Book Recommendations of 2017 by Charles Leadbeater
Charles Leadbeater is a world-renowned innovation expert whose work focuses on how to be human in an increasingly technological, unequal world, overshadowed by climate change.
As we enter 2018, Charles Leadbeater gives us a round-up of some of the most pertinent books of 2017…
This is a list of some of the books which have made a lasting impression on me in the year gone by. There are also a few that are books I feel I should have read but that I never got around to. Almost all of these books were published this year but there are a few that were published a while ago, which I only got around to reading recently.
Each of these three books argues that economics rest on assumptions which are dangerously unrealistic.
In Doughnut Economics, Kate Raworth argues that what is missing from conventional economics is an acceptance that the economy is embedded in and should serve society. Raworth’s doughnut diagram shows why the economy needs strong, inclusive social foundations which allow everyone to live well (the inner circle) while staying well within its ecological limits (the doughnut’s outer ring.) We are not doing a job on either count. Raworth’s impassioned, short book, each chapter of which is based on a simple diagram, makes the case for an economic system that is fair and ecologically regenerative by design rather than redistribution.
In Capitalism without Capital, Stian Westlake, a British government advisor on innovation and Jonathan Haskell, an academic economist, argue that something else is missing: a half decent way to account for the role of intangibles like branding, design, software and intellectual property in the modern economy. Traditional measures, which focus on physical work and output miss most of what is going on. Our lack of good ways to measure, manage and invest in intangible assets helps to explain why the economy suffers from persistent sluggish growth punctuated by constant bubbles. This is a thoughtful, closely argued and sober account of what a economics would have to be like to deal with the dark matter of the intangible economy.
The catchily titled Rethinking the Economics of Land and Housing does exactly what it promises. By focusing solely the interaction of labour and capital as the main factors of production, mainstream economics misses the crucial role of good old land. Yet as cities have become ever more important to economic growth and innovation, so location – where you work and live – has come to matter more, especially in the UK and the US, where homes have become financial assets to be traded and speculated with. The consequence of this residential capitalism, is that the most economically successful cities – like London and San Francisco – are also punishingly difficult places for people other than the quite rich to live.
All this leaves governments with a tricky problem of how to finance themselves. Income growth is depressed so raising incomes taxes is unpalatable. Intangible wealth is difficult to measure. Large corporations are determined to escape national taxes. As a result, it seems increasingly likely that land taxes will rise, especially in cities. The question is whether this can be done without bringing down the entire house of cards.
None of these books makes one feel our current economic model is sustainable. That impression is reinforced by a slew of books on the retreat from globalisation.
One of the themes of the past couple of years is growing incompatibility between globalisation and democracy. Globalisation requires a free flow of trade, people and ideas. Democracy thrives when nation states have demonstrable control over the economy in which their citizens make their livings.
The future does not look bright in the Grave New World described by Stephen D King, HSBC’s senior economic advisor. King explores a world in which international rules and institutions become increasingly frayed as national governments assert themselves, and conflict mounts as competition for resources intensifies.
The consequences of all of that for the European Union’s attempt to create an open, inclusive, liberal order in which nations and people from diverse ethnic backgrounds cooperate within a framework of common rules is the subject of After Europe, Ivan Krastev’s shorter but equally gloomy book. Europe is losing both its centrality to the world and its self-confidence, Krastev argues. Europe is clinging on rather than moving forward; it may endure but only by exhausting its enemies. In the process Europe is becoming a defensive club of democracies dedicated to protecting their majority populations, rather than an aspirational model of an open and diverse society. Since the Berlin Wall fell Europe has put up or plans to erect 1,200 kilometres of fences to keep others out.
