Decline and Fall by Chris Mullin

These political diaries underline how long the British Labour Party has been in great difficulty. The text gives an insight into the despair of a politician who was on the brink of retirement. His sense of humour is evident, but his growing animosity to segments of the public is more revealing.

Unfortunately, the author has no sympathy with citizens who do not vote. Further, he has little empathy with people who subsist on social security. These blind spots make for uncomfortable reading. The MP developed an understandable dislike for the media, but he was unreasonable in his lack of emotional intelligence with regard to the reaction to the expenses scandal.

Nevertheless, Chris Mullin did share some of the observational skills of embattled Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn has been consistent in his attack on the conditions in the British labour market. Similarly, Mullin warned:

“We talk of lifting families out of poverty, but outsourcing drives people into poverty and insecurity. We are heading remorselessly back towards the nineteenth century.”

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Is Laclau coming to Liverpool?

Ernesto Laclau may have passed away, but his theories seem to be of continuing relevance in contemporary Europe. At a recent Momentum meeting in Merseyside, the spirit of populism was apparently in evidence. While two of the speakers referred to other more famous thinkers, the colourful mixture of practices on display seemed removed from traditional Marxism, for example.

There were songs and poems as well as oratory to entertain the crowd. And there was plenty of sincere enthusiasm for embattled democratic socialist Jeremy Corbyn. Of course, there was a great focus on fighting austerity at the national level.  However, there was a local flavour to the affair, with emphasis placed on struggles past and present. The campaign for justice for the Hillsborough families was mentioned, while the effort to save a local hospital was underlined.

Much depends on the outcome of the Labour leadership election. Even if Corbyn loses, his inspirational surge has rejuvenated the left. However, a victory for the socialist could see his brand of populism stimulate yet more thinking and action of a positive type. Hopes for a softer type of economic governance are still alive.

Private Island by James Meek

This text looks at several of the privatisations which have made the UK what it is today. In other words, it adds detail to our knowledge about neoliberal practice. By examining different policy areas like housing and health, it avoids the problem of being another stale historical account of Thatcherism and the Third Way.

The text has three other strengths. Firstly, it pays specific attention to the way privatisation has lessened democratic control over our lives. Secondly, it warns of the possible threat posed by extensive foreign ownership of necessary services. Thirdly, it allows people involved in the processes of privatisation to have a voice.

Nevertheless, the book has some serious shortcomings. It does not offer much of an alternative vision. Nor does it pay enough attention to the positive work of others. These failings are flagged up in a despairing conclusion:

“The advent of the age of gentrification doesn’t preclude the advent of slumification, and nostalgia becomes prophecy.”

Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

This interesting book is a history of humanity. It is speculative in places, but it is never dull. It takes the reader on a controversial trip from the distant past to the present. It even includes a disturbing foray to the future, with a glance at the ethical implications of genetic programming.

Dr Harari has worked with other people to produce a great translation. His thoughts are conveyed in a clear and simple style. This enables the reader to get to grips with arguments that challenge religions, ideologies and myths. One of the strengths of the text is its stress on the importance of admitting ignorance.

However, some of the grand narrative is a little misleading. It does not allow the complexity of reality to be hinted at. For example, the following assertion is more of a debating point than a fact:

“Yet, in fact, religion has been the third great unifier of humankind, alongside money and empires.”¬†

Meltdown by Paul Mason

This analysis of the international economic crisis is useful for understanding the current implosion of ‘business as usual’ politics in the UK. It is written in transparent prose and contains colourful anecdotes to stop it from being read as an ordinary part of the dismal science.

The financial crisis which was illustrated by the bank run at Northern Rock has been subject to various interpretations. The idea that it was caused by excessive state spending has been widely debunked. Mason is unusual in that he explains the economic crisis by using the theories of Hyman Minsky, while coming from a background informed by Marxism. Empirically, the narrative stands up quite well, but the theoretical foundation is somewhat flimsy.

The flimsiness of the conceptual framework is partly revealed by the intemperate attack on Joseph Stiglitz. Stiglitz won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences and his work on globalisation has been highly informative. The argument that his analysis of the economic crisis is an attempt to restore the Third Way seems slightly off the mark. Stiglitz has written about the need to transform global capitalism; he has not celebrated it like Tony Blair. And Mason lumps Blair and Stiglitz together. Mason ignores the profound differences between the two thinkers with his dogmatic assertion:

“But his own economics seems shorn of a social and political dimension: whether you choose Foucault, Marx or C. Wright Mills, if you are a critic of the capitalist system you must have some explanation of why it goes on producing power elites.”