As this rather wretched and exhausting year comes to a close, I looked back at my list from 2019 and laughed sadly at my optimistic plans to read more in 2020. Perhaps I did when you count news, analysis, etc. online, but in terms of books it was disastrously minimal. However, the books I did read offered brilliant insights or just fascinating bits of knowledge. So, in no real order:
Atlantis: The Lost Continent Revealed – Charles Berlitz
An old book I picked up from Bookfest a while back, I thought it would be a fun reprieve from some of the heftier books I read beforehand. Atlantis, Plato’s mythical continent and city that was swallowed by the sea thousands of years ago, has taken the interest of countless historians, treasure and glory seekers, and pop culture fans for a long time. Whilst Berlitz’s book is from the 1980’s, and I haven’t heard of any breakthroughs on discovering Atlantis in the decades since, he seems a firm believer that something must have existed that inspired Plato’s story and the surrounding mythos.
As I recall, he does offer a reasonably compelling argument for its existence, even if incomplete and dotted with biased inferences. The most fascinating was that cultures and languages surrounding the Atlantic, from Europe to the Americas, appeared to have some form of reference to it. Language (words and names) and stories differ, of course, but Berlitz’s suggestion is that there is some evidence of a shared narrative across regions that, to my knowledge, would have had no communication – unless a kingdom sat between them as a bridge.
Speculation, obviously, but it’s what I enjoy about unknown and forgotten histories, and how story is an element that unites all peoples.
The Muslims Are Coming! – Arun Kundnani
With a main focus on the UK and US, this book dispels a number of myths about the Muslim population and terrorism. It shows how an entire demographic is demonised and targeted by the media, law enforcement, governments, hate groups, etc., sometimes with very questionable methods and results. Increased surveillance, agencies actively entrapping otherwise innocent people into taking terrorist action, and attempting to use the education system to force a “moderate” Islam – i.e. one that is not to be seen publicly – are just some of the things taking place.
I would recommend it if you do have fears or questions about the connections between Muslims and terrorism, or if not, as a good book to pick up more knowledge on the subject.
The Shock Doctrine – Naomi Klein
This book opens up with a chapter discussing torture and the use of shock to try and create minds with a clean slate – just, straight into it, unexpected as I knew it to be a book about capitalism, and specifically US imperialism. Rather than creating a fresh start for the human mind however, it merely – and horrifically – shattered the existing one, leaving victims to live with the scattered pieces.
This troubling analogy is used to demonstrate the effects that economic and political shock therapy have when it is used on entire nations. Chile’s violent overthrow of Salvador Allende, led by military leader turned dictator Pinochet and backed by the US, followed by the corporate nightmare concocted by Milton Friedman implemented on a broken populace. It has only been in the last few years that popular uprisings have forced work towards a new Constitution and improve the lives of generations still reeling from a brutal legacy.
Iraq, similarly, was invaded directly by the US under false pretexts. The country is still fractured, and the region as a whole in perpetual wars. But not only did the War on Terror skyrocket the military industrial complex and private armies, like Blackwater, it also led to vulture capitalists swooping in to grab up everything they could under the US installed interim authority, led primarily by Paul Bremer. He was supposed to “run” and “reconstruct” the country until a new government was elected by the Iraqi people.
With the US military and contractors across the country, and billions of dollars intended for this reconstruction either given to US multinationals or straight up “lost”, the cracks in the shock doctrine were quite clear. The attempt to build a new society beholden to the US could not work, because no matter how hard they tried, they could not clear the wreck they left of the old world. An old world that retaliated, as time since has shown.
It is a must read.
Globalisation and Its Discontents Revisited: Globalisation in the Age of Trump – Joseph E. Stiglitz
As an anarchist, the State and corporate power that defines our world is unnatural in my view. However, such a world is a long ways off, where democratic workplaces and absolute political and social freedoms are the norm. This book (probably not worth picking up unless you want to see it), while I disagreed with many of its points and conclusions, does however show that a “fairer” capitalist system can – and must – be achieved. While my end vision goes well beyond that, to me it highlighted the fact that small victories, even in electoral settings and with reforms, are still worth fighting for.
Are there other options? Absolutely. But for a current example, Bernie Sanders has held the US Senate hostage over the $2000 COVID-19 relief payment. Is $2000 enough after so many months of mismanagement over there? No. Could Sanders have fought harder during the election? Sure, and many people felt betrayed that he didn’t. But right now, he is fighting for millions of people to get them something, anything, in the face of a system that has utterly screwed him over for six years.
With some interesting, if limited, historical analyses and a hopeful view of the future (not hopeful enough), Stiglitz does make a compelling argument, not for capitalism as he intends, but to me, for ways we can, in the short term, alleviate the suffering of those most damaged by the current systems. Just another avenue to try and implement change.
Net Privacy: How We Can Be Free in an Age of Surveillance – Sacha Molitorisz
I wrote a couple of pieces on this book as I was reading it, one running with his discussion on Kant’s “rational beings”, and another critiquing the author’s reliance on the State and other global bodies to protect privacy. It is a good book, with some great philosophical background into the idea and definition of privacy, but falls short on answering the question raised by the subtitle. It is worth reading, but use it as only one possibility towards the goal of digital freedoms, not a complete picture.
