My Top Ten Political Books of 2011

It's been an extraordinary year in politics. In no particular order, here are ten books I enjoyed that can help make sense of what the hell is happening and what can be done.

It's been an extraordinary year in politics. In no particular order, here are ten books I enjoyed that can help make sense of what the hell is happening and what can be done.

@ is for Activism by Joss Hands: Pluto Press, 2010 The past year of riots and revolutions has proven beyond doubt that the terrain of collective action is being transformed by the internet. How exactly remains unclear since, too often, mainstream scholarship lags woefully behind the practice. Joss Hands’ book is a powerful exception. It provides rigorous theoretical analysis of how digitally-mediated social movements mobilise to challenge centres of power, placing recent developments within a broader history of technological transformation.

Hands discusses the fashionable idea of “swarm intelligence” but argues – rightly, in my view - that this concept lacks the necessary space for democratic deliberation within movements. He prefers to talk of Quasi Autonomous Recognition Networks (QARNs); loose associations, such as UK Uncut, bound together by agreement on certain things and able to expand rapidly through digital networks of communication. The QARN may be too much of a mouthful to catch on, but it’s a useful theoretical framework for activists and scholars to get to grips with as we enter a year in which networked movements will undoubtedly continue to play a critical role.

Liberalism: A Counter History by Domenico Losurdo: Verso, 2011. This is a major revisionist history of our dominant political tradition. If I had my way, it would be obligatory reading for schools minister Michael Gove, who, along with the neoconservative telly don Niall Ferguson, and other collaborators, is re-writing the History curriculum in line with the most boorish and parochial Whig triumphalism.

According to this self-congratulatory view, liberal ideas of individual independence, natural rights and limited government are discovered by progressive thinkers from John Locke onwards and then exported, along with the values of property and free trade, to initially resistant but ultimately grateful native populations in less civilised parts of the world. This is the mythology that Losurdo explodes. Since its earliest beginnings, he shows, liberalism has been profoundly at ease with inequality and exclusion. Liberals were systematic apologists for the most appalling practices of slavery, colonialism, ethnic genocide, patriarchy, and exploitation. Lorsurdo has great fun parading the most outrageous statements by the pantheon of liberal heroes, such Locke, de Tocqueville and Mill. This isn’t, he insists, a case of applying our own anachronistic moral standards to the past. All too often, it was liberals advocating barbaric practices against contemporaries, including ancien regime thinkers, such as Jean Bodin who combined a preference for absolute monarchy with staunch opposition to slavery.

There are some difficulties with Losurdo’s approach, not least who he defines as “liberals” (see here for an in-depth review by Ed Rooksby), but what lessons does it imply for radical thought? My own view is that the universal normative commitments of liberalism should not be repudiated entirely. It is far better to see liberalism as an incomplete version of socialism, rather than its polar opposite. The task of emancipatory thought is to radicalise the content of the liberal tenets of liberty and equality and dramatically expand the sphere of social relations to which they apply. This means first and foremost, challenging the property relation, the bedrock of exclusion, which, Losurdo shows, liberals have long been prepared to defend with terroristic violence.

Live Working or Die Fighting by Paul Mason: Random House, 2008. In the run up to the November 30th strikes there was a meme doing the rounds which pointed out that if you enjoy weekends, eight hour days and basic employment rights you’d better get behind the unions because you owe them one.

The widespread ignorance about these past totemic struggles is what Mason sets out to counter in this gripping history of the international labour movement. The book is explicitly didactic. Each chapter begins with a description of the harsh and squalid conditions of today’s global proletariat, from Shenzen factories to Nigerian slums, before drawing parallels with earlier battles by workers in similar conditions. Starting with the Peterloo massacre, Mason runs through the history of French silk weavers, American Wobblies, and Shanghai factory workers (to name but a few) interweaving socio-economic analysis with inspiring personal stories of legendary figures like Paris Communard Louise Michel and IWW organiser Bill Hayward.  The main lesson I took from this history is that the biggest gains made by the labour movement were won before the era of centralized bureaucracies and full-timers when workers organised along syndicalist lines. With union leaders preparing to sell out on pensions and the Coaliton itching to criminalise all but the most ineffectual forms of trade union activity these earlier struggles have a newfound relevance.

