The Don Gives 2021 a Barely Passing Grade
Jacobin troll Donald Hughes sent in 18,000 words grading major events in 2021. What follows are brief selections from his treatise. The verdict: 2021 sent in some poor work, but he's letting it through.
A large number of events happened this year, and I’d like to take a moment to reflect on a handful of the bigger stories. These grades are just my impressions of the overall topic. I can’t claim to have used the rigors of scientific socialism to investigate all of them. But I think you’ll agree I did a pretty good job.
Vaccines – Grade: A-
2021 was the Year of the Sore Arm as billions of people underwent experimental medical treatments for COVID-19. Kudos to eggheads on this one. I’m giving this a high score because I’d have a hard time developing a vaccine myself. I’m not getting up off my couch to fabricate mRNA sequences. And I love anarchist collectives, but they have a hard enough time running a coffee shop in a college town. They weren’t going to knock this one out.
Climate Change – Grade: D
Politicians leaned hard into the “I feel your pain” rhetoric around climate change. There was a lot of emphatic rejection of climate denial. It was followed up by some pretty lame plans. The centerpiece was the growth of “green finance” and other attempts to marketize the climate crisis. I’m giving this a D because I smell fear here. The heightened rhetoric and the greenwashing points toward a growing sense that something must be done. That’s a consolation prize, but it avoids a flat F.
The New Cold War – Grade: F
People said a lot of weird things about China in 2021. Every day a new article would come out envisioning a new invasion or spy plot. I’m giving this story an F because the New Cold War is not real. The United States and China aren’t rivals. Life isn’t a Tom Clancy novel. I’m sure things will work out. I put in some solid hours on a Chinese-language-learning app to better study Mao Zedong Thought.
Fintech – Grade: F
Trading apps, cryptocurrency, and related fads were front and center in 2021. The promise of the democratization of finance enticed both investors and consumers as money piled into meme stocks and meme coins and meme NFTs. Unfortunately, money is bad, and making money faster just made it worse. Which new products were fully scams or only partially scams was a matter of debate. I’m failing fintech because we should be planning the economy for human needs and not playing around with computers.
January 6 – Grade: F
Afghanistan – Grade: B-
America didn’t let the screen door hit its behind on the way out. I’d like to say the war was a total waste, but it did make some contractors a fair amount of money. It also kept the war machine rolling for years. In the foreign policy community, that makes it a moderate success. The lightning speed of the Taliban advance seemed to imply that the average power broker there was interested to see what might come next. Best of luck to the Taliban in the new year — it will be a tough one.
Inflation – Grade: B-
Prices went up in 2021 as the economy worked through some of its issues. I’m giving this a B-minus because this could have gone a lot worse. In the old playbook, the Federal Reserve might have panicked and shot up interest rates to crush any feared rise in workers’ bargaining power. Instead, there was a surprising moment where the central bank let things ride. Sure, it doesn’t mean the end of neoliberalism or the birth of a new economics, but at least it didn’t tank the economy immediately.
Global Minimum Tax – Grade: D
A global minimum tax on corporate profits was one of those economic stories that could have big consequences but are hard to get too excited about. Basically, tax avoidance had become so rampant that governments had to decide whether taxes should continue to be optional. After a fierce debate they came to the conclusion that maybe not. It’s a far cry from Keynesian dreams of international order, but you take what you can get.
Worker Organizing – Grade: A
It was nice to see union organizing at Amazon, Starbucks, and other major companies. The year also saw a wave of strikes and employers complaining about scarce labor. You win some, you lose some, but I can’t complain. All that activity gets an A grade from me. As Rosa Luxemburg said, one Starbucks union local is worth a thousand YouTube videos. The constant debates online can be grating, so I respect anyone who does real-life organizing.
Supply Chain Mayhem – Grade: D
Boats stuck offshore near major ports. Not enough truck drivers to go around. Little missing chips backing up automobile production. Gamers agonizing over shortages of graphics cards and PlayStation 5s. Capitalism typically imposes shortages through prices, and consumers were surprised when the supply seemed to vanish too. This was all exaggerated to the point of absurdity, but it did provide many teachable moments about how our goodies get to us. Companies like Amazon want everything (and everyone) between your clicks and the boxes arriving to be invisible, so there’s a silver lining in such stories of dislocation.
Canadian Election – Grade: D
Justin Trudeau called a snap pandemic election and held onto power with the support of about 20 percent of people eligible to vote. The painful growth in housing costs cried out for a bold new strategy to convert homes from speculative assets into social housing. Oil pipelines and horrific discoveries of mass graves made a new relationship with indigenous peoples more urgent than ever. Instead, Canada got a low-protein election of platitudes that ended up with much the same result as in 2019. Not very inspiring stuff.
Elections in Latin America – Grade: None Given
I don’t live in Latin America or even speak fluent Spanish, so it’s not my place to comment on whatever was happening down there. My dim understanding is that some leftists won national elections. Good luck to them. I’m sure they will work things out. I’m not getting involved. Well, at least until Canada joins a new Pan-American socialist bloc. But that didn’t happen in 2021.
Joe Biden – Grade: Incomplete
America’s new president put the country into cruise control and coasted for his first year. The whole idea of one person running a country seems repugnant to me, so there’s something to be said for taking it easy. Sadly, his regime officials didn’t take the hint to get weird with it while the boss was away and instead opted for the cowardice of business as usual. Hard to give a grade until there’s some work handed in.
Not a great year for most people, but life goes on. Could have been better, could have been worse. A middling year, really. Statistically speaking, though, most years are middling years. The exceptions tend to be exceptionally bad. So, I’m giving this year a pass.