This was a great month for books. I got my teeth stuck into some tough but rewarding books about politics and the global economy, along with reading Margaret Atwood’s new release and a fun fantasy novel.
The Shock Doctrine – Naomi Klein
This book fully blew my mind (and I wrote about why exactly in detail here). The Shock Doctrine is all about the rise of disaster capitalism and how radical free-market policies have destroyed economies and communities across the world under the guise of increasing money and freedom (this is a good book to read as the Brexit saga continues, as Brexit is exactly the kind of situation that is RIPE for allowing damaging reforms and nefarious political behaviour to flourish). The story starts in the 1970s, where Milton Friedman’s group of Chicago-educated Latin Americans (known as the Chicago Boys) headed back to their home countries and enacted brutal capitalist reforms, sending what had previously been very socialist countries into disarray. Price controls were abandoned, so the prices of bread and milk soared, and major national industries and companies were privatised, seeing millions out of work or with slashed wages and worker protections. As with any major regime change, this was accompanied by a hefty dose of repressive state violence. I read it with my mouth open.
The idea behind this move is that in the wake of an enormous shock – be it political, environmental or otherwise – people are more susceptible to radical reforms. This works both ways; in the years following WW2, lots of socialist policies took root in the UK, resulting in the NHS and other important welfare provisions. However, the shock doctrine is not limited to this first shock. In Klein’s view, there are three shocks to contend with: the original shock that starts the whole thing, the shock of the new reforms and regulations and, for the people who still won’t submit, literal shocks in the form of torture. The chapter where she dives deep into how the CIA developed many of its torture techniques is particularly chilling.
After exploring what happened in Latin America at length, Klein moves on to describe how Friedman’s neoliberal evangelists moved across the world and enacted similar programs in Thailand, Indonesia, China, Poland, Russia, South Africa and more. Almost all of them saw the same outcome as in Latin America; a small group of people – mainly those who had been orchestrating the crisis – got very rich, while the majority of the nation became incredibly poor. A few countries weathered these reforms a little better, notably China, but that is because the Chinese government refused to bow entirely to the Chicago Boys’ recommendations, which saved them when things started to go south. The other Asian countries were not as prudent, and their economies have still not recovered from what happened in the 1990s. Klein ends with the story of the American intervention in Iraq in the 2000s.
As with any hefty Naomi Klein book, this book was dense. It took me almost two weeks to read, which for me is a long time. It is packed with fascinating material, but there is a lot of it, and there were points where I wished that she had trimmed it down a little to make it a little easier on the reader. I also have to wonder what the other side of this story is, because although she is very compelling, I try to keep my critical brain alive and remember that I’m sure plenty of people have disagreed with her analysis. Most of all, though, I was deeply shocked that these stories are relatively unknown given their paramount importance when talking about capitalism, socialism and the ways in which these economic paradigms might play out in reality. A read you’ll have to work for, but worth it if you do.
The Testaments – Margaret Atwood
I have been waiting to read this book for months now and it is probably one of the most highly anticipated books of the whole year. The Testaments is the sequel to Atwood’s 1985 dystopian feminist classic the Handmaid’s Tale, written and published thirty-five years later in response to the unfortunate rise of right-wing ideology and the attacks on women’s reproductive and sexual rights, especially in the USA. The release of this book was especially exciting because I went to a special event on the launch date with my mum, where we heard readings from the book, received a ‘free’ copy (even though we had paid for the tickets) and listened to Margaret Atwood talk about the book and how it relates to our current political climate. It was awesome! I’m so lucky to live somewhere where wonderful events like this happen all the time.
It is not a traditional sequel in that it doesn’t follow Offred’s story from the first book at all. The Testaments is the story of Gilead’s downfall, told through three historical documents: the diary of one of the regime’s highest powers, Aunt Lydia, and witness testimonies from two young women who were instrumental in bringing down the repressive state. I wanted this book to be amazing so badly! The Handmaid’s Tale is not perfect by any means, but having read a decent number of feminist dystopias I still think that it is by far the best of the bunch. It’s certainly a lot for the Testaments to live up to.
I enjoyed the first two thirds of this book a lot, especially Aunt Lydia’s recollections of how Gilead came to power and the trade-offs she had to make to survive, trade-offs that amounted to not only submitting to the regime but also becoming one of the state’s most feared oppressors. However, as the book made its way to its conclusion, I thought the narrative started to crumble a little. It was just too simple and happened too fast, especially given the hundreds of pages of build up. Also, the ‘big’ plot twists were quite predictable. I’m sorry Margaret! The Handmaid’s Tale remains a banger, but for me, the Testaments didn’t quite hit the mark.
The Globalization Paradox – Dani Rodrik
I could not have opened this book at a better time given the questions that have been swirling around in my head lately. This book is about “what [he] will call the fundamental political trilemma of the world economy: we cannot simultaneously pursue democracy, national determination, and economic globalization.” When I read that this was the central question of the book, I was thrilled. This was the information I had been looking for.
The latter half of the book was most interesting to me as it delved into the meat of the “is global governance possible?” question. It was so good to read this because it really challenged – and partially changed – my opinion on the possibilities of global governance, though the main reason I’ve been thinking about whether we need truly global governance structures is from a climate change perspective, something that barely figured in this book (blog post incoming when I’m done obsessing about these ideas). Rodrik’s position is that successful global governance is impossible due to the cultural and political diversity of different nations, and he reminds us that global governance remains undesirable to most people. In fact, he says that the tiny number of big proponents of global governance tend to be wealthy and highly educated, which was good reminder for me – sitting here as an upper middle class Brit with a Cambridge degree – to always contextualise my opinions outside my immediate bubble.
The first half broke down the history and specifics of globalisation, which I found drier given my interests but was ultimately an important part of forming well-rounded opinions about these ideas, so I’m glad I read it (even if I did skim a few pages here and there). While the book barely discusses climate change directly, understanding our globalised world is at the core of understanding the issues of climate change activism, so I think it’s also an important read for anyone trying to think about environmentalism.
Good Omens – Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
This book was so fun. I want to start writing fiction (eek!) so I’m trying to read more of it, because at this rate I’m setting myself to write an academic tome about climate policy that will be read by approximately fifteen people, which I’d be up for but probably not for a few decades, as I need to read, write and study a lot more before I could ever write a book about all this stuff. Anyway. Good Omens was a very enjoyable, hilarious read, which mainly follows the actions of an angel and devil, who are also best friends, as they try to stop the end of the world because they like living on Earth so much.
I am always so impressed by the world building of fantasy authors and the ability to intertwine multiple characters and plotlines so neatly. It’s true that Aziraphale and Crowley are by far the most interesting characters, though I wish we’d heard more about the Four Horsemen because I loved that idea. The ending suffered a little from the same thing that all endings which are about something dramatic not happening suffer from: it is, by design, a giant anti-climax. This book is really made in the details, especially all the hilarious, tiny ways that the demon Crowley has built Earth to irritate humanity. I am so jealous of the way that some authors seem to effortlessly imagine intricate stories but it’s hard to stay annoyed when you get to read them instead.
What should I read next month?