Summer reading: recommended books of 2013
Green Left Weekly is taking a break for the summer from December 11 to January 22. To fill the void, it asked staff, contributors and others to recommend their favourite books of the year.
In this beautifully-designed book, Melbourne-based author Iain McIntyre reveals the vital history of creative resistance in Australia. It is told through stories of Indigenous resistance, convict escapes, picket-line high-jinks, student occupations, creative direct action, media pranks, urban interventions, squatting, blockades, banner drops, street theatre and billboard liberation. Included are stories and anecdotes, interviews with pranksters and troublemakers - and more than 300 photos. "History is filled with individuals and organisations who were totally out of step with the mainstream of their time," says McIntyre. "In learning about the deeds of rebels past, we are provided with a memory bank of ideas and tactics from which to draw." This year's updated edition, also available as an ebook, reaches out to audiences worldwide with introductions added for key periods in Australian history. It features an extra 30 pages of new material.
Chris Bell's The Tarkine is a stand-out in campaigning nature photography. This coffee table production is beautifully printed and presented with a text by Mark Davis which lays bare the threat of mining and logging to the largest temperate rainforest in the nation. However, the real achievement of The Tarkine is to take the viewer to this remote wild region west of Cradle Mountain and into the fabric of its natural beauty: cathedral-like rainforest, cascading fungi, amber-coloured, free-flowing rivers and Australia's wildest coastline (sometimes pounded by waves five stories high). To see The Tarkine is to want to see the Tarkine: to see the Tarkine is to want to save it. With the Abbott government-backed bulldozers moving in, Bell's book is a summer special for Australians who love nature.
My favourite book this year is a bit of a no-brainer. I first read John Pilger (The Secret Country) when I was a kid growing up in Sydney. Indeed The Great Man is one of the reasons why I became a journalist. I had the honour to work with him on his latest film, Utopia. I’d claim working with Pilger was the realisation of a childhood dream, except of course, I never even dared dream that. So for me at least, it’s the realisation of something quite a bit more special. Breaking The Silence has been updated and the new version coincides with the release of Utopia. It looks at the history of Pilger’s films and the impact they’ve had. Reading about the impact of his film-making not only inspires me as a journalist and budding documentary maker, but gives me a glimmer of hope that Utopia might be Australia’s Year Zero.
This book is an introduction to capitalism that uses Marxist analysis in simple terms, accessible to anyone, and adds cutting and hilarious cartoons to make points and concepts even clearer. Covering capitalist economics, class and the role of a revolutionary party in close detail and broad scope is a mountainous task, but each page nails its ideas with brilliant clarity. The words and cartoons are thoughtful, angry and gave me many “Oh, of course” moments throughout. McMillan is an anti-capitalist, award-winning cartoonist and activist, and hopes that Capitalism Must Die is not only read by anyone who has a stake in humanity’s future, but used as an organising tool, as inspiration and motivation. The 240-page digital book can be downloaded for pay-anything-or-nothing at stephaniemcmillan.org.
In the US, a ferocious battle has developed over the nature and survival of public education. Into this maelstrom comes Diane Ravitch, among America’s greatest education historians of the past 40 years. She holds the distinction of once being aligned with the political right, serving as an educational policy advisor in the George H.W. Bush administration. She left the right-wing education reform movement a decade ago when it became clear there was zero evidence any of their reforms would work, and most were disastrous for working-class children. Ravitch has become the greatest and most brilliant advocate for public education as a democratic institution and the mightiest foe of the ideologues and billionaires —led by Bill Gates and the heirs to the Wal-Mart fortune — who are “reforming” it along market principles. She defends teachers unions as the institution most clearly concerned with protecting education. This is an instant classic and a must-read.
In two words, Ken Ilgunas explains why Americans under 30 now view socialism more favourably than capitalism: student debt. Going to college means borrowing tens of thousands of dollars, which turns idealists into graduation "loan drones". They feel forced into jobs they despise to make repayments once the interest starts to mount. Ilgunas decided that wasn't a future he fancied. So he committed himself to living as cheaply as possible and cutting his $32,000 ball and chain. He did this by working as a tour guide and park service ranger in Alaska, which minimised costs by covering board and lodging. Once free, he decided to go back to university and study whatever inspired him without taking loans. Walden On Wheels is a captivating memoir of how he achieved that - primarily by living in a van in a campus car park - while learning to value community as much as self-reliance.
This is the incredible true story of a Russian/Finnish single mother who became a key protagonist in the Russian Revolution of 1917. In 1898, deeply affected by the mass suffering and chaotic revolt that swirled around her, Alexandra Kollontai went to Zurich to study Marxist economics. She went on to become one of the most effective revolutionary agitators and organisers in Europe and Commissar for Social Welfare in the first Soviet government. Kollontai insisted organising women was essential to revolutionary victory and was proven right. Cathy Porter’s meticulous history - first published in 1980 - reveals the Russian Revolution, like all successful revolutions, was feminist at its core. The 2013 edition includes detail from newly available archives of the former Soviet Union. Porter’s style is straightforward but the story she tells is breathtaking, intricate, inspiring and, in its final chapters, deeply sad. The book leads inexorably to Kollontai's own "must read" writing.
