Books of 2020

December 31, 2020

Another year, another batch of books.

In this post, I will once again be summarising and sharing my thoughts on the books I have read throughout the year. Please note that similar to last year’s rendition, this post will not be a collection of reviews; nor is the inclusion of a book necessarily a recommendation. Of course, if you would like to discuss a particular title, or have any recommendations, please feel free to reach out.

Cover of Permanent Record by Edward Snowden.

In Postcapitalism - A Guide to Our Future, British commentator and radio personality Paul Mason, discusses uncontrolled, free-moving markets and the enshrinement of the only way to prosperity as being that of relentless, egotistical pursuit. Indeed, the doctrine where the free market is but a medium through which self-interest is expressed and reflected: The doctrine of neoliberalism.

In arguing why capitalism has flourished the way it has for as long as it has, Mason identifies what he considers four key components: (1) The endless troves of fiat money allowing the developed world to be built on ever-increasing mountains of debt; (2) the relentless financialisation of our world fostering a reality in which a single mother on benefits forced into payday loans is worth more than someone with a steady, decent paying job; (3) the global imbalances and massive trade deficits provoking flammable environments of unsustainable debt contingent on continued high growth; and (4) the rise of information technology whose emergence mirrors a disappearing act and, paradoxically, in Mason’s view, is incompatible with a market economy as it denies markets the ability to create dynamism. Indeed, capitalism has already started to crack and will, for all its inherent intricacies and perpetual adaptability, Mason argues, eventually crash and burn.

Invoking controversial Soviet economist, Nikolai D. Kondratiev, and soon Karl Marx himself, Mason introduces the reader to the disputed theory of economic waves and cycles. Seeking to identify what causes a crisis, Mason aptly refers to Marxism as both theory of history and theory of crises. However, spearheaded by brazen greed and dictated by American imperialism, modern finance has created a world which is hardly applicable to that which Marxism considers. Indeed, propelled by the Marshall Plan and American leadership, the (American) economy experienced tremendous growth during the 1950s and -60s whilst underpinned by a stable international monetary system designed to all but curtail finance in pursuit of reducing debts.

However, when Nixon, in response to increasing inflation, ditched the gold standard in favour of free floating fiat currencies, the foundation for neo-liberalism was firmly established. Yet, the subsequent emergence of neo-liberalism was anything but given, and could not have co-existed with an organised workforce. Accordingly, leaders like Reagan, Thatcher, and Pinochet attacked labour and busted unions. By 1979, workers had failed to adequately resist, and capitalist countries could deal with crises by lowering wages and low-value models for production, thereby removing the need to innovate to escape a crisis. This coupled with the rise of information technology, in essence, underpins Mason’s argument.

While Mason writes in an engaging—albeit at times exceedingly condensed manner—and makes several interesting, occasionally compelling arguments, his generalisations and consistent ambiguity leaves much to be desired. However, Mason is not seeking to provide answers; much less does he claim to have them. Instead, Matson wishes to provoke a serious discussion of the world we currently live in; where it is headed; and where we would like it, and ourselves, to end up. And this Postcapitalism certainly achieves. Interesting read! 368 pages.

Cover of Catch and Kill by Ronan Farrow.

Above all, Catch and Kill by Ronan Farrow is a story of persistence and perseverance; about standing up, and keep standing, for what is right, even in the face of relentless resistance from a system designed and ruthlessly controlled by perpetrators. In pursuing justice, Ronan Farrow does not give up; the team at The New Yorker does not give in; and, most importantly, the courageous victims whose voices have been silenced for far too long make their voices heard. In many ways, this is a contemporaneous account of what it takes to force justice through a system refuting the very existence of injustice. Yet, for all the struggles, Catch and Kill is likely only the tip of an enormous iceberg, all but ensuring equally horrendous stories will inevitably trickle out over the coming decades. However, perhaps Catch and Kill, and the subsequent sentencing of Harry Weinstein can pave the way for others to seek much-needed justice. Keep up the good fight. 608 pages.

Cover of Twilight of Democracy: The Failure of Politics and the Parting of Friends by Anne Applebaum.

Twilight of Democracy by Anne Applebaum discusses the global democratic decline fuelled by an ongoing wave of right-wing, populist politics. Centred on Poland, Hungary, the United Kingdom, and the United States, respectively, Applebaum identifies and outlines the catalytic events she considers central to the subsequent rise of fascism.

A prime example being Applebaum’s current country of residence, Poland, in which Law and Justice’s (PiS) narrow electoral victory in 2015 paved the way for a wide range of inherently anti-democratic laws and policy decisions. Indeed, almost immediately upon assuming power, PiS created both visible and invisible enemies by neatly injecting conspiracy theories into the public discourse whilst simultaneously attacking the free press before blatantly installing hand-picked judges, promptly swinging the courts in their favour.

These events, and those which followed, has made Poland a prime example of how, given the right circumstances, both well-educated and well-off citizens can dramatically and fundamentally change their opinion. Applebaum both asks and seeks to answer a single question: Why?

At its core, Applebaum argues, authoritarianism appeals to people for whom complexity and discussions are uncomfortable and change is inherently suspicious. Ultimately, the notion of feeling unfairly treated—perhaps cheated out of something otherwise felt deserved—is sufficient. Indeed, a person need not be deeply ideologues nor heavily engaged in politics, they merely need to feel cheated.

A rigged and uncompetitive system sounds bad if you want to live in a society run by the talented. But if that is not your primary interest, what’s wrong with it? — Anna Applebaum on authoritarianism.

In the cult of Trumpism, for instance, convincing oneself of America’s standing in the world is sufficient justification for seemingly any crime, miss-step and outcry. If something helps bring back the old—indeed, if it makes America great again—it is not merely justifiable, it is necessary. Thus, Trump becomes a figurehead for those who desperately tries to convince and reassure themselves of America’s, in their eyes, unbeatable standing. 224 pages.