Mark Perryman presents his annual set of book reviews
The lockdown has forced all manner of reflections on how a deadly disease can threaten humankind’s existence and what kind of world will follow any much hoped-for recovery. Where those reflections end up is anybody’s guess.
Slavov Žižek is the kind of writer to be relied upon to make such a guess, and a well-educated one too, his response to the crisis, Pandemic!, doesn’t disappoint in making any reader think, and rethink. The evidence of past plagues is that to assume any such rethink on a systemic scale will happen of its own common-sense accord is only to leave power in the hands of those with little or no interest in effecting any such change.
The Monster Enters by Mike Davis is a historical testament to that, tracking how agriculture, food producers, governments and big business have colluded following past pandemics to protect their own interests at the expense of public health.
Lee Humber’s Vital Signs makes the case for the absolute necessity of a radical public health strategy with the explicit purpose of tackling inequality – inequalities revealed in explicit and deadly detail via disproportionate Coronavirus death rates.
Dead Epidemiologists is an investigation by Rob Wallace and his co-authors into where the virus came from, its origins and its rapid escalation to become a deadly pandemic. A detailed understanding of how and why the Coronavirus crisis proved so lethal is provided by the short and instant book The Covid-19 Catastrophe by Richard Horton, Editor in Chief of the medical journal The Lancet.
One of the most interesting responses to this catastrophe has been from below: localised, community-focused self help, or ‘mutual aid’. Edited by Marina Sitrin and Colectiva Sembrar, Pandemic Solidarity is a collection of accounts from across the world of how these initiatives began, the ways they organise, and the questions they pose for more traditional ways of ‘doing’ politics.
But perhaps what the coronaviris crisis has revealed more than anything else is the prevalence of loneliness, not solidarity, in our society. Noreena Hertz’s pioneering argument in The Lonely Century is that rather than treat this as somebody else’s ‘problem’ the necessity is to reorganise society to produce connectivity – and out of this, collectivity.
Whether this might be one of the more hopeful outcomes of the crisis is too early to say although the bracing intellectual self-confidence of the many contributors to Everything Must Change, edited by Renata Ávila and Srécko Horvat, certainly seeks to convince the reader that things won’t remain the same, because the virus has proved they can’t. We shall see. To turn simply waiting to seeing how things might turn out into actively shaping those outcomes, Grace Blakeley in her new book The Corona Crash provides just the right kind of political programme, and analysis to frame the outcomes, with a newly radicalised version of a post-pandemic politics.
It isn’t to minimise the huge human – and as these accounts testify largely avoidable – tragedy to suggest that 2020 is simply the warm-up act to the climate emergency to come. In Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency Andreas Malm skilfully makes these connections to reveal the links between capitalism’s insatiable appetite for the natural world resulting in first a global disease and next the destruction of a planet.
Is it too late to put a stop to all this? Nearly but not quite – it is certainly the case that we are already in the midst of a climate crisis, but as Derek Wall maps out in Climate Strike, resistance most certainly isn’t futile, it’s our only hope. The paperback edition of Naomi Klein’s On Fire is pretty much a primer for the fusion of a movement against the Climate Emergency with the political demands for a ‘Green New Deal.’
To turn such a fusion into mass, popular support however requires showing definitively it isn’t simply environmental interests that demand this but material interests too. At the core of this is the energy industry – decarbonise this and decarbonisation becomes a realisable objective. Renewables make perfect sense, by definition they last for ever, but decarbonisation on the scale required demands massive state intervention, as Ashley Dawson argues in People’s Power. Individual lifestyle choice is insufficient, nor can the market be trusted not simply to act in defence of vested interests. The sun, wind and tide – these are our common treasury for all on a global scale, and only the state can protect them to harness their power.
Will this lead to declining living standards? No, but they will be different. Co-authors Giorgos Kallis, Susan Paulson, Giacomo D’Alisa and Federico Semaria in The Case for Degrowth make this argument very well – though is ‘degrowth’ really the best label to maximise the breadth of support required for such a politics? Kate Soper’s Post-Growth Living is a perhaps more positive version of a not dissimilar politics, describing her case as for an ‘alternative hedonism’, the sound of which the only response to can only be, yes please.
The climate emergency is gathering pace at the precise moment that both the market economy and the welfare state are undergoing momentous change. This is the terrain on which any politics, including environmentalism, is forced to operate. Lisa Adkins, Melinda Cooper and Martijn Konings use one aspect of this change as the focus for their book The Asset Economy which they define as property inflation’s impact on class determinants and generational dynamics. An impact only too familiar to many 21st century parents and their millennial offspring!
