My thoughts on what I have read this year are two-fold. Firstly, I think I have read more work by female authors, which in my opinion is a good thing. Equally, I have not done the statistics to determine whether this is true or not, and I have only read 7 books written by women this year, compared to 20 by men. Surely a correction is in order? I could attribute this imbalance to myself, or the publishing industry and academia; it is probably a mixture of the two.
Secondly, I do not feel like my reading has been quite as varied as it has been in previous years. I have not read my one token fiction book this year, and a surveyor of this list will quickly notice a distinct technological theme involved, as well as good doses of political economy. I do not think this is especially out of fashion, but the occasional bit of weirdness is lacking, in my opinion. Again, another correction for 2021…
Future Histories — Lizzie O’Shea
A well written book that did little for me. I believe the value of history is substantially in its capacity to guide the future, and to make predictions, and O’Shea does an excellent job in this regard. Equally, perhaps because I read a lot on technology, or perhaps because I had just finished Chris Harman’s A People’s History of the World, I was not much taken to this book. One to return to, most probably.
The Morals of the Market — Jessica Whyte
An excellent, well-researched book into one of the most important sects of economics for the 21st century. However, if you’re looking for a comprehensive history of neoliberalism, or analysis of the characters involved in that movement, this book will feel meandering. This shouldn’t be surprisingly; Whyte’s book is one regarding the interaction of neoliberal economics and human rights. It is not a historical text. Regardless of whether someone seeking a comprehensive analysis of neoliberalism may find portions of this book wanting, they will nevertheless benefit from having read it.
The Happiness Industry — William Davies
A book that I think all behavioural scientists should read, but in my experience, few behavioural scientists seem to have read (though I suppose they may just keep stum about it). Davies’ critique of various happiness industries in contemporary capitalism, from subjective well-being research to mindfulness to nudging is not one of total, abject rejection, but a call for critical reflection which I wholly agree with. I consider myself an epistemological pragmatist; I do not believe any survey designed to measure happiness or well-being can actually do that, but insofar as we are interested in measuring these things, rough abstractions via surveys are valuable. For Davies, the issue with the broad intersection of behavioural science is the industry which has arisen around it, promising insights worthy of critical scrutiny if nothing else. Furthermore, in a premise reminiscent of Mark Fisher’s thinking on the matter, Davies is critical of the happiness industry as selling the solution to societies problems in the same packaging as the economic conditions which created societies problems. In a word, Davies seems to hold the happiness industry to be mere firefighting. As an academic working in behavioural science, Davies’ book is not the long academic tract which might appeal to the academy, but the criticisms offered are ones which should not be ignored.
The Limits to Capital — David Harvey
A fine book, I doubt people would question that Harvey knows his stuff when it comes to Marx. But not a book that is especially helpful — I am sure there are better reading companions to Das Kapital than this. Or, you know, just read Das Kapital — Marx isn’t too incoherent.
The BBC: Myth of Public Service — Tom Mills
I read Myth of a Public Service basically because I am tired of the uncritical way the BBC is discussed. For BBC journalists: just because both sides dislike you, it doesn’t mean both sides are equal. Anyway, Mills’ book is filled with the quality you would expect from a media academic who specialises in the BBC. I also think Mills’ conclusion is rather fair — the BBC reflects the worldview of the government in power at the time. There is a practical justification for this — journalists need to report on those with power, rather than those they simply like. But this is also a capitulation to ideology.
The Long Twentieth Century — Giovanni Arrighi
This is the first of two re-reads on this list. I chose to re-read Arrighi’s magnum opus because, if I’m honest, I felt there was significantly more to extract from it than I previously did. Arrighi’s discussion of hegemony is of particular note, especially as we are living through the end of the American long century. In short, Arrighi argues there are two types of hegemony. The first emerges when a nation or power are in a position to set the rules of the game. For instance, America became a hegemon after WWII (and could have probably become a hegemon after WWI) with the imposition of the Bretton Woods economic order. The second form of hegemony is when the hegemon gives other powers the tools to assume hegemony. For Arrighi, the first form transforms into the second via an evolution of economic production: as hegemons come to dominate the world via their productive capacities and rule-setting position, they also build up strong capital positions, which are re-invested in other nations. In a double-movement, this erodes the hegemon’s power to retain their position, while empowering other nations to assume the hegemonic position. This narrative is quite compelling when we see the slow emergence of China — and how China has emerged — compared to the U.S.. Arrighi is essential reading.