Debt: The First 5000 Years by David Graeber, Melville House, 2011. “If history shows anything,”, says Graber “it is that there's no better way to justify relations founded on violence, to make such relations seem moral, than by reframing them in the language of debt-above all, because it immediately makes it seem that it's the victim who's doing something wrong.”

That debt has long been used as an instrument of discipline and social control, probably won’t come as a surprise to most people. The particular cultural forms this has taken in past societies and the story of how others have successfully repudiated it all together is something we know far less about. Part of the problem is that we’ve inherited our understanding of money and debt from economists and they have conveniently made it seem like relationships of market exchange are the most natural way in which humans relate to each other.

The mainstream account of the origins of money, expounded by the likes of Adam Smith, claims that money arose to replace an extremely awkward and time-consuming system of bartering.  The only problem with this story is that no evidence of a primitive “barter society” exists. This is the kind of factual detail that may not trouble economists but is less than satisfactory for an anthropologist, such as Graeber. Many cultures, it turns out, share out resources in elaborate and complex communal rituals. The Eskimo, for example, will share any surplus food they have with you and react quite indignantly if you try and thank them. As a strictly egalitarian society, they have developed complex cultural mechanisms to avoid any relationships of debt and hierarchy (“thank you”, it turns out, originates with “think of you”, as in, “I will remember I am in your debt”). Even in our own society there is what Graeber terms “baseline communism”: forms of giving, based on need that underpin all human sociability (think, for example, of the way in which cigarettes are freely shared, even among strangers) Baseline communism, he says, is what “makes society possible”

Intriguingly, Graeber shows how many Ancient societies had in-built systems of debt forgiveness. Every so often all debts were cancelled and the slates were literally wiped clean. Under the Ancient Jewish Law of Jubilee all debts were automatically cancelled every seven years "in the Sabbath year" and all those in debt bondage were freed. This system of debt cancellation was thought preferable to the alternative of social breakdown and violence.

Fight Back! A Reader on the Winter of Protests ed Dan Hancox et al 2011. One year on, this remains the essential starting point for anyone seeking to find out more about last year’s eruption of student militancy in opposition to fees and the cutting of EMA.

Published as a free Ebook, the collection brings together high-energy blogs, articles and interventions from activists, journalists and academics. Some of the posts – written in the excitement of the moment – come across a touch naive and hyperbolic (I know my own politics has developed a fair bit in the past year) but on the whole they stand up well. It was particularly pleasing to see the Fight back! publishing model cross the Atlantic where it has brought together the various debates emerging from the extraordinary struggle in Wisconsin

23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism by Ha Joon Chang, Bloomsbury Press, 2011. That the term “free market” is still used at all in serious debate is, in many ways,  a vindication of the arguments made by the student movement; a testament to the corruption of knowledge that takes place when moneyed interests enter the universities.

In 23 things, Ha Joon Chang takes apart the disastrous ideology of the free market with admirable patience and clarity. Chang is himself an economist, but the approach he takes is comparative and historical, and rich with examples, rather than reductive and pseudo-scientific.  In truth, it’s difficult to escape the conclusion that mainstream Economics is no more a “science” than the various tribal myths, related by Graeber, which present an image of an ordered universe, balanced and flowing harmoniously with everything in its proper place. 23 Things is by no means a total critique of capitalism (only its “free market” variant) and Chang doesn’t deal with the fact his preferred system, of social democracy, faced its own crisis in the 1970s.  Still - a useful intro.

Capitalist Realism: Is There no Alternative? by Mark Fisher, Zero Books, 2009. While Chang can be said to provide a critique of the ideological content of neoliberalism, Mark Fisher does a wonderful job of showing how it functions at a cultural level through everything from mental health treatment to gangster rap.