Alongside a housing crisis it is the ever-expanding digital economy that more than any other single economic factor which shapes the lives, and life chances, of millennials. Wendy Liu’s Abolish Silicon Valley is a fantastic political call to arms in the cause of socialising the ownership of this most individualistic entrepreneurial of economic forces. The 2021 Edition of the annual Socialist Register takes a similar theme, Beyond Digital Capitalism, to explore not only the regressive limitations of the digital economy but also the progressive possibilities for a socialist social media and new forms of workplace organising, community restaurants and low-carbon public transport – it’s a truly inspiring read.
The Coronavirus has revealed the actually existing welfare state gripped by its own crisis. Polly Toynbee and David Walker’s The Lost Decade records the government-made decline of the public realm in devastating detail. No amount of clapping for NHS frontline staff could make up for a decade’s worth of decline – and before that too, they record the underfunding, underpaying and undervaluing of an institution so vital to the nation’s health, virus or no virus.
Of course institutions, not even the rightly venerated NHS, can stand still. Reinventing The Welfare State by Ursula Huws skilfully combines this imperative for change, while firmly establishing that the market isn’t the sole model for such a change. The ideas are bold, original and inventive, they’ll need to be if the near universal political acceptance of the market model for the past four decades is to be reversed. The consequences of such bipartisanship are sharpest of all in the university sector.
Editors Michael Rustin and Gavin Poynter’s Building a Radical University is a history of the University of East London, best known to those of a certain age as NELP (North East London Polytechnic). The book presents the institution as a haven of ‘radical innovation’ but whilst the instances cited are entirely admirable their survival is surely in resistance to, not the product of, the destruction of the polytechnic sector in the cause of a worthless marketing exercise. ‘Rebuilding the Radical Polytechnic’ – perhaps a future volume for the editors and contributors?
At the core of both the Coronavirus crisis, and its after-effects, is of course inequality, particularly in wages and workplace conditions. This was the key determinant in how millions experienced the virus, caught it, and survived it, or not. Inequalities turbo-charged towards something over spilling into the obscene by the rapidly changing nature of work – from Amazon’s model, expertly documented in The Cost of Free Shipping edited by Jake Alimahomed-Wilson and Ellen Reese, via the Angry Workers collective recording the bitter experience of casualisation in Class Power on Zero Hours, to Callum Cant’s superb analysis from inside the gig economy Riding for Deliveroo.
New versions of the workplace, changing terms of employment, the displacement of work as a defining characteristic of personal identity – all these and more pose fundamental challenges for how trade unions organise. Yet their core role in defending and extending wages and conditions remain as vital as ever, evidenced by the surge in trade union membership during the Coronavirus crisis. Unions Renewed by Alice Martin and Annie Quick is a powerfully made case both for this defensive role and at the same time a trade union offensive towards the democratisation of the entire economy. Such a twin role will be indivisible from the moral and political case against ever-increasing inequality. Ben Phillips makes this case in How To Fight Inequality, while arguing that for such a movement to win must coalition build right across all forces in civil society. From the USA, Jackson Rising, edited by Kali Akuno and Ajamu Nangwaya, is a handbook for how such a coalition was built and achieved radical change in one American city. Read, and be inspired.
Pre-lockdown there had been a wave of mass, popular movements intensely typical of a digital era framing how to organise. #Metoo was arguably the first of these but of course there is always a prehistory, one which is neatly captured by the sparkling prose and eclectic selection of Yasmin Alibhai-Brown’s Ladies Who Punch, which could almost be called ‘Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls - the grown-up edition’.
And then during the early summer months of the Coronavirus crisis, #BlackLivesMatters erupted. Two books provide both backstory from both sides of the Atlantic and how such a street movement connects with resistance from within the beast of the legislature, Congress and the Commons. This is What America Looks Like by Ilhan Omar subtitled ‘ my journey from refugee to Congresswoman’ is the autobiographical account of a politics entirely different from Trump’s, or Biden’s.
Much the same could be said of Diane Abbott, the biography by Robin Bunce and Samara Linton, as chronicled here a target of, and consistent campaigner against, racism. There is, quite simply, far too few like her, more’s the pity. Nesrine Malik’s We Need New Stories proposes the kind of politics to produce the kind of consciousness from which just such a movement might emerge.
When we, eventually, come out the other side of the Coronavirus crisis the pressing need for an oppositional politics of resistance will be urgent. Darkly sinister forces of conspiracy theories and pseudo-libertarianism have emerged and are preparing to prosper. The new and updated edition of David Renton’s Fascism is the best short introduction to the scale and horror of what such a politics of hate and blame can conjure up. To date, despite on occasion the very real threat of a breakthrough, the various British variants of fascism have never succeeded. No Platform by Evan Smith tells of one episode, and the controversies it provoked, that contributed to the fascists’ defeat.
