IN MY IMAGINATION, THE ACTIVIST communities to which many of us feel close affection are each in separate little boats paddling ourselves through swirling waters. Whether flagged for environmental integrity, social and economic justice, community solidarity, or people’s democracy, sometimes our boats go forward, then backwards, sometimes sideways. But one cannot help but notice that the boats tend strongly to move together, carried along by currents more powerful than our efforts.
Far too often, progressives neglect the underlying currents that are powerfully affecting all our boats. These currents heavily determine whether we make progress in our journeys or move backwards or go nowhere at all.
To succeed in the major ways we dream about requires understanding those underlying forces that shape our prospects. Once we know what we are dealing with, the good news is that progressives can join together in facing a shared situation. The inconvenient news is that when we look at the common, underlying causes of the problems, we find forces that are deeply burrowed in the American mainstream, often so widely and conventionally accepted as the American Way that to challenge them appears radical to many.
Pursuing these ideas, I have highlighted this year books that seek to understand the underlying forces or drivers that affect the prospects for many (perhaps most) activist communities struggling nationally and locally today. As before, I have focused only on recent books, ones published in 2022 and 2023. I report on books that have made it to my attention without effort on my part to scan the full horizon. My apologies for that.
By Naomi oreskes and Erik M. Conway
The powerful book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, The Big Myth: How American Business Taught Us To Loathe Government and Love the Free Market (Bloomsbury, 2023), starts with the observation that in area after area, the overreliance on markets and underreliance on government cost us all dearly. In answering how this is happening, the authors present a detailed history of the Twentieth Century rise to dominance of “market fundamentalism.”
|A KEY QUOTE: “business leaders and conservative intellectuals worked for more than a century to build a myth that, in the past forty years, has come to dominate American thinking and discourse. . . It is the myth that markets are efficient and governments are inefficient. That markets work and public policies fail. . . The Big Myth has a tenacious hold. . . The deification of markets and demonization of government has deprived us of the tools and the insights we need to address the challenges before us.”
by Robert Costanza
Robert Costanza’s valuable new book, Addicted to Growth: Societal Therapy for a Sustainable Wellbeing Future (Routledge, 2022), shows how our misplaced commitment to growing GDP and economic activity – our growth fetish – is now leading the world towards increasing social as well as environmental degradation. Searching for a way forward, he skilfully applies to the societal level what we know about treating personal addictions.
|A KEY QUOTE: “The bottom line is that the massive GDP we can now produce [leads to] extensive unintended and under acknowledged damages to our ecological life support system and our social capital. Yet this vision of the economy as an ever-expanding producer of marketed goods and services, with little consideration of the negative side effects, is still the primary policy goal of almost all countries today.”
BY JON D. ERIKSON
For Jon D. Erickson, a strong current pushing against social and environmental progress is the ascendency and grip of neoclassical economics, as he cogently describes in The Progress Illusion: Reclaiming Our Future from the Fairytale of Economics (Island Press, 2022). Erickson, an accomplished economist himself, skewers the economics that has dominated teaching, research, and policy for a hundred years. He sees modern economics as an “untethered child roaming the halls of academia doing great harm,” and he reaches for something better.
|A KEY QUOTE: “Neoclassical economics was perfectly situated to bolster capitalism as the ideal form of economic organization. From the ashes of the Progressive Era, the queen of the social sciences ascended to her throne, rarely to reexamine her own contentious beginnings.”
THESE THREE BOOKS COMPLEMENT each other in urging that we topple today’s reigning economic orthodoxies before it is too late. The three histories that follow are different. They tell the story of the currents that are not there – the powerful progressive currents that were lost.
by Adam hochschild
Adam Hochschild, in his admirable American Midnight: The Great War, a Violent Peace, and Democracy’s Forgotten Crisis (Mariner Books, 2022), tells the heartwrencing story of the relentless and often violent repression of dissent and protest during the administration of President Woodrow Wilson. Chief among the targets of these efforts were the socialists and their frequent allies in the more militant labor movement. Socialism in America was once a force to be reckoned with; focusing on the critical 1917-21 period, Hochschild relates how it was crushed.
|A KEY QUOTE: “The Socialist Party would never recover from the mass jailings and the crushing of its press that took place under Wilson. Had it not been so hobbled, even with a minority of voters, it might well have pushed the mainstream parties into creating the sort of stronger social safety net and national health insurance systems that people take for granted in Canada and Western Europe today.”
by gary gerstle
In The Rise and Fall of the Neoliberal Order: America and the World in the Free Market Era (Oxford Univeristy Press, 2022), Gary Gerstle brilliantly explains the end of the New Deal order and the rise of neoliberalism, capped by the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. He describes how neoliberalism was born as a challenge to the New Deal and to its idea that “government was the instrument through which public good would be pursued and achieved.”
|A KEY QUOTE: “The anger among these proprietary capitalists at government and the New Deal order gave the Reagan revolution its radical edge. Its members never ceased being inspired by Barry Goldwater’s declaration in his 1964 acceptance speech that ‘extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.’ No expense was to be spared in mounting this defense, which is why the Kochs, the Coorses, and their ilk were investing large sums from their personal fortunes into foundations, PACs, and candidates that, in their eyes, might save their enterprises and the American system of freedom that had made them possible.”
by Nicole hemmer
Nicole Hemmer tells of the rise of the radical Right and its pitchfork politics, when Democrats ceased being competitors and became enemies, in her lively Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s (Basic Books, 2022). Therein of Buchanan, Limbaugh, Gingrich and more, down to the present! It is, in effect, the story of why our government barely works in today’s world of hyperpartisanship and political polarization.
|A KEY QUOTE: “The party’s transformation, sudden though it seemed (in 2016 with Trump’s election), had been underway for a quarter century: in the turn toward nativism and a more overt racism, in the criticisms of conservative elites, in the wariness about free trade and democracy, in the sharp-elbowed, fact-lite punditry. . . (The partisans) all worked to develop a politics that was not just conservative but antiliberal, that leaned into the coarseness of American culture and brought it into politics, that valued scoring political points above hewing to ideological principles.”
THERE ARE MORE SOURCES OF unwelcomed currents, of course. Behind growthism is our insatiable consumerism. America’s dominant cultural values remain decidedly materialistic and anthropocentric. Our reigning constitutional interpretation is a flawed originalism. Starting with the Constitution, our democracy is misconstructed and now at the point of major dysfunction. And there is still a military-industrial complex working away.
Still, there are some encouragements and, even more, avenues for engagement. America’s aversion to socialist thinking is fading, at least among young people. Labor activism is increasing. Gerstle sees the neoliberal order coming apart and speculates that a new progressive order may be emerging. Critics of market fundamentalism will be encouraged by the affirmation of government action in the first years of the Biden administration, as difficult as it has been. There are signs of new economic thinking springing up, including a sustained critique of GDP as a measure of progress and the emergence of ecological economics. And the fight for a democratic future is joined and underway.