The Uninhabitable Earth — David Wallace-Wells
Forgive me if I talk about the condition which produces work like that of Wallace-Wells’ The Uninhabitable Earth, rather than the book itself. The book is fine — a pessimistic telling of our enviro-economic past and future. What interests me more is why this book has been resigned to pessimism. I think it is a pessimism we will see more and more, emergent in two ways. Firstly, disillusionment at the future from those with no stake in the present. I would adopt the internet slang — Doomer — to describe this group. Their existence seems, at least to them, to be defined by an inevitable suffering. I mean, what did we expect from the generation born at the end of history? The second way will be amongst paid-up members of liberal, Western democracies, who I believe feel a sense of crisis, but are ideological unequipped to do anything but perpetuate the system which creates that feeling. To an extent, I feel this is where Wallace-Wells comes from, but not knowing enough about him, I would not so far as to accuse him of such. Nevertheless, such a pessimism is worthy of exploration. I think the reason so few people with power understand what power they have is because they are what I would call second-order ideologues. Keynesian resulted in battles Keynes had to have with classical liberals of the second-order variety who were unable to reconcile their ideology with crisis, but simultaneously impotent (to borrow Berardi’s phrasing) to abandon their ideology. Keynes, thus, arrived at his ideology through interrogation; his was an ideology of crisis (Keynes also made remarks comparable to that of second order ideologues; see Skidelsky, 1992). In the same way, the neoliberal agenda comes from battles neoliberals had with Keynesians. The point of this is to say that dominant ideologies emerge in response to something, almost always crisis. Second-order ideologues are those that learn the ideology, but do not face the crisis the ideology was engineered to solve. Thus, when a new crisis emerges, second-order ideologues are not equipped to respond, since they only understand old solutions, rather than methods for producing new solutions. This is not something unique to capitalism — see the Soviet Union as evidence of second-order ideology. But it is the distinct challenge of our present political economy. To borrow a term from the Soviet-era, hypernormalisation means an idea that everyone knows to be false, but collectively acts as if it is true. Our is a time of hypernormalisation! And hypernormalisation is an expected by-product of second-order ideology clashing with crisis. If the planet is dying because of free-market excess, but the learnt ideology is that of free-market supremacy, we will all accept the latter as true, even though the real, material, truth (the former) renders the latter false. The great divide of the current epoch is between those who realise there is a crisis to solve, and those that reject any notion of crisis to begin with.
Manufacturing Consent — Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky
Like a lot of Chomsky’s work, I find the core idea in Manufacturing Consent to be quite simple, power, and not too hidden from a curious mind, but also painfully over-laboured. This book is a classic, no doubt, but I was also of the opinion that this book is not how you teach people about the media. I am happy to be convinced that the content beyond the initial model is worthwhile to read, but that is not my opinion at present.
Abolish Silicon Valley — Wendy Liu
This was not the book I was expecting, but I feel the book I was expecting would be a remarkably less worthwhile book than what Liu has produced. This book, for the most part, is a well-written memoir of a Silicon Valley start-up, and from a psychological perspective, that is interesting. For instance, the conflation of money with success; we imagine Silicon Valley types to be so smart, but this simplifying assumption about what it means to succeed just reveals the reductionist mindset at the heart of technology. The best part of this book, in my opinion, is the end third or so, when Liu discusses how her doubts about Silicon Valley crystallised when introduced to theory and community. I think most people should read this book — it will leave an impression regardless.
Climate Leviathan — Joel Wainwright and Geoff Mann
I could not finish this book, which is a same because I adore Geoff Mann’s In the Long Run We’re All Dead, and I’m sure this book contains pieces of brilliance too. Certainly, I can say without having read it fully that the research will be exceptional. But for a relatively short-book, I just found it such a struggle. A bit like Arrighi’s work, which I am glad I revisited, I may come back to this.
