The best books about the new anti-democracy.
Something different and very disturbing appeared in the summer of 2016. Brexit happened in Great Britain and then Donald Trump was elected in the US in November. Suddenly there were neo-nazis in the German parliament and neo-fascists in the Italian parliament. And xenophobia and white nationalism seemed to be everywhere, even in America and Scandinavia.
Authoritarian regimes appeared in the Philippines, in Turkey, in Poland, in Austria and in Eastern Europe. Even Russia showed a new, much more authoritarian face.
“Racist, anti-Islamic, and anti-Semitic hatefulness and bellicosity grew in the streets and across the internet, and newly coalesced far-right groups have burst boldly into the public light after years of lurking mostly in the shadows.” (Wendy Brown in The Ruins of Neoliberalism. )
Centrists, liberals and leftists were left dazed and unsure of what to do. Something new definitely seemed to be afoot.
I’ve been spending a lot of time reading about this new attack on democracy for the past several years, ever since Brexit and the election of Trump. Other than climate change and the fact that millions of species are suddenly disappearing from the face of the earth, I’m thinking that this new anti-democratic movement is the most worrisome thing happening in the world right now.
So, here is my list of the 15 most important books on the new anti-democracy movement. I wish I could say that I’ve read all of these books completely, but I haven’t. I’ve read some of them mostly and made a good start on all the rest. I plan to concentrate on these books until I have read most of them. There is a lot of reading in this list so I’ve sure I won’t get everything read, but mostly I hope.
Below is this list. Very short book reviews are separated by pictures of a natural America that may or may not be around to console us in the future.
In the Ruins of Neoliberalism: The rise of Antidemocratic Politics in the West. By Wendy Brown. Published in 2019.
This book says that neoliberalism, which is unregulated capitalism on steroids, has for many years been the enemy of Democracy all over the world and is responsible for much the current anti-democratic sentiment in the Western world. Neoliberalism is not new, it began in 1947. But in the late 1970s it gained new life when it was championed by Ronald Reagan in America and Margaret Thatcher in Great Brittain. This is not an easy book and it is written in academy-speak which is not easy to read. But it may be the most important book on this list.
The Primacy of Politics: Social Democracy and the Making of Europe’s Twentieth Century by Sheri Berman. Published 2006.
Sheri Berman is the great advocate of Social Democracy in Europe. This book is about the history of Social Democracy in Europe, from its beginnings until 2006. Berman says that Social Democracy is the one antidote for the anti-democracy and inequality of Neoliberalism. Social Democracy is a mix of private profit seeking and public social protection. It is mix of liberal capitalism and what might be called the politics of the common good. In American we often call this a mixed economy. It combines the great wealth generation of capitalism with social justice. Berman says that the first half of the 20th century was the most violent and war-dominated period in modern history and the second half was perhaps the most prosperous and peaceful times in all of human history. She says that the difference is that untempered capitalism ruled in the first half of the 20th century and Social Democracy dominated Europe and the EU in the second half of the century. This book is about complicated political history, but is an easy book to read. The Primacy of Politics is now 13 years old, so Berman wasn’t aware of the anti democracy movements after 2016, but it is by far the best book for understanding European social democracy that I have found.
Democracy and Dictatorship in Europe: From the Ancient Regime to the present day. By Sheri Berman. Published 2019.
This book is by the same author as the preceding book. It is a look at the history of Europe through the lens of democracy and dictatorship. This book was published in 2019 and was written in the full knowledge of the recent anti-democratic movements all over the world.
The Economists’ Hour: False Prophets, Free Markets, and the Fracture of Society. By Binyamin Appelbaum. 2019
This book is about the dominance of free market economics for the last forty years all over the world. Appelaum says that this dominance has brought a catastrophe in politics and economics in the contemporary world.
The Common Good by Robert Reich. Published 2018.
This book is about the political philosophy of the Common Good, which is the exact opposite of Neoliberal Capitalism. The common good says that things like high speed rail, medicare for all, National Parks, public sewage systems, public highways, the internet, public libraries, public schools, free college education, clean air, clean water, environmental protection, and laws limiting racism, sexism and xenophobia are in the interest of all citizens of any nation. They tend to make nations more prosperous and they tend to increase the well being of all citizens. Only those whose main objective is to make themselves as rich as possible object to such common goods.
This book is simply written and is a joy to read.
Transaction Man: The Rise of the Deal and the Decline of the American Dream. By Nicholas Lemann. Published in 2019.
This book is about the huge difference public policy makes in the daily lives of average Americans. The book is a long narrative about the lives of several Americans to whom public policy did make a big difference. This book reads a lot like a great biographical novel.
Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America. by Nancy Maclean. Published in 2017
This book is partially about the economist James Buchanan who was one of the key architects of the radical right. But it is mainly about the unbelievable con-job the radical right has pulled off in the US. The extent of the damage the Republican Party has done in propagating racism and the destruction of black lives is absolutely horrendous. And the book is also key to understanding the destructive impact of the Koch Brothers on American politics. This is a deeply shocking book.
