The inaugural post of this type. Below, you’ll find the covers and official publisher synopses* for some of the most interesting new non-fiction books I’ve received and bought recently. I’ve kept commentary to a minimum, as there are quite a few titles. However, some of them deserve special mention. If there are other new and upcoming books you think I or other readers should be made aware of, feel free to leave recommendations in the comments section at the end.
* Given how long these tend to be, I’m not sure I’ll maintain this template in the future…
Featuring: David Bromwich, Paul Evans, Edmund Fawcett, Robert M. Gates, Martin Gilens, Chris Hedges, Charles R. Morris, Jürgen Osterhammel, Thomas Piketty, Nomi Prins, Linda Robinson, Peter H. Schuck, James C. Scott
Spanning many historical and literary contexts, Moral Imagination brings together a dozen recent essays by one of America's premier cultural critics. David Bromwich explores the importance of imagination and sympathy to suggest how these faculties may illuminate the motives of human action and the reality of justice. These wide-ranging essays address thinkers and topics from Gandhi and Martin Luther King on nonviolent resistance, to the dangers of identity politics, to the psychology of the heroes of classic American literature.
Bromwich demonstrates that moral imagination allows us to judge the right and wrong of actions apart from any benefit to ourselves, and he argues that this ability is an innate individual strength, rather than a socially conditioned habit. Political topics addressed here include Edmund Burke and Richard Price's efforts to define patriotism in the first year of the French Revolution, Abraham Lincoln's principled work of persuasion against slavery in the 1850s, the erosion of privacy in America under the influence of social media, and the use of euphemism to shade and anesthetize reactions to the global war on terror. Throughout, Bromwich considers the relationship between language and power, and the insights language may offer into the corruptions of power.
Moral Imagination captures the singular voice of one of the most forceful thinkers working in America today.
“Engagement” has been the bedrock of Canada’s policy toward China for more than four decades. Ottawa has continually attempted to assist China’s entry into the international system and to advance a commercial agenda. Yet engagement has also been conceived by many Canadians in larger terms as a moral enterprise intended to influence or change China's domestic social and political order. As China’s economic and diplomatic reach has expanded, policy makers in Ottawa have struggled to devise a compelling strategy that addresses the rise of global China and the mixture of anxiety and opportunity this has generated in Canadian minds.
Engaging China is a concise account of the evolution and current state of Canada’s policy toward China – its achievements, failings, and dilemmas. Written by Paul Evans, one of Canada’s foremost experts on contemporary Asian affairs, the volume inaugurates the UTP Insights series of books that take on the issues crucial to understanding our world and Canada’s place within it. Evans’s assessment of Canada’s China policy speaks to the idea of engagement, its intellectual history, and its contradictions and possibilities.
Clearly presented and cogently argued, Engaging China outlines the elements necessary for a comprehensive and strategic approach to China in light of its central role in the most important power shift in the global order since World War II.
This I’m reading as part of a new project, one I hope to form the core of a postdoctoral position in Canada.
Liberalism dominates today’s politics just as it decisively shaped the past two hundred years of American and European history. Yet there is striking disagreement about what liberalism really means and how it arose. In this engrossing history of liberalism – the first in English for many decades – veteran political observer Edmund Fawcett traces the ideals, successes, and failures of this central political tradition through the lives and ideas of a rich cast of European and American thinkers and politicians, from the early nineteenth century to today.
Using a broad idea of liberalism, the book discusses celebrated thinkers from Constant and Mill to Berlin, Hayek, and Rawls, as well as more neglected figures. Its twentieth-century politicians include Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, and Willy Brandt, but also Hoover, Reagan, and Kohl. The story tracks political liberalism from its beginnings in the 1830s to its long, grudging compromise with democracy, through a golden age after 1945 to the present mood of challenge and doubt.
Focusing on the United States, Britain, France, and Germany, the book traces how the distinct traditions of these countries converged on the practice of liberal democracy. Although liberalism has many currents, Fawcett suggests that they are held together by shared commitments: resistance to power, faith in social progress, respect for people’s chosen enterprises and beliefs, and acceptance that interests and faiths will always conflict.
