2015 reading

Most of the stuff I read in 2015 was about economics and politics. This was a deliberate effort to plug some gaps in my knowledge, prompted by following the news on the deepening economic crisis in Greece, the subsequent rise of Syriza, and their clash with the EC, ECB & IMF troika. So, here are some of the books, articles and blogs that I read with the hope of understanding the present state of the world and what we can do about it.

Owen Jones – The Establishment: And how they get away with it (Allen lane)
Highlights the anti-democratic nature of the socio-political structures of the UK’s neo-liberal elite, which accounts for some of the disconnect between people and politics today.

Ole Bjerg – Making Money: The philosophy of crisis capitalism (Verso)
Bjerg uses Slavoj Zizek’s ontology to understand money it its various forms (gold, notes and coins, digital data, etc.) and in its different modes of being: real, symbolic and imaginary. He explains that money doesn’t exist in the way we usually think it does, because when banks lend money they actually create it. Governments have created systems where banks now have more power than the state over the economy. The philosophical analysis is clear at the start, gets a bit heavier, but ends with a simple practical proposition: “the restoration of the state’s prerogative to create new money, and the reduction of banks into mere financial intermediaries that lend rather than create money”. This, Bjerg says, “would do nothing but make both parties conform to the idea of what most people already erroneously believe they are doing.”

David Graeber – Debt: The first 5,000 years (Melville House)
Debt debunks the idea that money emerged as a solution to the problems of the barter system, as is taught in standard economic textbooks. Graeber takes an anthropological approach, with evidence that there never really was a barter system. Instead, there were systems of credit – that is, social systems based on trust amongst family, friends and neighbours. Debts would be recorded on tallies, and there would be ‘reckonings’ every so often to settle up, or ‘jubilees’ in which debts (usually taxes) were cancelled and indebted prisoners/slaves were freed, or else there would be regular riots and revolutions. Money first appeared in the form of credit notes and IOUs that were transferable. Such systems of credit were therefore more common than money in the form of precious metals etc., which was used in situations without trust – in dealings with enemies, strangers and the military. Finally, legal tender money (coins and notes) requires the power of a state to enforce the legality of its money whilst demanding it as the form of payment of taxes. Building on this fundamental revision of the history of money, Graeber explores how debt is shaped by violence and power, why economic language is essentially moralistic, and how basic principles of communistic living and fair exchange formed the foundations of today’s socio-economic order.

What is a debt, anyway? A debt is just the perversion of a promise. It is a promise corrupted by both math and violence. If freedom (real freedom) is the ability to make friends, then it is also, necessarily, the ability to make real promises. What sorts of promises might genuinely free men and women make to one another?

Ann Pettifor – Just Money: How Society Can Break the Despotic Power of Finance (Prime Books)
Ann Pettifor is director of Policy Research in Macroeconomics (Prime), a good resource for non-mainstream economics. Just Money is an accessible introduction to modern finance and the role of credit in our political and social systems. The book provides a coherent account of a broad picture by explaining clearly the constituent parts of the whole economy. In addition to banking, finance, money and debt, Pettifor includes ecology and sustainability as vital elements in understanding what’s wrong with the current system and how it might be fixed. @AnnPettifor

Richard Murphy
Tax expert, promoter of the “People’s Quantitative Easing” idea. Author of The Joy of Tax: How a fair tax system can create a better society. Commenter on economic and taxation policy issues via the blog Tax Research UK. @RichardJMurphy

Another Angry Voice
A blog by Thomas G. Clark on economics, philosophy, politics and other stuff: http://anotherangryvoice.blogspot.co.uk/

David Allen Green
Lawyer, writer of the Jack of Kent blog and for the Financial Times. Sharp observer of legal policy. Foresaw that trouble with the Ministry of Justice contract with Saudi Arabia, for example. Insightful criticism of the government’s approach to law reform, legal justice, human rights and civil liberties. @DavidAllenGreen

Paul Mason – Postcapitalism: A guide to our future (Allen Lane)
Mason argues that we are seeing the end of neo-liberalist capitalism and the beginning of some kind of information-based economy. The failure of organised labour and lack of political will to counteract the inherent destructive tendencies of capitalism and financialisation has caused a break with established economic cycles. Austerity measures result in a prolonged post-crisis slump and a false impression of economic stability. This means that a second global financial crisis is increasingly likely. In addition, we also face the problems of an ageing demography and a changing climate, both of which are enmeshed with economic factors. But although the outlook is bleak, Mason says, there is a chance to develop a postcapitalist system that appears to be emerging, a networked information economy based on new forms of ownership and business. A lengthy article in The Guardian covers the main points of Mason’s argument: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jul/17/postcapitalism-end-of-capitalism-begun

Mason presents evidence to suggest that Kondratieff’s wave theory is basically correct, and that the deviation from this pattern is accounted for by Marx’s Fragment on Machines (PDF) which describes the revolutionary potential of automated labour and an information economy based on accumulated knowledge. In this respect, the argument is similar to Accelerationist Manifesto by Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek. Their new book Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work (Verso) is next on my reading list.

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