Stuff I’ve been reading recently – #1

PostCapitalism: A Guide to Our Future
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 by Paul Mason

Over the past two centuries or so, capitalism has undergone continual change – economic cycles that lurch from boom to bust – and has always emerged transformed and strengthened. Surveying this turbulent history, Paul Mason wonders whether today we are on the brink of a change so big, so profound, that this time capitalism itself, the immensely complex system by which entire societies function, has reached its limits and is changing into something wholly new.

At the heart of this change is information technology: a revolution that, as Mason shows, has the potential to reshape utterly our familiar notions of work, production and value; and to destroy an economy based on markets and private ownership – in fact, he contends, it is already doing so. Almost unnoticed, in the niches and hollows of the market system, whole swathes of economic life are changing… Goods and services that no longer respond to the dictates of neoliberalism are appearing, from parallel currencies and time banks, to cooperatives and self-managed online spaces. Vast numbers of people are changing their behaviour, discovering new forms of ownership, lending and doing business that are distinct from, and contrary to, the current system of state-backed corporate capitalism.

In this groundbreaking book Mason shows how, from the ashes of the recent financial crisis, we have the chance to create a more socially just and sustainable global economy. Moving beyond capitalism, he shows, is no longer a utopian dream. This is the first time in human history in which, equipped with an understanding of what is happening around us, we can predict and shape, rather than simply react to, seismic change.

The Strange Non-death of Neo-liberalism
| by Colin Crouch

The financial crisis seemed to present a fundamental challenge to neo-liberalism, the body of ideas that have constituted the political orthodoxy of most advanced economies in recent decades. Colin Crouch argues in this book that it will shrug off this challenge. The reason is that while neo-liberalism seems to be about free markets, in practice it is concerned with the dominance over public life of the giant corporation. This has been intensified, not checked, by the recent financial crisis and acceptance that certain financial corporations are ‘too big to fail’. Although much political debate remains preoccupied with conflicts between the market and the state, the impact of the corporation on both these is today far more important.

Several factors have brought us to this situation:

  • The lobbying power of firms whose donations are of growing importance to cash-hungry politicians and parties
  • The weakening of competitive forces by firms large enough to shape and dominate their markets
  • The moral initiative that is grasped by enterprises that devise their own agendas of corporate social responsibility

Both democratic politics and the free market are weakened by these processes, but they are largely inevitable and not always malign. Hope for the future, therefore, cannot lie in suppressing them in order to attain either an economy of pure markets or a socialist society. Rather it lies in dragging the giant corporation fully into political controversy.

Infoglut: How Too Much Information Is Changing the Way We Think and Know
| by Mark Andrejevic

Today, more mediated information is available to more people than at any other time in human history. New and revitalised sense-making strategies multiply in response to the challenges of “cutting through the clutter” of competing narratives and taming the avalanche of information. Data miners, “sentiment analysts,” and decision markets offer to help bodies of data “speak for themselves”—making sense of their own patterns so we don’t have to. Neuromarketers and body language experts promise to peer behind people’s words to see what their brains are really thinking and feeling. New forms of information processing promise to displace the need for expertise and even comprehension—at least for those with access to the data.

Infoglut explores the connections between these wide-ranging sense-making strategies for an era of information overload and “big data,” and the new forms of control they enable. Andrejevic critiques the popular embrace of deconstructive debunkery, calling into question the post-truth, post-narrative, and post-comprehension politics it underwrites, and tracing a way beyond them.

No Such Thing as a Free Gift: The Gates Foundation and the Price of Philanthropy
| by Linsey McGoey

Philanthro-capitalism: How charity became big business

The charitable sector is one of the fastest-growing industries in the global economy. Nearly half of the more than 85,000 private foundations in the United States have come into being since the year 2000. Just under 5,000 more were established in 2011 alone. This deluge of philanthropy has helped create a world where billionaires wield more power over education policy, global agriculture, and global health than ever before.

Charities link the farmers in Africa to the boardrooms of corporate foundations and the corridors of the World Economic Forum at Davos. Far from being selfless, plutocratic philanthropy may be the ultimate profit-making tool.

In No Such Thing as a Free Gift, author and academic Linsey McGoey puts this new golden age of philanthropy under the microscope—paying particular attention to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. As large charitable organisations replace governments as the providers of social welfare, their largesse becomes suspect. The businesses fronting the money often create the very economic instability and inequality the foundations are purported to solve. We are entering an age when the ideals of social justice are dependent on the strained rectitude and questionable generosity of the mega-rich.

The Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms That Control Money and Information
| by Frank Pasquale

Every day, corporations are connecting the dots about our personal behavior—silently scrutinising clues left behind by our work habits and Internet use. But who connects the dots about what firms are doing with all this information? Frank Pasquale exposes how powerful interests abuse secrecy for profit and explains ways to rein them in.

Trouble in Paradise: From the End of History to the End of Capitalism
| by Slavoj Žižek

In Trouble in Paradise, Slavoj Žižek, one of our most famous, most combative philosophers, explains how by drawing on the ideas of communism, we can find a way out of the crisis of capitalism.

There is obviously trouble in the global capitalist paradise. But why do we find it so difficult to imagine a way out of the crisis we’re in? It is as if the trouble feeds on itself: the march of capitalism has become inexorable, the only game in town.

Setting out to diagnose the condition of global capitalism, the ideological constraints we are faced with in our daily lives, and the bleak future promised by this system, Slavoj Žižek explores the possibilities – and the traps – of new emancipatory struggles.

Drawing insights from phenomena as diverse as Gangnam Style to Marx, The Dark Knight to Thatcher, Trouble in Paradise is an incisive dissection of the world we inhabit, and the new order to come.

The Establishment: And how they get away with it
| by Owen Jones

Behind our democracy lurks a powerful but unaccountable network of people who wield massive power and reap huge profits in the process. In exposing this shadowy and complex system that dominates our lives, Owen Jones sets out on a journey into the heart of our Establishment, from the lobbies of Westminster to the newsrooms, boardrooms and trading rooms of Fleet Street and the City. Exposing the revolving doors that link these worlds, and the vested interests that bind them together, Jones shows how, in claiming to work on our behalf, the people at the top are doing precisely the opposite. In fact, they represent the biggest threat to our democracy today – and it is time they were challenged.

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