THE FIRST QUARTER of the twenty-first century fast approaches its end, and all is not well in human welfare. According to the UN secretary-general, some 360 million people worldwide are in need of humanitarian assistance. Beset by challenges of its own making (corruption, abuse, influence-peddling), as well as developments, like climate change, beyond its control, the humanitarian industry faces down an era of permanent crisis.
Whither humanitarianism? Straight to hell, according to Joshua Craze, in his history of “the angel’s creed” professed by the European bureaucrats who preside over never-ending famine and war. The humanitarian, he continues in his contribution to the issue’s titular symposium, might soon be held in as much contempt as the colonial missionary is today. Michael Barnett, Miriam Ticktin, Alex de Waal, Musab Younis, and Hong (Stella) Zhang offer their agreements, rejoinders, and addenda to the debate.
Elsewhere, the actions of global leaders past and present offer little confidence on the matter. Tim Schwab writes on the Big Philanthropy of Bill Gates, who has attempted to trick the public into viewing his self-interest as charitable largesse, while Laura Robson details how the United Nations remade refugees as precarious, unprotected labor during and after the Cold War.
The issue also features contributors considering the legacy of specific twenty-first-century humanitarian efforts. Pooja Bhatia describes how the UN tried to deny responsibility for bringing cholera to Haiti following the 2010 earthquake, refusing to this day to make adequate reparations for the deaths caused by their workers. Helen Epstein chronicles the failure of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (better known as PEPFAR) to end, per its Bush-administration architects’ ambition, the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa once and for all.
Domestically, Sam Russek considers “humonetarianism,” or conservative social reform which is derived from grievances over taxes rather than concern for human dignity, as applied to criminal justice in Texas. Elsewhere in the state, Caroline Tracey profiles the forensic anthropologists of Operation Identification, who attempt to identify and repatriate the remains of migrants too often carelessly buried in the borderlands. Tanvi Misra highlights the United States’ shoddy, patchwork, and often abusive system for dealing with unaccompanied migrant youth who survive that treacherous crossing.
What can be done, in the face of all this failure? There aren’t easy solutions precipitating from these pages, though there is at least one rough consensus: no more dollar-a-day campaigns that use the supposedly pitiful as props and ultimately line humanitarians’ pockets. Consider the work of Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise, or CATPC, a cooperative of Congolese artists purchasing back ancestral lands from Unilever with funds derived from the exhibition and sale of their work in a contemporary art world whose institutions have been financed by the very exploitation of said lands. On slash-and-burned palm oil plantations with depleted soil, CATPC plants forests and plans for self-sufficiency. Slow work, to be sure, but their own: tangible, direct, and with nary an angel in sight.
TikTok chefs stir-frying and red-cooking in idyllic Sichuan countrysides, listicles of where to get not-your-nonna’s tagliatelle, Youtube channels featuring artery-busting barbecue smoked by men who seem, above all, engorged: What are we awash in today but endless food content? With issue no. 70, The Baffler overcomes the dyspepsia induced by such gluttony to consider the contemporary consumable.
The issue features reports regarding the psychoactive substances of (semi)legal choice, with Adrian Nathan West taking on the craft cocktail bar and Kathleen Alcott scrutinizing the weed restaurant: the former home to a frenzy of ritualized “premiumization” and the latter a portal to an otherworldly catatonia. Equally replete with body horror is Will Self’s fiction contribution to the issue, featuring a surgeon’s diary of fantastical operations. Meanwhile, Chris Crowley writes on the gratuity-included attempts to solve the eternally vexed politics of tipping in America; and, across the pond, Ruby Tandoh visits the British seaside destination of Margate, which is caught between a creative class fairytale of cute restaurants highlighting seasonal ingredients and the hardscrabble town as it actually stands.
Of course, every plated morsel is not the sui generis product of a noble chef working in harmony with nature but the precipitate result of a bewildering tangle of agricultural and economic policy, as Alan Guebert describes in his overview of farming in the United States. For millions of food-insecure Americans, to plate a morsel at all requires food stamps, which Christopher Bosso defends in his treatise on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Elsewhere, Karen Olsson’s history of the Texas Observer considers the often tenuous connection we have to the land, one made only stranger by online tradwives in Gaby Del Valle’s report on influencers on the range. Sometimes this connection is deliberately severed, as Sarah Aziza details in her essay on Israel’s history of “making the desert bloom” by planting water-intensive monocrops over the site of ethnically cleansed Palestinian villages, while Jen Monroe depicts several victims through sugary sculptures of our messy agricultural present. Such distance can be remedied, argues M. Jahi Chappell in an interview with Zoé VanGelder, by the decommodifying principles of agroecology, a discipline which seeks to design more equitable and sustainable food systems aligned with the needs of local communities. Though the land itself must first be protected from the golf course-ification of the world, as the baker of a Wisconsin-famous whole-grain treat attempts to do in Dave Denison’s account of the Guerrilla Cookie and its erratic creator, Ted Odell.
