John’s posts have pushed me to write a post that I’ve been thinking about writing for a while – which books are useful for understanding where we (‘we’ here being the left under a reasonably expansive definition of the term) are now, and what possible new directions we might take? I’m putting up this post to learn rather than to dictate, but will list a few books that I think (given my own personal history, values, geographic location etc) are valuable to start the ball rolling. None of these choices will surprise people who have read CT for a while – but they do seem to me to be books that are at the center of a set of interlinked debates that I’ve gotten pulled into over the last few years. Feel free to talk, of course, about other books in other debates (with as much detail about context; why you think these books are important etc).
Thomas Geoghegan – Which Side Are You On? Trying To Be For Labor When It’s Flat On Its Back (Powells, Amazon).
This is the best book I know of (I’m sure there are others I don’t know of) on politics as soulcraft. It’s a highly personal account of trying to work in small ways to improve the lives of workers in an economy and a political system that seem determined to thwart and frustrate. It forcibly brings home Weber’s lesson that politics is the slow boring of hard boards – and is clear about the frustrations and paradoxes of this. Geoghegan contradicts himself frequently and argues with himself constantly – despite the grimness of the book’s subject matter it’s an oddly optimistic book, and often very funny. One must imagine Geoghegan happy.
Rick Perlstein’s Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus (Powells, Amazon).
Not many people read the first edition of this book – but it sometimes feels like all of those who did went out and started their own online movement. It’s a very different account of politics than Geoghegan’s – a heroic story of a bunch of outsiders and neglected cranks who built the foundations for epochal political change. The irony for leftwingers is mostly left implicit – these are the crazies, the crypto-racists and the sneaking regarders who made the Republican Party what it is today. I’m not as convinced as I once was of the overall theory of political change (I think that Paul Pierson’s critique of Nixonland – that it needs a theory of policy change – is an important corrective) – but it’s a phenomenal book.
This is a book that I’ve pimped before and will doubtless pimp again. And again. It’s the antidote to Economics 101 – a careful, well argued account of how it is that game theory and strategic thinking obviate crude claims for the benefits of markets, and plausibly support a quite far reaching leftwing politics. If every left-of-center pundit in the country had read this book and absorbed its lessons, we’d be in a much better place than we are.
Mark Blyth, Great Transformations: Economic Ideas and Institutional Change in the Twentieth Century (Powells, Amazon).
The best account I know of of how ideas can lead to economic change. Blyth documents the ideational changes that supported embedded liberalism, and the changes that led to its collapse. I don’t agree with everything in this book (my personal theoretical biases tend more towards strategic mechanisms), but it does stuff that the kinds of arguments I usually prefer cannot, and is insistent in identifying the actors associated with particular ideas.
Yochai Benkler, The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom (Powells, Amazon).
The best existing account of how much our economy depends implicitly on reciprocity and cooperation, and how new technologies make much more widespread forms of cooperation more feasible. Again – there are parts of this book that I don’t agree with. In particular, I think it is much too optimistic in its claims about how these forms of production can be self-sustaining (while Benkler stresses that they need certain external conditions to work, he doesn’t write about the ways in which they may corrode because of internal forces). Perhaps some day, some kindly multimillionaire will buy out my time and Tom Slee’s time out for a year, so that I can write the more qualified but still optimistic version of Benkler’s argument, and Tom can write the qualified pessimistic version. In the meantime, this is genuinely a classic book.
Those are my recommendations – what are yours?