country, funding [the push to privatize schools]—so I know there’s something craven going on. So what is the balance inside? … What percentage is ideology and what percentage is grift and what percentage is actual good work among the reform movement?

RC 

It’s a great question, and it is something that people are grappling with all of the time. I know tons of charter school teachers, and they’re all great. Teaching is so hard, and it is so thankless, and… sometimes a lot of charter school teachers are working under even worse conditions than in traditional public schools, because they are nonunion mostly, and they can be fired at will. [I] also think that lots of people who went into Teach for America, like as I said earlier, for literally two decades no one questioned it. It didn’t have any stigma attached. You had a lot of basically young idealistic people who were like, “Oh, here’s an opportunity to teach.” And I think in the past five years there is a lot more awareness going in that maybe you are going to a controversial model. 

But I think that there are a lot of people [working in charter schools] who… don’t appreciate people bashing their schools because they’re like, “You’re not actually in the trenches with kids every day. You’re not talking to families, and the families want their kids at this school, you’re being an armchair critic.” … I take [those objections] seriously when there are people who are working with real kids everyday and trying to teach them. 

But I think that it can’t be denied that some of the biggest financial backers of the movement are individuals who definitely would not want to see the charter schools’ union movement continue. They would prefer to have that go away as fast as possible. I think there are funders of the movement, like Michael Bloomberg, [who do really want] to see schools improve, and [they don’t] really need to make money [off charter schools]. I don’t think [their] interest in school reform was based on [wanting] to get rich, I think [they just have] this business-minded view of how good organizations work… “Oh, we can inject business principles into a school system, and the schools will be better.”  

So, that’s kind of a difference. I think there are some people who come at it from that perspective where they’re like, “Let’s just get schools to operate more like businesses and then they’ll be better.” And then are a lot of Obama-era liberal types who are like, “I’m coming at it from a civil rights perspective, and I want to give poor families the same kind of choice that wealthy suburban white families had when they moved to those communities.” [So] they come at it from that perspective [of], “Why should we deny these poorer families the choices that maybe I had when I grew up.” 

[There] are definitely wings of the coalition that are just conservative and they overlap with the business people. But they are like, “Why would we have these monopolies with teacher unions? [Weakening] all of that is going to lead to better outcomes.” … I think there is a lot of grift in the education reform movement, but actually, in my experience, a lot of it comes from the consultants. There are tons of consultants that [say], “Oh, school improvement. Oh, we’ll help you get your charter renewed. Hire us for all of this money.” Or education technology companies or real estate companies that profit off of getting the land that then the schools can go on. I think a lot of the people who work directly with kids are not doing it for grift because it is actually still really hard work, but it’s a movement and they all [are kind of complicit]. Does that make sense?

PD

[Yes], and of course I was not insinuating at all that any teacher was like this. It’s just [that prominent backers of charter schools like] Bill Gates, [billionaire heiress] Powell Job … kind of bought into the meritocratic mindset.

RC 

Right, like the Waltons are not trying to get rich, exactly–but they definitely think they have a better vision for what schooling should look like, you know.

PD

So let’s move to—now that we have kind of covered the reform group–let’s move to what has changed. [Tell]l our listeners a bit about the teachers’ union strikes that have happened and how that has affected the Democratic Party’s warmth towards charters and the like.

RC 

Yeah. So, the party started trying to warm up more to teacher unions in 2016 during the presidential election. Teacher unions, they hated the Obama administration policies, but they didn’t want to actually be seen as criticizing Obama because Obama [was] popular. So they basically just criticized Arne Duncan, who was the Education Secretary, and those policies. 

But there was certainly a recognition [by Democrats] that how are we going to win in 2016 if we don’t have the support of teacher unions, we need to pledge to do better. And by this time, there wasn’t just a backlash to standardized testing from teacher unions, there was also this really interesting growing backlash to standardized testing from conservatives and red state politicians and parents and communities who viewed Obama-era reforms as big government coming in and telling us how to run our schools. Starting a couple years before the 2016 election, there started to be this big anti-standardized testing movement that was really bipartisan but actually had a lot of conservative momentum. 

PD

I remember being at [the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC)]. I went to CPAC one year, in 2014 I think, and there was a table there that was against Race to the Top, or something, that said, “Take back our schools for teachers and students.” And I was like, this could have been at a left-wing conference as well, so. 

RC 

Exactly. I forgot to mention [that] one backdrop of the past decade was a lot of states pulled back funding for schools during the recession, and even when their economies bounced back, they never restored the funding to the same level as of pre-2008. So, public schools in most states have really been struggling because their states didn’t refill the coffers from when they took really intense cuts during the recession. [That] is a huge undercurrent behind a lot of the strikes, and it’s just [the result of] underfunded schools and teachers who have felt disrespected for the past decade by these policies and the lack of consideration for how much more and more and more and more people are expecting teachers to do with less and less and less and less. 

So all of this is happening in [2018, then] the teachers’ strikes break out, and they also happen at the same time that America—especially the Democratic Party and I would say independents too— are starting to realize, “Wait, all of these attacks on unions [lead to things like] like unions voting for Trump, this is terrible, we need to win back labor if we are ever going to get back our country. Oh, we’ve demonized labor for so long, we need to become a party that can support them again.”  

This is all happening, and also—teachers are beloved. Like teachers, public safety officials, the military… these are people [who] in surveys forever have always [been] regarded highly even though we treat them like shit often. But, you know, [seeing] teachers on strike was a very powerful thing for people to also realize how [bad] the conditions that teachers have been working under were. [A] lot of people I think did not realize how many teachers struggle. All of these [things were] happening at the same time. [The] Democratic Party [was] realizing the need to be better on unions, and the Obama administration certainly was not great to teacher unions. [The] teacher strikes [were] a reaction to a whole bunch of things, but certainly [they were] partially [due to a] lack of funding and disrespect, and expansion of charter schools came up in a bunch of states…. 

Actually, as I was preparing for this [podcast], I went back and I reviewed Eva Moskowitz’s memoir [from] 2018. Eva Moskowitz is the CEO of Success Academy, which is a chain in New York City. And it is really amazing. Reading her book, which only came out two years ago, [it] sounds like it is just so wistful for a decade ago… She urges the public to approach the incoming inequality issue “delicately in an age when hedge fund managers can work from anywhere in the world with an internet connection.” And she scolds Bill de Blasio for his class war rhetoric, and she calls it “imprudent” and “dangerous.” And it feels really out of touch. [She’s saying], “Respect the hedge fund managers in case they decide not to fund your schools,” you know. 

