The New New Left Book Club

by Henry on April 27, 2010

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.
Tom Slee’s No One Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart (Powells, Amazon).
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?

{ 44 comments }

1

The Reverend 04.27.10 at 10:45 pm

I found The Neoliberal State to be the most comprehensive, convincing account of the now prevailing worldview. I clipped some reviews and underscored what I felt was essential.

2

jacob 04.27.10 at 11:07 pm

I’ll pitch Bethany Moreton’s To Serve God and Walmart, which explicitly is about the way Walmart developed ideas of Christian capitalism, but is also about the way the left needs to better understand and organize around reproductive labor.

3

Cheryl Rofer 04.27.10 at 11:12 pm

Tony Judt’s Ill Fares The Land. (Powells, not including Amazon because I think the url takes you to my account).

Judt criticizes the monetarized view of society that has grown up in the United States (and elsewhere) over the past thirty years. He has some suggestions for going forward, erasing the enormous disparity in incomes and reinvigorating the safety nets of social democracy. His passion brings the emotional overtones into the discussion. The book can be read quickly, but there’s a lot there, so it probably should be read more than once.

4

gerard 04.27.10 at 11:23 pm

Duh, The Shock Doctrine of course!

5

Joshua Mostafa 04.27.10 at 11:51 pm

Raj Patel’s The Value of Nothing. Michael Albert’s Parecon: Life After Capitalism.

Also, how about we don’t use Amazon for links – it’s a highly exploitative employer.

6

The Raven 04.28.10 at 12:02 am

Heee. You know who invented the book club–I mean the sort where you got mailed a book every month–, right?

7

Henry 04.28.10 at 12:32 am

bq. Also, how about we don’t use Amazon for links – it’s a highly exploitative employer.

I tried that for a while – but it was clear that no-one was clicking through and it seemed a bit pointless. So I put them back in, but try at least to put Powells (which is a union company) first.

8

Russell Arben Fox 04.28.10 at 1:58 am

If the criteria for the New New Left Book Club is books that help “the left” (however defined) in “understanding where we…are now, and what possible new directions we might take,” then sure Cohen’s simple, straightforward Why Not Sozialism? deserves to be on the list. In is both much shorter and far more philosophical than the books you mention (or so I assume; I’m only familiar with Geoghegan, Perlstein,and Slee), but I can’t think of a more solid, concise review of the reasons why the left should keep trying to do what it tries to do.

9

Jeffrey Brewer 04.28.10 at 3:33 am

Stiglitz – Whither Socialism

All of the other economics-oriented books mentioned here are, in my opinion, well intentioned but ultimately worthless fluff.

If there is to be any new new left it needs more output from people who aren’t afraid of actually sitting down and learning bit of math and economics, rather than more of these under-researched, overly ambitious, Harper’s thinkpieces in book form.

“Markets don’t put a price on human dignity. We need a new economics …. ” *inserts gun in mouth*

10

Lee A. Arnold 04.28.10 at 4:18 am

Building a Win-Win World: Life Beyond Global Economic Warfare, by Hazel Henderson (1996) is easily the best book.

11

The Raven 04.28.10 at 5:31 am

I think Cory Doctorow’s novel Makers, about capitalism and new methods of production, might have a place on this list. His latest, For the Win, is a YA novel about a union movement among gold farmers, and will be out on 5/11.

Too bad it couldn’t be May Day.

12

Hidari 04.28.10 at 6:28 am

I’ve pitched all these before at various points, but briefly:

How we got here:

Andre Gunder Frank: ReORIENT

John M. Hobson: The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation.

Jack Goody: The Theft of History.

Problems with neo-liberalism.

Paul Ormerod: the Death of Economics.

And, as from where we can go from here: apart from the ‘usual suspects’ (Chomsky etc, Naomi Klein, Pilger) I also like Marmot, The Status Syndrome, and The Fiction of a Thinkable World: Body, Meaning, and the Culture of Capitalism by Michael Steinberg. But there are really too many to choose from….

13

Nick L 04.28.10 at 11:46 am

I found the (sadly late) Andrew Glyn’s Capitalism Unleashed to be the best explanation of the macroeconomic shifts in the developed world. It also has a balanced view on economic ‘globalisation’, which is something that has been lacking on left-wing analysis.