Books about technology generally fall into one of two camps, those that claim we are on the verge of abundance and those that argue everything is going to be taken over by robots. So it is a pleasure to read Mark O’Connell’s To Be a Machine, a deft account of his Gulliver-like journey, through the weird world of post-humanists. These people regard death as the biggest problem to be solved by the giant technology machine that is Silicon Valley. They are exploring how to freeze bodies so they can be brought back to life when needed; extend lifespans through genetic reengineering; and download the contents of our brains so that when our bodies run out they can then be uploaded to a fitter newer model. As one protagonist remarks: “Dying is totally mainstream.” They are spurred on by tales of gene editing which has produced a six-fold extension of the lifespan of worms. The key concept is “longevity escape velocity” when the technology of life extension improves so fast it outstrips ageing and so allows everyone to cheat death.
O’Connell’s lightly told story is at turns alarming and entertaining, especially when he joins Zoltan Istvan, the self-declared Post Humanist Party candidate to be US President, who is campaigning from a old motor home decked out as a coffin. These people are in revolt. They want to escape the most fundamental feature of life as we know it: we all die. The best way to protect society from the costly ills of ageing, the post humanists argue, is not to treat diabetes or arthritis but to prevent ageing itself by genetically reprogramming ourselves. If you do not get old you do not get ill. The trouble is that we can only liberate ourselves from the fates of nature by accepting that we need to become machines, technological systems, maintained by the future life extension arm of Amazon or Google. Post humanists cannot wait for this day to arrive. These people are easy to dismiss as mad, bad and dangerous but then so too were many radical innovators in the past. Watch out.
Together technology and globalisation reward those with the social, intellectual and cultural capital to be quick to spot, understand, adapt and take advantage of change. We live in a world of mutually assured disruption, in which you have to disrupt or be disrupted, in which a few people keep on winning while many others feel they are falling further behind. That brings us to inequality.
Many books in 2017 explored why modern societies are becoming more unequal and what can be done about it. Few did so with the magisterial pessimism of Walter Scheidel’s The Great Leveler.
Tracing the inequality from the Stone Age, when records were poor, to the 21st Century, Scheidel argues, that society has an inbuilt tendency towards wider inequality which is only thrown into reverse with a violent upheaval that dismantles the establishment: mass mobilisation for war which requires the state to make sure everyone is looked after; a lethal pandemic which makes labour scarce drives up wages; transformative social revolution like the rise of Communism; the collapse of the rule of law which equalises society only by making everyone poorer. Compared with these cataclysmic forces the remedies we like to think will work – better education, higher welfare spending, redistributive taxation – are puny.
Schiedel gets particularly gloomy when he thinks about the future. The most effective social models – in Scandinavia – face a huge challenge of maintaining generous welfare systems while their population ages, especially if immigration has to be kept in check to maintain social cohesion. Thanks to modern medicine lethal pandemics are less common. War no longer requires mass mobilisation. Even radical tax policies and unprecedented government intervention would only make a marginal difference. New kinds of biotechnological inequality will emerge as the rich pay to live much longer than the poor.
Scheidel’s warning that if inequality continues to widen massive, violent disruptions to the established order become increasingly likely as the only way out. Brexit and Trump may just be foretaste of what is to come. That is why reforming capitalism is such an urgent priority…
All these pressures show up in our sense of our place in the world, where live and come from.
That is the central point of David Goodhart’s The Road to Somewhere, which argues the populist insurgency is the revolt of people who feel rooted in the place they come from – the Somewheres – against their distant, fanciful and self-interested metropolitan elite overlords who could work Anywhere. Anywhere people make their identity to order; Somewhere people are proudly born into it. In truth is surely in their combination: we all want to come from and return to somewhere even as we explore the wider world.
Richard Florida makes the same point in a different way in The New Urban Crisis which details why superstar cities like San Francisco and London are pulling away from the rest; why cities are pulling away from the regions that surround them; and why inequality within cities is growing with the hollowing out of the middle class. Florida’s proposed solutions – more affordable housing, land taxes, community land trusts, better education, a universal basic income and higher wages for service jobs could make cities fairer and more liveable but they would not impress Walter Scheidel.