A Hacker Manifesto — McKenzie Wark
This is probably the review I have thought most about. My conclusion is pretty simple, I think. This is one of the best books ever written on digital economy, but it is also indecipherable to the point that its brilliance gets lost, and its influence overtaken by easier (but definitely worse) works of digital economy. I consider myself fortunate (and surprised, since I struggle to read theory) that I was able to decipher this text, because it is full of brilliant ideas. It is also remarkable to me that Wark was thinking about these things in 2004! But I struggle to recommend this book to people. Everyone interested in digital economy should read it, but I worry many can’t read it, which is a shame.
Stolen — Grace Blakeley
When this book was announced, I purposely didn’t buy it. I think books should be written for a purpose beyond writing a book. Those people that simply write books for their own sake I call “people who write books,” and there are a great many on this list. I try to avoid them, but at the same time, their dominance in various fields (owing to their proliferation) make them quite unavoidable, even though in many instances those pages and book contracts would be better reserved for individuals less famous, but probably more suitable, to write on whatever is being written. This is all to say, I expected this to be quite a predictable book about the financial crisis and finance. Indeed, it was. When my girlfriend asked me what I thought of Stolen, I replied, “it has told me nothing I didn’t already know.” That’s my criticism. As a book on financialisation for someone who isn’t quite as cynical as me, this book is really good. It doesn’t linger on the financial crisis as much as I expected, and it definitely compliments the British Left’s financial theory canon (e.g. Ann Pettifor and co.) very well.
The Smarter Screen — Shlomo Benartzi
Now to be cynical again. Most popular-science behavioural science books aren’t very good, in my opinion. They straddle a weird position as “scientifically-informed” rather than “spiritually-informed” self-help books, with a good dollop of the business-book genre thrown in. There are some exceptions, and The Smarter Screen is one of them. This is just a very a pleasant, accessible behavioural science book. It is full of interesting findings, and I’m a little bit surprised I don’t see many behavioural scientists bringing it up. Though maybe that’s an inadequacy on my part. I don’t think I would recommend everyone to read this book — it is not the be-all-and-end-all book of online influence which I think would interest the popular audience. But I would encourage all behavioural scientists to read it. It’s great.
Happy Ever After — Paul Dolan
I must confess my bias in this particular review, given that Paul interviewed and offered me a job this year, and given that I now work with Paul. Nevertheless, I pride honesty above all else, and will endeavour to give my thoughts as such. I did not read this book prior to any interview, and only read it after being given the job (perhaps this was a mistake; I don’t think so). Happy Ever After is a rather engaging account of how contemporary happiness research is informing our world, and while I hold what I regard as healthy scepticism of notions of happiness (see my thoughts on Davies above), this scepticism is by no means sufficient to undermine the content of this book. I was also taken by the encrouching idea of narrative, something which behavioural science — in no small part thanks to Robert Shiller’s work in the area — is beginning to synthesise. As an introduction to happiness research, and as a surprising critique of some aspects of our daily lives, Happiness Ever After is a pleasant read.
The Shock Doctrine — Naomi Klein
I am currently fascinated by crisis, and plan an ambitious project in this area. Truthfuly, however, my decision to read The Shock Doctrine came more from the fact that I had not previously read it, or anything by Klein, and that seemed like a mistake (I also own a copy of No Logo, but at present do not have the motivation to read it). Klein is clearly an accomplished writer, and The Shock Doctrine is a terribly compelling glimpse into the theory of change which governs the dominate ideology of our time. The book is at times too long, and at times too surface-level. For instance, the general theory of crisis being needed to create change is very simple, and could be expressed as such. Equally, it remains unclear what motivated the likes of Friedman; was it money, prestige, or a sense of doing the right thing? Replacing some of the bulk of the former with the psychology necessary from the latter would have added to this book, in my opinion. Nevertheless, The Shock Doctrine will — if it is not already — be an invaluable guide to our present and immediate future.