….

PD

[I’d love] to end on some notes of hope and action. So, I want to do an open-ended question, but before I do, I would love to just talk about this one model, which is Montgomery County, [Maryland]. And I keep hearing from lefty education people that Montgomery County does something right that other places aren’t doing right. And you’ve written about Montgomery County before as an alternative to the standards and accountability [of Obama’s] top-down movement. Could you talk a little bit about what they do?

RC 

[One] of the interesting things there is that they also wanted to take on teacher evaluation reform, but not in the way that the Obama administration education reformers wanted where it was this penalized ranking of teachers into “bad,” “ineffective,” etc. They wanted to build a more constructive model for teacher reform that was more about helping to support and mentor and add resources. 

And [the] former president of their union, who I know, just really kept emphasizing to me [that] teacher evaluation doesn’t have to be a bad thing. There are ways to make teacher evaluation good and supportive and helpful, and it’s not like teachers don’t want to get better. Of course they do. But for the past decade, teacher evaluation has been associated with measuring a teacher’s worth by how their students do on standardized tests, and so it has become really toxic. 

So, I think [one benefit of Montgomery County’s approach was] getting out of that mindset and saying, “Of course we want to help teachers do better, but it doesn’t have to be in such a punitive way.” And the other thing that Montgomery County [does well]—although there are some challenges to this currently—but they have also taken intentional efforts to do school integration and do thoughtful redistricting and student assignment. They are, I think, grappling with some of that now, but that has been a value that they have brought. 

[In] terms of other models… there are a lot of alternatives. [School] reform has been associated with these narrow sets of things: charter schools, test-based teacher accountability, school closures, etc. But school reform, I think a lot of education advocates would tell you, can be really positive, and I actually think Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren’s education plans both [had] really amazing ideas in them that I think, if even like a quarter of [them were implemented]…

PD

This is why you’ve got to listen to the end of the interview, listeners. There’s always a surprise. 

RC 

[When] I read the plans that they put out—which [were] certainly, I think, influenced by a lot of people—[it shows that people] have just been waiting for a chance to push the country in a different direction. There are a lot of really good ideas there.

PD

I know we’re running out of time, but could you run through a few of the elements of those plans, [very] rapid fire? What are some of the [exciting ideas]? Just to give people a taste so they can look it up later. 

RC 

Oh sure. There [were] a lot of ideas about ways to support teachers and support families to help make schools [better and address]… the kind of issues we were talking about, [to] bring some social services to make schools central parts to the community. School discipline reform to figure out ways that are less punitive in those circumstances. A lot of social [and] emotional support. Lots of schools do not have nurses, and guidance counselors. [Strengthening] libraries, and really [investing] in school infrastructure. That’s a huge problem. 

Lots of schools… don’t have working heaters in the winter or air conditioners in the summer, and it hugely affects a student’s ability to learn. [Reformers] got really tied up with statistical tools to boost learning, but actually a lot of kids need glasses. They don’t have glasses. A lot of kids need non-stuffy classrooms. So there are [a] lot of basic things that we could be doing to make schools more comfortable and accessible and warmer places. 

PD

Well Rachel Cohen, thank you so much for coming to the Current Affairs World Headquarters to talk about this. There [are] a lot of changes happening in this space… So, I encourage all of our listeners to keep following your work covering this. And is there a website or newsletter that you want to promote so that they can keep track with what you’re writing? Or a Twitter handle?

RC 

Well, if you guys want to follow my newsletter, I welcome that…

PD

Thank you so much Rachel, have a good one.

RC 

Yeah, thank you.

Movie Stars and Their Misguided Messiah Complex

One chilly pre-pandemic night, my friends sat around my living room, hunched over mounds of multi-colored sculpey clay, crafting obscene ornaments for my Christmas tree. Stanley Kubrick’s 1999 film Eyes Wide Shut—a Yuletide classic in our house—played in the background, featuring a stilted Tom Cruise skulking through a rear-projected Lower East Side. For some, it’s simply remembered as “that orgy movie,” but I fondly remember it as the film in which Kubrick tortured Cruise with maddening direction. With the recent news of Cruise’s egregious attack on his Mission: Impossible 7 crew, I find myself reveling in the fact that Kubrick made Cruise walk through a door for 95 takes goading, “stick with me, I’ll make you a star.”


“We’re creating thousands of jobs, you motherfuckers,” Cruise spat at his Mission: Impossible 7 crew, the very people he claimed to be saving from economic immiseration. The production had only just reconvened in London after it was shut down several months earlier when 12 workers contracted COVID-19. “No apologies. You can tell it to the people who are losing their fucking homes because our industry is shut down. That’s what I sleep with every night. The future of this fucking industry!!” 

The expletive-laden rant was directed at two masked crew members who stood less than two meters apart from one another, the distance required on U.K. sets for social distancing. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for stars to chew out the crew—hello, Christian Bale circa 2009—nor is it surprising that the producer of a multi-million dollar blockbuster has a messiah complex. What is disconcerting is the applause Cruise received for verbally abusing his crew.

When the Sun released the tape of Cruise’s tirade in December, celebrities and film workers alike praised him for hardlining on set safety. While some offered mild criticisms of Cruise’s tact—George Clooney shrugged and said it wasn’t his “style”—most conceded that the outburst was justified. Given the precarious position the pandemic put the entertainment industry in (and the lax enforcement of safety protocols on some commercial sets) many wished they could do the same. But for those of us who’ve worked for toxic bosses, it was painfully clear this outburst wasn’t inspired by a genuine concern for people’s wellbeing: it was just a belligerent executive blowing off steam. 

Cruise punched down because he could. Human resource departments don’t really exist for filmworkers and would be ineffectual if they did. Given its inherent deference to authority, H.R. would fall apart in an industry that not only respects hierarchy and fame but profits handsomely off it. In theory, filmworkers’ unions should be poised to fight back more strongly—perhaps by threatening walkouts and providing support for crewmembers who walk off set—but in reality they can’t offer much more than a disparaging statement. After decades of state-sanctioned union busting in both the U.S. and the U.K. (including strict limitations on how and if workers can even strike) many unions are chastened, relegated to the singular task of self-preservation. All of this amounts to a callous and quietly tyrannical system, one that tells film workers that if they’re not “tough” enough to handle verbal abuse, or even sexual harassment or grueling hours, they should find other work. As I was once told by a hostile co-producer, “Maybe you should become a teacher or something.”