It’s been twenty years since Las Vegas debuted “What happens here, stays here.” The slogan is a winking celebration of self-containment that, of course, has never quite been true. (Hence, perhaps, the marvelously redundant update three years ago: “What happens here, only happens here.”) If Las Vegas is, as writer and resident Amanda Fortini has written, “a place about which people have ideas”—i.e. a locale whose specificity is often ignored for received narratives—the Nevadan mecca has at this point also sublated into an idea in and of itself. A beacon “more brighter than the sun,” to quote the Cocteau Twins’s “Heaven or Las Vegas,” the city’s icons and ethos are unbounded by geography and suffuse the rest of the country, if not the world.
What happens in Las Vegas, stays in Las Vegas, and Las Vegas is everywhere. The internet has turned into a massive casino (with painfully non-digital stakes), as William Powhida makes clear in his portraits of “GraftKings,” those profiting from other people’s digital bets on meme stocks and independent coin offerings. Elsewhere, Jacob Silverman skewers the DeFi-crazed pseudo-populists claiming that anyone can win big, framing crypto-leaders as a cartel; and George Scialabba considers two books on private equity’s captains of post-industry, who make money not out of things but of spreadsheets. In conversation with historian Avery Dame-Griff, Jamie Lauren Keiles discusses a more utopian period of emergent tech: the dawn of Web 1.0, which quickly became a way for isolated trans people to connect with and learn from each other.
As manufacturing plummets, Sin City hospitality professors argue that the country’s future bends toward their home’s characteristic Fun Economy™: “tourism, plus sports, plus entertainment,” in the words of Bo Bernhard, vice president of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. This issue’s authors examine the underbelly of our new leisurely present. In Vegas proper, Michael Friedrich probes the nostalgia-tripping cash grab that is the recently opened Punk Rock Museum, while Liz Pelly looks at Amazon’s failed Intersect festival and the corporation’s devouring of the music business. Nationally, Rachel Wilkinson chronicles amusement parks’ post-Covid experiments in attempting to serve their customers “authentic reality.”
Maybe the question is who stays in Vegas, though the people who live there can be, as anywhere, peripatetic. Sam Sweet offers three portraits of gamblers and entertainers living between Las Vegas and Los Angeles, and Erica Vital-Lazare contributes a personal essay about finding a home—and reconciliation—in the outlaw city to which her father fled when she was just four years old. Considering Pamela Anderson’s surprising (if brief) mid-career stint on the Strip as a magician’s assistant, Philippa Snow argues against simplified victimization narratives common to the recent boom in feminist reclamations of maligned women of the 1990s and 2000s. Isobel Harbison writes a requiem for Betty Willis, designer of the countlessly copied and globally reproduced “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign, and the unsung women whose work is integral in making the city’s mythos.
Labor indeed makes Las Vegas tick, as David Hill writes in his account of the Teamsters’ mob-assisted role in building the city as we know it. From the taxi driver that picks you up at the airport to the bellhop that lets you into your room, Vegas is a union town going strong, a labor bastion in the middle of a right-to-work state and nationally declining union density. Hopefully what happened there can happen elsewhere.
Good luck finding respite at home from whatever horror casts a pall over your life, as it’s hard to find quietude, peace, hygge, etc., given the outside world’s constant intrusions into the domestic. Chemical spills kill our pets, inflation halves our grocery budgets, and that’s holding aside the question of housing insecurity itself. After the glory days of zero interest rates, the twenty-first-century spin on the American idyll of homeownership has come crashing to a halt with the end of easy money on tap (and the rise of gas prices, which has upended even van-life dreams). Many are realizing what the poor have always known. “Rent eats first,” to quote sociologist Matthew Desmond’s work on eviction—or your mortgage payments do.
How do we put more people in homes, and how do we make sure they’re able to stay there? The interminable debate has seen YIMBYs and NIMBYs become the Hatfields and McCoys of housing; Ian Volner braves the yay-nay vitriol to ask whether the whether is the problem, when there’s so much to be pondered with regards to the what—as in what exactly are we building in our backyards, and have built already? Poorly insulated buildings that are hazardous to our health, Patrick Sisson answers, in his survey of American construction. Nothing exemplifies this more than the country’s undying preoccupation with the McMansion, as Kate Wagner points out, which has survived financial crises and ecological catastrophes to become a suburbanite monument to this country’s will to self-annihilation.
Not that the suburbs weren’t already memorials to housing failures, as Dave Denison argues while revisiting the 1985 classic Crabgrass Frontier, which chronicles the federal government’s mid-century role in keeping the suburbs lily-white. Focusing on the country’s capital, Kaila Philo traces the persistence of racial disparities in housing some fifty-five years after the Fair Housing Act, despite its intent to help realize a multiracial democracy in this country. Sadly, the most ambitious visions for housing now seem to come from tech billionaires dabbling in utopic urban planning, but as Charlie Dulik writes, these crypto-cities say more about their would-be founders’ fears and dreams than how we might actually accommodate anyone. These supposed marvels of technological splendor will likely run on salad, as do knowledge workers today, according to Aaron Timms—at least those not eating pastéis de nata in Lisbon and bandeja paisa in Bogotá while typing away in their Airbnbs, as Jessa Crispin describes in her reflections on the American cosmopolitan. Laura Grace Ford wanders through the blighted landscape of Coventry, where life crawls along through the ruins of industrial collapse.
