Best Books of 2021: The Mess We’re In

It’s no secret that we’re in a mess right now, politically, economically, and societally. In this third batch of favorite reads from 2021 (see 1, 2, and my full reading list), I’m sharing a few books that have helped me think through the present moment and how we get somewhere better together.

Front cover to Ill Fares the Land

Ill Fares the land, by Tony Judt

In this book, Judt tells the story of how the United States developed a faith in social democracy in the mid-20th century, then lost it in favor of a fetish for privatization and a devotion to free market solutions. The result is what he calls the ”eviscerated society,” characterized by private wealth and public squalor. Inequality has reached unsustainable and destructive levels through the consistent workings of unregulated capital markets (or more accurately, capital markets whose regulations are set by the most powerful interested players). His analysis is based on a life’s work as a historian of the post-war period, and his argumentation is lucid and eminently quotable. That said, it is not a perfect book—Judt is more statist than I am always comfortable with, and he falters on topics of race and identity as determinants of American economics and politics (see the forward to the 2020 edition by Ta-Nehisi Coates). On these, the next two books (and especially Heather McGhee’s The Sum of Us) do much better.

Front cover of the 9.9 Percent

The 9.9%: The New Aristocracy that is Entrenching Inequality and Warping our Culture, by Matthew Stewart

This is another entry on the theme of inequality. However, Stewart takes a broader approach, examining a wide array of socio-cultural phenomena in addition to economics and politics. He argues that it is not only the 1% or the .1% of America’s wealthiest who are hoarding undue wealth and unraveling the fabric of society, but the 9.9%—the top decile in terms of net worth excluding the ultra-rich of the .1%. 

As inequality has grown, the upper decile has observed the shrinking chances of upward mobility and the increasing precarity of remaining in their place in the hierarchy. Stewart makes the case that this has led to a pervasive and corrosive anxiety that is spreading throughout every part of our lives and our institutions. To ensure their continued position near the top, 9.9 percenters (and those who wish to become 9.9 percenters) have imported ultra-competitive and anti-social logics into their child-rearing, education, marriages, living situations, health and fitness practices, etc., etc.

The tone can be a bit glib and some evidence and analysis could be disputed (his interpretation of ancient texts and archaeology made this scholar of the ancient Near East’s eyes twitch a little, for example), but Stewart’s overall case is strong. I learned a lot from this book, and it gave me a lot more to think about. Definitely worth a read.

For further reading in this vein, see Richard V. Reeves’ excellent Dream Hoarders (which was one of my top picks in 2017) and Elizabeth Currid-Halkett’s The Sum of Small things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class.

Front cover to The Sum of Us

The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can prosper Together, by Heather McGhee

In this book, Heather McGhee gives not only a clear and convincing analysis of how racism has and continues to increase and entrench inequality in the United States, but also a compelling path forward.

She shows that the only way to an economy that does not tilt entirely in the ultra-wealthy’s favor is by building multiracial coalitions that work on behalf of everyone. She also provides communication strategies for getting past places where conversations on race in the US tend to stall or backfire.

The key is dismantling the myth of zero-sum racial progress. There is a common perception (particularly among white Americans) that any improvement in the economic wellbeing of black and brown people must be accompanied by a corresponding decrease for whites. This, as McGhee shows with much data and many examples, is entirely false. It is in those very places where legal and cultural oppression of black and brown Americans was most severe that we find also the poorest conditions for working class white people. In effect, capitalists and business owners exacerbated and exploited the social divisions and resentments between racial groups to preempt solidarity and thus, to keep wages low and benefits minimal. In places where racial division has been intentionally overcome in the creation of multi-racial labor and political organization, Mcghee identifies what she calls a “solidarity dividend”—economic benefit to the communities of color involved, certainly, but also to the white population and to the region as a whole. As one organizer she quotes put it:  “as long as we’re divided, we’re conquered. The only way we succeed is together.”

This book would pair well with Jonathan Metzl’s Dying of Whiteness.

Front cover of Becoming Abolitionists

Becoming Abolitionists: Police, Protests, and the Pursuit of Freedom, by Derecka Purnell

Uprisings in the wake of George Floyd’s murder last summer brought police abolition and PIC abolition (i.e., abolition of the prison-industrial complex) into the public conversation in a way it had never been before. I have spent a lot of time reading and learning about what abolition means in theory and practice over the past year, and I have come to resonate with it as an ideal and a horizon toward which our society and our politics should always be oriented. I also understand that it can seem opaque, unclear, foolhardy, or destructive. Questions about public safety and protection are valid and deserve answers. In many cases, though, conversations and publications on abolition were being conducted by small groups of like-minded scholars and activists who shared common presumptions and language, and they were hard for curious newcomers to break into.

 Luckily, this year has seen the publication of several books that aim to make abolition more accessible and understandable to people who are curious but perhaps skeptical or uncertain about whether it can work in reality. I particularly like this book by Derecka Purnell, which conveys abolition theory through her own personal journey. Purnell is honest about the reservations she had toward abolition as her experience and consciousness have shifted over time and makes a compelling case for the insufficiency of reform and the need for an entirely new paradigm. I also enjoyed Mariame Kaba’s essay collection We Do This ’Til We Free Us and highly recommend Angela Y. Davis’s Are Prisons Obsolete?

Front cover of You are Here

You Are here: A Field guide for navigating Polarized Speech, Conspiracy Theories, and our Polluted Media Landscape, by Whitney Phillips and Ryan Milner.

When we talk about this mess we’re in, the role of the internet in getting us here inevitably makes its way into the conversation. Many problems with the internet and social media cannot be solved by individuals making individual choices, but each of us who lives some part of our life online needs to know how it works, how it goes wrong, and how it can lead us astray. Phillips and Milner have written a short, clear, and very illuminating guide for internet users who want to consume, share, and publish information responsibly and productively. This is going to be required reading in my spring course on “The Bible, Politics, and the Internet,” so it’s fair to say I think it has something worthwhile to say!

 

And now some runners up in the education department:

Slaying Goliath: The Passionate Resistance to Privatization and the Fight to Save America’s Public Schools, by Diane Ravitch

Public schools are wonderful. Charter schools are vicious parasites that suck public dollars into wasteful, undemocratic, and often corrupt private ventures, impoverishing us all in the process. Read this book, support your local teachers’ union, and vote to fund public education.

Learning in Public: Lessons for a Racially Divided America from my Daughter’s School, by Courtney Martin 

A mom’s journey to make good educational choices for her daughter in Oakland, CA, where good means good for society too, not just for her own family. Good for anyone feeling squeamish about sending their kids to “bad” or “low performing” public schools.

2 thoughts on “Best Books of 2021: The Mess We’re In

  1. Great list brother!

    I heard an interview recently with Derecka Purnell, and really resonated with her story and thoughts. I thought her book looked great. Thanks for thinking through these things so we’ll and helping the rest of us to as well.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.