The industry rarely checks the kind of arrogance that deludes Cruise into thinking another installment of his vanity franchise will save the industry. But what is more pernicious than Cruise’s arrogance is how he evokes the language of the deified “job creator.” When he shrieks “we’re creating thousands of jobs,” what he’s really saying is: you should be grateful I share a few pennies with you. 

It’s the same hubris that allows Jeff Bezos to set up a national sweepstakes for another Amazon HQ, only to balk when New Yorkers didn’t want a few thousand menial jobs and sky-high rents in exchange for billions of dollars in tax breaks. While Cruise may be a far cry from Bezos, in both his wealth and scope of power, his demand for accolades is the same as any capitalist. Not only do they feel entitled to hoard the wealth we produce for them both as workers and consumers—Cruise took home a whopping $43 million in 2017 for starring in only two films—they expect gratitude for providing rapidly-worsening labor conditions, wages, and benefits in return. Cruise doesn’t deserve praise for sending our colleagues to work in the middle of a deadly pandemic to save his bottom line and his status, which are his actual priorities. 

Which brings us to the question: who really puts us at risk? Is it two workers who absentmindedly breached social distancing protocol? Or is it the people making us work under conditions that are antithetical to the collaborative nature of a film set? I would argue the latter, in addition to our government’s refusal to sufficiently tax millionaires like Cruise (whose net worth is estimated at $550-600 million) so that we could pay people to stay home. Just because the unions and studios spent four months hashing out a “safe” return to work plan doesn’t make it conscionable. The U.K. is currently under full lockdown again, this time for six weeks, due to a highly contagious virus variant. The Los Angeles Times has declared that COVID is “everywhere” in L.A. County and productions there have been shuttered once more. While second and third waves crashed across the U.S., Congress held a second stimulus package hostage for eight months to discourage people from staying home. As I predicted back in June, workers were forced to choose between their lives and their livelihoods, and most chose to risk infection rather than eviction or starvation. 

Cruise’s tirade also revealed a double standard that below-the-line workers (the rank and file of the industry) face. The “ability to remain cool under pressure” is a hiring requirement for below-the-line workers but optional for talent like Cruise. Above-the-line workers (actors, screenwriters, producers, directors, etc.) are allowed to mask their toxicity as eccentricity and their blowups as dramatic flair. But a new, more troubling double standard is emerging against the backdrop of COVID. As one anonymous filmworker confided in me last month:

Today my production got shut down because the lead actor tested positive. Nobody is going to shout at [them] like [Cruise shouted at his crew]. Last week my supervisor warned us that if one of us in our department tested positive, [they] would be ashamed. I wanted to point out to [them] that I’m taking huge risks every day… but I just stayed silent.

According to this source (who requested anonymity to avoid being fired or blacklisted), the same actor ended up going abroad for Christmas, disregarding “numerous emails from the production telling us to stay in L.A. and respect the stay at home order.” As a result, the production had no choice but to extend the hiatus in order to give the actor time to quarantine. It’s safe to say that if my colleague traveled abroad against the production’s directive, they would likely be fired or not asked back for jeopardizing the shoot.

We shouldn’t shame people for contracting a highly contagious virus; even those who are abundantly cautious have fallen ill. But there is a clear divide between stars who can defy stay-at-home orders with few repercussions and crew members who could be fired for doing the same. This hypocrisy is rooted in prevailing ideas about who is deemed replaceable—and it was obvious who this was even before the pandemic demonstrated that some of us might even be expendable tributes to the economy. 

My colleague’s anonymity also hints at the industry’s oppressive code of silence. It’s what kept the abuses on Ellen DeGeneres’ set a secret and allowed predators like Harvey Weinstein to hide in plain sight. Whatever form the intimidation or abuse takes, the crew is expected to keep quiet. When asked about Cruise’s blow up on a recent episode of the Jim Norton & Sam Roberts podcast, Ricky Gervais said the quiet part loud. 

“Never mind firing people for not wearing a mask,” said Gervais—it’s worth noting again that the crew members were masked—“what fucker recorded that and gave it to the papers?” To which Norton replied, “That’s what we were saying before. It’s really irritating… they had to tell everyone that the boss was yelling at them.” As is common in these situations, the whistleblower is derided as an oversensitive snitch and the aggressor is absolved as a victim of cancel culture, making it that much harder to hold those in power accountable. 

A few years ago, I worked for an explosive co-producer who read emails over my shoulder, berated me in front of my colleagues, and micromanaged my work to the point where I had a hard time completing basic tasks. Just days before the show wrapped, I took up the issue with the head of my department, prepared with a season’s worth of grievances. I wanted to be thorough because I felt I underperformed on the job due to stress. I wasn’t the only person who had issues with this co-producer—vendors made formal complaints about their temper which resulted in public, sobbing tantrums in our office—but that didn’t make the task any less daunting.

But instead of consolation I received a disappointing yet revealing explanation: “Sometimes we keep people because they are good at what they do.” The next day the co-producer, who’d clearly been made aware of the meeting, issued a vague threat: “I’m sure you all talk about me behind my back while I’m not around and that’s fine—but it’s not cool if it leaves the office.” Later that afternoon, they “joked” that they wanted to throw me in the trunk of a production car.

Despite being a vindictive boss (who I later discovered tormented all of the post coordinators before me), this co-producer was kept on the show year in and year out because they devoted their life to it and were, unquestionably, technically skilled. More importantly though, they met all of the impossible deadlines the production called for—with the help of my occasional, unpaid overtime. It was on this horrid job that I understood that the rules of the industry, and more broadly the rules of capital, were defined by subjugation.

I have no interest in revealing the identity of the co-producer because this is a systemic issue. It starts with people like Cruise and snakes its way through every department to the next overburdened, ill-tempered boss it can find. But I do hope that my experience emboldens others to exercise a shred of solidarity with their colleagues when they’re being intimidated.


