Show Hide image

Laurie Penny prescribes a reading list for radical thinkers

This reading list may not make you happy, but it might just make you brave.

Over the past six months, there are certain books and films and snatches of song that have snagged in my brain and refused to let go. Since people have been asking, I've compiled a list, here, of the texts that have been most important to me in understanding the current crisis in Britain and across the world, and the revolutions that have sprung up in resistance to the assault on the young and the poor in Europe, America and the Middle East.

This is not a comprehensive list, and I invite readers to respond in the comments with their own essential articles, books and texts. Nor is this a menu of propaganda: the books listed here represent, taken together, a primer in the nature of capital, the strategies of oppression, and the roots of resistance. This list was designed so as not to patronise those who have ploughed their way through Lenin, Marx and Kropotkin's back catalogue already, but equally so that people who don't feel like reading Das Capital right now won't feel like something's missing. I have deliberately avoided too much hard theory and instead gone for the most inspirational, informative and accessible texts. This reading list may not make you happy, but it might just make you brave. Where possible, I have included links to texts and scripts that are available for free online.

 

 

Part 1: Understanding the Crisis

 

Meltdown, by Paul Mason - Newsnight's Economics editor understands the current economic crisis better than anyone alive. This book explains, with Mason's angry and inimitably accessible flair, the roots of the financial crash and the significance of global responses to that crisis. Essential reading. Mason's Live Working or Die Fighting: how the Working Class Went Global is also well worth a look.

The Shock Doctrine: the Rise of Disaster Capitalism, by Naomi Klein - A painfully well-researched, addictive romp through Friedmanite economic terrorism by one of the best journalists working in English. Read this book and you'll understand how and why world governments are capitalising on the economic crisis to impose austerity on ordinary people.

Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men who Stole the World, by Nicholas Shaxson. Not recommended for anyone with high blood pressure. Half of the world's wealth is rerouted through tax havens. This book traces the concentration of wealth in the hands of an untouchable financial elite. Want to know why Bank of America isn't paying its taxes? This book tells you why. Warning: every four to five pages, you WILL get the urge to hurl this book through the windows of your nearest bank branch. Don't: finish the thing first.

The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism, by David Harvey - Another primer on the roots of the crash, explaining why we might well be headed for another. I found this a bit dense, but I'm not the world's fastest reader of economics; others have found it stupendously helpful.

Thatcherism Goes To College: The Conservative Assault on Higher Education, by Matthew Salusbury - I found this slim volume in a second-hand bookshop in 2009, well before the current attack on the academy in Britain, and it gives vital context to the neoliberal repurposing of education. Hard to get hold of though.

The Century of the Self, by Adam Curtis - Curtis is the finest political documentary filmmaker living. This four-part film is essential viewing: without ever straying into the territory of foaming conspiracy-theory, Curtis talks us through the psychology of contemporary capitalism, and the ways in which advertising and politics work together to suppress dissent. The Power of Nightmares and The Trap are also fantastic. All of Curtis' works, as well as his brilliant blog, are available for free online, and watching them whilst curled up with a decent cup of tea, a bottle of cheap whiskey and some angry friends is one of my favourite things to do in the whole world at the moment.

Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky. Very important for understanding how the consent of the public is bought and sold by the press, including the liberal media.

The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding - When you understand how businesses build their brand power, you understand how to hit them where it hurts. A book that has been handed aroung the London activist scene, including amongst key members of UKUncut.

Browne's Gamble, by Stefan Collini - An essential essay for anyone wanting to understand how the market is being brought into British education, and why it matters. Browne, for those who don't know, is Lord Browne, former head of BP, who just happened to lead the team that advised the British government to mortgage its universities to the private sector.

The Party Game is Over: Stand and Fight, by John Pilger - Along with Collini's article, this piece was posted on the wall of the UCL occupation, the hub of student resistance in London over Christmas. Read it and you'll see why.

Liar, Liar by Captain Ska - This was the theme tune of Britain's December uprisings.

Stake a Claim, by Dan le Sac versus Scroobius Pip - As was this. I remember this song pumping out of the speakers when UKUncut and others held their rave in front of the Bank of England. The crowd went mental. Watch the video.

 
 

Part 2: Echoes of Insurrection

 

The Coming Insurrection - This short book, written in 2005 by an anonymous French collective known only as The Tarnac 9, has become a core text for radicals and revolutionaries across Europe and the Middle East. Powerful stuff.

Capitalist Realism, by Mark Fisher - A slice of fiery dialectic, drawing from literature and contemporary filmmaking to elucidate the psychology of how contemporary capitalism works us all over.

The Wretched of the Earth, by Frantz Fanon - A powerful explanation of the nature of violent uprising and the psychology of oppression. Almost every page contains quotes that one wants on a poster.

What is Property? by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon - Famous for coining the phrase 'property is theft,' there's more to this punchy little tract than T-shirt slogans.

The Society of the Spectacle, by Guy Debord - The situationist bible; a book that was passed from hand to grimy activist hand in 1968, and remains of equal importance to today's young dissidence. A book about the nature of capitalist reality and the imagery of alienation. One of my favourite images from the winter protests was a snap of a police assault on a member of the Book Bloc, who was carrying a large papier mache shield in the shape of this book. Debord would have been proud.

Anarchism: What it Really Stands For, by Emma Goldman. Does just what it says on the tin. The Godmother of modern anarchism and a lifelong campaigner for women's rights, Goldman tells it how it is for anyone who's still confused about what anarchists actually are.

Twenty Reasons why it's Kicking Off Everywhere - A short, hugely helpful blog post by Paul Mason, which went viral in December. I don't agree with all of his points, but this is one of the most succinct analyses of today's youth uprisings out there.

Fight Back!, edited by Dan Hancox - I was on the editorial board for this book, which is available as a free e-book, and I can assure you that despite my involvement it's the best curation out there of texts, essays, personal testimonies and global perspectives on the winter uprisings of 2011. Go read it right now. Verso's Springtime is another collection of testimonies, also well worth a look, but not, unfortunately, available on the interwebs.

 
And finally....
 

 

The Emily Davison Blues, by Grace Petrie - An infectious, inspiring little number by a rising star of the alt-folk scene.

 
 
 
Please do add your own suggestions in the comments!

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Getty.
Show Hide image

Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.