The most affecting and thoughtful account of how these changes play out is Amy Goldstein’s Janesville a detailed portrait – built up over many years of reporting – of what becomes of one Mid Western town when General Motors announces it is pulling out as the Great Recession of 2008 hits hard. The town is pretty much left to its own devices to get on with things. The main message of Goldstein’s patient reporting is that this is not a simply story. Jobs have come back to Janesville but they are not like the ones that left. There is money but in pockets. The divide between those who can adapt and prosper from those who struggle to do so is getting wider. There is a good deal of despair and grieving but also an awful lot of coping and generosity. Mostly the town has had to do it for itself: civic spirit and shared willpower are its most precious asset.
Our need to be attached to a place, rather than being restlessly on the move, is the central theme of The World-sEnding Fire a brilliant collection of essays from more than four decades by the agrarian radical Wendell Berry, who has spent most of his life writing books and farming a small holding at Lanes Landing in rural Kentucky.
Berry defies easy categorisation. He is radical by being resolutely backward looking. He believes people can only live meaningful lives committed to one another, with a sense of community that is rooted in deep knowledge of a place. That means staying put. He prefers the path which follows the contours of his fields than a road that might cut through them. He uses a horse to plough his land as in the long run its is better for the land, cheaper, cleaner and more productive. Berry shows that there is a radical truth in conservatism: in an era of mutually assured disruption it should be no surprise that people want to hold onto what they cherish and that to do so should be framed as a rebellion against the Silicon Valley elite. The only solutions that work will have to appeal to these conservative tendencies.
A List For Optimists
These books provide a fairly bleak and pessimistic diet. Yet shards of optimism cut through the gloom. It is there in Raworth’s ideas to radically remake the economy, Goldstein’s evocation of the resilience of Janesville in the face of crisis and Berry’s defiance of conventional wisdom to live life well with a little.
If one were to put together an optimists list of books of the year, to make us feel like we can change the world for the better, where might we look?
A place to start would be our capacity for imagination not just to challenge what is wrong with the world but to see how it could be different. People who think this way, operating outside the mainstream the heroes of Mark Stevenson’s We Do Things Differently: The Outsiders Rebooting Our World and Jamie Bartlett’s Radicals.
A second ingredient is our willingness to mix things up, to make new connections and create new combinations. Far from retreating further into our own worlds we need to enter the uncertain middle ground where people and ideas get mixed up in unpredictable ways.
A prime example of this creative mixing is told in the The Islamic Enlightenment, Christopher de Bellaigue’s epic history, which aims is to nail the myth that Islam is antithetical to modernity. De Bellaigue traces how science, technology and ideas flowed between east and west with the telegraph and the railroad, the printing press and the newspaper, especially in Cairo, Istanbul and Tehran, between the late 18th and early 20th century.
A century after Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798 the country’s senior cleric Muhammad Abduh was an admirer of Darwin and a correspondent of Tolstoy’s. The Islamic Enlightenment was created by scholars, architects and engineers who explored how to be rooted in a culture and yet interested in universal ideals of knowledge, reason and evidence. Prominent among them were women campaigning for a larger role in public life. They set up schools and universities, published novels and wrote plays drawing inspiration from the Middle Ages when Islam was modernity in much of the world, including Europe. At the turn of the ninth century the astronomer al-Khwarizmi popularised the use of numerals in his sophisticated star tables. A hundred years later Basran al-Haytham demonstrated the first pin-hole camera. Islam and modernity do best when they embrace without forsaking their identity. What will it take for Islam to rediscover this vital spirit?
The Islamic Enlightenment is a companion to Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads, first published a couple of years ago, which also makes us see the past and so the future in new ways.
Frankopan’s epic history of the emergence of the Silk Roads from China west through Asia and the Middle east to Europe, is a reminder that our ability to see the future depends on our ability to understand the past. His world history is not one in which Greece and Rome begat Christian Europe, which led to the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, liberal democracy and industrialisation, eventually culminating in creation of the United States.
