18 March 2020

20 Books To Read While in Self-Isolation

by Aaron Bastani

With the Covid-19 pandemic here it’s likely that many of us will be subject to an extended period of self-isolation. Even for those fortunate enough to escape any symptoms, or to come into contact with someone who does, it now seems inevitable that the economy will grind to a halt. If you have a desk-based job that will mean remote working. More generally it will herald reduced hours and even layoffs – which is what governments now need to address through sustained state-led intervention far beyond what we are presently seeing.

In the coming weeks and months we’ll continue to ensure Novara Media is a source of news, information and analysis. But there are only so many Youtube videos you can watch, podcasts you can listen to, and articles you might wish to read on a laptop screen or smartphone. 

So here are twenty books I recommend that you read over the coming months. It’s often been said that in the attention economy of the 21st century nobody has the time, or cognitive bandwidth, to read as they wish. Well, for many of us that simply won’t be true for the foreseeable future. Happy reading.

The Must Reads (from small to big).

The recommendations go from easy(ish) to hard, brief to long. 

 1) Historical Capitalism, Immanuel Wallerstein. What is capitalism? What is a commodity? And how does this relate to modernity and the scientific method? Wallerstein explains the emergence of capitalism, and what it means for us today, in a little more than 100 pages. Come on, that’s one day of intense reading –  what are you waiting for?!

 2)  Capitalist Realism, Mark Fisher. Is the end of the world more conceivable than the end of capitalism? And how have alternative futures become so universally foreclosed? For Mark Fisher such a ‘realist’ worldview is critical in how capitalism reproduces itself, with an increasingly dysfunctional system only able to undermine dissent through an ideology of anti-utopianism – which inhibits even the slightest (necessary) modifications to it. This has devastating consequences, leaving us unable to deal with our greatest challenges as a civilisation.

3) Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, Paul Kennedy. One of the few works of political scholarship to be actually read by policy-makers. Despite its size and fact-laden density, it’s an accessible read and a good primer on the  nexus of economics, war and geopolitics. Kennedy’s primary observation, made through the case studies of the Spanish, British and Dutch Empires, and later the United States and Soviet Union, is that a great power’s military capability can only extend beyond its economic and industrial base for a limited period of time. That’s a hypothesis the United States, in particular, seems intent on testing to its limit.

4) Capital Volume 1 (First two chapters), Karl Marx. You didn’t think I’d expect you to read all of it, surely? Though of course you should. In any case, if you find Capital verbose and long-winded (it isn’t, but fine) you can start by getting hold of the Penguin edition and reading Ernest Mandel’s excellent introduction and chapters one and two. Captured in these 250 pages is the basis for much of the rest of the book, and it is here where Marx identifies what he sees as the ‘metaphysics’ of capitalism. Try to read just this, make notes and promise yourself you’ll come back to it. You can also watch David Harvey’s video lectures here – a great accompaniment which makes the book even more digestible.

5) History of the World in Seven Cheap Things, Raj Patel & Jason Moore. After reading Wallerstein and Marx this book is a brilliant overview of the global economy over the last six centuries. Its originality resides in how it examines capitalism through the prism of ‘cheapness’ – cheap nature, money, work, care, food, energy and lives. Doing this it takes the reader on a gripping journey, from the sugar plantations of Madeira to a world of climate systems breakdown and an imminent resource crunch. The crises we presently face have been a long time in the making.

The Crisis of 21st Century Democracy & Economics

These are the books I’d recommend to better grasp the extent to which a political project – neoliberalism – intersects as an intellectual tradition, economic rationale and model of media production.

6) Democracy in Chains, Nancy Maclean. An outstanding book combining political insight and original research. Maclean, who secures access to the archive of the economist James Buchanan, reveals how the Nobel-prize winning economist played a central role in an economic and political revolution. That was neoliberalism, and its core assumption – that the state is always bad and the market will always do a better job – is presently in freefall. A key insight of the book, and one you rarely find elsewhere in histories of neoliberalism, is to connect market fundamentalism to white supremacy in the American south – something Maclean highlights through the policy proposal of school vouchers being generated in response to desegregation and the end of Jim Crow.

7) Full Disclosure, Andrew Neil. Whatever you make of him, Andrew Neil has had an intriguing life. From the perspective of any historical analysis his biography provides a snapshot of the Thatcherite Revolution, and how the ideas of Buchanan – as well as Hayek and Friedman – re-shaped Britain. He worked at The Economist from the late 1970s, and is honest about his formation there as an ideologue on the newly emerging ‘radical right’. By the early 1980s one Rupert Murdoch would recruit him as editor for The Sunday Times. It was there that Neil oversaw, among other things, the paper’s re-location to Wapping as it defeated striking print workers and broke the paper’s ties with Fleet Street. Neil is a proud class warrior, despite his self-perception as being against the establishment. After reading this you’ll be even more surprised he is the BBC’s leading interviewer. The equivalent from the left is inconceivable.