“As I look back, there is a parallel theme to my years at war: love. By that I mean the love – there is no other word for it – I came to feel for the troops, and the overwhelming sense of personal responsibility I developed for them. So much so that it would shape some of my most significant decisions and positions.”
When Robert M. Gates received a call from the White House, he thought he’d long left Washington politics behind: After working for six presidents in both the CIA and the National Security Council, he was happily serving as president of Texas A&M University. But when he was asked to help a nation mired in two wars and to aid the troops doing the fighting, he answered what he felt was the call of duty.
Robert Gates was US Secretary of Defense from 2006 to 2011 serving under both George Bush and Barack Obama. Before that he was Director of the CIA. This is his candid and revealing account of US military engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan, where Gates oversaw the controversial “surge” of US troops in both countries. As well as this, he also provides commentary on the situations in Syria, Iran, Israel and North Korea and details behind the scenes meetings with Bush, Cheney, Rice, Obama and other major political figures.
Mr. Gates is the only Secretary of Defense to serve under both a Republican and a Democratic president, and in Duty he provides an unsparing, full accounting of his tenure.
I have a fascination for those who have held high office in the United States. Indeed, much of my PhD thesis focused on presidential decision-making and the influences and encroachments of a pluralist domestic political system. Since exhausting much of the literature on presidential decision-making, and as a result of some of my conclusions, I have started to read through more cabinet-level memoirs. These should help with another project I am working on.
Can a country be a democracy if its government only responds to the preferences of the rich? In an ideal democracy, all citizens should have equal influence on government policy – but as this book demonstrates, America’s policymakers respond almost exclusively to the preferences of the economically advantaged. Affluence and Influence definitively explores how political inequality in the United States has evolved over the last several decades and how this growing disparity has been shaped by interest groups, parties, and elections.
With sharp analysis and an impressive range of data, Martin Gilens looks at thousands of proposed policy changes, and the degree of support for each among poor, middle-class, and affluent Americans. His findings are staggering: when preferences of low- or middle-income Americans diverge from those of the affluent, there is virtually no relationship between policy outcomes and the desires of less advantaged groups. In contrast, affluent Americans’ preferences exhibit a substantial relationship with policy outcomes whether their preferences are shared by lower-income groups or not. Gilens shows that representational inequality is spread widely across different policy domains and time periods. Yet Gilens also shows that under specific circumstances the preferences of the middle class and, to a lesser extent, the poor, do seem to matter. In particular, impending elections – especially presidential elections – and an even partisan division in Congress mitigate representational inequality and boost responsiveness to the preferences of the broader public.
At a time when economic and political inequality in the United States only continues to rise, Affluence and Influence raises important questions about whether American democracy is truly responding to the needs of all its citizens.
As a veteran war correspondent, Chris Hedges has survived ambushes in Central America, imprisonment in Sudan, and a beating by Saudi military police. He has seen children murdered for sport in Gaza and petty thugs elevated into war heroes in the Balkans. Hedges, who is also a former divinity student, has seen war at its worst and knows too well that to those who pass through it, war can be exhilarating and even addictive: “It gives us purpose, meaning, a reason for living.”
Drawing on his own experience and on the literature of combat from Homer to Michael Herr, Hedges shows how war seduces not just those on the front lines but entire societies – corrupting politics, destroying culture, and perverting basic human desires. Mixing hard-nosed realism with profound moral and philosophical insight, War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning is a work of terrible power and redemptive clarity whose truths have never been more necessary.
This is a re-issue, and well-worth revisiting.
In the first few decades of the nineteenth century, America went from being a largely rural economy, with little internal transportation infrastructure, to a fledgling industrial powerhouse – setting the stage for the vast fortunes that would be made in the golden age of American capitalism. In The Dawn of Innovation, Charles R. Morris vividly brings to life a time when three stupendous American innovations – universal male suffrage, the shift of political power from elites to the middle classes, and a broad commitment to mechanized mass-production – gave rise to the world’s first democratic, middle-class, mass-consumption society, a shining beacon to nations and peoples ever since. Behind that ideal were the machines, the men, and the trading and transportation networks that created a new, world-class economic power.