“I care about you guys,” Cruise said in a softer tone, as he neared the end of his two-minute MI:7 tirade. As a director, I couldn’t help but admire his nimble gaslighting routine. He nailed all the emotional beats of a toxic dad monologue. Slipping seamlessly into a threat he screamed, “But if you’re not going to help me, you’re gone, okay?!”

Five workers walked off the set the next day, apparently after a second outburst that wasn’t recorded. These are the kinds of workers (and the type of action) that we need to model ourselves after. I understand it’s a lot to ask of my colleagues, especially during such a precarious time, but our sets will only become more cruel and unhinged if we don’t start now. If we continue to use our fear of economic precarity to justify workplace abuses committed against us, we’re in for a hellish future.

Setting aside the current pandemic-induced employment crisis, we can anticipate that the entertainment industry will only become more exclusive as jobs generally become more scarce due to a mix of automation and labor underdemand. If Andrew Cuomo is any indication—the glib, criminally incompetent governor said he’d change his name to “Amazon” Cuomo if he won the HQ2 bid—those in power will continue to sell us out to mitigate job losses. New York already gives entertainment companies corporate welfare in the form of massive tax breaks. Insatiable studios are going to continue to ask: what else can you provide for us

It’s imperative that we, the workers, reclaim that question. As gutted and paralyzed as our labor movement is today, we have to remember that entertainment crafts organized themselves in the very early days of cinema, when robber barons ruled the world. This huge feat should prove that we are capable of challenging the status quo, union and non-union workers alike, at home and abroad. We are not as replaceable as they would like us to think, nor are we as powerless as they’d hope. It’s time we realize that, collectively, we’re the engine that keeps this industry going, not some psychotic Scientologist LARPing as a job creator. 

Puppaganda: How Politicians Use Pets to Convince You of Their Humanity

One of the first things I remember learning about U.S. politics, when I was about seven years old, was that Bill Clinton had a cat named Socks and a dog named Buddy. I am fairly sure they told us about Socks in school, long before we learned about welfare reform and the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. I don’t know who it was that started encouraging children to write letters to Socks and Buddy, but in 1998 Hillary Clinton published a whole book of these notes, along with “more than 80 photos of [the] former first pets” plus “a White House ‘pet history,’ from Dolly Madison’s parrot to Teddy Roosevelt’s menagerie.” The Christian Science Monitor called it “utterly adorable.” (It featured questions from children like: “[Dear Socks:] How does it feel to be top cat? Do you like Buddy? Do you have press conferences with other leader cats? Where is your cat box?”)

Presidential pets are micro-celebrities, and there is even a Presidential Pet Museum that has received coverage all over the media. Both of Barack Obama’s family dogs, Bo and Sunny, have their own Wikipedia pages, complete with full biographies and compilations of media coverage. (There’s even a section devoted to “Controversies,” such as the media flap over why Bo wasn’t a rescue dog.) George W. Bush’s Scottish terrier, Barney, “starred in eleven government film productions” including Barney Cam, Barney Reloaded, Barney’s Holiday Extravaganza, My Barney Valentine, Barney Cam VI: Holiday in the National Parks, and Barney Cam VII: A Red, White and Blue Christmas. (Barney was not universally popular. Karl Rove called him a “lump,” Vladimir Putin suggested he made Bush seem unmanly, and both a Reuters journalist and the public relations director for the Boston Celtics were bitten by Barney.) Some White House functionary spent time making full transcripts of Barney’s motion pictures, which can be found in the Bush archives. The “demand for information [about Barney] was so great” that the Bush White House made a dedicated site, Barney.gov. 

The paparazzi eagerly tries to score new Socks pics

Prospective presidents often showcase their pets. During the Democratic primary, several candidates auditioned their animals for the role of First Dog. Elizabeth Warren’s golden retriever, Bailey, became a fixture of her campaign. Bailey appeared with her when she announced her exploratory committee, and the campaign put out a statement promising there would be many Bailey appearances to come. The Boston Globe suggested that there was a plan to make Bailey as visible as possible because “voters cannot get enough of dogs,” quoting a Democratic P.R. professional who said a dog is a cheap way to manipulate public opinion because it “humanizes, if you will, a candidate. Because we say that dogs are good judges of character.”

The Warren campaign sold “Bailey for First Dog” handkerchiefs and national publications reported on his antics, such as this Business Insider article on the time he stole a burrito. Warren even had a campaign event featuring a 20-foot-tall inflatable replica of Bailey, with giant pennies hanging around its neck to represent Warren’s “two cent tax” policy. (“Big structural Bailey!” supporters chanted, bizarrely.) The Boston Globe ran a whole story on how Bailey reacted to news of Warren dropping out.

Pete Buttigieg gave his dogs, Truman and Buddy, their own dedicated Twitter account with nearly 100,000 followers, from which the dogs tweeted in the voice of the “I Can Haz Cheezburger” cat. (“DAD SAYZ VOTE I SAYZ MORE TREETS LOL,” or what the New York Times called “approximations of the sort of things Midwestern dogs might say, if they actually said anything.”)  Buttigieg put out an entire campaign ad, “Pete and Dogs,” showing him meeting and petting dogs. “This dog understands the true meaning of patriotism,” he said of one that seemed enthusiastic. Another had a Pete 2020 sticker plastered on its fur. Beto O’Rourke, a less gifted propagandist, attempted a photoshoot in which he stood on a dirt road next to a truck with his dog, Artemis. Unfortunately, Artemis looked reluctant to be there, the dog’s “sad eyes” attracting widespread attention on social media. (“Beto’s dog looks like he’s not sure how to tell him he’s voting for Biden,” said one Twitter user.) If you’re wondering where poor mournful Artemis is these days, the answer is “being posed for photos on Twitter dressed as Ruth Bader Ginsburg.”

Pete Buttigieg looks at a dog and a dog looks at Pete Buttigieg

Donald Trump does not have a pet, having called the idea of presidential pets “phony” and rejected a goldendoodle offered to him by a Palm Beach philanthropist, even though his son Barron apparently adored it. (“How would I look walking a dog on the White House lawn?” Trump commented.) He has even been accused of “hating dogs” because of his consistent use of “dog” as a pejorative for his enemies, and the New York Times gave space to an op-ed criticizing Trump for not possessing a dog and begging him to show moral leadership by acquiring one. (“Is it so wrong to think that Donald Trump’s character might have been changed — just the smallest bit — if there were a dog beneath his roof? … Mr. President, I want to believe that somewhere deep inside you, there is a good boy, still waiting to be born.”) 

