Sunday Review: my best books of the year

by Anthony Painter

A sense of crisis is good for the world of thought it would appear. 2012 has been dominated by a continuing economic crisis – most particularly in Europe. There is not yet a sense that out of the wreckage of the old will emerge the new. And yet, in some of the books that have been published this year – some of which I have reviewed on Labour Uncut – there are fresh approaches that may provide hope.

The worldview of both the centre-left and the centre-right in the UK is astonishingly narrow. In many ways our political culture has become incredibly indulgent: narrow, short-term, parochial, interest driven, transactional and tactical. We only have to look at the debate about our future membership of the European Union to see that – it completely disregards the fact that we are hurtling towards irrelevance. Equally, the debate about our economic future is mired in the politics of the moment. Much of what is dressed-up as economic analysis is simply political positioning.

So it has been with relief that in our increasingly global market in ideas, research and debate, there are new ideas and perspectives if we choose to look for them. Other than fighting all the cuts on the left and fighting the EU on the right – both misguided in their own ways – where is the domestic vision for national recovery? If there is a defining feature of the UK’s politics in 2012, it is that we are embracing smallness and irrelevance with seeming self-righteous glee.

In modern times the political challenges have never been so great and the response from our leaders so poor. Perhaps more than anyone else, this is epitomised by the current chancellor of the exchequer who seems to think that national recovery is a political game. The game-players are not only on the government benches. But he, more than anyone else, symbolises the age of small politics in the midst of great challenges. Unless he and our political leaders shift course decisively then an era of British decline awaits. It is entirely avoidable.

In these books of the year, let’s hope that pathways to a bigger politics present themselves. I hope that Santa brings you enough book tokens to enjoy one or two of the following gems (in no particular order).

1. Why nations fail by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson

The future will be defined by the institutions we build. Acemoglu and Robinson take us a tour of economic development across six continents and unlock the key to development at “critical junctures.”.Breathtaking in scope and consequential.

2. The price of Civilization by Jeffrey Sachs

Sachs has established himself as a leading critic of the new centre-left Keynesian orthodoxy. Good for him – someone has to push back against the use of Keynes to avoid real choices while conveniently ignoring the potential unforeseen consequences of much of what is proposed. But that’s not the strength of the book. The strength of this book is that he actually includes a costed plan for recovery and elimination of the primary deficit while investing in science, education, childcare, infrastructure etc.

3. Positive linking: how networks can revolutionise the world by Paul Ormerod

Ormerod analyses Keynes in a completely different way – he looks at his notions of ‘animal spirits’ and uncertainty as early examples of network theory. We are influencers and influenced. This means that human problems don’t necessarily lend themselves to technocratic solutions – they are instead more likely to be resolved through human interaction. I wonder whether a welfare system organised in such a way with £200 billion a year to spend would end up with over 100,000 people having to resort to food banks?

4.Education, education, education: reforming England’s schools by Andrew Adonis.

Changing the way public services are delivered is hard. This is one of the many take aways from Andrew Adonis’s book on the reform of education past, present and future. Part memoir, part historical overview, part manifesto, Education, Education, Education challenges us to raise our educational game. Our educational under-performance is in many ways a crisis of expectations. The innovations of education made by Labour in government show that those low expectations are completely misplaced. Adonis’s book demonstrates why, how and what should be done.

5. Betterness: economics for humans by Umair Haque

The change imperative doesn’t only apply to the public sector. The private sector has to change too. Umair Haque challenges business to be “better” by creating thick rather than thin value. There are two roads to profit – the high or the low road. As a democratic society, we need to start to insist businesses take the high road on a more regular basis. It’s about creating long term value – real value.

6. Together: the rituals, pleasures and politics of cooperation by Richard Sennett

This is a lyrical take on the politics of cooperation. Sennett is artist and analyst in equal measure. He brings the notion of vocation to the forefront and considers the reality of how people work and learn together. Also, his distinction between the ‘political’ and ‘social’ left is a key one – and not an easy relationship at all.

7. The years of Lyndon Johnson: the passage of power by Robert A.Caro

Of course this was going to make the cut. Any time a new instalment of this biography is released you have to get hold of it immediately. In this the force of nature that is LBJ is neutered before rising once more post the Kennedy assassination. The final volume is still due and should answer the key question – has Caro converted to Johnson or not? I have a wager on the outcome.

8. British Voices: the UK in its own words by Joe Hayman

Joe Hayman set off to tour the UK and meet its inhabitants. This book is the result and it is the poetry of the common man and woman that shines through. This poetry is, of course, about everyday anxieties. Hayman picks up the timbre of discontent as we drift on, not quite knowing who we are.

9. Governing the commons by Elinor Ostrom

The world of economics often theorises away cooperation. And yet cooperation – or collective action – is everywhere to see. What’s more this co-operation endures over time. Ostrom argues for a third way between private ownership and state regulation. This can be sometimes supported by state underpinning and conflict resolution. She analyses this is the context of the management of ‘common pool resources’ such as forests, fisheries and irrigation. Is there something here for how we manage economic factors such as skills and work brokerage? I believe there is. Ostrom, a Nobel Prize Winner, died earlier this year. This book is one of the gifts she left behind.

10. And my fiction book of the year? (*confession, I haven’t read a lot of fiction this year as the above list probably indicates…!)

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami.

Finally, some recommendations from Twitter:

  • A Very English Hero: the making of Frank Thompson by Peter J Conradi (from @duncanweldon)
  • Whatever it Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s quest to change Harlem and America by Paul Tough (from @rowandavies)
  • Last Man Standing by Jack Straw (from @declanlyons)

And next year you can enjoy “Left without a future? Social Justice after the crash” from Anthony Painter and I hope a collected book of Pete Goddard and Atul Hatwal’s hilarious alternative history of the Labour party. You can read the latest instalment here..

Happy Christmas all and thanks for reading

Anthony Painter is an author and critic.

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One Response to “Sunday Review: my best books of the year”

  1. Clr Ralph says:

    Yet none of these ideas or platforms are worth diddle Anthony if you do not have committed people to believe in them and implement them objectively, can you really see your precious Labour Leadership who are continually all over each other in self-adulation, fake flattery and mutually exclusive self promotion implementing a single original idea hahaha. At least on Labourlist they are adopting David Cameron’s Big Society of Foodbanks, they can never take ownership of it, they must simply do as their betters do, as the State is too corrupt to be trusted (with some special exceptions I have identified by working in public sectors see its about “doing” Anthony not being stuck-up and la de da, and when things go wrong as they inevitably do, la de doh) with implementing anything especially Labour Local authorities who only follow the example of their worthless pathetic leaders in giving jobs to their mates to satisfy their own limited understanding of socialism but blatent envy of privilege. As Milliband said, it is a “privilege” to be here, he could not be more right lol, in every respect.

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