When the state does actively decide to house people, it usually does so violently. Jess McAllen shows how politicians across the country have been rolling out forced treatment policies amid an increase in fearmongering about people with mental illness being violent. Meanwhile, those in jail face the increasing use of bails set by algorithms, as Bryce Covert reports; meant to provide a fairer measure of whether defendants should be released pretrial, such tools have failed to live up to their promise. As always, regardless and in spite of their conditions, people wrest autonomy from their surroundings, dream of better homes. Joshua Craze reports on deportees to South Sudan attempting to build new lives, despite widespread corruption and famine, in the youngest country in the world. In Dorothee Elmiger’s fiction, a narrator considers how prisoners in nineteenth-century London dreamed of new lives in the colonies. And a group of women in Tokyo known as the Koyama-san Notebook Workshop transcribe and reflect on the writings of a homeless member of their community, her diaries providing a glimpse into a woman’s struggle to maintain dignity despite the myriad forces arrayed against her.
“The nation is not a political fiction,” Michel-Rolph Trouillot writes in his 1990 treatise, Haiti: State Against Nation, “it is a fiction in politics.” Politicians, revolutionaries, concerned citizens—we all spin yarns in our attempts to take control of the very real powers of state. One such predominant tale is the national interest, a conception of a country’s definitive aims that is held by some as easily—even rationally—determined. As international relations realist Hans J. Morgenthau wrote in a 1952 essay on the United States’ national interest, “Taken in isolation, the determination of its content in a concrete situation is relatively simple; for it encompasses the integrity of the nation’s territory, of its political institutions, and of its culture.”
Territory, politics, culture: these are quite a lot of inputs for such a monolithic concept. Morgenthau himself saw problems in his formulation, admitting the national interest could be elusive in concept and susceptible to interpretations “such as limitless imperialism and narrow nationalism.” One thinks, for instance, of the Bush White House’s security strategy of unilateral and extrajudicial force, based, in their own telling, on a “union of our values and our national interests.” In Baffler no. 67, we survey then the ways in which the idea of the national interest creates what Trouillot calls “the bleak homogeneity” pushed by those fighting for the nation’s reins.
As Lyta Gold discovers while scrutinizing conservative pundit Jonah Goldberg’s career of half-baked answers to the question “What makes America great?,” a self-justifying eminence is often cited by those claiming to act in the national interest. Others find inspiration in less lofty sources: Ron DeSantis’s America First worldview owes a debt to the 1992 legal thriller A Few Good Men, as Jasper Craven uncovers in his examination of the Florida governor’s military service history and constant public defense of an abstract “freedom” even as he rolls back civil liberties. Also worshiped and rather nebulous is the Federal Reserve, whose supposed omnipotence as public economic authority is skewered by Andrew Elrod’s detailing of the institution’s recent struggles to tamp down inflation, and its powerlessness relative to the corporate boardroom. Rising prices are felt the world over, of course, as Shamira Ibrahim describes in her account of Ghana’s efforts to sell the nation as a pan-African tourist destination while the country’s working class struggles with a ballooning cost of living.
Elsewhere in the issue, our authors consider those already subsumed by these bleak homogeneities. Vegetarianism is elevated to national creed in Sharanya Deepak’s report from an India shifting rightward, where Dalits and non-Hindus find themselves harassed and beaten for the act—and sometimes the mere suspicion—of eating beef. Tareq Baconi writes of the dilemmas faced by grassroot feminist activists in Egypt caught between imperial legacies and a neopatriarchal order. Umber Majeed’s collages imagine a world where Pakistanis dispossessed by the war on terror may virtually experience the country’s twenty-first century economic revitalization. And Gaby Del Valle chronicles the labyrinthine immigration bureaucracy that confronts migrants to the United States, where this country’s political parties are unanimous in telling them, to quote Kamala Harris in Guatemala nearly two years ago, “Do not come.”
The weather cares little for lines on a map, regardless of how much money a nation pumps into border security and deportation proceedings. As rising temperatures make water ever scarcer, Ann Neumann examines Egypt and Ethiopia’s dueling claims over the Nile. Meanwhile, Thomas Geoghegan makes the argument for world government itself to confront climate change, with a half-utopic, half-utilitarian argument in favor of the European Union that reaches back to Kant’s musings on a perpetual peace. Which isn’t to suggest that forgetting about previous conflicts would be easy. As J.C. Hallman realizes on a trip taking in gun-themed graffiti, Kentucky Fried Chicken chains, and genocide memorials in the Armenian capital of Yerevan, at times the national interest is a desperately commemorative one, a furious insistence on not forgetting horrors past, nor dismissing them as fictions.
