End of an Era

The era of Obama is over. Now the majority of Americans may see it clearly for the first time. Over the past eight years, it has become apparent that President Obama’s presence in office was a distortion. His calm demeanor and steady optimism seduced liberals into thinking that they were living in good—if occasionally dull—days, at war with an intransigent Congressional GOP, but blind to the breadth and power of the reaction brewing below. Liberals were often frustrated by the slow progress under Obama, even offended by the indifference and injustice that persisted in the practice of American power, but the White House and its boosters in the respectable media always had their rebuke: Don’t worry. We’re getting there. Trust the process.

That calm is over and for many, the sudden chaos of the political situation comes as a shock. What happened? When did the country become so precarious again? But there is no “again.” None of this is sudden. It is only that, in the absence of President Obama, every cruelty that persisted or grew under his stewardship has come fully out into the open. Some of this was the former president’s doing. Some of it was not. But none of our problems are concealed by the veneer of steady progress anymore.

I am not going to make any predictions here. The brand of international liberalism represented by President Obama and his Democratic Party appears to be collapsing, but I do not know any better than you what will come next. I do believe it is worth our time to try to understand how we got here, now that the mask of stability has been torn away.

The books listed here provide an image—sometimes impressionistic and sometimes brutally particular—of the world as it has actually existed these past eight years. What has been happening, really, and what does it feel like for those living in it? Subterranean movements have altered the terms of our society while most of its comfortable members were watching Barack Obama on a screen, resigned to the slog of incremental progress, and ignoring the tremors below. Let us feel them and see them clearly now.

Look by Solmaz Sharif

Adrienne Rich wrote that if poetry is to matter, it must be “news of an awareness, a resistance which totalizing systems want to quell,” that it must reveal “something we are forbidden to see.” When Barack Obama became president of the United States and was subsequently awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the horrors of the American Empire were pushed back into the darkness. While hundreds of thousands of our bombs fell on half a dozen sovereign nations, while our munitions were sold and turned onto civilians in the Gaza streets, and our drones carried out homicides from the skies of Pakistan, many chose to believe that, after the cowboy bullshit of the previous administration, American violence had once again become a dignified affair.

But Solmaz Sharif won’t allow it. Her 2016 collection, in part a poetic treatment of the Department of Defense’s Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, in part a collection of memories and letters and recent history moves from the 1980s to the present, from Iraq and Afghanistan to the Pentagon and Guantanamo, to fulfill the imperative of her title. Look at the legacy of killing. Look at the bodies, at the blood, and at the absences of the disappeared. “Let it matter what we call a thing,” she writes, and look at what you have been forbidden to see.

George Orwell once wrote that political language is designed to make murder sound respectable. He suggested a return to plain English as the cure. But Sharif has done him one better by transforming the very lexicon used to conceal our perpetual bloodlust into the instrument of its revelation.

The Ferguson Report by the United States Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division

While American atrocities abroad have spent these past eight years languishing in the far corners of liberal outrage, the atrocities committed by domestic law enforcement against black Americans have, during the Obama era, become that same outrage’s most urgent moral locus. f anything, the emergence and growth of Movement for Black Lives has given a hopeful, if tenuous, visibility to the matter—a new civil rights era that is destined, according to the pat narrative logic of such movements to overcome frustrations and setbacks and ultimately prevail.

But while many sympathetic observers accept—on an intellectual level—that American racial politics are structural, the way that incidents of racist state violence are transmitted to the public tend to distance us from the vast, systemic nature of the problem. Whether it is startling video footage of a senseless killing by the police, photos of mass protests, or writings by the likes of Ta-Nehisi Coates or Claudia Rankine, these documents tend to make the situation feel dramatic and singular. This is useful, of course, for conveying an essential sense of moral urgency, but it obscures the impersonal, mundane nature of racial oppression.