The SanDiego Free Press says that this book is “The single most important new book for progressives to read this year if they want to understand how we got to this dark moment of the present. . . If you want to know the central ideas behind the ‘dark money’ that Jane Mayer’s seminal book addresses and the philosophical origins of the neoliberalism that Naom Klein analyzes in her work, Maclean’s text is key.”
The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis. Published in 2018.
This book is about why American needs intelligent and responsible government. The book is a narrative about a series of people in American government whose job is to protect Americans from huge, mostly invisible and, mostly unknown risks. This book is a entertaining and important read.
How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them. By Jason Stanley. Published in 2019.
This is a book about the similarity between the German and Italian Fascism of the 1930s and 1940s and the Fascism of Donald Trump. It turns out that the central tenets of fascism are always the same. All fascists use pretty much the same tricks to fool their followers.
Money and Governments: The Past and the Future of Economics. By Robert Skidelsky. Published in 2019
This book is about about the history of economics and also the fallacies that extreme market economics have foisted on the West for the last many years. Skidelsky is a Keynesian economist who wrote the classic three volume biography of Keynes, which I highly recommend; this is one of the best books I have ever read. (There is also a one volume condensed version that I thought was plenty long enough.) Money and Governments is a serious economics book that goes back to the beginnings of economics and which discusses some really interesting things like what money really is and how it really works. Skidelsky clearly explains that money is not a physical thing, it is an abstraction based on trust. But if you insist on thinking that money is a physical thing, a lot of serious damage can be done to economies and the people who live in them.
Mr Putin: Operative in the Kremlin. By Fiona Hill. 2013.
Fiona Hill gained fame recently as a witness in the impeachment trial of Donald Trump. It turns out that she is a expert on Russia and particularly on Vladimir Putin.
John Cassidy of the New Yorker wrote an essay on Fiona Hill and her testimony. As the following quote illustrates, Ms. Hill clearly recognizes that Mr Putin is not any kind of friend to America.
In the hearings she said:
“Some of you on this committee appear to believe that Russia and its security services did not conduct a campaign against our country—and that perhaps, somehow, for some reason, Ukraine did,” Hill said. “This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves. The unfortunate truth is that Russia was the foreign power that systematically attacked our democratic institutions in 2016.” Hill was just getting started. Reading in a firm voice from her opening statement, she went on to say that Russia’s goal was to weaken the United States, partly by sowing internal dissent.”
Unfortunately this book is not the most entertaining book I’ve ever read, even though it is full of much interesting and important information. Ms Hill is after all a very serious diplomat, not a novelist.
Capitalism, Alone: The Future of the System that Rules the World, by Branko, Milanovic. Published in 2019,
This book says that Capitalism is now the sole political philosophy that rules the entire world. From America to Europe to Asia, capitalism is the sole socio-economic system in the world. He says this fact is absolutely without precedent.
Milanovic asks what will be the consequences of this in both the near and far future.
Here is a link to a longer article I wrote about this book.
The Great Escape: Health, Wealth and the Origins of Inequality. By Angus Deaton. Published 2013.
This is an absolutely great book by the Nobel Prize winning economist Angus Deaton. It is about how the world is now a far better place than it used to be. In just a very few years science and technology have made life in the modern world far, far better than it was in the 19th century or even in the early years of the 20th century. Look at just one fact. In the rich countries, life expectancy grew by thirty years in the 20th century. People who used to live to just 48 now live to 78. In the twentieth century it became possible for a lucky few to escape lives of poverty, destitution, illiteracy and disease. This is what he means by the great escape. But this escape has left many people and nations behind. This results in severe inequality. Deaton discusses the huge progress some people and countries have made and the mess in which the people and countries left behind find themselves in. He proposes several new and surprising solutions to these problems.
American Amnesia: How the War on Government Led Us to Forget What Made America Prosper. By Jacob Hacker. Published 2016.
The central message of this wonderful book is that it was a mixed economy, more than anything else, that made the US a rich and prosperous country. He says that pure capitalistic economies without government regulation and public input cannot produce prosperity for everyone. Instead they produce prosperity and wealth only for the very few. This is the main purpose of pure, unregulated capitalism. He points out how the greatest periods of American prosperity have always been preceded by government support of research and science. He shows in great detail how a vibrant mixed economy has long been the dominant engine of American prosperity. But in recent days he says, we have forgotten this lesson. Many current leaders of our society see government as a hinderance rather than an aid to American prosperity. This he says is clearly an error when you look at American history.
The Curse of Bigness: Antitrust in the New Guilded Age. By Tim Wu. Published in 2019.
Here are the first few paragraphs of Wu’s book. They describe this book better than I could.
“We are four decades into a major political and economic experiment. What happens when the US and other major nations weaken their laws meant to control the size of industrial giants?
“The answers, I think are plain. We have managed to recreate both the economics and the politics of a century ago–the first Gilded Age–and remain in grave danger of repeating more of the signature errors of the twentieth century.”
“Yet, as if blind to the greatest lessons of the last century, we are going down the same path. If we learned one thing from the Gilded Age, it should have been this: The road to fascism and dictatorship is paved with the failures of economic policy to serve the needs of the general public. “
I think this is about the best description of the mess we find ourselves in that I have ever read.
Let me know your thoughts on my list of Best books about the new anti-democracy
More reading about the new anti democracy that is cropping up everywhere.