Finally, in a short story by Damion Searls, a group of aging Gen Xers reminisce about mixtapes, documentaries, and strange encounters with the ineffable, against 2016’s bewildering backdrop of Trump’s rise to power—a time in which the national interest seemed, contra Morgenthau, far from simple. “We turned away,” the narrator recounts, from “everything that past generations and centuries had told us we should want, and we had no vocabulary to describe how their absence felt or what it might mean.”
IN THE WORST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1990), the late, great Barbara Ehrenreich looked back on the rise of “aggressively ‘profamily’” activists of the 1980s. “They have invoked ‘the family’ when they trample on the rights of those who hold actual families together, that is, women,” she wrote. “They have used it to justify racial segregation and the formation of white-only, ‘Christian’ schools. And they have brought it out, along with flag and faith, to silence any voices they found obscene, offensive, disturbing, or merely different.”
To this day, conservatives continue to manipulate and weaponize the term for their own ends. “Pro-family” rhetoric is used to disguise a morality that’s really about the preservation of the “traditional” order, about perpetuating a culture where the biological mother, father, child relationship is considered supreme, worthy of idolatry and protection, and must be maintained at all costs. It’s something sacrosanct that precludes any arguments against, whatever they might be. This issue aims to address the multifaceted complexities of family and the ways in which it’s used: for corporations and power, for health and wealth, for bodily autonomy and oppression.
If a corporation can benefit from personhood, why shouldn’t dynastic wealth benefit from the protections afforded to family? Melinda Cooper details how legal entities known as “family offices” shield the ultrarich from taxation and regulation, guaranteeing generational prosperity. Kristen Martin delves into the vampiric world of evangelical foster care influencers, who take to social platforms to exploit those who they are meant to protect. In return for eroding the privacy and welfare of foster children, they receive clothing, sponsorships, and nonprofit status that sustains their schemes.
Even when it’s not being invoked cynically, family has a dark side. In the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, this became especially clear: Ann Neumann explains that during the last three years, domestic violence has increased worldwide by 33 percent—which makes sense, given that leaving one’s home could also mean certain death. So who will protect the vulnerable? An entire movement has been born out of the premise of protecting women, but to caustic ends. Emily Janakiram describes how anti-abortionists have rebranded as “pro-woman” with some success, thanks to their appropriation of radical language and tactics learned from the left.
But family is not always a tool for exploitation; it can provide care to those who are neglected or harmed by the state. Olivia Heffernan details the story of Jonel Beauvais, a woman on a mission to repair the destruction of “traditional kinship systems and family units,” and to reconstruct the lives of Indigenous families torn apart by prison, drugs, and abuse—effects of centuries-long systemic racism and destitution. Other times, family exists in a gray area where rules become more anachronistic and debated with every societal advancement. Adam Gaffney delves into medicine’s midcentury pivot away from paternalism in determining an ICU patient’s “goals of care”—and the resulting tug of war between the medical industrial complex, families, and health care providers.
And sometimes it’s just personal. Sam Adler-Bell tells us about the shadow of John le Carré’s father that haunted the critically acclaimed author until his dying day, while Haley Mlotek explains how divorce within the billionaire class has resulted in its own proliferation. But why would they marry in the first place if it could ultimately divide their wealth? According to Mlotek, there may be one way that the superrich are just like us: their willingness to risk it all for love.
Makepeace Sitlhou’s report, in this issue of The Baffler, on the agonies of Bengali Muslim Abubakkar Siddique, finds the worker stripped bare by his rulers, cast into statelessness and monitored by militant immigration enforcers in Assam, India. Sitlhou writes that in more than one-fourth of cases like Siddique’s, where proof of citizenship through records was produced, the Border Police booked the person anyway, citing the “illegibility” of names written on voting rolls. Siddique can show his voting card and record of attendance at court, to which the state can always respond: it’s your word against ours, but we can’t hear you, and no one can read your name.
Whose names are legible in America’s so-called democracy? Alphabet, the parent company of Google, is what Siddique is not in India: a recognized person with democratic speech rights. Ironic, then, is Google’s recent firing of Blake Lemoine, an AI researcher who claims the company’s LaMDA bot is sentient because of its ability to convey emotion in language. In “Sentience and Sensibility,” Meghan O’Gieblyn reminds us that Google silences in-house critics like Lemoine while using its formidable speech power to fund groups that lobby for conservative Supreme Court justices. It’s a foundational neoliberal scheme: corporate personhood leads to the elimination of a non-corporate person’s rights—for example, the right of anyone to have an abortion.
Both parties are implicated, if you’re checking boxes ahead of an election. For its part, the Democratic Party, Dave Denison writes in “The Democracy,” evolved from an organism that can’t hear itself into a New Democrat cyborg that listens only to the market. “The so-called New Democrats believed they could use market-based approaches that would create ‘win-win’ policies,” Denison writes. “They would do it by harnessing the power of credit.” Bankers would help solve poverty and inequality. Credit became the signal and democracy the noise.