8) Stolen, Grace Blakeley.The way the modern economy is run is relatively new and, as already highlighted, the outcome of a political revolution which made strategic choices to achieve certain ends. This is particularly true with the role of finance which, rather than an addendum to the ‘real’ economy, has tied itself into almost every transaction – whether it’s securities based on future mortgage payments or company buy-outs leveraged by debt. While this shift in how capitalism works, and where much profit is located, was a result of the neoliberal revolution after the 1970s, Blakeley is clear that such changes resulted from a crisis of the preceding Keynesian model – which came unstuck amid the Oil Crisis, high inflation and low rates of corporate profit. This necessitated a shift to a different kind of capitalism, one based around rent extraction and value capture rather than creation. While Blakeley is a trenchant critic of the contemporary model, her perspective is refreshing in that she freely admits there is no going back to the previous settlement.

Crisis of 21st Century Media

And these are the books I’d recommend to understand the scale and historic nature of an unfolding crisis in Britain’s media. Elites representing their interests through media capture is nothing new, but changes in the economics of information in the digital era, a clear political program driving particular media owners, and the demise of organised labour in the industry, has created a set of conditions where many journalists simply give up on searching for the truth.

9) Stick it Up Your Punter, Chris Horrie and Pete Chippendale. Forget the title for a minute and just remember that this is one of the best books to cover the internal politics at The Sun newspaper under Rupert Murdoch’s ownership.

While the authors don’t express it in such terms, the book makes clear how the neoliberal revolution didn’t just operate at the level of policy (Buchanan, Friedman, Hayek), elected politicians (Thatcher, Reagan), or thought-leaders who straddled journalism and activism (Andrew Neil). No, its real power came through the transformation of working class consciousness and everyday common sense. This was a world where industrial solidarity gave way to charity telethons; where unionised work places were soon marked by precarity and hyper-individualism; and where any sense of broader collective purpose was eroded. The role of The Sun in all of this, purchased by Rupert Murdoch in 1969 – and with the promise to only ever endorse Labour in a general election – is critical. Stick it Up Your Punter is an insider tour-de-force, revealing just how important a supplicant media was, and is, to an economic orthodoxy which commands little organic consent. The details, from former editor Larry Lamb apparently helping write Thatcher’s speeches ahead of the 1979 election (Lamb was knighted in the 1980 New Year’s Honours List), to the allegedly racist screeds of his successor Kelvin McKenzie, are glimpses of just how corrupt Britain’s media has been – and for longer than we think.

10) Dial M For Murdoch, Martin Hickman and Tom Watson. As both the Neil autobiography and early years of The Sun make clear, the media played a critical role in the political transformation of Britain after the mid-1970s. But this wasn’t limited to a few bad apples and their immorality. As Martin Hickman makes painfully clear such corruption, and illegality, went to the very heart of the News International empire.

11) Flat Earth News, Nick Davies. If I could pick one book to highlight how ineffective our media is in holding power accountable, it would be this. While a decade old Davies stumbles upon a term which only gained mass salience after 2016, namely ‘fake news’. Yet for him this is nothing new, with untruths regularly invented, and disseminated, by legacy media. Rather than a moral critique, however, Davies has a materialist understanding of why that is, with declining revenues, staff cuts and a growing PR industry collectively eroding the quest for that thing journalists are meant to pursue: the truth. 

East and West

A slight shift away with a few suggestions which reflect on the treatment of the subaltern in Europe and America, how the colonial imaginary still inflects the primary conflict of West Asia, and how our intuitive sense of collective solidarity can be a force for better and worse.

12) The Muslims are Coming! Arun Kudnani. What a sensational book. If you want to understand islamophobia as both a conceptual framework, and a set of documented life experiences, then read The Muslims are Coming. Kudnani’s gift is his ability to weave case studies, from London to Minneapolis, within a broader historical and geopolitical context, illustrating how foreign policy and the criminalisation of domestic citizens intersects in often outlandish ways. Some books in this list are harder to read than others. This isn’t one of them.

13) Orientalism, Edward Said. Here’s a tip – skip the long and frankly dull introduction. Said later thought it necessary to compose a comprehensive lead-in to his masterpiece, especially given criticisms from those like Bernard Lewis. Unlike the introduction, however, the prose of the book itself is fluent and enjoyable. Along with Culture and Imperialism this is a centre-piece of 20th century post-colonial literature. It is sharp, exuberant and liberating. Easily one of the most important books of the last hundred years by an intellectual of truly global stature.

14) The 100 Years War on Palestine, Rashid Khalidi. The most authoritative history I’ve read on the dispossession of the Palestinian people – although it has the advantage of being the most recent (it was published in January). Khalidi brings together a stunning array of events which defined modern Israel and occupied Palestine. There is a pithy explanation of the early years of the 20th century, particularly the Balfour Declaration of 1921; the settlement of Palestine by European zionists in the 1930s; the creation of the state of Israel following the end of World War Two; the 1967 war, the 1982 war, and the First and Second Intifadas. Most people would accept they don’t know enough about the conflict. Khalidi, a professor at Columbia University, is an outstanding guide. The more you read the more you realise how, if anything, domestic publics in Europe and North America are not doing nearly enough for one of our time’s great tragedies.

15) Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson. Nations don’t exist – as sections of the radical left will frequently tell you. And yet nationalisms do – and the real political fantasy is to wish that away. By the early 20th century this previously European form of togetherness had created a vehicle to usurp colonial tyranny in the countries of the Global South. More recently, particularly after the 2008 crisis, reactionary nationalisms are returning with avengence – whether it’s India, the United States, Turkey or Britain. More often than not such forces capture anti-establishment pressures which progressive forces are unable to navigate. One of the outstanding works on nationalism – it is a handbook for the 2020s, despite being first published in 1983.

16) Going Dark, Julia Ebner. There are two social movements with the most coherent response to Coronavirus, as with so much else in the 21st century. One is on the left, demanding new forms of ownership based on solidarity and cooperation – not to mention tolerance and internationalism – while another is on the right. The default of the latter is to blame migrants and foreigners for society’s challenges rather than economic elites or the system itself.

In this remarkable work of participant-observation Julia Ebner goes undercover with, among others, the alt-right, ‘trad wives’ and neo-nazis. It’s a timely investigation of the identities and rhetoric of these groups – but also highlights their often sophisticated approach to technology as well as a concerning proximity to the ‘mainstream’ right.

The Next Economy

Several books which are key when thinking about the kind of economy we should be looking to build in the 21st century.

17) AI Superpowers, Kai-Fu Lee.Whether it’s AI, digital payment systems or all-pervasive consumer surveillance the future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed. In AI Superpowers Kai-Fu Lee examines one of the great technological, and potentially geopolitical, standoffs which will shape the coming century – namely the United States and China in the realm of AI. Artificial intelligence could lead to a further concentration of wealth, jobs and power, intensifying trends already observable with Silicon Valley for a generation. This poses challenges as well as opportunities, with AI not only liable to lead to worker layoffs but rising inequality between countries, regions and individuals. This is a particularly important read for anyone not from the two ‘superpowers’, as an industrial advantage equivalent to the steam engine may redound almost entirely to them alone. For those who care about the Global South, not to mention Europe, that asks major questions. 

18) Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, Cory Doctorow. The only work of fiction I’ve included, which is a shame given novels can create a cognitive shift offering not only entertainment and narrative, but permitting the reader to think about a specific issue in more creative ways. Down and Out, a post-scarcity utopia set in 22nd Century Disney Land, certainly does that. In the novel ‘whuffie’ has replaced money as the means of exchange for the few things that remain scarce – like a house in a prime location or the best spot in a cinema. A world where people still compete over rivalrous, positional goods – rather than the means to live like shelter, food or healthcare – still has a surprising number of problems, especially around status anxiety. ’Whuffie’ raises questions about currencies which could be based on good behaviour or social capital. While today such a debate might be academic, a society where something like China’s social credit system could play an important role is ever more plausible. A world beyond scarcity and money would, the book seems to imply, still have personal forms of domination and exploitation. 

19) People’s Republic of Walmart,  Leigh Phillips and Michal Rozworski. One of the most important debates of 20th century economics is that of the ‘calculation debate’. This states that markets and the price mechanism will always internalise better information regarding the aggregate mass of society’s preferences than a centrally planned economy. Such an argument became central to the post-war school of neoliberals, finding its first popular expression in Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom published in 1944 (although it was initially formulated by Von Mises in 1920).

Philips and Rozworksi claim that even if Hayek was once right, this was a historically contingent claim and is no longer the case. The arrival of big data in particular means that the production of just about anything can be done more efficiently by centralised actors. To make their point the authors isolate giant firms like Amazon and Walmart – emblems of the market economy for Hayek’s inheritors – which increasingly resemble the nation-state of old with their centralised planning and distributed, and yet top-down, control. 

The contradiction of the firm within markets, as an expression of hierarchy among horizontal transactions, is nothing new and was first noted by neoliberal economist Ronald Coase in the 1930s. If markets are so efficient then why do we have firms at all? For a long time the best explanation was that, for a number of things, it made sense to internalise costs – the aim being to find the sweet spot. The Republic of Walmart takes this further, however, arguing that those who care about abundance and social justice in the 21st century should look again at central planning. Rather than a thing of the past, so they claim, it’s how we should run the economies of the future. 

20) Fully Automated Luxury Communism, Aaron Bastani. I couldn’t write this list without including FALC! The book’s starting point is simple: the 21st century will throw several crises at market capitalism which, in combination, it won’t survive. These include climate change and demographic ageing, but also automation and continuing problems of inequality and under-consumption. At the same time as we confront these problems, however, we also see the emergence of a new ‘mode of production’, one which could create a society as distinct from capitalism as capitalism was to feudalism. This won’t happen without politics, and despite accusations of techno-determinism FALC insists that the new abundance can only happen if we overthrow the political and economic status quo. The Covid-19 pandemic likely offers a major opportunity to do precisely that, illustrating how economic life could be run in a far more rational, productive way.

The last decade has seen political elites increasingly accept the nature of the challenges we collectively face. But any doom-mongering should be tempered with a rational optimism: we have the tools at hand to build more prosperous, happy societies than ever before. But to do that we will have to change the operating system of politics.

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