A monumental history of the nineteenth century, The Transformation of the World offers a panoramic and multifaceted portrait of a world in transition. Jürgen Osterhammel, an eminent scholar who has been called the Braudel of the nineteenth century, moves beyond conventional Eurocentric and chronological accounts of the era, presenting instead a truly global history of breathtaking scope and towering erudition. He examines the powerful and complex forces that drove global change during the “long nineteenth century,” taking readers from New York to New Delhi, from the Latin American revolutions to the Taiping Rebellion, from the perils and promise of Europe’s transatlantic labor markets to the hardships endured by nomadic, tribal peoples across the planet. Osterhammel describes a world increasingly networked by the telegraph, the steamship, and the railways. He explores the changing relationship between human beings and nature, looks at the importance of cities, explains the role slavery and its abolition played in the emergence of new nations, challenges the widely held belief that the nineteenth century witnessed the triumph of the nation-state, and much more.
A monumental work of history. It’s a huge tome, so while I intend to read it ASAP, it may take a little while to get through it.
What are the grand dynamics that drive the accumulation and distribution of capital? Questions about the long-term evolution of inequality, the concentration of wealth, and the prospects for economic growth lie at the heart of political economy. But satisfactory answers have been hard to find for lack of adequate data and clear guiding theories. In Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Piketty analyzes a unique collection of data from twenty countries, ranging as far back as the eighteenth century, to uncover key economic and social patterns. His findings will transform debate and set the agenda for the next generation of thought about wealth and inequality.
Piketty shows that modern economic growth and the diffusion of knowledge have allowed us to avoid inequalities on the apocalyptic scale predicted by Karl Marx. But we have not modified the deep structures of capital and inequality as much as we thought in the optimistic decades following World War II. The main driver of inequality – the tendency of returns on capital to exceed the rate of economic growth – today threatens to generate extreme inequalities that stir discontent and undermine democratic values. But economic trends are not acts of God. Political action has curbed dangerous inequalities in the past, Piketty says, and may do so again.
A work of extraordinary ambition, originality, and rigor, Capital in the Twenty-First Century reorients our understanding of economic history and confronts us with sobering lessons for today.
This book has been grabbing headlines on both sides of the Atlantic, and I hope to get around to it soon. (No promises, though.)
Who rules America?
All the Presidents’ Bankers is a groundbreaking narrative of how an elite group of men transformed the American economy and government, dictated foreign and domestic policy, and shaped world history.
Culled from original presidential archival documents, All the Presidents’ Bankers delivers an explosive account of the hundred-year interdependence between the White House and Wall Street that transcends a simple analysis of money driving politics – or greed driving bankers.
Prins ushers us into the intimate world of exclusive clubs, vacation spots, and Ivy League universities that binds presidents and financiers. She unravels the multi-generational blood, intermarriage, and protégé relationships that have confined national influence to a privileged cluster of people. These families and individuals recycle their power through elected office and private channels in Washington, DC.
All the Presidents’ Bankers sheds new light on pivotal historic events – such as why, after the Panic of 1907, America’s dominant bankers convened to fashion the Federal Reserve System; how J. P. Morgan’s ambitions motivated President Wilson during World War I; how Chase and National City Bank chairmen worked secretly with President Roosevelt to rescue capitalism during the Great Depression while J.P. Morgan Jr. invited Roosevelt’s son yachting; and how American financiers collaborated with President Truman to construct the World Bank and IMF after World War II.
Prins divulges how, through the Cold War and Vietnam era, presidents and bankers pushed America’s superpower status and expansion abroad, while promoting broadly democratic values and social welfare at home. But from the 1970s, Wall Street’s rush to secure Middle East oil profits altered the nature of political-financial alliances. Bankers’ profit motive trumped heritage and allegiance to public service, while presidents lost control over the economy – as was dramatically evident in the financial crisis of 2008.
This unprecedented history of American power illuminates how the same financiers retained their authoritative position through history, swaying presidents regardless of party affiliation. All the Presidents’ Bankers explores the alarming global repercussions of a system lacking barriers between public office and private power. Prins leaves us with an ominous choice: either we break the alliances of the power elite, or they will break us.
