Top Reads of 2009


Often the seeds of a better possible world are planted via words, so I’ve decided to share my top  (non-fiction) reads of 2009. While I came across tons of great books–old and new–I’ve focus here on those I think are most important for a deeper understanding of our current political, social, and economic world and tools to transform it.  I welcome your recommendations too. Here’s the list, with reviews below:

Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (Naomi Klein)
Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities (Rebecca Solnit)
The Spirit of Disobedience: Resisting the Charms of Fake Politics, Mindless Consumption and the Culture of Total Work (Curtis White)
Deep Economy (Bill McKibben)
The Democrats : A critical history (Lance Selfa)
10 Steps to Repair American Democracy (Steven Hill)
Travel as a Political Act (Rick Steves)
Winter Soldier–Iraq and Afghanistan: Eyewitness Accounts of the Occupations
Confessions of an Economic Hit Man/Secret History of the American Empire: Economic Hit Men, Jackals, and the Turth About Global Corruption/Hoodwinked (John Perkins)
The Global Activist’s Manual: Local Ways to Change the World, (Eds. Mike Prokosch & Laura Raymond)
Renegade for Peace & Justice, Congresswoman Barbara Lee Speaks For Me
One Country (Ali Abunimah)

Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Naomi Klein


This is the most important recent book I’ve read.  The Shock Doctrine provides a powerful lens for understanding globalization & international events over the past few decades.  It ties up seemingly unrelated events from around the globe into a coherent narrative by explaining the main motivations, strategies, and actions of key financial & foreign policy elite.  Klein provides a deep context for understanding the spread of radical capitalism (and increasingly, disaster capitalism, as Klein calls it) and its real world consequences… as promoted by the ideology of Milton Friedman and the Chicago School.

Many are familiar with the the overriding themes described in the Shock Doctrine–corporate corruption, widening gap between rich and poor, the expansion of Military Industrial Complex, economic colonialism of the global south–but the book gives so many details and examples from so many different contexts (Latin America, Asia, Russia, Middle East, and the United States) that one walks away with a profoundly enriched–if troubling–understanding.

John Perkins’ books (see below) make a good complement to the Shock Doctrine, from an insider’s perspective.

Unfortunately, most are fairly unaware to the types of agendas and crimes detailed by Klein (and Perkins), even if they have a gut feeling that corporations & megabanks have too much power.  This book will help remedy that.  Rachel Maddow called it the only book she recommends as an actual mandatory must-read.

See my more in-depth review of the Shock Doctrine here.

See Naomi Klein on YouTube present some of her views from the Shock Doctrine.

Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities, Rebecca Solnit

Solnit is already on to newer books (A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster), but somehow I just stumbled across this one in 2009.  As a contrast to Klein’s dose of negative reality therapy, Solnit is a welcome dose of positive reality therapy, with her usual literary flair.  Hope in the Dark (unlike Hope-ism, Obama style) will be a welcome shot in the arm for all those social change workers and activists who periodically go through cycles of cynicism or pessimism and need a morale booster.

Solnit walks us through some of the major successful turning points in the rise of an alternate global movement against the aforementioned disaster capitalist system over the past 15 years, including Seattle ’99 and the peace movement in the run up to the Iraq invasion and occupation, with a focus on organizing and non-violent direct action/civil disobedience.

The Spirit of Disobedience: Resisting the Charms of Fake Politics, Mindless Consumption, and the Culture of Total Work, Curtis White

Another kind of disobedience is in order as well.  One of my favorite authors, White kicks our middle-mind, consumer, workaholic, zombie asses. I had previously read, The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don’t Think for Themselves and one of his novels.  He comes at some of our culture’s core problems like corporatocracy, stale two-party politics, nihilism, and universal commodification, but through a cultural, philosophical, and dare I say, spiritual lens.  But spiritual in the way Nietzsche was spiritual, creative imagining of human possibilities.   He draws liberally from whitman, jesus, nietzsche, marx, emerson, and thoreau to critique our culture, often through pop cultural art such as the films Office Space and The Da Vinci Code.  He ends with an appeal to fundamentals: time (how should we spend our limited time here), home (what it means), and food (our connection to it).

“So, it appears that that what we’re most afraid of is the collapse of the very thing we’re most opposed to. Out of fear we remain committed to a system that has every appearance of heading towards catastrophe.  If the economy is dependent on consumption, and an economy of consumption is ultimately nonsustainable, then the efforts to sustain the economy are also efforts to sustain the certain arrival of disaster.  It’s like the Dave van Ronk song, “Cocaine”: “They say it will kill me but they won’t say when.”  Until they do tell us “when,” we’re going to just keep snorting, I guess.”