Under Capitalist Realism not only is the status quo lauded as the perfect embodiment of freedom, progress and rationality, but the very possibility of alternatives is rendered – as it were – unthinkable thanks to an all-pervasive feeling of passivity, boredom and pragmatic resignation. Fisher’s descriptions of “business ontology” and “market Stalinism” capture the contemporary zeitgeist in such a penetrating and astute way that I lost count of how many times I stopped and put down the book whilst reading to think to myself, “Yes, that’s exactly it”. A must-read.

Machiavellian Democracy by John P. McCormick, Cambridge University Press, 2011. Machiavelli isn’t generally known as a theorist of democracy. In popular legend he is the scheming and amoral advisor to Princes (most recently captured in the fun but ridiculous HBO drama, The Borgias), whilst republican political thinkers, such as Philp Pettit and Quentin Skinner, have revived him as a theorist of liberty as non-domination.

Both are wrong, according to McCormick. The Skinner and Pettit school, he argues, mistakenly places Machiavelli within the tradition of “aristocratic republicanism” that he consciously set himself against. This tradition, which includes the Founding Fathers, de Tocqueville, and Joseph Schumpeter, sees the central problem of democracy as how to curb the wild and irrational passions of the mob, the so-called “tyranny of the majority”. Machiavelli, it turns out, was far more concerned with what we might call the tyranny of the minority. His over-riding preoccupation, according to McCormick, was the question of how to secure self-government in societies marked by profound inequalities of wealth and status. In such societies the “grandi” – the noble class – have an insatiable desire to dominate and oppress the “popolo” – the mass of ordinary citizens - who will fight to maintain their freedom and independence. Machiavelli therefore recommends a set of political institutions designed to foster class consciousness and political contentiousness amongst the popolo. This, he believed, was necessary to preserve a free and stable republic. Some of the institutions he prescribes, such as the Tribune - an assembly of the people empowered to try political elites for corruption and abuse of power – have lost none of their appeal today.

Hatred of Democracy by Jacques Rancière, Verso, 2007. Whereas Machiavelli takes an institutional approach to democracy, French political philosopher Ranciere locates democracy – and indeed the practice of politics, as such – wholly in extra-institutional uprisings of the people that disrupt the coercive political order of “the police” and subvert the elite “consensus” that underpins it.

Democracy, according to this view, is not to be found in parliaments, governments or even in the body of the people assembled. It consists instead in a “rupture in the order of kinship”; a disorderly, egalitarian disruption of orderly inequality by groups systematically excluded from politics. Through their disruptions, these groups challenge the order of the public and the private - most especially the private realm of capital accumulation - and expand the realm of equality and freedom. This vision of “radical democracy” is compelling. It furnishes a valuable framework for understanding the increasingly common forms of political contention that exist beyond law and formal politics. If I have a difficulty with Ranciere it’s that there are very few real world examples of the contentious politics he idealises and the exclusive emphasis on spontaneity does seem to be at the expense of any possibility of ongoing democratic self-rule.

Moments of Excess, The Free Association, 2011. This book brings together a series of energetic and illuminating essays written over the course of the authors’ involvement in the alter-globalisation movement. The title refers to those exceptional occasions when political movements manage to break through the cordons of capitalist realism and achieve some collective agency and traction. “At these times which may have spanned several years or literally a few moments”, they say ,“we have glimpsed whole new worlds”.

It is common for activists involved in non-hierarchical movements against austerity today to disparage the alter-globalisation movement for its spectacular protests and summit-hopping, which lead it to neglect everyday struggles over material conditions. Much of this rings true. But the alter-globalisation movement also achieved an extraordinary amount (had anyone even heard of the IMF or World Bank before 1999?) and many of the organisational forms and protest repertoires in use today have been inherited from that time. Anyone looking for a lucid and critical account of those struggles, from the point of view of activists involved, could do worse that start here.   

About the author

Guy Aitchison was a co-editor of openDemocracy's UK section, OurKingdom, and is now a PhD student in politics at University College London.