Joe Biden, however, seems to have realized the power of dogs to garner free positive media attention. One of his German Shepherds, Major, will have its own “Indoguration” ceremony several days before Biden’s own inauguration.  “No ruff days on the campaign trail when I have some Major motivation,” reads a Biden campaign Instagram post. A campaign called Dog Lovers for Joe encouraged voters to “choose their human wisely” and fans even put out a press release in the voice of Biden’s dog. (“Bark bark bark bark bark.”) Biden’s dogs are the subject of their own children’s book. Obama’s Bo had two books of his own, The First Pup: The Real Story of How Bo Got To The White House and First Dog of 1600 Pooch’lvania Avenue: My First Year In Arf, Arf Office!! Clinton’s Socks had a whole Super Nintendo video game made about him, Socks the Cat Rocks the Hill, in which Socks must protect the nuclear codes from falling into foreign hands. (Unfortunately the manufacturer shut down and the game was never released.)

Is all of this completely harmless and innocent? What’s wrong with seeing a leader’s cute dog? Isn’t Biden’s love of dogs a nice thing to cover? It can seem like the height of crabbiness to find anything objectionable or problematic about a lovable pooch like Bailey. And look at this sweet photo of Joe Biden at the Delaware Humane Society collecting Major! 

Low-resolution preview pages from the forthcoming children’s book Champ and Major: First Dogs, depicting (1) Joe Biden collecting a new dog from the Delaware Humane Association (2) Champ and Major watching as Joe Biden inspires the nation (3) Champ sitting by dutifully as Biden performs important work

But we know that at least some of this is calculated branding, an attempt to get the public’s emotional feelings about dogs to cloud its rational judgment about politicians’ actions. What, after all, does a “Pete and Dogs” ad tell us? Why does such an ad exist? Its message is as simple as could be: Pete Buttigieg loves dogs. That’s it. Repeated over and over. Pete loves this dog. Pete loves that dog. And at the end: Vote for Pete.

Could anyone possibly be convinced by this? After all, you know who else loved dogs? Yes, Hitler, who took his German Shepherd Blondi into the bunker with him. (The Nazis did not like cats, however, considering them “the Jews among the animals,” and deriding them as “false, treacherous, and antisocial.”) But as much as our thinking-brain might know that a politician’s love of dogs says nothing about whether their policies are good or evil, we do not always think with our thinking-brains. Buttigieg knows that when we see that a likable dog likes him, part of us may think that maybe there is something to like about him. He can’t be all bad, if that dog is so happy to be around him. 

Joy McCullough, the author of the new children’s book about Biden’s dogs, says of presidential pets that:  

I think they remind us that presidents are people who need family, loved ones and downtime… Caring for animals who rely on us completely shows a capacity for compassion, which I think is really important in a leader, especially one who has as much power as the president of the United States.

In other words, presidential pets do provide persuasive evidence that the president is a good person and will use their power well. (Note that McCullough’s statement could have equally well been used to humanize the Fuhrer.) 

I think it’s actually hard to escape having your impressions molded by photos of people having fun with animals. When I see pictures of Lenin with his cats, it is really difficult for me not to feel a little warmly toward him, even though I intensely dislike Lenin and consider him a mass-murdering authoritarian. McCullough is right: pet-lovers just seem like they must be compassionate. The implicit message is that if a president with a beloved pet commits an atrocity in office, they must have done so thoughtfully, because a person who feels tenderness toward weak things would clearly not do anything that causes terrible harm unless they have good reason to.

There is a good reason to believe that how politicians are seen to interact with animals can affect public perceptions. Richard Nixon, while under scrutiny for financial improprieties during the 1952 election, gave a famous speech defending himself, which tugged at America’s heartstrings with its story of his children’s love for a “little dog” named Checkers that they had received as a gift. The speech was manipulative and conniving, but it shifted public opinion and restored Dwight Eisenhower’s confidence in his running mate. Mamie Eisenhower had apparently said afterward that Nixon was “such a warm person” because of his professed love of the dog, and Checkers became the “dog that saved” Nixon’s career, and who may just have “changed the course of history.” (Nixon had been inspired by an FDR speech that went after the press for “even attacking [his] little dog Fala,” which it has been argued might have “ensured Roosevelt’s re-election.”) 

Conversely, being cruel to animals can create bad P.R. for politicians. Mitt Romney was publicly attacked both times he ran for president over an incident in 1983 in which he strapped a cage containing his Irish Setter, Seamus, on the roof of the family car and took a 12-hour drive in which the dog got horrible diarrhea, which poured down the side of the car. Romney insisted the dog loved the ride. Lyndon Johnson got flak from the Humane Society and the ASPCA after he lifted a beagle by the ears and defended it by saying: “Ya see, pulling their ears is good for a hound. Everybody who knows dogs knows that little yelp you heard just means the dog is paying attention.”

It’s reasonable to conclude that someone who mistreats animals has a moral blindspot. But subconsciously, we may irrationally conclude that the inverse is true: a person who treats animals well must be a good person. We always need to be on guard against propaganda, which manipulates our emotions and prevents us from perceiving the truth.

 It may be hard to perceive anything insidious about headlines like the Washington Post’s “A pet-loving family is on its way to the White House.” Who cares if the New York Times has run headlines about the incoming Biden administration like “Biden to Restore a White House Tradition of Presidential Pets,” “Once again, a cat is set to join the ranks of presidential pets,” or “When the White House Was Full of Claws, Scales, Stripes and Tails.” Was it bad for New York magazine to ask “which candidate is leading the 2020 puppy primary?” 

But yes, it is bad. It’s bad for several reasons. First, it is yet another way of making political discussions be about candidates’ personal lives rather than their policies. It ties into what this magazine has written about as the West Wing view of politics, in which the criteria for who would make the best president is which candidate is the best and most appealing person. (In such a contest, whether you have a dog and are nice to the dog might be seen to matter.) As far as I can tell, there have been more New York Times articles about Joe Biden’s pets than there have been about the implications of his Iraq War vote for his foreign policy. Pet-coverage is all the worse because it seems so harmless, when it actually displaces discussions that matter. Politics affects whether millions of people live or die, and so it is indefensible to spend so much time on what is, at best, distracting trivia, and at worse, the same kind of insidious propaganda that dictators use to humanize themselves. 


