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15 April 2011

Laurie Penny prescribes a reading list for radical thinkers

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

By Laurie Penny

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.

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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!

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