A very happy Xmas to readers of this blog! As is customary at this time of year, I’ve put together a few thoughts on books and journals that I have found particularly interesting in 2012.
In the summer, IPPR launched its new journal, Juncture and my recommend reading starts with the many world leading thinkers who have already written for it. Each edition contains long-form essays on questions of importance to the centre-left in the UK but the journal is also deliberately cosmopolitan in reach, featuring pieces by theorists from around the world, country-specific articles and reflections on foreign policy challenges. Web-only articles are also regularly published. If once upon a time you read Marxism Today, and you enjoy, as I do, The Boston Review, Open Democracy or the US journal Democracy, you should also find Juncture interesting and important.
IPPR started 2012 with research on the emergence of the English as a political community and we end it with a lead essay in Juncture by Professor Michael Kenny on the complexities of the rise in Englishness. Both pieces are essential reading for anyone seeking to understand why English self-identity is gaining ground, a fact starkly apparent in the new census data but one largely unnoticed in the commentary. As Scotland approaches its 2014 referendum, we can expect more political and scholarly attention to the English Question.
We hosted Juncture contributor John Tomasi at IPPR to speak about his book, Free Market Fairness, which is an ambitious attempt to reconcile Rawlsian and libertarian arguments. The group blog for which Professor Tomasi sometimes writes, Bleeding Heart Libertarians, continues to publish thought-provoking ideas and exchanges. Important rejoinders to Tomasi were made by Stuart White and Martin O’Neill and Thad Williamson. While we’re on the subject political and social theory, I found the French website www.booksandideas.net and the Social Europe Journal interesting sources of essays and book reviews this year.
In think-tank land, The Resolution Foundation has continued to excel and published the final report of its Commission on Living Standards towards the end of the year. It is the most authoritative piece of work available on the so-called “squeezed middle” and how to raise their living standards. It will define the terms of the debate on this issue in the run up to the General Election. Watch out for joint IPPR-Resolution Foundation research on the Living Wage early in 2013.
The Social Market Foundation has also had a very good year and was justly rewarded for its economic policy reports with Prospect’s Think-Tank of the Year Award. On advances in economic theory, I have found the Institute for New Economic Thinking to be increasingly important and I have enjoyed getting to grips with the work of economists like Steve Keen, who has highly challenging things to say about private debt, credit formation and the bursting of asset bubbles. IPPR published its own excellent collection of essays drawn from the new scholarly worlds of complexity and network economics here.
The year’s must read on public service reform was Andrew Adonis’ Education, Education and Education. It has all the urgency, pace and interest you’d expect from the author and it’s about a lot more than just academy schools, vital as they are to the book’s narrative and argument. If you read one other publication on public services from this year’s crop, make it The Relational State, edited by my colleagues Graeme Cooke and Rick Muir. In its lead essay by Geoff Mulgan, the reply by Marc Stears and other pen pieces, it contains the seeds of really important new approaches to centre-left statecraft and governance. New thinking on public services has been a long time coming but these two books likely herald a fresh wave.
For an arresting challenge to received common sense on evidence-based policymaking – such as the widely held view that Randomised Control Trials are the gold standard for social policy research – I can heartily recommend Nancy Cartwright and Jeremy Hardie’s Evidence-Based Policy: A Practical Guide to Doing it Better. It’s a lot more interesting than the awful title suggests. It makes all of us who have resisted policy-based evidence-making down the years sit up sharp and examine our preconceptions.
Looking further afield, the Indian historian Ramachandra Guha has published a new collection of essays, On Patriots and Partisans, from which this piece is excerpted. Guha is a consistently excellent writer, a “person of moderate views…sometimes expressed in extreme fashion”, as he puts it. His writing is indispensable to those seeking to understand contemporary India. He also alerted me this year to Caravan, a very good Indian journal of politics and culture, in the Prospect mould. It is well worth reading.
Despite its pretentious title, China 3.0, published by the European Council on Foreign Relations contains a lot of really interesting pieces by leading Chinese thinkers such as Pan Wei, Shang Ying, Yu Yongding and Yan Xuetong. Martin Jacques penned portrait pieces for Juncture on a number of these writers and a fully revised and updated edition of his When China Rules the World was published this year. (I have found nothing comparable in the English language about the seismic changes in the rest of the Far East, but any thoughts on that score would be gratefully received).
As would be expected, the New Left Review has continued to fulfil its role as a pre-eminent source of internationalist ideas and argument on the (radical) left this year. In the latest edition, Goran Therborn has a magisterial essay on class in the 21st century, which sweeps across contemporary global trends, although I find it too casually dismissive of European social democracy, which he writes off, along with the European working class, as bereft of any historical agency in the new century. A reminder of the achievements and continued relevance of Nordic social democracy is to be found in the recently published English edition of Francis Sejersted’s The Age of Social Democracy, the most comprehensive introduction to the subject matter available today. The NLR has also published a set of important essays by Wolfgang Streeck this year, charting the travails of welfare capitalism in Europe.
As an admirer of the Polish people, I enjoyed reading Halik Kochanski’s The Eagle Unbowed: Poland and the Poles in the Second World War, which I recommend as my 2012 work of modern history. It is a comprehensive and compelling book, replete with heroism as well as misery, murder and injustice. I must also give another plug for D R Thorpe’s wonderful biography of Harold Macmillan, Supermac, even though it wasn’t published this year. If you want to know how far the Conservative Party has travelled from the Macmillan tradition, read this biography.
Over the Christmas break, I’ll be reading James Scott’s Two Cheers for Anarchism. As a social democrat, I tread warily in the territory of state scepticism, but Scott’s anthropological anarchism is justly renowned and any new book by him is important to read. I also have Robert Goodin’s On Settling on my wish-list, which seems appropriate given all the political argument about strivers. I hope to interview Bonnie Honig in the new year, so to complete the piece I have her Emergency Politics on my reading list.
Happy Christmas and a restful holiday to all.