This article was originally called “Dogaganda.” After publication, Current Affairs contributor Samuel Miller McDonald pointed out that the correct title was clearly “Puppaganda” and that an opportunity for a superior pun had been missed. The headline has been updated. Current Affairs regrets the oversight.

How the Left Can Oppose the Uyghur Genocide

Since 2017 the Uyghur people—the largest ethnic group of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of northwest China—have been systematically detained in secret concentration camps, tortured, forced to work against their will, and coercively re-educated by the Chinese state in order to erase their Muslim identities and distinctive cultural heritage. The Uyghurs are an indigenous Turkic people of China who converted to Islam 1,000 years ago. Closely related to the Kazakh, Uyghur is a language written in the Arabic script with a long and developed literary tradition. In recent decades, when Uyghurs sought de facto political independence from China, the Chinese state has responded by accusing these “separatists” of “terrorism.” Although the atrocities currently being perpetrated against the Uyghurs are now public knowledge, significant activist initiatives have yet to emerge from the left. This should change, because the oppression of the Uyghurs is as urgent an issue as others on which the left is more active, such as Palestine.

But drawing attention to the plight of the Uyghurs has been an uphill battle. On  July 6, 2020, less than a month after the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act was signed into law in the United States, the United Kingdom’s Foreign Office proudly announced that the U.K. had established a “Global Human Rights sanctions regime, which will target those who have been involved in some of the gravest human rights violations around the world.” The list of individuals targeted was as noteworthy for who was absent from it as it was for who was included. By the Foreign Office’s own account, the majority of targeted individuals—25 in total—were Russians implicated in the death of a single person: tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who worked to uncover governmental corruption within Russia prior to his imprisonment. Second in order of priority were “20 Saudi nationals involved in the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.” Strikingly, this announcement came soon after the United Kingdom had sealed a new arms weapons deal with Saudi Arabia to fund their war in Yemen. Chinese officials, meanwhile, were nowhere to be found on this list.

The headline-grabbing list of targets for this Global Human Rights sanctions regime, with its primary focus on Russian and Saudi officials involved in the deaths of high-profile figures whose murders received widespread media coverage, was complemented by further sanctions against individuals in a small number of other countries: Myanmar, with two individuals sanctioned, North Korea, with two individuals sanctioned, and Belarus, with seven individuals sanctioned. Such was the extent of the United Kingdom’s acknowledgement of global human rights violations. Nothing was said of Uyghurs in China; Palestinians in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza; Kashmir; or the violent crackdown on peaceful protestors in Iran and their leaders’ complicity in human rights violations.

Limited and hypocritical as is this list, the identification of human rights violators and perpetrators of atrocity is not much more objective or disinterested elsewhere in the world, including among leaders of Muslim-majority countries. On October 28, 2020, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan wrote to his fellow leaders of Muslim-majority states, calling on them “to act collectively to counter the growing Islamophobia… causing increasing concern amongst Muslims the world over.” The letter was written a few days after Khan had rebuked French President Emmanuel Macron for “encouraging Islamophobia” following the murder of a French schoolteacher who had shown his students caricatures of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad during class. In announcing this letter, Khan singled out “Western states” for flaming the fires of Islamophobia, while saying nothing about China’s treatment of the Uyghurs. 

Along with other leaders of Muslim-majority states around the world, Khan has been conspicuously silent about an atrocity taking place closer to home: the cultural genocide of China’s 12 million Uyghurs, over 1 million of whom are incarcerated in detention camps, according to current estimates. Indeed, few governments have had anything to say about these events. Those that have, such as the United States, have often done so for partisan political reasons rather than out of concern for human rights. So what is really happening now in Xinjiang? And what can we do about it? 

How China Uses the “War on Terror” to Oppress Uyghurs

In order to answer these questions, we need to review the past few decades in the history of the global war on terror. Scholars and human rights groups concur on the basic facts. To quote a Human Rights Watch report from 2018, the Uyghurs face “mass arbitrary detention, torture, forced political indoctrination, and mass surveillance.” To better understand these developments, we should look at the historical background for the current persecution, deeply embedded as it is in a settler colonial agenda that has been set by U.S.-generated rhetoric relating to the war on terror. 

China’s relations with the Uyghurs, and their activities in Xinjiang, have been driven by settler colonial ambitions, dating to 1949 when the region was incorporated into the newly-formed People’s Republic of China (PRC), and even further back into the 19th century. Xinjiang, the Chinese name for the region where the Uyghurs reside, bears traces of these colonial origins. After East Turkestan was reconquered by the Qing empire in 1884, it was named Xinjiang, meaning “New Dominion” or “New Territory” in Chinese. (Uyghurs still often prefer to refer to their homeland by the older term, East Turkestan.) Although there were stirrings of an independence movement in Xinjiang during the Republican era (1910-1949)—and communist China nominally recognized Uyghur self-governance by renaming the province “Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region,” on the model of the Soviet autonomous Republics of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan—Uyghur language and identity have been consistently suppressed throughout the communist period. 

In his recent book, The War on the Uyghurs: China’s Internal Campaign against a Muslim Minority (2020), political scientist Sean Roberts shows how China’s war on the Uyghurs has been shaped by the U.S. war on terror. Roberts notes that the United States was an early supporter of the PRC’s criminalization of Uyghur Muslims. Within three months of the September 11 attacks that became a watershed moment in the internal American discourse on terrorism, China released a white paper entitled “Terrorist Activities Perpetrated by ‘Eastern Turkistan’ Organizations and their Ties with Osama bin Laden and the Taliban.” With a keen eye to the geopolitical rhetoric that was in favor at the time, the PRC singled out the so-called Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) as a threat to China’s security. This report was later removed from the public domain, perhaps due to the unfavorable light it casts on China’s treatment of Uyghurs in an era of mass internment. 