14

submariner 04.28.10 at 12:18 pm

I would include Unto This Last by John Ruskin and The Craftsman by Richard Sennett.

15

Bob 04.28.10 at 2:16 pm

Erich Fromm has not been fashionable for a long time, but find a lot of insight in Erich Fromm, ESCAPE FROM FREEDOM.

16

Wiz 04.28.10 at 4:10 pm

I would think David Harvey has to be on this list. His Brief History of Neoliberalism is arguably the best interpretation of the functional class relations behind the neoliberal moment. And his theoretical work is crucial to any Marxian understanding of the current mess we’re in.

In terms of fiction: I’ll go with Jose Saramago’s the Cave, as the best allegory for the contrast between the dignity of the human producer and the bizarre post-modern mess our economy and society have become.

17

Dan 04.28.10 at 4:32 pm

The Spirit Level — arguing for equality on the basis of happiness research. “inequality reduces wellbeing”, backed by the kind of statistics in this book, is a meme that could change a lot of minds if you get it spread widely enough.

Capitalist Realism, by Mark Fisher (a.k.a. K-Punk) really nails the apathy and hopelessness of the left, while making a decent attempt at rallying the troops. And the publisher, Zero Books, seems to be putting together an excellent stable of young British writers, who might not otherwise find their way into print. I’m very excited to see how they get on over the next couple of years.

I’d also put in another vote for the Shock Doctrine — along with a plea not to ignore “the usual suspects”. They often aren’t obvious to us less well-read lefties.

18

know thine enemy 04.28.10 at 5:08 pm

I would suggest a good close read of Friedman’s Capitalism & Freedom & Nozick’s Anarchy, the State & Utopia would serve the left well also. They are both flawed, (The former far more than the latter.) but learning why and what these flaws mean is a useful exercise.

19

william u. 04.28.10 at 5:12 pm

I suspect the suggestions will bifurcate into earnest left-liberal and social-democrats on the one hand and the jargon-slinging Verso crowd on the other. For my part, I’ve been meaning to read Glyn (thanks Nick L) and Moishe Postone’s Time, Labor, and Social Domination.

20

Cuchulain 04.28.10 at 6:48 pm

I know CT has already had a great forum discussing George Scialabba’s books, but I think his recent What are Intellectuals Good For? is still worth an inclusion on the list. I got a great deal from it, and it pointed me in wonderful directions for further research.

From that book, I think Russell Jacoby’s The Last Intellectuals is especially essential reading, if for no other reason than to remind us to be humble while being vigorous and passionate regarding left-wing ideas/policies, etc.

I have also learned a lot from the folks over at the Monthly Review.

http://www.monthlyreview.org/index.php

Michael Walzer’s Company of Critics has also been helpful and led me to Nicola Chiaromonte. Currently reading his The Paradox of History, a short work about politics, Stendhal, Tolstoy, Pasternak, among other writers and thinkers . . .

21

Bill Gardner 04.28.10 at 7:13 pm

Sen, Development as Freedom?

22

William Burns 04.28.10 at 8:12 pm

Wow, twenty-one comments and no-one’s pointed out that there are no women on Henry’s list.

23

Mike Huben 04.28.10 at 9:18 pm

Everything for Sale: The Virtues and Limits of Markets by Robert Kuttner. The “must read” for arguing about markets at a popular level.

The Economics of the Welfare State by Nicholas Barr. A college text that provides the mainstream economics background for defending the welfare state.

The Progressive Assault On Laissez Faire: Robert Hale And The First Law And Economics Movement by Barbara H. Fried. The best work for understanding the reasons for the Progressive Era reforms. It turns out that most free-market arguments are resurrected from the 19th century, and were rejected in the early 20th for sound reasons.

24

James Conran 04.28.10 at 10:39 pm

“Wow, twenty-one comments and no-one’s pointed out that there are no women on Henry’s list.”

Wow, does not having a book by a woman on a list of “5 important books” reveal some kind of insidious misogynist bias on Henry’s part?

25

gordon 04.28.10 at 10:48 pm

“The Communist Manifesto”, Karl Marx.

26

tomslee 04.29.10 at 1:59 am

Seems to me that the left is still struggling to find a coherent view of the relationship between markets, state, and civil society in a post-cold-war, and I’d choose books that focus on that problem.