Or we can sober up and get drunk on meaningful lives that we co-create and when we connect to authentic values.

“…This is the arena in which a spiritualized disobedience means most. It doesn’t mean a second New Deal, another massive bureaucratic attack on our problems. It doesn’t mean taking to the streets, throwing bricks through the window at the Bank of America, or driving a tractor through the local McDonald’s. It means living differently. It means taking responsibility for the character of the human world. That’s a real confrontation with the problem of value. In short, refusal of the present is a return to what Thoreau and Ruskin called “human fundamentals, valuable things,” and it is a movement into the future. This movement into the future is also a powerful expression of that most human spiritual emotion, Hope.”

Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan–Eyewitness Accounts of the Occupations

Read this book! Find out what an occupation looks like from those who participated.  This book features testimony from U.S. veterans who served in Iraq & Afghanistan.  It is arranged by the categories of Rules of Engagement, Racism and Dehumanization of the Enemy, Civilian Testimony, Gender & Sexuality, Crisis of Veterans’ Health Care, Corporate Pillaging, and the Future of GI Resistance.  Share this with those who like to cling to their “support the troops” mantra and dismiss anti-war activists as armchair pacifists, people who haven’t served in the military.  These are military men and women who have seen and perpetuated what is going on and want to share their often gut-wrenching stories.  Read the book–better yet, watch and listen online to some of the moving testimony from the 2008 event upon which the book is based.

The Democrats : A critical history,  Lance Selfa

This book exposes and destroys the myth that the DP is “the party of the people” by closely examining its record and modus operandi over several decades.  Selfa details how election after election the Democratic Party resists meaningful change, then co-opts the left, minorities, and popular struggles with minor changes and other strategies, and moves to the right–all of which takes the stream out of more fundamentally needed change.  The main theme of the book is that the (surprise) Dem Party is a corporate party first and foremost and demonstrates it by looking at where the money comes from, who the Dem leaders take advice from, who they staff their administrations with (simply look at Obama’s financial & foreign policy teams and chief of staff), their legislative and foreign policy records (for example, Obama is significantly expanding wars, bases, mercenaries, and the military budget–in his first year!).

This is a very important and detailed book that was published just before last year’s election.  It may be even more influential in the coming years now that those who invested in the Obama brand have seen the results in contrast to the hype–exactly what the history Selfa outlines would predict: more war, more corporatism, more stalling, etc.   Selfa has an analysis of the perennial debate in leftist circles between gradual, reform from within and challenges from the outside.  Selfa calls for those who are interested in real structural change and more democracy to learn from history, see through the rhetoric, and break the stranglehold of the the DP. We need to be having more conversations like this.

10 Steps to Repair American Democracy, Steven Hill

Do you like all those corporate dollars flowing into your reps campaigns?  How about the monopoly big media has?  Do you think fraudulent voting machines owned by private corporations should be at the center of a democracy?  Do you think that a small minority in the Senate should be able to stall important legislation that the majority wants?  If you blurted “Hell, NO!” out loud, then tackle this book.  As we all work on our various causes, the steps outlined in this book are ones we all have to be simultaneously pushing forward.  It is nothing less than a blueprint for injecting more democracy into a stale and broken system that we called United States of America.  Hill gives 10 practical chapters ranging from Securing the Vote, Instant Run-off voting, and Reforming the undemocratic electoral college, to Reclaiming the Airwaves and Overhauling the Senate.  These are among the most entrenched problems in our system and perhaps the most difficult reforms to achieve, but they also happen to be some of the most important for achieving many other worthy progressive goals. Hill concludes each chapter with practical courses of action and resources.

Travel as a Political Act, Rick Steves

I have never really used Steves’ travel guides, but I saw him speak a couple months ago at UC-Berkeley on his tour promoting this book and was impressed.  The book is filled with not only great anecdotes from his travels in countries as diverse as Denmark, Turkey, Iran, Croatia, Bosnia, and El Salvador, but great insights into things we can learn from different cultures.  When I saw him, his talk could have been titled “What we can learn from how Europe does it”  on topics ranging from healthcare to “harm reduction strategies” to labor laws.  It is an easy, first-person narrative and perhaps a great entry point for would-be travelers to learn about some of the political contexts of places they might visit.  I think the overall take-away message is that we can have moving interpersonal connections with people who at first seem very different and we can profoundly broaden our (personal, political, and social) horizons and perspectives through travel. (see my more in depth review soon at Travelin’ Bones)

Confessions of an Economic Hit Man/Secret History of the American Empire: Economic Hit Men, Jackals, and the Turth About Global Corruption/Hoodwinked, John Perkins

This trinity of books by Perkins stand as a group for understanding the global economic system and international events from an insider’s perspective.  Perkins was one of those slick guys who you usually see only in movies.  He helped carry out those “economic hits” on countries that Klein talks about in her book Shock Doctrine, back in the 70’s and 80’s.