The strategy employed by the white paper—of criminalizing an entire population by associating them with the war on terror—proved extraordinarily effective. In 2012, as the United States bombed Afghanistan under the pretext of stopping Islamic militants, the U.S. and the United Nations repeated the characterization of ETIM as a terrorist organization. As journalist James Bovard notes in his skeptical account of these proceedings, “no evidence is required to add an alleged terrorist group to the UN list… each member government of the United Nations effectively takes another government’s ‘word’ that some group is actually terrorist.” In this case, both the United States and the United Nations followed China’s guidance on classifying their domestic insurgents as terrorists without further reflection. In the years that followed, the mythical linkage of Uyghur Muslims to terrorists gathered force. This narrative was endorsed by U.S. think tanks such as the Council on Foreign Relations and the Center for Defense Information. In 2017, local Chinese media began to refer to the “counter-extremism training centers” that were being constructed for the internment of the Uyghur population. As of 2019, up to one of every 10 Uyghurs in China is currently interned in one of these camps.

Since 2017, many of the organizations that were keen to smear ETIM as a terrorist group have begun to add nuance to their stance and take a more critical view of China’s conduct in Xinjiang. In an important briefing paper released in July 2020 on the “Responsibility of States under International Law to Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang, China,” the Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales set forth the legal basis for the charge of genocide with respect to China’s treatment of the Uyghurs. As defined in the United Nations’ Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which entered into force in 1951, genocide is “the commission of certain prohibited acts with an intent to destroy, in whole or part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group… as such.” Key to the legal definition of genocide is the stipulation that there must be “special intent to destroy, in whole or in part, the protected group.”

Although the charge of genocide still needs to be adjudicated in court, media reports over the course of the past three years have made a convincing case that what is taking place in Xinjiang amounts to genocide. Researchers have documented campaigns of forced sterilizations, including forced abortion, the insertion of IUDs into women against their will, and other forms of mandatory birth control. Such coercive population control is part of a campaign to suppress the Uyghur birth rate in Xinjiang. Women whose husbands have been detained have been forced to sleep with Han men. Children have been forcibly separated from parents in detention and placed in orphanages. Uyghurs have been killed in detention camps and there is widespread evidence of torture. According to one survivor, “Rape occurs in prison and in the prisons. 99 percent of women are actually experiencing it, but they wouldn’t talk about it because they feel too ashamed.” Extreme surveillance is also common, whereby Uyghurs are criminalized simply for referring to their homeland as East Turkestan rather than Xinjiang. The Uyghur language is forbidden in schools. Innocuous behaviors, such as mosque attendance, are enough to place a Uyghur under heavy surveillance and make them a candidate for internment in a camp. For all of these reasons, scholars and legal experts have taken to referring to what is taking place among the Uyghurs in China as “cultural genocide.”

The Uyghur cultural genocide poses an urgent humanitarian crisis to citizens of all states around the world. The legal obligation that states have to prevent genocide will only be enforced when their citizens insist on this obligation. Yet, in states where citizens are uninformed about this cultural genocide, governmental apathy has prevailed over incipient activism. Attempts to hold China to account under international law have therefore been of limited use. An international tribunal convened by human rights lawyer Sir Geoffrey Nice was set up in September 2020 to assess claims of genocide. In a world truly ruled by international law, the U.N.’s Human Rights Council would also be investigating those claims. Yet, China holds an influential position within that very council, and will not permit the adjudication of such claims. Although China is a signatory to the indigenous peoples’ United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2008), it does not recognize any indigenous peoples other than the Han on its own territory. Due to China’s successful circumvention of its legal obligations, Uyghurs have been denied the protections that legal commitments to uphold minority rights guarantee on paper. 

Meanwhile, both European and Muslim-majority states hesitate to criticize the policies and practices of the world’s second largest economic superpower. Amid this stalemate, the creation of an independent, international tribunal to assess whether what is taking place amounts to genocide is a step in the right direction. Such an assessment will help to create a framework for future grassroots mobilization and may also assist such groups in pressuring states to take action. Although many experts and well-informed commentators have called what is happening in Xinjiang a cultural genocide, there has to date been no institution that could formally assess such allegations. If the status of the Uyghur persecution is determined to rise to the level of genocide, even by this ad hoc tribunal, that would constitute the most compelling evidence to date, and it would further clarify the legal obligations of states to not only punish acts of genocide, but to proactively prevent them. Activists could reference the tribunal’s findings by way of resisting efforts by the Chinese government and its apologists to downplay this atrocity. It should not be left to states to determine how this tribunal will put its findings into effect, however. Private citizens must take action now, and develop a strategy for further action when the results of the inquiry are released. 

How the International Left Can Support the Uyghur People

There is much that activists concerned with human rights violations can do to compel their states to take action. First, by lobbying our elected officials, we can pressure the states of which we are citizens to implement Magnitsky-style sanctions that target specific individuals—for example, Communist Party leaders in Xinjiang and administrators of the detention camps—implicated in the Uyghur cultural genocide. Even if the individuals targeted remain in their countries and have no international assets to freeze, targeted sanctions would put China on the defensive, forcing those responsible to try to justify their actions in the court of public opinion. Since targeted sanctions only came into effect in 2012, it is as yet too early to fully gauge their effectiveness as an instrument of international diplomacy. But as one of the few options open to states to register their opposition to human rights violations without inflicting harm on a civilian population, such targeted sanctions clearly have a place in progressive foreign policy. 

In fact, Magnitsky-style sanctions have already begun to be deployed against the Uyghurs’ oppressors. The United States first issued such sanctions against China in July 2020, when three senior Chinese officials who occupy the highest echelons of power in Xinjiang were banned from entering the U.S. due to their role as perpetrators of the Uyghur cultural genocide. Unilateral action by the United States is always problematic, however, because such acts are inevitably associated—especially by Muslims and once-colonized peoples—with this country’s long involvement in imperial and neo-imperial wars, and its support for dictators across the Muslim world and beyond. Although its application of Magnitsky-style sanctions is a positive move, the United States overall has limited credibility when it comes to defending Muslim rights. Targeted sanctions would be more effective if they were applied broadly by the international community, in a collective and concerted act to bring the perpetrators of the Uyghur cultural genocide to account. 