But while the Democratic Party followed the market, a proto-Trumpist faction grew stronger under the guidance of the “emblematic intellectual of the twenty-first-century American right,” explains Daniel Luban in his essay about the late writer and scholar Angelo Codevilla.
The noise of democratic deliberation has grown louder, in the aftermath of the New Democrats, with the frustration and exhaustion that leads to radical politics. Austin McCoy’s “After Floyd,” which documents attempts to organize before and after the police murder of George Floyd, finds the author pushed further into abolitionism, not away from it, by the “insult” of an “entrenched power structure that is resistant to basic democratic dialogue and negotiation.” In Bryce Covert’s “We Mean Nothing to the Company,” Starbucks updates its legal tactics with “the worst excesses of their accumulated authoritarian power” against growing union membership. One of the company’s tricks is familiar: fire an organizer with good attendance by stating, without evidence, that they never showed up for work. No one can hear you, and we can’t read your name on the list.
Jake Bittle chronicles a similarly frustrating tale in the face of climate change, wherein “decarbonizing the power grid on the timeline that scientists have agreed is necessary will require facing up to a fundamental paradox of climate action in our idiosyncratic democracy.” How do we address the people if the people won’t acknowledge our collective reality?
Jules Gill-Peterson has these rights and this speech in mind with “Doctors Who?,” a history of DIY transition that doubles as a political lesson from trans feminism. “You can steal your body back from the state,” Gill-Peterson writes. “DIY treats legitimacy as arising from the people.” Here democracy is treated not as a form of government, or the fair election of a certain political party, but as an action. It’s the rejection of the authority, the taking of the list, the signal breaking through the noise, and the realization of an equalizing power that can’t be given away, even by the enemies of the many who claim they cannot hear or read the names.
Forty-five years ago, the radical historian of science and technology David F. Noble observed a consistent pattern in modern American life: “Each major scientific advance, while appearing to presage an entirely new society, attests rather to the vigor and resilience of the old order that produced it.” Those words were written on the cusp of the personal computer revolution, which led to our dismally networked society of consumer-citizens addicted to disinformation and content-trash injected into our brain stems by powerful, pocket-sized devices, on hand at all times. Rather than delivering, in Noble’s words, on the “escalating promise of technological transcendence,” the twin forces of scientific technology and corporate capitalism gave rise to global behemoths—Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, Google, Amazon—that reproduced the same “corporate monopolization of technological intelligence” that marked the industrial age. We’re living in what Noble described in America By Design as “a remarkably dynamic society that goes nowhere.”
Can anyone possibly believe that this time, it’ll be different? Apparently so. For Baffler no. 64, “Reality Minus,” our writers find enthusiasts for all the latest varieties of technological utopianism. Virtual reality? Life in the metaverse? As Jeffrey Sconce notes, you will be expected to participate in this brave new world, and to like it. “For those who can pay, Club Zuck may well offer a few hours of diverting yet ultimately sad grinding in a hallucinated discotheque,” Sconce forecasts. Yet, how dispiriting to see “the human species continue to run away from itself, draining more and more enchantment from the real world just to prop up commodified fantasies of disembodied contentment in places that do not actually exist.”
But what about fantasy and fun? Lyta Gold recalls the holodecks on Star Trek as a model for high-tech, anything-goes escape. But in “No Sex for You,” she explains that in Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta-branded metaverse, sexual freedom will be way too complicated for designers to manage. The leisure activities Zuck’s envisioned for his virtual world are almost unbearably wholesome: “a child’s idea of utopia.”
That kind of arrested development distinguishes so many visionary tycoons leading us against our wishes into their idea of the future. Jacob Silverman zeroes in on the leading contender to become the new Brat-King of Twitter. Elon Musk might or might not end up owning his shiny toy, but in proposing to sink billions into a platform for short-form bloviating—a company that Musk uses to juice Tesla’s stock price but that for the most part creates nothing of value—one begins to wonder about the idea of wealth without worth. Noah Kulwin sees parallels between the savings-and-loan scandals of the 1980s and today’s cryptocurrency schemes. But at least the S&Ls helped people finance homes. Kulwin writes that in the world of cryptocurrencies, “it’s waste all the way down.”
Artificial intelligence, rule-by-algorithm, augmented reality . . . it’s not all in the distant future. As Lizzie O’Shea explains, it’s happening now, and these systems “provide cover to governments that prefer to spend money on technology-as-magic rather than grapple with social inequality and dysfunction.” Hannah Zeavin zooms in on algorithmic wizardry—specifically “affective computing,” wherein the already-booming AI industry births “surrogate humans,” bolstering “a fantasy of a future free of reproduction via reproduction, where the fear that automata will replace us is turned to a utopian dream of incorporation.” However they function, the message is the same: AI babies opt in so that humans can opt out.