For most of the time since the British Empire fell apart after the Second World War, Britain played a double game: trying to crack down on offshore skulduggery while simultaneously setting up many of its Crown Dependencies and Overseas Territories to become some of the world's biggest tax havens today: the Cayman Islands, Jersey, Bermuda and more. But then, under Prime Minister Tony Blair, Britain took a new tack. As Richard Brooks, a former UK tax inspector, reveals in The Great Tax Robbery, earlier struggles between Britain's wealthiest citizens and the tax authorities gave way to something more dangerous: a conspiracy pitting the world's wealthy, the City of London and also the British government against ordinary citizens not just in Britain but against pretty much every other country in the world, rich and poor. Blair's successor, David Cameron, has taken this to new lengths, in what has become a pathetic kow-towing to global capital, with no questions asked. Britain once ruled the waves: now it merely waives the rules. Beware: prolonged exposure to this highly readable book may make you retch.
On Western Terrorism:: From Hiroshima to Drone Warfare is a series of lucid conversations between Noam Chomsky and the Russian-born film-maker Andre Vltchek. It’s a wonderful introduction to the reality of Western power and propaganda, covering colonialism, the Middle East, Latin America and the decline of US power - and packed with killer quotes. Here, Chomsky sums up the Arab Spring: “In Egypt and Tunisia, the US and its allies followed the traditional game plan, which has been used over and over again, where some favoured dictator can’t hold on any longer – maybe the army turns against him – like Somoza, Marcos, Duvalier, Suharto, Mobutu, and others. Support him to the last moment and when it becomes impossible send him off somewhere and try to restore the old order, and of course talk about how much you love democracy. It’s routine. It takes real genius not to see it.”
Capitalism seems to have gone into anti-ecological over drive, with right-wing politicians like Australia's Tony Abbott vowing to attack any form of environmental concern. Nonetheless, Daniel Tanuro's new book, recently translated into English, is my book of the year, because it shows that even a capitalism that speaks green still acts to destroy our planet. Broken and watered down climate agreements like the recent COP 19 in Poland show the need for militant action to challenge climate change, yet the very global framework is at present flawed. Climate action is based on carbon trading and other flawed mechanisms. Tanuro shows that only by moving beyond capitalism - which requires ever-increasing production, consumption and waste - can we achieve sustainable prosperity. It’s a must read for Green Left Weekly readers and comes with an endorsement from Natalie Bennett, the Australian-born leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.
The corporate media are filled daily with stories of “terrorists” being killed, captured and droned in the far corners of the globe. Since 9/11, the Bush and Obama administrations have pursued a ruthless policy of global assassination and counter-insurgency in the name of democracy. It’s been a costly and deadly sham and leading American investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill reveals in this detailed book, along with a stunning documentary of the same name, why these actions are making the US and the West a far more dangerous place. We are facing terrorism because we are committing terrorism. Scahill uncovers some of the darkest aspects of the “war on terror’ by speaking to the civilians, victims, contractors and undercover agents in Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen and beyond. America has the most sophisticated technology in the world but excessive and illegal policies are creating a walled ghetto that provides illusory security.
The “relentless, lavishly funded public campaign” to make Australia’s overseas wars the “central defining experience of national life” is juxtaposed against the historical amnesia surrounding the domestic war, which raged across the continent’s colonial settlement frontiers for 140 years. While the “ongoing carnival of military commemoration” honouring every Australian soldier who has died overseas is trumpeted as a sacred national obligation, the “line of blood” which accompanied white settlement is denied or fudged. For the 30,000 Indigenous war dead, a number comparable to Australian military deaths in the two world wars, it is an official case of “Best We Forget” rather than “Lest We Forget”. The frontier wars achieved what most wars aim for - territorial conquest, in this case the violent theft of productive Indigenous land. The base ends and gruesome means of the “forgotten war”, documented by Reynolds with academic rigour and moral vigour, scotches the comforting myth of the “peaceful settlement” of Australia.
Lesley Riddoch is the sort of life-long friend everyone needs - the one to warn you against making a total berk of yourself just as you thought you were looking pretty sharp. In Blossom : What Scotland Needs To Flourish, the lucky beneficiary of her advice isn't a single person but an entire nation. Riddoch chides her fellow Scots for their timorous beastiness in the face of what is a truly rare moment – the chance for a straight-out vote on regaining independence. Her book channels the Renton character in Trainspotting to tell potential voters they've more to fear from themselves than any supposed auld enemy to the South. Her work stares straight into causes and effects of severe poverty and inequality in Scotland, not least the health statistics so truly awful they've earned infamy as “the Scottish effect”. Somehow she's also truly funny. Dare Scots pay heed?