I’m actually about a third of the way into this book already. It’s very good so far, if a little ponderous at times. Review soon.
One Hundred Victories is a portrait of how – after a decade of intensive combat operations – special operations forces have become the go-to force for US military endeavors worldwide.
Linda Robinson follows the evolution of special ops in Afghanistan, their longest deployment since Vietnam. She has lived in mud-walled compounds in the mountains and deserts of insurgent-dominated regions, and uses those experiences to show the gritty reality of the challenges the SOF face and the constant danger in which they operate.
She witnessed special operators befriending villagers to help them secure their homes, and fighting off insurgents in the most dangerous safe havens even as they navigated a constant series of conflicts, crises, and other “meteors” from conventional forces, the CIA, and the Pakistanis – not to mention weak links within their own ranks. They showed what a tiny band of warriors could do, and could not do, out on the wild frontiers of the next-generation wars.
One Hundred Victories also includes the inside story of the dramatic November 2011 cross-border firefight with Pakistan, which sent the US commander into a fury and provoked an international crisis. It describes the murky world of armed factions operating along the world’s longest disputed border, and the chaos and casualties that result when commanders with competing agendas cannot resolve their differences.
From healthcare to workplace conduct, the federal government is taking on ever more responsibility for managing our lives. At the same time, Americans have never been more disaffected with Washington, seeing it as an intrusive, incompetent, wasteful giant. The most alarming consequence of ineffective policies, in addition to unrealized social goals, is the growing threat to the government’s democratic legitimacy. Understanding why government fails so often – and how it might become more effective – is an urgent responsibility of citizenship. In this book, lawyer and political scientist Peter Schuck provides a wide range of examples and an enormous body of evidence to explain why so many domestic policies go awry – and how to right the foundering ship of state.
Schuck argues that Washington’s failures are due not to episodic problems or partisan bickering, but rather to deep structural flaws that undermine every administration, Democratic and Republican. These recurrent weaknesses include unrealistic goals, perverse incentives, poor and distorted information, systemic irrationality, rigidity and lack of credibility, a mediocre bureaucracy, powerful and inescapable markets, and the inherent limits of law. To counteract each of these problems, Schuck proposes numerous achievable reforms, from avoiding moral hazard in student loan, mortgage, and other subsidy programs, to empowering consumers of public services, simplifying programs and testing them for cost-effectiveness, and increasing the use of “big data.” The book also examines successful policies – including the G.I. Bill, the Voting Rights Act, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and airline deregulation – to highlight the factors that made them work.
An urgent call for reform, Why Government Fails So Often is essential reading for anyone curious about why government is in such disrepute and how it can do better.
James Scott taught us what’s wrong with seeing like a state. Now, in his most accessible and personal book to date, the acclaimed social scientist makes the case for seeing like an anarchist. Inspired by the core anarchist faith in the possibilities of voluntary cooperation without hierarchy, Two Cheers for Anarchism is an engaging, high-spirited, and often very funny defense of an anarchist way of seeing – one that provides a unique and powerful perspective on everything from everyday social and political interactions to mass protests and revolutions. Through a wide-ranging series of memorable anecdotes and examples, the book describes an anarchist sensibility that celebrates the local knowledge, common sense, and creativity of ordinary people. The result is a kind of handbook on constructive anarchism that challenges us to radically reconsider the value of hierarchy in public and private life, from schools and workplaces to retirement homes and government itself.
Beginning with what Scott calls “the law of anarchist calisthenics,” an argument for law-breaking inspired by an East German pedestrian crossing, each chapter opens with a story that captures an essential anarchist truth. In the course of telling these stories, Scott touches on a wide variety of subjects: public disorder and riots, desertion, poaching, vernacular knowledge, assembly-line production, globalization, the petty bourgeoisie, school testing, playgrounds, and the practice of historical explanation.
Far from a dogmatic manifesto, Two Cheers for Anarchism celebrates the anarchist confidence in the inventiveness and judgment of people who are free to exercise their creative and moral capacities.