The second instalment of the books that have inspired leading activists on the left over the last twelve months
No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics (2017)
As usual, Naomi Klein provides us with essential reading about the ravages of neoliberalism. This time, it’s about the scandals of Trump and his administration and precisely how Trump has made the world a far more dangerous place. Economic crisis, war and climate change are intensified, while the far-right is emboldened. But this book is also about popular political consciousness and growing radicalisation.
Klein defends the power of mass protest while also urges the left to imagine concrete radical alternatives. While her analysis is undermined by appeals to utopianism and a limited strategic vision, ultimately discounting working-class struggle, Klein nevertheless cuts against pessimism and passivity and helps us understand moments of rebellion.
The Progress of This Storm: Nature and Society in a Warming World (2018)
An urgent polemic cutting against theories about the relationship between nature and society that discount the agency of humans to change the world, and protect the climate and our civilisation in the process.
Malm contributes to mercilessly destroying the theories that muddle the urgency of system change. He convincingly makes the case that because climate change is the result of the releasing of CO2 over the past two centuries – the result of past action – history matters for our present and future.
A theory of the warming condition that takes the past, present and future seriously must also clear the space for action – and anti-capitalist resistance – in the here and now.
The Commissariat of Enlightenment
Not to be confused with a novel with the same title, this is a fantastically detailed account of the work of the education and culture ministry that emerged in the USSR after the 1917 revolution. Headed by Lunarcharsky, Narkompros presided over attempts to make education and the arts accessible to all. The book contains a series of inspiring – if ultimately very frustrating – stories about the proposed democratisation of schools and universities together with debates about art (including the role of Proletkult in which Lenin took a keen interest) and film that still resonate today.
The One from the Other
Bernie Gunther must be one of the most interesting and ambiguous anti-heroes in crime fiction: a former detective in Berlin before and during WW2 for whom the atrocities of the Nazis never disappear.
In books like The Lady from Zagreb (in which he explores the crimes of Croatian fascists) or Field Grey (where just about everyone is trying to carve up post-war Europe), Kerr uses a classic noir approach to explore the Nazi legacy.
The One from the Other is set in post-war Germany where even the simplest task – to confirm the death of a Nazi thug so that his former wife can re-marry – ends up spiralling into a power play involving the Catholic church, the CIA, the French Resistance and Nazi fugitives, all of whom are desperate to leave their imprint on contemporary politics. Some of the hard-boiled language seems to be stuck in the 1970s but the issues themselves feel resolutely current.
The Battle for Paradise (2018)
A tiny book with a big message. In The Battle for Paradise, Klein takes her ‘shock doctrine’ theory to Puerto Rico, savaged after last year’s hurricane Maria. Just weeks ago it was reported that more than 3,000 people died, with tens of thousands more displaced.
The account follows Klein dividing her time between two camps on the island colony. The first is a cabal of crypto-currency millionaires, caricature-like in their arrogance, looking to utilise Puerto Rico’s tax haven status and relatively cheap land to expand their empire.
You need not understand the world of ‘crypto-capitalism’ to work out what is happening: those in power exploit the devastation as an opportunity to sell off resources – and not just land but even schools and roads. The devastating consequences show neoliberalism at work: maintaining mammoth economic inequality and driving more and more Puerto Ricans from their homes.
There is hope though, as Klein also follows grassroots activists who, by pooling resources, investing in renewable energy sources and organising collectively are attempting to rebuild their communities.
Who will win the Battle is not year clear, but whether it is the storm-hit shores of Puerto Rico or the ashen shell of Grenfell, Klein alarmingly exposes yet another example of the extremes of disaster capitalism today.
Back to Black: Retelling Black Radicalism for the 21st Century (2018)
In Back to Black, Kehinde Andrews surveys the history of an ideology, how it has manifested into movements, and how it has been misunderstood. Andrews, the UK’s first Professor of Black Studies, begins by outlining the contemporary context for Black radicalism: racist violence and a global capitalist, imperialist hegemony make it as crucial as ever to fight for a radical politics – but not just any. He takes us on a journey between various Black nationalisms, crises of neo-colonialism, to the peaks and pitfalls of pan-Africanism and the perils of the ‘psychosis of Whiteness’.
Even if, like me, you don’t agree with Andrews on everything (he is no Marxist - there is a whole chapter on why not), it is a worthwhile work. As an introduction to Black liberation movements or a supplement to resurgent debates on the Left about political Blackness, liberalism and more, Andrews’ contribution is educational, readable and relevant.
The Jungle (first published in 1906, it remains in print)
Dedicated “to the workingmen of America”, this is a novel of class conflict. Zola-esque in its howl of pain, Sinclair tells the story of Lithuanian immigrants who come to work in Chicago’s stockyards and find capitalist society is organised to protect the rich.
A sensation when it was first published, it changed the law on food hygiene. Sinclair hoped it would lead to social revolution. Not unflawed (the limits of his anti-racism are apparent), this nevertheless searing lays bare the mendacity of capitalist ideology.
I read this book this summer while researching Chicago’s history – its themes still speak to our present.
1606: Shakespeare and the Year of Lear (2016)
Shapiro brings the literary king of shadows into his dazzling political and historical contemporary context. The year after the attempted Gunpowder plot, the king presides over divided kingdoms and a state dominated by persecution and suspicion. Historically rigorous and beautifully written, Shapiro demonstrates how Shakespeare reimagines these conflicts in King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra.
1606 and Shapiro’s1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare are inspirational delights which allow a brilliant, warm and complex Shakespeare to emerge through his pen.
Palma Africana (2018)
Over the past four decades the Australian doctor-turned-anthropologist Michael Taussig has produced a series of beautiful, terrifying, experimental books underwritten by fieldwork in Colombia dating back to 1969.
Taussig's latest work is on palm oil, the 'elixir from which all manner of being emerges', a commodity, he contends, that is to twenty-first century capital what sugar was to colonialism. Palma Africana is as urgent as it is weird: whilst the associative flights of fancy are frequent, they are always political and deadly serious. An extraordinary accomplishment.
Modernism in the Streets: A Life and Times in Essays (2017)
Marshall Berman, David Marcus (ed.), Shellie Sclan (ed.)
If this posthumous collection instills a desire to hang in The Bronx, listen to early hip-hop, and re-read the young Marx (such was Marshall Berman's convincing passion for all three), it also makes you want to change the world.
Modernism in the Streets repeatedly details the horrors of the neoliberal city, especially in Berman's beloved New York, yet you come away from these essays convinced of our capacity to resist, organise, and create.
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