Centred on the fall of Singapore, this book gives us the wider story of Australia’s greatest military defeat and how it broke the bonds of empire. We see the fighting through the 20-year-old larrikin from Paddo, Mike Cavanough, and read the poetry that 21-year-old Ray Colenso sent to his mother: “And when the test comes, Mother,/ From fire, bombs and gun/ It’s through I’ll come, because I am / - your loving son.” But this book also tells us some little-known facts of Australian political history that we should be ashamed and angry about. The road to Changi begins with the xenophobic Prime Minister Billy Hughes at Versailles and is well-travelled by the feudal residue of Empire-men who fought a rearguard action for Britain against Australia’s interests.
At a time when ordinary people around the world are bearing the brunt of the many crises of capitalism, in Latin America, new people's movements have risen up and begun winning governments. These movements have raised the slogan "Socialism for the 21st Century". This book is a detailed look at the dynamics of these revolts via case studies looking at the situation Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Brazil and Cuba. It provides a great introduction as well as a thorough overview of strategies and theories being applied in each case. It is a must read to understand the most advanced challenge to corporate power anywhere in the world.
This book is a great companion piece to Latin America's Turbulent Transitions. A wide-ranging, in-depth and sophisticated exploration and analysis of Venezeulan social movements and revolutionary groups active before and during the Chávez era, We Created Chavez provides a bottom-up perspective of Chávez’s rise to power and the Venezuelan revolution from 1958 to the present. Based on interviews with grassroots organisers, former guerrillas, members of neighbourhood militias, and government officials, Ciccariello-Maher presents a comprehensive history of Venezuelan political activism. He pays particular attention to the dynamic interplay between the Chávez government, revolutionary social movements, and the people of Venezuela, recasting the revolution as a long-term and multifaceted process of political and social transformation. Rather than focusing on the commanding heights of political power, We Created Chavez seeks to demystify Venezuela’s complex revolutionary process by highlighting its largely subterraneous history - a history that has only recently emerged into the light of day, and to which this book is a big contribution.
The record of Salvador Allende and the Popular Unity government he led in Chile from 1970 to 1973 still elicits much debate on the left. Refusing to follow any prescribed model for advancing to socialism, Allende insisted on an electoral road. This in spite of the fact that such a road had not succeeded elsewhere and that Marx had famously pronounced that "the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes". In building a broad coalition of socialist, communist and progressive nationalist forces that was able to win a bourgeois election and initiate big economic and social reforms, Allende seemed to prove his critics wrong. But, in failing to prevent the vicious counter-revolution that followed, he seemed to prove them right. Well written and thoroughly researched, Salvador Allende: Revolutionary Democrat is an important contribution to a crucial debate and pays due tribute to a great leader of the left.
This magisterial book is destined to be a key reference point in future debates on not only the transition from feudalism to capitalism, but the meaning of socialism in the 21st century. Davidson interweaves a detailed intellectual history of theories of revolution with a vivid retelling of a multitude of transformative social struggles. This allows him to reconstruct some of the main Marxist contributions to the field in their original contexts - for example, clarifying the difference between political and social revolution, the relationship between state and civil society, and the uses and misuses of “permanent revolution”. In doing so, he summarises modern approaches to transition — for example, the “political Marxism” of Robert Brenner and his followers — and also stakes out his own position on them. As he is concerned to rediscover lost insights, but unafraid to challenge received wisdom, readers familiar with some of these debates will find sections of the book confronting, as I did. All the better to provoke us to reject lazy formulas in favour of clear thinking on this important subject.
For anybody with the eyes to see, there is a subterranean array of biblical allusions that run through the writings of Karl Marx. Roland Boer, who is a trained theologian and a Marxist, does have the eyes for the task and has set about unpacking the connections. Boer says Marxism and theology are secular and anti-secular. They deal with the matters of this world, but draw their inspiration from something beyond this world (God for one, a future socialism for the other). So, they are dialectically connected and argue over the same space. This is a truly fascinating book, full of rich titbits of thought. Boer isn’t trying to claim Marxism for Christianity, but he is trying to examine how theology could achieve an Aufhebung of Marxism – how to create a revolutionary Christianity, for example. In a world riven by religious conflicts and a terribly weakened left, this is interesting territory.
Those on the left tend to look at the world far more critically than others, yet many view technology far less critically than they do other subjects. Veteran media critic Robert McChesney's much-needed political and economic analysis of the internet shows exactly why technology is no saviour to the world’s problems. In this timely book he shows how the internet - despite its idealistic inception - serves to consolidate, rather than criticise, capitalism. With illuminating references, he colourfully illustrates how the web and its related industries magnify monopolies, pioneer outsourcing, intensify exploitation, destroy privacy and send journalism plummeting to the lowest common denominator. But he also offers solutions. His well-argued case for publicly-funded journalism through a voucher system is particularly pertinent in Australia.
■ GLW sought a gender balance for this piece, as we did last year, and has run the submissions received. We will be adding some more as they come in.