The Ferguson Report, compiled by the Department of Justice, is as straight a portrait as you can find of that banality. Originally commissioned in response to the killing of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson, the report, which exonerated Wilson, indicts a pervasive system of exploitation. It documents thousands of small wounds—parking tickets, petty arrests, harassment, de facto debtor’s prison—all designed to keep the black residents of the town cowed. This intimidation and exploitation stems not just from barely hidden racial malice on the part of individual actors, but also from a more covert bigotry: that of a government that has grown accustomed to viewing some of its citizens as a permanent economic resource, exploited to keep the city’s lights on. The report finds the real substance of our racial nightmare in the normal, state-sponsored brutality of everyday life for black and poor Americans.

The Beast by Óscar Martínez

Despite deportation rates rising to unprecedented levels under the Obama Administrations, hundreds of thousands of people “illegally” enter the United States each year, most by way of the southern border. There is a familiar story explaining how it happens, about men—desperate or nefarious, depending on the teller—smuggling themselves in trucks and trunks past checkpoints, or running through the darkness into Texas and California, outwitting “porous” security, the kind of covert mass migration you could stop with a gold-plated wall. Rarely discussed are the thousands of migrants who go missing somewhere between their Central American home and their destination.

The Beast began when Óscar Martínez traveled from his home in El Salvador to Altar, Mexico to report on the abduction of several hundred migrants en route to Arizona. It became an extensive account of the two years he spent investigating the Central American migrant trail. The book is worth reading on aesthetic grounds alone—Martínez achieves the smooth fusion of reporting and literary prose that half the world’s nonfiction writers aspire to. This extraordinarily vivid account of South American migration sees at once the churning, intricate geopolitical systems surrounding “illegal” immigration and the particular terrors endured by the immigrants within it. At times, it makes the Obama administration look callous. But it does not leave much room for imagining that this impression diverges from reality.

The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

Of all the titles on this list, none is less in need of my recommendation than The Argonauts. Maggie Nelson’s “autotherory” essay on motherhood, queer life, and her relationship with artist Harry Dodge has been one of the most celebrated books of the decade. It appeared on the Best Book of 2015 lists of The Believer, The Atlantic, The Guardian, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Chicago Tribune, the Village Voice, GQ, BuzzFeed, NPR, and many others. It won the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism, and transformed its author from a cult icon for literary nonfiction readers into a cultural celebrity. I recommend The Argonauts in part because it is excellent, and Nelson deserves every accolade it brought her.

But mainly, I include it because the Obama era corresponded to an explosive reemergence of the feminist and LGBTQ rights movements, accompanied by profound shifts and still-unresolved conflicts surrounding those movements’ nature and goals. Thousands of books and essays have appeared to make sense of this inflection point, variously taking on its politics, its theory, and its personal ramification. The Argonauts is the most accomplished effort I have ever seen to subsume all three into a work of literary and poetic excellence.

After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene Jedediah Purdy

It is too difficult, most times, to think about climate change, and not just in the emotional sense. The scale of the crisis is too large, its manifestations too many and too diverse, the political will required to address it too far beyond the limits of even a revolutionary idealist’s imagination. Go into any meeting of young activists and raise the subject—there’s no quicker way to throw cold water on the proceedings. Universal health care, criminal justice reform, even an end to war are more easily imagined, not least because such ambitions have an unlimited amount of time for realization: Just build the movement, keep working, and wait. But among those worried about climate change today, there are more nihilists than optimists, people who would like to avert catastrophe but have resigned themselves to preparing for it. Despite the President’s professed sense of urgency, it is not clear how another conference, or another council, or another set of voluntary reduction goals, however ambitious, will save us. They will not admit it publicly, but even many of our most dedicated environmental activists will concede in private conversation that we’re lost..