It’s a natural human urge to invent new tools, of course. But for an example of how out of whack the corporate-driven technology market is, take a look at Laura Mauldin’s report on how people who depend on tech to get through the day—disabled people—are ill-served by both the public and private sector, especially in housing and health care. In the face of state and market failures, “caregivers and disabled people are left to crowdsource improvised hacks to navigate a world indifferent—if not outright hostile—to their actual needs and desires.”
For Black Americans, there is a similar problem. We now live in a relentlessly data-collecting society. Historians of the Black experience go back to the archives, though, and find information about property transactions and little about the human experiences of those who were denied their humanity. Data has always been a political tool. Shamira Ibrahim considers current efforts at “undisciplining data,” a necessary part of reanimating Black lives, and connects that concern to the ways modern data-collection and surveillance can deny the humanity, and human aspirations, of those on the margins.
Meanwhile, we never escape the celebration of the dynamic entrepreneur with a Big Idea. Nicholas Russell details Tony Hsieh’s attempts to remake downtown Las Vegas, once known as the “Implosion Capital of the World.” Hsieh made a fortune with Zappos, the online shoe retailer, and then became a self-appointed visionary of urban renewal. “He thought he could transform a city that’s perpetually in flux but utterly disinterested in genuine change,” Russell reports. Many of Hsieh’s plans were assumed to be “eco-friendly,” as is often the case with publicity-savvy business elites these days. They are ever in search of remedies that can be sold as wins for the environment but that are also “market friendly.” Finn West examines the idea of trading carbon credits in the global marketplace. Thus, Shell imagines itself becoming a “net-zero emissions energy business” by 2050—not by producing less oil and petrochemicals but by getting credits—for example, by planting more trees—that offset their emissions. It’s been a popular idea among polluters, supposedly “green” think tanks, and state regulators. Yet West argues that halting the increase in emissions doesn’t equate with reducing total emissions, which is what the climate emergency requires.
So much of what goes on in tech solutionism is, well, bananas. Which brings us back to the crypto craze. In a rollicking account of a recent road trip, Jasper Craven tells of crossing the highways of America in a rented truck hauling a lifesize Harambe gorilla statue, all for the purpose of setting up Harambe while dumping a load of bananas in front of Facebook’s headquarters. Why? An upstart company with a “crypto-fueled metaverse” business plan saw the opportunity for a publicity stunt they hoped would go viral. Craven admits that his initial reaction to the business plan was that “most start-ups seem to be solving problems that don’t exist.” The trip itself solved a problem for him, though: he was paid $5,000, and in cash, not crypto.
America has always been rife with pyramid schemes and scams. Elias Rodriques and Clinton Williamson show that sometimes the scammers are small-timers and sometimes they’re big businesses. Every technology brings new scamming techniques: the telephone did and so did the internet. Scams and “the confidence man” make for good stories; Herman Melville knew that. Still, Rodrigues and Williamson observe, “the scam genre tends toward the myopic, getting us to fixate on the wrong object. It insists that the confidence trick is an aberration rather than the norm.”
David Noble saw in our history of technology a pattern of “change without change.” That’s another way of saying that we are devoted to “innovations” nobody needs while we get nowhere, as Jeffrey Sconce puts it, in making “the decidedly non-Meta lives of most humans slightly less awful for the limited time we each have on this ridiculous planet.”
JOHN DOS PASSOS wrote that the radical critic Randolph Bourne—“this little sparrowlike man”—“put a pebble in his sling and hit Goliath in the forehead with it. War, he wrote, is the health of the state.” In the spirit of Bourne’s “unscared ghost” (JDP again), we offer a slightly more prosaic riff to convey our motivating ire in Baffler no. 63: division among workers is the health of the capitalist class.
The techniques of division mutate like a virus. In battles over unionization, the powerful spend millions on smarmy union-busting lawyers. In politics, the majordomos of the ruling class rely on old-fashioned racism, tweaking the formula a little this way against immigrants or a little that way by ginning up fears of any kind of “otherness.” Always, the idea is that one worker is not like the other. Don’t say proletarian. Don’t even call yourself working-class. The American habit is to pretend most of us are in the middle, while the unfortunates are the poor. And the rich? They’re to be envied.
As Shamira Ibrahim notes in “Redefining the Working Class,” there are a lot of poor people in the working class, often with multiple jobs. They are just as likely to wear hairnets as hard hats. The working class has been defined by scholars in many different ways—by income level, education level, by kinds of jobs. Any way you slice it, the majority of those employed in the United States would qualify. And crucially, as Ibrahim reports, we’re not far off from the point where the majority of the working class will be non-white. You wouldn’t know that by reading most mainstream political coverage, where explaining the voting patterns of the working class is limited to interviewing white guys in the Midwest.
Molly Osberg zeroes in on Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz as a modern-day union buster with “a weakness for sentimental messaging,” even as the company he says is devoted to “social responsibility” retains a thirty-lawyer team at a notorious anti-union firm. As Osberg shows, the Starbucks suits are hard at work telling baristas “we’re all in this together” while using the old tricks and plenty of new ones to divide their employees. One executive warned that a unionization drive could jeopardize the free Spotify subscriptions the company offers.