For centuries Europe was a backwater. The centre of civilisation was where east met west along the Silk Road in Asia. And that is where the future will be made, if only we are prepared to go to look for it. The ancient world was more sophisticated and interconnected, vibrant and competitive than has been widely thought. A belt of towns spanning Asia coursed with trade, culture, faiths and ideas. East and west, Islam and modernity need to learn to look at one another with renewed curiosity.
We should be getting better at finding new ways for people to mix and work together to solve shared challenges. In Big Mind Geoff Mulgan, the chief executive of the innovation charity Nesta, argues we are better equipped than ever to harness our collective intelligence, pulling together insights from many different sources to collect data, analyse it, simulate and test different solutions and then scale those that work.
Eric Liu argues that kind of collaboration is shifting power towards citizen movements. That is why his book is titled You’re More Powerful Than You Think. Those in power use it to justify their position so compounding their advantage. That is why power tends to accumulate with those who already have it. justify their position. Yet when people who feel powerless combine what little power they have, then power becomes a renewable resource, it endless regenerates itself.
All of this depends on our being able to collaborate not just with people like us, which is easy but with people we may not like, do not trust and with whom we do not agree. Movements bring change only by winning over people who were sceptical.
In Collaborating with the Enemy Adam Kahane, a master collaborator, draws on his vast experience resolving conflicts in South Africa and Colombia to show how people who were once sworn enemies to overcome what divides them to collaborate to solve complex problems. That requires not being frightened by conflict, being prepared to experiment together and accept the need to act together, even when they are accused of betrayal by their own side.
Change, however, is not a question of good ideas and clever techniques for collaboration. It takes character, values and purpose. Or to put it another way it requires the bravery to stand up for an unpopular cause.
That courage is driving force in Caroline Moorehead’s Bold and Dangerous Family and Gisli Palson’s The Man Who Stole Himself. Both books tell a remarkable story.
The Rosselli family of Florence, led by the matriarch Amelia – a single mother and playwright – who with her sons Carlo and Nello, risked her life to organise the resistance to Mussolini. It is a tale of a family bonded by love, loyalty and commitment to shared ideals.
The man who stole himself is Hans Jonathan. Born into slavery in 1784 in the Danish colony of St Croix, now part of the Virgin Islands, Hans was taken to Denmark where he enlisted in the navy and fought in the 1801 Battle of Copenhagen. After the war he declared himself free, not just because of his patriotic service but because while slavery was legal in the Danish colonies, it was outlawed in Denmark itself. That made him the centre of one of the most notorious slavery cases in European history: The General’s Widow Henrietta Schimmelmann versus the Mulatto Hans Jonathan. Hans lost.
Then he disappeared into thin air. His fate was unknown for almost 200 years. It transpired that he had fled to Iceland, hundreds of miles away, where he got married and had two children, became a merchant and peasant farmer, played the violin and read books about Rousseau. More than 800 people in Iceland and the US are descended from him.
Amelia Rosselli and Hans Jonathan are moral exemplars: challenging an unacceptable status quo requires bravery.
When all of these ingredients get put together – ideas mixed from many sources, collaboration at scale to solve complex problems, bravery against the odds – you get the kind of world changing movement that David France describes in How To Survive a Plague.
France’s story is an insider’s account of how a bottom up movement of mainly young gay men, challenged and then worked with the medical and pharmaceutical establishment to tame the AIDS epidemic. At the heart of this, largely unknown, was a young man called Spencer Cox, who trained as an actor but became a self-taught expert in biostastics. Cox devised the drug trial innovations that in record time brought to market the therapies that stopped HIV being an automatic death sentence. Cox began his work when most Americans supported criminalising homosexuality. By the time that Cox died in 2013 about 8 million HIV+ people were on standardised drug treatment programmes that allowed them to live pretty normal lives.