I agree with Jeffrey Brewer that Stiglitz’s “Whither Socialism” deserves a place, even though it is mighty heavy going and is very Stiglitz-centric. I can’t help but think a Krugman book would belong on the list, but I can’t select one. And in principle I’d say Rodrik’s “One Economics, Many Recipes” deserves a place too, but I couldn’t finish it.

Of other recent books, Hayagreeva Rao’s Market Rebels (despite its title) and Kranton & Akerlof’s Identity Economics both speak to the importance of identity, and from different perspectives offer frameworks for thinking in non-market, but non-state ways.

But we need our outraged journalists too. Maybe Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed? Or Shock Doctrine?

And we need our novelists as well – our Tressels and Steinbecks and Orwells. Wiz suggests Saramago and I haven’t read The Cave: judging from his others he seems to give warnings but not positive left-wing views.

I’d be interested to see the pick of recent feminist work too. I just picked up Nina Power’s One Dimensional Woman and have hopes for it.

27

tomslee 04.29.10 at 1:59 am

And Henry – if you find your multi-millionaire, count me in.

28

ALX 04.29.10 at 2:10 am

Tony Judt’s “Ill Fares the Land”

Read it twice.

29

jacob 04.29.10 at 2:35 am

Dan @ 17 suggests The Spirit Level, which I was really looking forward to when it came out. Dan is right that we on the left need to be focusing on inequality, and showing that inequality hurts everyone–even the rich–is an important way of doing that. Alas, the Spirit Level is a deeply flawed book. Essentially, as I argue elsewhere, it is impoverished by having been written by epidemiologists, rather than sociologists.

I would support others’ nominations of Shock Doctrine. In addition (and perhaps here my being a historian shines through) I’d suggest Ellen Schrecker’s Many Are the Crimes, the best book on McCarthyism, to explain, at least partially how we came to have such an impoverished political culture in the US.

Two further books that will be familiar to most here at CT but which should certainly be on any list like this one are Piven and Cloward’s Poor People’s Movements and Colin Ward’s Anarchy in Action.

30

Patrick Potyondy 04.29.10 at 2:47 am

First, I love the idea of engaging hard ideas like these as much as we can, but there is, at the same time, arguably enough out there for the left. What I dread, immeasurably at times, is that no one (not enough anyhow) actually cares enough about it to act. And so, I too will give two books that I’m sure people know of:

Polanyi, The Great Transformation.
Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy.

31

LFC 04.29.10 at 2:36 pm

A minor point — from the post’s description of Perlstein:
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 assume this should read “sneaking rearguarders“(?)

32

AnotherTom 04.29.10 at 3:17 pm

The books that have had the most influence on my thinking about political economics are John Kay’s “The Truth About Markets” and Nicholas Nassem Taleb’s “Fooled by Randomness”. If, like me, you have read many, many determinist books on economics and the Left, and the Right, as well as a shedload of (wishywashy?) mixed-economy type tomes, this pair make a very healthy corrective.

Following that pair, I would like to erase Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine from any list of quality books. It is an awful book, where the author has come up with her conclusion then got her research students to prove her prejudices true. It is a grave insult to the kind of free-thinking intellectual exploration we might wish to see.

33

LFC 04.29.10 at 6:07 pm

On second thought: one can have a “sneaking regard” for something, so I guess “sneaking regarders” was intended; it just looked a bit strange when I first read it.

34

chris 04.29.10 at 6:48 pm

@32: I’ve seen several people say something like that about _The Shock Doctrine_, but of course if you are only reading Klein’s side of the argument it is rather convincing. Where can one find a good discussion of what is right and wrong about it?

ISTM that there may be something of an idee fixe holding the book together (the analogy between different forms of “shock” may be somewhat overdrawn), but the idea that radical market views are sometimes imposed antidemocratically under cover of crisis seems pretty well supported, unless someone has proof Klein is just making stuff up.

35

James Conran 04.29.10 at 9:16 pm

LFC, I think the origin of the term “sneaking regarders” is in Ireland, where it used to be applied to people who, while never outright endorsing the IRA campaign, couldn’t bring themselves to condemn it wholeheartedly either.