Understanding Ignorance: The Surprising Impact of What We Don’t Know – Daniel DeNicola
This was a brilliant book, with ideas and interpretations of things that intrigued me. DeNicola took the field of epistemology – the study of human knowledge – and said, what about the field of ignorance, what we do not have knowledge of? Using Plato’s Cave, the Bible’s Garden of Eden, and even (if I recall) quantum physics as areas of discussion over the nature of ignorance, it’s well worth reading just for the breadth of perspectives on a topic that has not really been explored in such depth before (to my knowledge – I am ignorant of other works like this).
My main practical take away from it I discussed in a post I wrote whilst reading it, combining the points on ignorance with how we use instruction and rhetoric to dispel said ignorance. I used climate change denialism as my example, but it could apply to any topic.
A must read for all Australians, this book discusses climate change in an Australian context. It takes the reader through the Australian climate story, a land of extremes. Heatwaves, floods, bushfires, etc. have defined our history, before and after (when written records began) colonial invasion. Going through various methods of collecting and studying data from historical records, ice cores, tree rings, coral, oceans, weather patterns, etc., Gergis spreads out the climate history as we know it.
The results? Even in the land of extremes, yes, climate change is very much caused by human activity, and it is very much taking a toll on Australia and its environments. Extremes have started to become more frequent and more intense, temperatures, on average, have been climbing alongside the global averages, and extinctions and climate refugees will be a part of our future if things do not improve. Throw it at your nearest climate change denying relative!
The Kronstadt Uprising – Ida Mett
In this short book, Ida Mett talks about a little known event in 1921, after the Russian Revolution where Lenin and the Bolsheviks had taken power. It could very well be considered the “end” of the Revolution, with it having successfully been crushed by Lenin. The people of Kronstadt had put forward a list of demands in line with the spirit of the Revolution, wanting more control over their lives and work, as opposed to the top-down control from the one-party State that had formed.
Mett describes how this blip in history was brutally suppressed and how it was justified with propaganda from all sides. While not anarchist, the Kronstadt Uprising is considered by anarchists as a major historic event in the ongoing opposition to State power.
On Anarchism – Noam Chomsky
Technically a reread, I feel it worth adding solely for the discussion on the history of the Spanish Revolution and Civil War in the late 1930’s. In usual Chomsky style, it is a meticulously and ridiculously detailed analysis, tying together and comparing various sources and covering their biases and inaccuracies. Like the Kronstadt Uprising above, the very real revolutionary – even anarchist – centre was crushed by various forces, not just the fascists, but by the Republic and with support from other powers like Britain and the USSR.
Definitely one that would require some prior knowledge, but not entirely inaccessible.
The Assassination Complex: Inside the Government’s Secret Drone Warfare Program – Jeremy Scahill and The Intercept
The title basically describes it all. It is a collation of works written by Scahill and Intercept staff on how drone warfare has been carried out by the US around the world, mostly in the Middle East. If nothing else, it really highlights the incompetence and indifference the global war machine has when it comes to its indiscriminate sowing of chaos, even in direct defiance to international law. Just one of many works exposing the crimes of an Empire.
A Secret Australia: Revealed by the WikiLeaks Exposes – Felicity Ruby and Peter Cronau (Editors)
While worthwhile, this book – a collection of essays about Australia through the lens of WikiLeaks and the US Empire – was not quite what I expected. I was hoping for much more in the way of discussing history and policies revealed by the WikiLeaks dumps, and while there was some of that – especially over the case of Gough Whitlam’s Dismissal in 1975 – it was lacklustre. There were some useful insights, but it was more around the periphery, about WikiLeaks itself and Julian Assange in an Australian context.
If you are looking for actual secrets, it does contain and reference authors and works that have done important work.
Glimpses of Utopia: Real Ideas for a Fairer World – Jess Scully
This is kind of cheating, as it is the book I am currently reading, and will probably not quite finish before the new year – but screw you, this is my list. Jess Scully is currently the Deputy Lord Mayor of Sydney, a real progressive powerhouse headed by Mayor Clover Moore. In this book, which she describes as numerous stories working towards an end goal – a fairer world – she not only presents ideas, but working examples of these ideas coming to life around the world.
From worker co-ops and democratizing workplaces, to using technology to further engage a population, and even to Rojava and the war-ravaged Kurds fighting for their autonomy as a people (not nation State, importantly), she does almost effortlessly what I try to do and advocate for. Socialist, and even anarchist, ideas a brought forward as genuine alternatives to the current business-as-usual approach, but those words do not appear in this book.
Terminology, I have found, can come with so much baggage that discussions turn more to defining broad terms than actually exploring worthwhile ideas. Remove those words entirely, and the ideas have to stand by themselves and be approached on their merits alone. So far, that has been done exceptionally well, I believe, and I hope to write some longer posts about the content of the book soon.
So that’s 12 books, admittedly more than I thought (I had forgotten a couple were read this year until I looked at the shelf). Reading is always important, and once more I tentatively hope I will read more books in 2021, pending more global catastrophes. If any of these books sounded interesting, I have linked all but the Atlantis book – good luck finding a copy if you wanted that.
Here’s to another shitty year!