Meanwhile, ordinary Muslims, increasingly aware that the Uyghurs are being targeted specifically as Muslims, are taking action. Leftists have a duty to support them. Muslims in Indonesia, Malaysia, and across Central Asia and Russia are beginning to mobilize around this issue, and calling their own states to account for their inaction. Recently, Indonesia’s Irawan Ronodipuro, the foreign-policy spokesman for leading opposition candidate Prabowo Subianto, criticized President Jokowi for failing to speak out on behalf of the Uyghurs. “As the country with the largest Muslim population, Indonesia should have significant bargaining power to address such humanitarian tragedy,” Ronodipuro said. Muslim groups in North America are also taking a stand. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), for example, issued a press release urging Americans to demand that Trump “Formally Designate China’s Oppression of Uyghur Muslims as ‘Genocide.’” Leftists wary of the United States’ reputation as an imperialist invader should consider aligning with such Muslim movements to increase the viability and visibility of the global opposition to the Uyghur cultural genocide, rather than relying exclusively on the military and economic power of the states where they reside. 

While states should be pressured to adopt targeted sanctions against Chinese officials, other means of action are available to private citizens.  In fact, the Uyghur cultural genocide affects consumers in the United States and Europe to a much greater degree than many of us would like to admit. According to a 2020 report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), everyday items like Nike sneakers, iPhone cameras, and the screens used in smartphones, tablets, and computers are all made by Uyghurs in forced labor camps. Multinational corporations’ complex supply-chains make it difficult to establish direct culpability, but it is widely known that the Chinese government regularly subjects Uyghurs to forced labor regimes, forcing them to work at factories across China against their will and for below-subsistence wages after their release from detention camps. These factories in turn supply goods to many European and North American companies, especially clothing manufacturers and the tech industry. At present, roughly 20 percent of all the world’s cotton is produced in Xinjiang. Even products few would associate with forced labor, such as tomato paste, have links to these detention camps. Among the major U.S.-based brands that depend on products produced in Xinjiang are Nike, Apple, Microsoft, Gap, and Calvin Klein. Ironically, Nike, like other companies on this list, has been at the forefront of rebranding itself in light of the Black Lives Matter movement with inspirational advertisements promising to “stand up for equality and work to break down barriers for athletes all over the world.”

A citizen-led boycotting of companies with supply chains reliant on Uyghur forced labor would interrupt the economic basis of the cultural genocide, but we shouldn’t stop here. Because the precise supply chain leading from Uyghur forced labor to multinational companies is often (deliberately) shrouded in mystery, activists must demand greater transparency. In 2017, the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre asked a number of multinational corporations to clarify their supply chains after they had ignored requests made by ASPI when drafting their report. The list of offending companies included Abercrombie & Fitch, Adidas, Amazon, BMW, Gap, H&M, Inditex, Marks & Spencer, Nike, North Face, Puma, PVH, Samsung and UNIQLO, Apple, Esprit, and Fila. Still, this is just the beginning of the investigative work that needs to be done. 

Neither the ASPI nor the Bar Human Rights Committee act on behalf of governments.  Grassroots activists are vital in pushing these investigations forward and in pressuring companies to respond to the information gathered. That such pressure can make a difference is evidenced by the decision of Swedish clothing company H&M, which cut their ties with a Chinese yarn producer after  the ASPI report revealed the yarn producer relied on Uyghur forced labor. Since the United Kingdom passed the Modern Slavery Act in 2015, companies with an annual turnover of over £36 million ($48 million) are required to publish an annual slavery and human trafficking statement. Similar legislation was passed in Australia in 2018. These laws also apply to non-U.K. companies that carry out business in the United Kingdom, including transnational U.S. corporations. Gaps in U.S. legislation to combat modern slavery are broadly addressed in the case of the Uyghurs by the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, passed by Congress in March 2020, which requires companies to certify that their supply chains do not rely on “the forced labor of Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and members of other Muslim minority groups in Xinjiang.” Such legally-binding compliance statements can form the basis for future activism, and drive campaigns to obtain further details about their supply chains. 

Ordinary people have other means of combating the Uyghur genocide at their disposal as well. In some cases, Uyghurs who have fled Xinjiang may be able to sue companies that profit from Uyghur forced labor. Activists can make strategic use of freedom of information (FOI) regulations which require that any public organization disclose its internal documents and correspondence on request. While FOI legislation does not generally apply to the private sector, government contracts with private companies are covered by such regulations. Furthermore, judiciary systems in most European and North American states allow for private prosecution of companies suspected to be in violation of international and domestic human rights law. In order to pursue this option, someone who is directly affected by the Uyghur cultural genocide would need to bring a case against the company in question. Even if the courts ultimately decided against the claimant, the legal process itself could lead to disclosures of documents that would further the search for transparency and accountability in supply chains linking Uyghur forced labor to markets in Europe and North America. In addition, following  the example of activist campaigns for divestment from apartheid South Africa, such work shows multinational corporations that it is in their best interest to end their complicity in the Uyghur cultural genocide. 

The suffering of China’s Muslims may seem distant to many activists in North America and Europe. This assumption of distance is grounded in an illusion, however. Every time we turn our computer on, buy a new shirt from the Gap, or add tomato paste to our pasta sauce, we are potentially complicit in the detention, torture, and rape of Uyghurs and the slow extermination of their culture. The fact that our governments prefer to look the other way as China seeks to eradicate and coercively assimilate their largest Muslim population does not absolve us of our duty to resist. If the erasure of a minority community were taking place in our neighbourhoods and communities, what would we do? This is happening to the Uyghurs of China every day, and it is an atrocity we cannot afford to ignore. 

When it comes to the oppression of minority populations, geographic distances have a way of shrinking much faster than we expect. The surveillance apparatus that China has developed for monitoring and persecuting its Uyghur population involves technologies such as facial recognition that have captured the interest of U.S. corporations as well. Ironically, this surveillance apparatus has been built with the help of U.S. behemoths such as IBM and Google. State surveillance is big business, after all. As journalist Ross Andersen has suggested, “Once Xi perfects this system in Xinjiang… [H]e could also export it beyond the country’s borders, entrenching the power of a whole generation of autocrats.” The recent $400 billion deal between China and the authoritarian Islamic Republic of Iran, which commits the two countries to close strategic and economic cooperation for the next 25 years, should be viewed in this light. 
As we know from history, governments often develop the means to oppress their minority populations using tactics that were first piloted elsewhere. The adoption of Jim Crow laws normalizing segregation between Blacks and whites in the U.S. South by Nazi Germany shows that the infrastructure of persecution is as mobile as the modes of resisting it. One thing at least is certain: what happens in Xinjiang will not stay in Xinjiang.