Purdy does not share this despondency. In his career as a writer he has even shared some of President Obama’s superficial characteristics, particularly his deceptively relaxed optimism and preternatural kindness. But for Purdy, these qualities are not a means of papering over the present calamity. His account of human life in the Anthropocene is still urgent despite its generosity and its sometimes-romantic conception of man’s relationship to the wilderness. After Nature is the book that finally, somehow, manages to get the whole of our environment in its head—to see the multiplicity of its expressions; of our influence; of our capacity, now, to determine the fate of the whole world—and from all of that draws out an account of political possibilities that, for all their sense of danger, are not without plausible hope.

Refund by Karen E. Bender

There is nothing that makes me question the familiarity of American pundits with the actual emotional experience of human life like the attempt to overrule fear with statistics. They hear a million voices express their worry, their fear, their sense of narrowing possibility and respond with a chart titled: Well Actually, Things Are Better Than Ever. Nobody likes the chart and the pundits don’t understand. “Why do so many people feel the economy is failing when projections for the gross domestic product are so positive?” “Why do these middle class people think they’re like, poor?” “Why does behavior keep failing to correspond to the rational implications of statistics?” Tens of millions of Americans rush into the arms of a fascist who promises to assuage these fears, and our punditry responds by issuing a fact check: Wrong again, assholes!

Karen Bender does not write about poverty. She does not write about starvation, or bankruptcy, or global deprivation; it is not about the very-least among us. Rather, Bender’s fiction is domestic and small-scale, focused on characters that are unremarkable, getting-by—what a president might call “ordinary Americans” and how ever for people like these, money is a poison and its absence is too. In Bender’s stories, the demands of late capitalism, inflect reality, even for the comfortable, they bind psychology and pervert behavior. Money, for Bender, does not just corrupt: it dictates hope and worry, right now and tomorrow. It affords possibilities sometimes, but tends to dwindle as time passes. It gets into the cracks of every life and becomes a series of small crises that must be addressed each day. Greater calamities—shootings, sudden deaths, terrorism—strike in many of Bender’s stories, but they tend to come early in the plot. The big trouble passes, but the bills still pile up. The characters go on, somehow.

There is no special pleading in Refund. It isn’t a swan song for this or that working class. But it could’ve been called Economic Anxiety, and someone yelling “Look at this GDP chart!” wouldn’t be out of place in these stories, as a joke.

Chain of Title by David Dayen

If you want to get away with a violent crime, don’t do anything that lends itself to dramatic front-page photos: Don’t level a city; don’t leave a body; don’t flee the bank in a president mask, waving a shotgun in the air. If at all possible, do something boring and complicated, and do it to somebody who isn’t going to read the fine print—that’s as close as you can come to the perfect crime.

Chain of Title is about a rare occasion when that sure-fire criminal strategy failed. David Dayen gives us the story of ordinary victims of mortgage fraud—people kicked out of their homes by mortgage companies on fabricated grounds and in violation of the law—uncovering a conspiracy that had destroyed millions of lives. It is perhaps the best history of the foreclosure crisis, an account of the Great Recession that defies the official insistence that we understand the last years of Bush and the first years of Obama in terms of “reckless” practices that went horribly awry, and see them for what they were: the deliberate, criminal exploitation of homeowners by financial interests. Dayen’s account is a prescient reminder that as long as our economic structures remain intact, we cannot rely on the good faith of our overlords to protect us. Despite this dark implication, the book has something like a happy ending—the “little guy” prevails. But Dayen does not pretend that this is a solution: It is an exception, the kind that gives lie to the justice of the rule.

The Reactionary Mind by Corey Robin

When The Reactionary Mind first appeared in 2011, it met with a good deal of critical skepticism. Liberal technocrats, inclined as they are toward fuzzy memories of long-gone bipartisan days, doubted Robin’s central thesis (that conservatives from the French Revolution to the present day are not committed to any particular political principle except the desire to retain power) and worse, they accused it of ideological sloppiness. The Reactionary Mind was, per the New York Times, a “diatribe that preaches to the converted” , a comforting fantasy about the moral bankruptcy of conservatives. Robin, they alleged, was not pursuing the truth about his opponents so much as he was pursuing a convenient means of dismissing their politics.