New Model Island — Alex Niven
The most beautiful book I have read this year, which is perhaps not the intention of the book, but is nevertheless the outcome. Niven masterfully mixes a eulogy for Mark Fisher with a history of the British Isles and a critique of contemporary culture that leaves one feeling, by the end of this short book, in the company of ghosts. Whether by intention or accident, New Model Island feels, in my opinion, to be a kind of embodiment — in the most warming sense — and Fisher’s notion of hauntology. Niven imagines a Britain that is gone, and entertains Britains that could be, in a way which makes the ending — a return to the topic of Fisher and his death — all the more touching. Perhaps a niche book, and perhaps my review reflects my own unique reading of this text, but a beautiful book all the same.
Thinking, Fast and Slow — Daniel Kahneman
I read this book a I figured, being a behavioural economist, I should probably have read this book. On reflection, I think the reputation Thinking, Fast and Slow has of being a very good account of psychology and behavioural science is correct, even if there are moments in the book which I felt were too slow and not sufficiently engaging. From an academic perspective, it is also worthwhile critiquing the central premise of system 1 and system 2, as this binary approach to thought has been criticised for being too simplistic — more analogy than reality. But one must also not detach themselves from the purpose of a piece of work — Thinking, Fast and Slow is meant to be a popular science introduction to this ideas, and presents the system 1 and 2 paradigm as a useful way for readers to navigate the ideas. On this basis, one might accept Thinking, Fast and Slow for what it is — a solid popular science book — and move on.
Cryptocommunism — Mark Alizart
Cryptocommunism is part of the same Polity series as Nick Srnicek’s Platform Capitalism, a book I like a great deal. As such, my expectations were perhaps too elevated for this book, which I generally feel underwhelmed by. Let me say this — Alizart’s work here raises some interesting questions, and I am not so confident as to dismiss them out of hand. I am open to the possibility, and my indecisiveness is a product of this, that there may actually be a brilliant idea nestled in Cryptocommunism. If there is, it is surely the idea of a social work fund, whereby society votes via blockchain mechanisms on what work it deems socially worthwhile, and then anyone can do this work and claim income from society. It is kind of the MMT job guarantee program but without a state and with cryptocurrency. I am willing to take this idea seriously. But this idea takes up maybe a couple of pages, while the rest of the book fails to leave an impression on me. Again, I am reluctant to dismiss the content of this book, but I cannot also endorse it.
Filling the Void — Marcus Gilroy-Ware
Filling the Void was, for me, a pleasant surprise. I was expecting some quite by-the-books critique of social media, and while Gilroy-Ware does address all of the talking points one would expect, there is a bit more meat on the bone. Gilroy-Ware is willing to entertain structural and political-economic perspectives on social media, which I find is often lacking from more centrist commentary, and the ending section of guerrilla tactics against social media is, in my opinion, a great little section. I have bought Gilroy-Ware’s second, recently released book, on the back of Filling the Void, and I hope it too is beyond my expectations.
The Four-Dimensional Human — Laurence Scott
The second re-read of the year, and I think I enjoyed this book more a second time. As is often the way with time, I know more about the subject matter now than when I first read The Four-Dimensional Human, and thus the ideas it traces can be separated from the style in which these ideas are presented. Scott is not an academic writer per se, but someone who enjoys language. Having satisfied my academic cravings from other sources, I can enjoy The Four-Dimensional Human for what it is, which is a intimate account of life online.
Bland Fanatics — Pankaj Mishra
I had very high hopes for this book and I didn’t enjoy it at all. I think this will be added to the ‘try again’ pile.