Thankfully while the threat of fascism should never be lightly dismissed, its imminent revival as a mass political force is unlikely. Instead we have the global phenomenon of populism, complicated by the fact this has both reactionary right variants as well as popular left variants. The Populist Manifesto edited by Emmy Eklundh and Andy Knott provides a very good account of this sometimes bemusing variety under the heading of one ‘ism.’ For the People from Jorge Tamames takes a narrower focus, but is no less invaluable as a consequence. Focussing exclusively on the variants of Left populism, specifically Podemos in Spain and Bernie Sanders in the USA, this is a book to give hope for a better politics, and a better future, once the crisis is over.
The key to that hope reaching fulfilment has to depend not so much on charismatic leaders but engaging ideas. This is the key difference between a Left that is popular and one that is simply populist. A good starting point is to deconstruct those elements that have degenerated democracy. To that end the multi-authored Media Manifesto provides both an accessible critique and a credible alternative for what passes today as ‘news’. Peter Geoghegan’s Democracy for Sale expertly dissects how in the digital age the forces that produce such a biased, monopolised news production range far beyond what we read in a paper, listen to on the radio or watch on the TV and as this brilliant exposure reveals, are all the more dangerous as a result.
Eliane Glaser takes a very different tack in her new book Elitism. Described as both ‘a progressive defence’ and a ‘provocation’ the title would seem to fly in the face of the former ,while living up to the latter. But this most interesting of writers is on to an idea, something rooted in the coronavirus crisis. Science and the scientists, doctors and frontline NHS workers, public health professionals, their collective expertise puts a fly-by-the-seat-of-his pants PM to shame. That doesn’t mean science and professionalism is neutral, but to ignore it entirely we do so at our peril.
And as for a thinker who draws these, and many other threads of ideas together, a new generation of writers will cite the late Mark Fisher. Matt Colquhoun’s Egress serves both as an excellent tribute to Mark Fisher’s influence and introduction to his ideas. For those familiar – or not so familiar – a hugely illuminating read.
The coronavirus crisis has coincided with the end of Corbyn and Sanders insurgencies, and the defeat of Trump. Quite where this might leave politics afterwards is anybody’s guess and it’s too early for the guesswork, educated or otherwise, to get into print yet. A useful starting point before we get to read the eventual theses is the new edition of Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin’s The Socialist Challenge Today, a polemical survey of the hits, and misses of Corbyn, Sanders and Syriza.
The latter is the subject of a detailed critique in Greece 2015 by Éric Toussaint. Of course such critiques are necessary, although the crushing of hopes dashed can produce demoralised despair when what is required is the energy of renewal. Three very different accounts of the Corbyn era provide, perhaps unwittingly, some sort of basis for this kind of energetic thinking, and doing.
From the outside left As It Happened is a collection of Lindsey German’s briefings on the Corbyn project from the highs of 2017 to the lows of 2019. Enthusiasm for what might be possible is combined with a sharply critical view of why it didn’t – or if you like, revolutionary realism.
It is hard to imagine Deborah Mattinson ever describing herself as a revolutionary but the work she has done on polling and focus groups for a period revolutionised Labour’s approach to electioneering. Beyond the Red Wall is her attempt to make sense of Labour’s disastrous loss of so many ‘heartland’ seats in the 2019 General Election. We can argue the toss over the book’s methodology but recognising the seriousness of these losses and not assuming we know the answers why is absolutely vital.
Muckrakers Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick Maguire don’t pretend to offer any such answers but their strictly unauthorised inside story on the Corbyn Leadership Left Out is so wonderfully scurrilous that it is a rollicking good read, whether or not the reader agrees with the politics.
This Land by Owen Jones is the same account but from an openly Corbynist perspective. With an unrivalled media platform, Owen is probably the best known purveyor of Corbynist politics. However the most interesting thing about his book is the scale, and the limits, of his critique of what Corbynism became.
Chris Clarke’s The Dark Knight and the Puppet Master offers a very different view on what should follow Corbyn. Highly critical of left populism, Chris offers pluralism as his alternative, and in the process rejects the idea that Labour can be both popular and plural. Why not?
The year will end on one happy note, the downfall of Trump. In his place President Joe Biden – but what Biden’s America will end up looking like, nobody yet knows. Better than Trump’s is a mighty low bar! Meagan Day and Micah Uetricht in Bigger Than Bernie are convinced that without Sanders at the helm it won’t be as good they’d have wished it to be. For Bernie supporters that’s a self-evident truth – the key however will be how to edge Biden towards the ‘better’ and when the process slows find the means to edge it forward again without retreating to the comfortable margins of inglorious, indignant, opposition.