Another old trick: a status-obsessed culture tells workers that some jobs are superior to others. The slogan “sex work is work” is meant to contest that notion, and to that, end, Benjamin Weil considers how digital platforms such as OnlyFans have transformed porn’s gig economy, for better and for worse. Meanwhile, Robert Iulo and Ilya Gridneff write on the forces arrayed against those in risqué businesses in Rudy Giuliani’s New York and present-day Amsterdam, where cities cordon off illicit activities and shape neighborhoods around the needs of capital.
Meanwhile, Dan Albert sorts through the messy politics of transit in the United States and finds that a functioning car is often a necessity for a working person. Jérôme Tubiana explains how migrants in sub-Saharan Africa make easy prey for jihadi recruiters, who prey on cash-strapped young men to wage war. And Max Nelson reads the work of Brigette Reimann, an East-German writer who, like her peers, searched for objective truth—and, in her diaries, “gives up on finding it and throws herself into the judgment of an unknowable future.”
Anxious to maintain their status, the powerful refashion radicals and agitators as quacks, Willis McCumber discovers while paging through the literature written about John Brown. And Charlie Lee laments how the novels of Halldór Laxness have been “retooled as chronicles of heroic self-reliance” when they are, in reality, tales of mutual dependence.
Which is just what we need when mere survival is criminalized. Alessandra Bergamin takes us into the world of land defenders resisting the palm oil industry in Guatemala, while Joe Purtell spends time with the least respected of all workers—those cast out onto the street. Purtell’s dispatch highlights an Oakland encampment fighting for the right to exist and the resources to survive.
So, take aim at Goliath, and hit him in the forehead. Let your solidarity be the bosses’ infirmity.
“Our literary elites may all come from the same expensive institutions,” Jessa Crispin writes in issue 62 of The Baffler, “but they are all working stiffs in their own minds, pretending to feel solidarity with the working classes.” Those literary elites, she writes, have helped flatten contemporary literature into a few “dead zones incapable of innovation . . . How does one expect to find something wild in a plot of feed crops constantly doused with herbicides?”
Meanwhile, the titans of multinational corporations scaffold their shitty politics with precepts ripped from shitty novels. Politicians, oligarchs, sextons, and janitors routinely junk fictions for parts in order to get things done. Thankfully, the writers in this issue are first readers who approach a fiction, or even literature itself, as a collection of scenes of instruction. Lucy Ellmann, in “My Study Hates Your Study,” compares literature (and art more broadly) to a “last wilderness” unspoiled by science and technology; for his part, Nathan Shields recounts the century-long winnowing by which classical composers became just another set of entrepreneurs hawking personal brands. Lucy Ives, writing about the fiction of Dodie Bellamy, follows the nonexistence of the clitoris in fiction to a startling revelation on the mirror-like emptiness of sex. Wen Stephenson links the scandal scenes of Dostoevsky to a moment of profound domestic horror in his own life.
Other writers approach political rationales as fictions (and not merely as falsehoods). As Sophie Pinkham reminds us in her essay on Ukrainian writer Yevgenia Belorusets, “This is a moment when facts are both utterly compromised and vastly overvalued—asked to do all the work of politics, to justify whole worldviews with single data points.” Writing about the grave history of human contagion, Ben Ehrenreich explains that the science surrounding aerosol transmission was never “a noble crusade against superstition, as modernist mythmaking would have it, but a political struggle.” Maxwell Burkey unwinds the civil religion of postwar American patriotism, finding a literary genre with its own Christs and perennial left-wing devils. Lisabeth During, perusing Jacqueline Rose’s writing on male violence, asks, “Do you need to be above or beyond violence to deliver judgment on it? And if you are above it, how on earth can you understand it?” Sophie Lewis, in our opening salvo, takes to task a historical feminism whose exclusionary fiction of womanhood has made very real ways of living “impossible to knit into the story.”
While the powers that be stop to lick their pencils, taking more cues from lousy science fiction writers as they pen these political rationales, Christopher Urban turns instead to the astronauts and academics (not to mention the vampires) that populate Tom McCarthy’s latest novel, which provides “a critique of the kinds of bourgeois literary fiction unwittingly produced today to maintain the status quo.” Will Burns finds both communion and transgression in the literature of the English pub. And Michael Hofmann surveys the career of Bei Dao, whose poems “stare back at the reader, unflinchingly, confrontingly. One can feel the energy that has gone into their making, the hard masking-tape edges, the chips and curds of unmixed color applied with a palette knife. There is no empty space, no wash, no contextualizing, no aspic. No throat-clearing, no storytelling, little paraphrasable content.” We’ll take it—and let the literary elites keep to their light reading.
