This has been a humbling year full of turmoil and strife. Here are five books that helped me through it:
- The Lost History of Liberalism, by Helena Rosenblatt. This is an academic book, but it’s still pretty accessible and has impressive breadth. Rosenblatt approaches her subject from a linguistic perspective: she traces the meaning of the word liberalism back through history, and then interprets out from there. I was skeptical about this at first, fearing that it would be too narrow or boring, but not for long. Within a few chapters, Rosenblatt does away the notion that there is any simple way of understanding liberalism, by demonstrating how meanings shift around historically. The Lost History of Liberalism reveals historical liberalism’s moral complexity, and also tracks the history of bad-faith reactionary attacks on liberal philosophy. It provides a great counter/corrective both to the stale universe of Anglo-American liberal democratic theory (which often seems so clinical and removed from real peoples’ political lives and problems), as well as to many conservative attacks on liberalism (which tend to assume that liberalism is supposed to be value-neutral). I have written quite a bit recently about Patrick Deneen’s attack on liberalism, and Rosenblatt’s book also provides a powerful refutation of his strawman definition of liberalism (while also uncovering older sources of meaning within the tradition).
- Democracy May Not Exist But We’ll Miss it When It’s Gone, by Astra Taylor. This book is hard to describe, but it is basically a very thorough treatment of the meaning of democracy. I found it refreshing, and a good counter to standard liberal and conservative thinking. Taylor is on the left, but the spirit of the book is liberal (in the sense of being generous-in-spirit and open-minded). Instead of organizing her book around a central dogma or idea, Taylor organizes her thought around core tensions in modern democratic politics — the tensions between freedom and equality, coercion and choice, the local and the global, and so forth. Many of the themes she discusses resonate with those explored by the new fusionist/”Aristopopulist” right (rejection of capitalism, serious concerns about the working-class), but from a leftist’s perspective, and in a more grounded and rigorous way than what I have seen articulated by thinkers on the right. The book is also impressive in its breadth. It gave me a lot of new things to think about, and a good sense of where serious people on the (socialist) left are coming from.
- Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism, by Cornel West. This book was published in 2005, but I hadn’t read much by West and decided to start here. It is a really powerful book. When West speaks of imperialism, he means the reign of three interrelated American dogmas/problems: free-market fundamentalism, aggressive militarism, and escalating authoritarianism. In response to these impulses, West argues forcefully that “we’ve got to reconnect with the energies of a deep democratic tradition in America and reignite them” (13). He spends quite a bit of time throughout his book identifying the underlying moral dimensions of such a revival (“the underlying moral commitments and visions and fortifications of the soul that empower and inspire a democratic way of living in the world” 15). In this way, West’s book is an unabashedly radical book, and his style of writing is the kind that will doubtless turn off many centrist/moderate sorts. I admit that I don’t mind it at all. While some of what West says in Democracy Matters strikes me as hyperbolic, or even as dangerously idealistic, I appreciate that he’s completely upfront about where he’s coming from. (As an aside, I’m coming around to the view that West’s kind of passionate transparency is more honest than efforts at dispassionate objectivity. Such transparency is also, in its honesty, arguably more democratic – rather than making a totalizing claim to authority or expertise, West’s kind of honest subjectivity sets up, I think, a permission-structure for disagreement).
- A Lot of People Are Saying, by Russ Muirhead and Nancy Rosenblum. I read this book over the summer as I was trying to get my head around the problem of conspiracism and everything that is happening on the far-right today. This is a helpful and clarifying book. Muirhead and Rosenblum argue that the current wave of conspiracism that we see on the far-right is different from traditional conspiracy theory because it is almost fully detached from reality (it is “conspiracism without the theory”). Fellow Constitutionalist contributor Susan McWilliams Barndt provides a good supplement to A Lot of People are Saying when she articulates some of the underlying concerns and drives that fuel conspiracism, but I’m still quite persuaded that Muirhead and Rosenblum have hit on something true and different about QAnon and conspiracism on the right today. One of their important arguments is that the new conspiracism doesn’t just target power structures as such, it targets the very foundations of democracy (“first, political parties, partisans, and the norm of legitimate opposition; and second, knowledge-producing institutions like the free press, the university, and expert communities within the government,” 5). They identify a “partisan penumbra” to the new conspiracism that is often aligned with radical, anti-government elements of the GOP. There are places where I think Muirhead and Rosenblum elide some important things about the contemporary scene, but thinking about conspiracism can get awfully thorny, and they succeed in cutting through a lot of confusion.
- The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander. Like so many other Americans, in recent years I’ve been trying to grapple with the experiences of black Americans. I’ve read a lot of good books as a result. This is the one I would most highly recommend. It’s a deep interrogation of the problem of “mass incarceration in an age of colorblindness.”This is not a new book (it came out in 2010), but it has had a big impact, and I can see why: I don’t think it’s possible to read this particular book and not be changed by it. Many of the conversations in the so-called “center” right now involve weird shadow-boxing about the merits of the 1619 Project, the statistical significance of police violence against Black people, and whether the Movement for Black Lives is a Marxist organization. I think anyone who has read The New Jim Crow will be far less likely to get sidelined by any of those debates. It’s just an immediate account (and indictment) of racialized injustice in America, and a close look at how it operates throughout the criminal justice system. It gives us a glimpse of the awful power of the law as it is exercised unjustly against so many.