36

william u. 04.29.10 at 9:51 pm

chris @34: see Doug Henwood’s critique of Klein here.

37

LFC 04.30.10 at 1:14 am

@James Conran,
Thanks.

38

Dan 04.30.10 at 9:14 am

jacob @ 29: nice review, and I to some extent agree with your criticism. I also suspect that if The Spirit Level became prominent, its statistics could easily be torn apart (in detail, not overall thrust) by the right. There’s certainly space for a better book in this area.

39

David Wolfe 04.30.10 at 8:21 pm

I agree with the recommendations in favour of Tony Judt’s Ill Fares the Land. It is a bit nostalgic in some ways for the world we have lost from the social democratic Golden Age, but the writing is unbelievably crisp and the defense of why the public sector outperforms the private sector in the provision of many kinds of goods and services is one we constantly need to be reminded of.

I am a fan of Gilles Paquet’s Governance Through Social Learning. The examples are all Canadian, but the broader argument is applicable to most liberal democracies, especially those with federal or multilevel governance structures.

Finally, not a particularly left book, but Stephen Cohen and Brad de Long’s The End of Influence is very instructive on the world that is ending and offers key insights into the new one that is emerging.

40

LFC 05.01.10 at 12:59 pm

A while ago I bought Gerald Grant’s Hope and Despair in the American City: Why There Are No Bad Schools in Raleigh (2009), but I never got around to reading it (maybe I will this summer). I wonder if H. Brighouse knows this book and if so what he thinks of it.

41

Steven Teles 05.02.10 at 12:10 am

I’m not really on the left, but here goes:

a) Michael Walzer–Spheres of Justice. Had a huge impact on how I think, even when it’s not explicitly on my mind. Maybe the best thing for thinking about what pluralism would lead to if one took it really seriously.

b) Marshall Ganz–Why David Sometimes Wins: Leadership, Organization and Strategy in the Calfornia Farm Worker Movement. I just read it in the last few weeks, although the argument has been out there for a while. I had already developed the argument in my book, The Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement, before I read it, but it sort of crystallized a lot of what I was trying to say. The same thing is true about…

c) Charles Epp–The Rights Revolution. Ganz clarified my thinking about why strategy, rather than just resources and opportunities, explain why some social movements succeed and others fail. Epp did the same thing–again, after I had already more or less formulated my argument–about the importance of resource mobilization, esp. the mobilization of free (to the movement) resources and third-party subsidy. One can derive a somewhat similar point from Jack Walker’s work, I think.

d) Charles Epp–Making Rights Real. Also just came out, also just read. Esp. for those enamored of Gerald Rosenberg’s The Hollow Hope (and other debunkings of the value of legal mobilization), this is a real eye-opener. Epp looks primarily at tort-like lawsuits against police departments, but also at sexual harassment and playground safety. He shows that “law” (in the form of tort-like suits) drove a wave of professionalization, which ended up deeply changing organizational practices. There are some questions about how widely applicable his model is, but it should lead to serious second thoughts among those who believe that law cannot be an effective tool for social movement action (it reinforces the arguments of McCann in Rights at Work, Melnick’s Between the Lines, and Feeley and Rubin in Judicial Policymaking and the Modern State). Lots of people, including some on the left, cite Rosenberg as if he was the last word on the efficacy of legal mobilization. They shouldn’t.

(b), (c) and (d) are not philosophical works, but about what explains social movement successes. But they are extremely important, and well worth people chewing over.

42

CA 05.02.10 at 8:53 am

Not a book, but a recent article that could be inspiring as a complement of Benkler’s book in a more political perspective: http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/content~db=all~content=a916116619

43

Buce 05.02.10 at 9:35 pm

Barbara Fried as “[t]he best work for understanding the reasons for the Progressive Era reforms…”

I was a huge fan of the Fried book when I read it some years ago but as I recall, its main message was how the Progressive agenda smashed into an intellectual dead end.

44

Davidwonk 05.03.10 at 3:02 am

Someone mentioned Kuttner’s Everything for Sale as the indispensable read for arguing about markets “at a popular level.” For arguing politics at a popular level, I’d go with Paul Starr’s Freedom’s Power or Krugman’s Conscience of a Liberal.

Hope these aren’t too centristy for you folks. Keep the faith.

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