World leaders are searching for a resolution to the eight-billion-body problem. Eric Dean Wilson reports that ministers gathered at COP26 for “The Shitshow in Glasgow,” where, sipping tequila and vodka, they committed to ignoring the climate crisis despite significant cost outlays. Jessica Fletcher writes of dilapidated parks and unused public spaces in New York City, which reflect the broken social hopes of the city’s past urban designers. Kevin Rogan surveys the damage wrought by landlords, Amazon, and the real estate monopoly Vornado across Manhattan.
Meanwhile, in other horrifying non-places, Jonathan Katz reports that the American government upholds its tradition of renditioning its presumed enemies to the crippling darkness of its global black sites; John Washington describes the space left behind by victims of forced disappearance around the world; Kit Duckworth tells of nuns in Tuscan convents penetrating the mysteries of religion; Daniel Fernandez prods liberals’ reformist delusions about the classrooms inside America’s prisons; and Patrick McGinty describes a nebulous cult of “cryptopians” that worships at the altar of the blockchain and prays to SpaceX founder Elon Musk, now the world’s richest man, who’s got his sights set on the colonization of Mars.
After a three-hour tour of the cosmos, Blue Origin owner Jeff Bezos, previously the world’s richest man, openly declares class war on earth, thanking “every Amazon employee and every Amazon customer because you guys paid for all this.” In “Dawn of the Space Lords,” Corey Pein describes such jaunts as characterizing a new era of “blown deadlines and spectacular failures” in the space race. Astrophysicist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein skewers these undemocratic pretensions in “Becoming Martian,” and considers, by way of the history of transatlantic slavery, which futures of space travel are preferable or even plausible. What isn’t plausible? Kyle Paoletta, inspects the spectacular claims of former Harvard professor Avi Loeb, who has spent four years trying to convince readers that the strange artifact called ‘Oumuamua is alien technology fueled by light from the sun. And Matthew King wonders whether this new space age will lift off at all, what with the ever-growing rings of junk clogging earth’s orbital lanes. “The brave new world unfolding before our eyes is no endless frontier of renewed exploration,” King writes, “but an uncontrolled experiment of epic proportions.”
Issue 61 of The Baffler is a “Space Opera” in two acts. For the intermission, we’re thrilled to present a new work of fiction by Samuel Delany.
IF YOU’RE FEELING FRACKED, maybe it’s time to make the Great Resignation work for you. In August, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 4.3 million people left their jobs, the highest quit rate they’ve yet recorded. A March 2021 survey indicated that 41 percent of employees worldwide have considered resigning this year already; another survey, also published in March, reported that more than half of American workers are realizing they’re burned out on the job. Whether the “pandemic epiphanies” of newly existentialist workers will last is debated on television, but we know for sure one of those surveys was published by Microsoft, and the other by the job platform Indeed. At last the cycle of being tired all the time reveals its shape: the exhaustion we feel because of our jobs is being monitored and extracted, as data, by the transnational corporations that monitor and extract our work, which exhausts us.
In “The Squandering Earth,” issue no. 60 of The Baffler, we cast aspersions on the accumulation-crazed multinationals ransacking the planet for profit, making us all feel like used-up bottles of stuff while they amass exponentially more indestructible bottles of stuff. This waste-producing apparatus is vast, Ajay Singh Chaudhary writes in “The Extractive Circuit,” “the leaden reality of a global human ecological niche organized for maximal profitability—no matter how difficult or costly to maintain.” This circuit, he stresses, “is not a metaphor,” but an accelerating systems-crash that steals time and resources from zones of least resistance, like fragile habitats. One such zone, Zachariah Webb writes in “Dead Pools,” is the state of Arizona, which has achieved almost total dehydration in a global scheme with no prospects for reform. Another is Sudan, where drought, famine, and civil war project a future of stark nomadism, Jérôme Tubiana reports. And as Bryce Covert explains in her survey of the United States’ frayed infrastructure for distributing pandemic relief, stopping this systems-crash will require a jolt to our political imagination.
At other nodes along the circuit: Dave Denison follows the trail of his own recycling to the overwhelming realization that single-use plastic production will soon swamp the habitable world; Allyson Paty documents her waste stream against the “environmental ouroboros” of liberal individualist ethics; and Samuel Stein surveys the ultra-skinny high-rises and other towers of waste that now sprawl upward in our cities like accusing fingers pointed at god.
In conditions of total extraction, culture is mined like anything else. Rich Woodall writes accordingly about copyright in a music industry dominated by three major labels, and other investment groups, that strip catalogs and even songs themselves for sellable parts. In “Beckett on the Richter Scale,” Marco Roth looks at the work of Evan Dara, an anonymous novelist whose intensifying fantasies of disaster seem to draw mysteriously from disparate communities. And, mercifully, J.W. McCormack’s “Mr. Garbage” finds hope in the fiction of Donald Barthelme, whose “junkman aesthetic allowed him to regulate the temperature in his model worlds and reframe their parameters accordingly.” Node, zone, worker, consumer, or resource: we’ll have to do some regulating to overcome this fatigue and ask, as Chaudhary does, “How has this level of degradation become so acceptable?”