Where are the resources for such a hopeful outcome? Out of history, that’s where. Ruth Kinna’s Great Anarchists, illustrated by the sublime Clifford Harper, is a superb place to begin this journey of optimism, chronicling in words and pictures this most optimistic of ideologies.
Or Robert Tressell’s classic account of the potential for a working-class politics of change in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, now ingeniously recreated by Scarlett and Sophie Rickard as a graphic novel. At the core of these different yet complementary accounts is a sense of coming together to fulfil a common cause.
That process Jodi Dean describes in her brilliant short book Comrade as ‘political belonging ’ a value sorely lacking when the practice of politics becomes divorced from the ambition to change, everything.
The latest edition of the twice-yearly journal Twentieth Century Communism ranges over its usual fascinating mix of efforts towards such a scale of change, including communism fighting to survive under the Nazis in interwar Germany, the Soviet-China split in the postwar years, and Eric Hobsbawm’s writings on dialectical materialism.
Domestic tales of such efforts, not all of them happy, are retold in Ian Parker’s extraordinary Mapping the English Left through Film which details the story of 25 Left groups, with each account introduced with the device of a film Ian has chosen to best represent their politics, opening with Arnold Schwarzernegger’s Total Recall as the Labour Party. If that doesn’t tempt readers nothing will. Ian’s book is both very funny and highly informative, a rare combination amongst most writers on the far Left.
But sometimes these small, highly committed, revolutionary-activist groups produce leaders and regimes which in this tiny closed world are no laughing matter. My Search for Revolution is the story of the Workers Revolutionary Party, best known for counting Vanessa and Corin Redgrave amongst their ranks, as told by former member Clare Cowen. A story Clare describes as abuse, including sexual abuse, all in the cause of creating a party equipped to effect revolutionary change.
In the interwar years, dominated by the Popular Front against fascism, that cause connected to a broad public support in every sector of society. The Folk Singers and the Bureau provides a fascinating account, thanks to the painstaking research of author Aaron J. Leonard of just one instance of the breadth and depth of such support, namely folk music. Tellingly, much of the book consists of what the establishment did to first narrow, then demonise, and finally criminalise this support.
Edited by Colin Coulter Working for the Clampdown deals with a very different period of this fusion of the popular, the political and the musical – the late 1970s to early 1980s, punk, Clash and Rock against Racism. For those of a certain age there’s never been anything like it since. Nostalgia isn’t a healthy trait to equip a radical politics of today and tomorrow but sometimes it’s worth making an exception, because the lessons of Rock against Racism (RAR)are too valuable to be lost in the mists of time. Colin’s book helps us to understand why.
Central to RAR’s impact was its agitational visual identity, mixing punk and dayglo, but in a highly original fashion, not derivative of punk in the least, but stood as part of that moment in its own right. The same care and attention to visual arts activism was applied to RAR’s sister organisation the Anti Nazi League (ANL) by one of the British Left’s most important graphic designers, David King. David set a standard of originality and impact both framed by the wonderful art of the Russian Revolution but entirely capable of going beyond it too. Rick Poynor’s David King is a superbly illustrated design biography and deserves to be read by anyone seeking to communicate ideas, and ideals, visually.
A much slimmer volume is the pamphlet Protest Stencil, testament to how low cost guerrilla marketing, ‘subvertising’ with good graphics can extend the reach of ideas where more conventional methods fail. Or to while away the grim dissatisfaction of the pandemic ,indulge yourself and let rip the artistic imagination, crayons at the ready, with N.O.Bonzo’s Off With Their Heads – an ‘antifascist colouring book’, yes really!
For many lockdown has meant spending more time at home, willingly or otherwise, and less time doing all those things that take us away from home, willingly or otherwise. Animal Squat, written and illustrated by Doublewhy, is a children’s book like few others, a tale of wild things and even wilder ideas for parents not afraid of their sons and daughters questioning why?
More time at home has also meant for many rediscovering the joys of eating in versus eating out or takeaways. There’s no one better to make such a realignment enjoyable and economic than Jack Monroe, and her latest book Good Food for Bad Days is perfectly timed for the baddest days imaginable.
And when this virus is all over, what then? My book of the year maps precisely how a pandemic became a crisis, how new models of support and solidarity became the basis of survival and were given a social worth and weight never accorded to them before, and also provides an organising focus which demands the remaking of the political. The Care Manifesto by The Care Collective is my favourite book of 2020 because not only does it find a way out of the crisis, but lays the basis for something better in its place.
Mark Perryman is co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’ aka Philosophy Football.