Since then he has “come out” and with a guilty conscience is on a mission to share his knowledge with the rest of the world.  He describes the strategy of the “corporatacracy” as 1)send in the economic hit men, 2)if that doesn’t work, send in the “jackals”, men who assassinate or engineer a coup, often with either the assistance of or the outright carrying out by the  CIA, in order to install a figurehead more corruptible and more amenable to U.S. corporate agendas, 3)if that doesn’t work (as in Iraq’s Husseein), send in the military.

At the end of Secrets, he offers some ideas on ways in which this system can be challenged. He mentions in admiration organizations like Pachamama Alliance, Amnesty International,  RAN, with their direct actions, consumer education, and often successful campaigns to pressure corporations to change.  He also reminds us of the power of ordinary citizens to send messages to corporations about their values.  Vote with your dollar and let them know it–at the cash register and in writing. He recalls one incarnation of many conversations he has had during his speaking tours: Someone asks, “What can I do?”  “Why do we feel so powerless? Hint, the corporatocracy has a collaborator in taking away our power.”

That collaborator is us.  Perkins counsels, “Take back your power.”

He then invokes the American Revolution and the list of grievances drawn up against the British Crown as a model for the case to be made against radical corporatism and suggests several salient points followed up with recommendations for action.

If you are new to the subject, this might be a better place to start than with Klein’s, if only for the fact that he uses a story-telling, auto-biographical voice.  I had the pleasure of hearing Perkins speak at the SF Green Fest.   Check out Amy Goodman’s interview with him on Democracy Now.

Deep Economy, Bill McKibben

Definitely one of my favorites in a while.  McKibben challenges probably the most hallowed dogma of economic thinking: unlimited growth. Unchecked economic growth, like a cancer, wrecks havoc on our natural systems on which we and all other species depend.  Over-consumption and economic growth at any cost as measured in GDP is utterly unsustainable and unjust.  On the one hand, I want to say “duh, everybody knows this.”  On the other hand, “no, not nearly enough do. ” And not nearly enough connect their consumer habits and lifestyles to its effects in the real world.

There is a whole movement(s) constructing this new world, though it has hardly gone mainstream.  Solutions? Think Local. Think needs over wants. Think community. Think local urban-rural alliances.  Think socially responsible business. Think decentralized energy systems.  Think public transit.  Think community protected & managed biospheres.  Think alternate & complementary currencies.  Think real security, not dependent on megabanks, mega energy companies, mega-agribusiness, and major wars to secure cheap overseas fuel.

As cheap oil begins to run out, don’t expect your cheap tomatoes from Guatemala to be there at the Walmart in North Dakota.  Don’t expect even cheap corn, beef, fructose corn syrup grown in the Midwest because those two rely heavily on oil-inputs.

Many are already making the transition.  Deep Economy is a great road map for us to have those conversations, start reframing our priorities, and offering some practical solutions.

Honorable Mentions:

The Global Activist’s Manual: Local Ways to Change the World

Just what it sounds like, with examples from successful campaigns and how-to tips for coalition building, direct actions, organizing, and media exposure. Lots of detailed examples from anti-sweatshop, corporate accountability, labor, immigrant, & farm campaigns from the perspective of people who organized and participated in them.

Renegade for Peace & Justice, Congresswoman Barbara Lee Speaks For Me, Barbara Lee

Yes, she does, as my representative. And I learned a great deal about her personal life story from this book and the context that shaped her strong commitment to peace, social justice, health, and equality.

One Country, Ali Abunimah

Abunimah, cofounder of Electronic Intifada, argues against the idea of  two-state solution and for a binational solution.  Most people I have talked to & reviews I read have flatly dismissed the notion as either utterly utopian and naive or dangerous hiding hidden motivations.  I had the pleasure of going to a talk with Abunimah presenting.  His starting point is that the two cultures are so intertwined geopolitically and economically that two-state “solution” is the one that is in fact naive because it cannot guarantee either Israeli security or Palestinian rights.

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2 responses to “Top Reads of 2009

  1. Pingback: Top Documentaries of 2009 « Pull The Root, Plant the Seed·

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