Life 3.0 — Max Tegmark
Despite what some of my reviews may suggest, I do not especially dislike any of the books I read. In fact, it is an oddity for me to determine a book is very bad. I am often more inclined — as is the case with Bland Fanatics — to attribute any bad experience to myself, rather than to the author. I cannot do that here. Life 3.0 is terrible. It is 300 pages of uncritical technobabble, intermixed with the most odious name-dropping which should comfort any critical reader in their inevitable belief that what is being read is PR for a most disagreeable vision of the future. That is all I can assume Tegmark is trying to do with Life 3.0 — to position this book as an introduction, a pamphlet or a manifesto of sorts, to readers concerned about the role of technology that the coming domination by technology will happen, but don’t worry about it. I would even entertain calling this an attempt at manufacturing consent. Even the title supposes the inevitable; strips people of agency in determining the course of society (of their lives!) before the thought to even ask is entertained. The most interesting part of this book — the fairytale of a successful AI taking over the world — is offered as a means of demonstrating the potential benefits and risks of technology. But there is no critical reflection, no moment of consideration that perhaps it is not the technology per se that should be the subject of our present and future narrative, but the mode of production and arrangement of society which leads to the production of technology.
Debt — David Graeber
If Life 3.0 is the worst book I read this year, Graeber’s Debt is probably the best book I have read this year. I want to say relatively little about it, because I would rather encourage everyone to read it. Whatever notes I could summarise here will not do justice to the brilliant ideas espoused in this book. I would make one comment however, which I combine shortly with another book I read this year — Ostrom’s Governing the Commons — that comment being that Debt is how economics should be done. Graeber was not an economist, yet his work is leagues beyond most economic research.
Keynes: Hopes Betrayed — Robert Skidelsky
When people talk of Keynes, they almost inevitable mention Skidelsky’s three volume biography of the man. I have always found Keynes interesting, and I had (have) a project in mind involving Keynes, so I figured I should read this much-applauded biography. This first volume, in my opinion, is a masterpiece of biographical work, and while not always gripping, and at times quite slow-paced, no one should doubt the intellectual and academic caliber of Skidelsky. For all those interested in Keynes (and I say this while reading the second volume), endeavour to read this biography. The lessons learnt will extend far beyond the central subject.
Escaping Paternalism — Mario Rizzo and Glen Whitman
This is one of those academic books I have been watching for months, the price never falling. Eventually, I just gave in a brought it. It was probably not worth it. This is an excellent book for those interested in the rationality assumption and a thought-through critique of behavioural economics. I am not critical of this book because it espouses things I disagree with. On the contrary, behavioural economics needs to be challenged more. It is just not that engaging, and I wonder whether this book would be better as an academic paper.
Socialism — John Stuart Mill
From my experience, quite a lot of people don’t seem to know that JS Mill wrote a fragment on socialism, and was actually not too critical of the program. That’s not my major take-away from this very short read, however. The major take-away, for me, is quite how JS Mill approaches the notion of any debate, and the consequences of decisions. Mill is not willing to entertain socialism on the basis that he is predisposed to the idea, but on the basis that anyone willing to think should be disposed to thinking about a range of ideas. For Mill, the tremendous difficulty which often faces those who think about political questions is an unwillingness to entertain alternative ideas. I think this criticism applies totally today, and — in my humble opinion — is a significantly smaller problem on the left than on any other part of the political spectrum (owing to the fact the left keep losing, and thus keep having to analyse their losses). Mill’s comment on the unfurling of history is interesting too, namely that we are biased to assume the big consequences of decisions immediately follow those decisions, when it fact those consequences often re-emerge much later, and are regarded as surprises when they do. For Mill, this is also why ideas that come along in response to decisions are treated as alien, rather than as natural oppositions to be entertained — because there is a temporal disconnect between cause and effect.
Governing the Commons — Elinor Ostrom
I plan on writing a paper of data commons, and so it seemed appropriate to read Ostrom’s magnum opus on the subject. As has been a theme for my reading this year, I do not like Ostrom’s writing style, being academic but without a sense of the sole (for the record, the likes of Keynes, Mill and Marx all have that flare). But this is a pointless criticism, which if made substantive is, in my opinion, more a reflection of the reader’s deficit than the author’s. Ostrom’s work is comprehensive, insightful, and as with Graeber’s Debt, the sort of observation-first approach which should be practiced so much more in economics. It is also worth noting, as this seems the forum for my opinions, that I believe Ostrom will come to be considered the most important economist of the 21st century. The role of her work on commons for fighting global warming and the encroachment of technology will be significant.