Six years later, Robin has been vindicated. Days before the election, the New Yorker called The Reactionary Mind “the book that predicted Trump,” one of the few that made sense of how a man so clearly uncommitted to conservative orthodoxies could become the leader of the American right. If you believe that conservatives are dedicated to a particular set of policy goals—free-market capitalism, hostility to bureaucracy, nation-build abroad, etc.—it can be difficult to fathom. But Robin argues that the secret of conservatism is its flexibility. Conservatives can adapt, favoring violence one day and civility the next, celebrating the state and then condemning it, taking every possible position on debt, trade, and markets, not because they are hypocrites but because the positions themselves are merely means to an end: the protection of power against all movements for equality. Sometimes the face of such a movement looks like William F. Buckley. Sometimes it looks like Donald Trump. But both are variations on a consistent theme. We have endured eight years of liberals who believe that victory is just one fact-check away, one exposure of hypocrisy or tactical assertion of decorum, as if politics was won by setting logical traps. Robin’s book is a corrective, an unintended but indispensable guide to how adeptly conservatives looked upon the age of Obama, and adapted.

Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt by Sarah Jaffe

To the extent that our official commentators have come into a dim awareness of the political forces shaping the present, they have allowed a binary confrontation: On one side, the frothing nativism of the Trump movement, forged in the bitter ignorance of white decline. On the other, enlightened technocrats, cosmopolitan, practical, and liberal, in possession of a monopoly on empirical reason and led by the likes of President Obama himself. Meanwhile, the possibility of a third contender in the growing new American Left has been laughed off. A few elements are allowed through—stripped of context and coopted as the latest pet sympathies for the woke-bourgeois—but the better part meets nothing but the rolling eyes of the serious and sober. Want to hear a joke? Occupy Wall Street.

Necessary Trouble is a book that’s virtue lies primarily in the willingness of author Sarah Jaffe to perform the actual work of a journalist and go investigate these movements in person.. She explores all kinds: the reactionary, the revolutionary, the mundane, and shows that residents of fly-over states clad in red trucker hats are not the only demographic that has escaped the notice of Washington. The hidden chaos of the Obama era has also produced viable movements for revolutionary change, including movements that are perhaps more threatening than their reactionary counterparts to the power of liberal technocracy because these left-wing movements cannot be fought in the open without betraying the conservative instincts of many notionally liberal progressives and Democrats.

Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? by Mark Fisher

I read Capitalist Realism sometimes in early 2010, shortly after it came out. I do not believe so few pages have ever had so profound an effect upon my understanding of the world. While the other books on this list expose what we have struggled to see, Fisher makes sense of why it is so difficult to see in the first place. In the modern era, he writes “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” The greatest triumph of the modern economy was to erect itself as an invisible barrier to the political imagination. It is this blinder that makes sense of all the contradictions that arose in the Obama era, the confusion resulting from the ineradicable suspicion that despite doing as much as was possible, despite the liberal commitment to a better world, everything remained stuck. Fisher demonstrates in less than one hundred pages that the trouble is not the impossibility of an alternative, but how alternatives are made unimaginable by the cultural limits of capitalism.

Fisher died seven days before the end of the Obama presidency. He is perhaps the most influential modern left-wing thinker that you’ve never heard of—from books like Capitalist Realism to essays like “Exiting the Vampire Castle,” he has predicted and interpreted political currents before even his sharpest peers began to notice them; he had an eerie intuition like that. If you must limit yourself to a single entry on this syllabus, make it this one.

Emmett Rensin is an essayist in Iowa City. His previous work has appeared in the New Republic, The Atlantic, the Los Angeles Review of Books (where he is a contributing editor) and elsewhere. Follow him on twitter @emmettrensin