At the end of 2014 I tried to choose the favourite books I’d read during the year. I discovered two things. Firstly, it was a real struggle to remember what I had actually read. Secondly, I had started and failed to finish far more books than I had completed. So this year I’m planning to do periodic blog posts about things I’ve read in full with the intention of ensuring that I don’t forget things and that I avoid my tendency to get distracted half way though a book and not come back to it.
– The Irregular Army is a slightly disturbing book about how recruitment standards in the U.S. Military have been lowered dramatically in the last decade as a response to increasing difficulties in attracting and retaining military personnel. To put it bluntly, the U.S. Military is increasingly full of alcoholics, drug users, gang members and neo-nazis to a degree that would have formerly been unthinkable. Those who would have previously been deemed too old, too young, too overweight or too traumatised are now actively recruited. Furthermore, the underlying difficulties are leading to ever increasing pressure on personnel who don’t fit into these categories to serve longer tours and to reenlist (including reservists who probably never had any expectation they would find themselves in a combat zone) leaving them with yet more time in stressful and increasingly chaotic conditions. The author makes a convincing case that many of the reported atrocities committed can be explained by this toxic mix and convincingly suggests that many other atrocities may have gone unreported.
– The Dark Net is an immensely readable book by Demos researcher Jamie Bartlett collecting a number of case studies on various controversial aspects of the contemporary internet: including suicide and self-harm forums, far-right organisations, trolling, child pornography and online drugs marketplaces. With the exception of some of the material on the history of trolling, I don’t think I learnt anything new from the book but I enjoyed reading it.
– Little Brother by Corey Doctorow is a young adult novel about the creeping authoritarianism which follows a terrorist attack in San Francisco. The young protagonist is caught up in the attack and its aftermath, with the story following his radicalisation and increasingly outright confrontation with a Department for Homeland Security that is quasi-fascist by the culmination of the story. It’s a gripping read, with the partial exception of a cringe-worthy sex scene and dialogue which fell flat at many points. The author’s preachiness also bugged me at points, though if I’d read this fifteen years ago I might have been more receptive to this aspect of the book (including the list of books he wants his young audience to read included at the end).
Edited to add: – Buying Time by Wolfgang Streeck is something I read which I forgot to include when I wrote this post. Perhaps it was a deliberate forgetting because the book is so egregiously depressing. Utterly plausible throughout, Streeck makes the argument that we are potentially seeing the twilight of liberal democracy in the current struggles over austerity within Europe. We risk the emergence of a Hayekian market dictatorship, one in which the state’s fiscal obligations to the markets wins out over its democratic obligations to its citizens after a decades long struggle, with the full gamut of repressive strategies potentially being brought to bear against those who have not already internalised the imperatives of the market (and thus ceased to make the democratic demands which the states of Europe are now reneging on). It’s a depressing book but it’s not one which paints these outcomes as inexorable. Streeck’s Europe includes agents as well as institutions – it’s just that the balance of forces mean successful resistance to these trends appears disturbingly unlikely. Incidentally, there’s actually a good overview of Hayek’s inclinations towards dictatorship (as both a transitional social form and as a ‘liberal dictatorship’ preferable to a ‘democratic government devoid of liberalism’) on his wikipedia page. His argument reminds me of that made by Chantall Mouffe but at a much lesser degree of abstraction and it is all the more powerful for that. Mouffe’s notion of the democratic paradox intends to illustrate how the articulation of liberalism and democracy is a precarious historical outcome rather than anything intrinsic to either element: the constitutive tension arises because there’s no guarantee that democratic procedures won’t lead to illiberal outcomes (and this is rather Hayek’s point I guess). Streeck’s book makes a much more concrete case, situating the present crisis in terms of a much longer term crumbling of the state – the present debt crisis has its roots in a strategic response to the crisis of the 1970s, relying on sovereign debt to fuel social spending and build consent for governance, in turn empowering the financial markets because of the state’s growing reliance upon them. That at least is how I remember the gist of the argument: I should maybe writing something more extensive at a later point because I think this book is very important and I want to be clear about my understanding of it. At its heart, it was an argument about second-order institutional relationships i.e. the relations between relations: (state <–> public) —- (state <–> market). To put it crudely, we see capital’s end game in the institutionalisation of technocratic governance under the guise of austerity (and through mechanisms like constitutional commitments to budget surpluses) such that the first set of relations looks set to collapse under the weight of the second. He also has some very astute observations about the political discourse emerging around international relations under these conditions and the manner in which national populations are understood to be culpable for the putative failings of their governments.
I haven’t read as much as I usually do this month because I’ve been obsessively working my way through two sets of graphic novels:
– Y, The Last Man tells the story of Yorick Brown, the survivor of a ‘gendercide’ that kills all the men on earth. It’s a bizarre dystopian fiction which is also very funny. I’m not sure I can do justice to its scope and depth so I won’t try. It’s by Brian K. Vaughan who is more recently known for Saga which didn’t quite work for me in the way it seemingly did for other people. I was really impressed by The Last Man and I think there’s a PhD thesis waiting to be written on the representation of gender within it.
– I’ve also been working my way through everything that Jonathan Hickman has done for Marvel that I hadn’t already read because I’m so utterly engrossed by his Times Run Outs story arc. Secret Warriors didn’t quite live up to expectations, though it probably didn’t help that I read it in reverse order because the graphic novels arrived that way and I lack self control. Shield is magnificently weird though slightly too overblown for my taste in this sort of story telling (only slightly) with Hickman’s epic ambitions distracting him from more mundane tasks like characterisation.