The stories of Amelia Rosselli, Hans Jonathan and Spencer Cox read like fiction. Indeed Hans Jonathan’s story has echoes in the best novel I read this year, Frances Spufford’s, Golden Hill, an ingenious and entertaining tale of life in Manhattan when it was little more than a stockade about a tenth of the size of London. In 1746 a mysterious Mr Smith marches straight off a boat from London to deliver a bill worth £1,000 to be paid within 60 days by a rich local merchant, Mr Lovell. As Lovell and his partners try to find out whether Smith is a fraudster he stumbles from one misadventure to another. There are rooftop chases and bathhouse trysts, high stakes card games and elaborate amateur dramatics. Smith is helped by Septimus Oakeshott, secretary to the governor, who is secretly in love with his boss’s slave Achilles. As the 60-day deadline approaches, the comedy turns serious before Smith’s secret is finally revealed with a flourish.
George Saunders Man Booker prizewinning Lincoln in the Bardo, recounts Lincoln’s struggle after the death of his young son Willie at the height of the civil war. Saunders brilliantly conjures up a limbo world between life and death, in which spirits bicker and scheme as they try to ease Lincoln’s conscience, even inhabiting his body and help him come to terms with Willie’s death. Do not be put off by reports that the innovative style makes it difficult to read.
Dodgers, a first novel by Bill Beverly, put America’s tortured relationship with race into a contemporary setting: a road trip that takes four boys from the drug trade of Los Angeles into the deep Mid West with a roll of cash, a map and a gun. Their job is to assassinate a judge in Wisconsin. The quietly inspirational leader of this motly band, East, eventually has to choose who he is and where be belongs. Completely gripping.
My friend and mentor, the radical economist and social innovator, Robin Murray, read a lot of Alice Oswald’s poetry before his death earlier this year. Oswald says poetry is what we turn to when normal language fails us. Her latest collection, Falling Awake, is fascinated by the fragile, in between states that life depends on – like the dawn, when night is over but day has not yet begun. Everything is linked in a cycle in which one thing becomes another, like the drop of rain that rises to the light, only to fall one more, without being entirely the same, to feed a blade of grass. The smallest things carry the greatest significance.
Another brilliant collection is Simon Armitage’s The Unaccompanied, largely set in the post-industrial north, an elegy for a lost England of communities and proper jobs, where the fire station is being turned into flats and Poundland is the closest people get to paradise. “What is it that we do now?” he asks as the entire country ponders its future and tries to find a purpose. He wonders what it would be like if Jesus was born amidst the social wreckage of modern Doncaster.
Armitage like so many writers in 2017 is attempting to describe a world on the brink; the seasons are unreliable; there is precious little to hold onto and so what do we have to pass on?
The Unaccompanied is worth buying if only for one poem which has universal resonance – Thank you for Waiting – which reimagines the class system of modern society as if it were an elaborate system for boarding a flight.
Reading all of these books it is hard not hard to conclude that we need more poets to match the power of economists and technologists, to help us live in an elusive world which defies easy description as it is constantly in flux. People need more meaning in their lives, not just more money.
Next year may bring an intensification of the tensions laid out in these books between the haves and the have nots, the anywhere and the somewhere, the traditional and the modern, the city and the country. The most alarming prospect is that a version of Sheidel’s future may start to take shape as governments use conflict to generate the fear that sustains their power. Or perhaps not.
It is just as likely that we will start to find inventive, imaginative ways to make the most of the conservative and the creative, the cosmopolitan and the rooted, as the basis for a new narrative of shared progress which mixes things up in ways that at first seem odd, ungainly and even wrong. The message from Janesville is that most people want solutions not conflict; they respond to a crisis by coping, cooperating and improvising they way out. That is not a bad place to start looking for a way forward which offers people some hope.
My prediction is that 2018 will mark the start of what you might call The Human Project, a more concerted effort to map out how to be human in the age of artificial intelligence, wide inequalities and climate change. Being human will be one part coping stoically and another part cooperating creatively. We will resist what makes us insecure and seek to conserve what makes us feel safe in an effort to create a shared sense of progress. Most of all it will require us to ask what we really value about ourselves and others, if we do not want to become second rate robots in a deeply unequal, ecologically unsustainable world.