2020, the historian Adam Tooze writes in Shutdown, his brilliant, bracing account of the Covid pandemic and its protracted political aftermath, was “merely a moment in a process of escalation”; a trial-run for the “systemic mega-crises” to come. The “shocks of the Anthropocene”, he warns, are not going to arrive “in neat sequence.”

Tooze is dazzled by the power of two radically different institutions: the Chinese Communist Party under Xi Jinping and the US Federal Reserve. Beijing’s hardline response to the virus meant that China had effectively contained its domestic Covid outbreak by the end of February last year–just as the chaotic liberal democracies of the West were beginning to grapple with the reality of SARS-CoV-2. At the same time, without the extraordinary borrowing and liquidity measures enacted by Fed Chair Jerome Powell, the entire global financial system could have buckled under the weight of an unprecedented economic contraction. Over three billion adults were furloughed or forced to work from home during the first half of last year, Tooze writes. 1.6 billion children had their educations disrupted. $10 trillion worth of earnings were lost. Never before have so many people simultaneously suffered “such serious interruption to their daily lives.”

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Since the 1970s, the number of mental health ‘disorders’ formally recognized by Western medical science has jumped from 106 to more than 370, the academic and psychotherapist James Davies notes in the opening pages of Sedated. The use of antipsychotic drugs to treat “sustained emotional distress” has climbed over that period, too. In 1988, roughly 2 per cent of American adults consumed some form of mood-altering or mood-enhancing medication. By 2017, that figure was 12.7 per cent. In Britain, the rise of anti-depressants has run parallel to the expansion of cheap credit and the Thatcherite unravelling of economic regulation: as the country’s stockpile of private debt has grown, so has its dependency on pharmaceuticals. 

In his first book, Cracked (2013), Davies exposed the rampant profiteering of the drugs industry and the corrosive effects of mass-marketed prescriptions. In Sedated, he advances a similar argument but within a broader thematic remit. Ordinary human suffering has been medicalized and commodified by the free market, Davies says. Capitalism’s emphasis on individual responsibility keeps us locked in a state of existential unrest. Contrary to popular opinion, depression isn’t a biological condition triggered by “misfiring chemicals” in the brain; it is a rational response to material factors – grief, poverty, unemployment, isolation – that lie beyond our immediate control.

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Late last year, the New York Times christened the United Kingdom “plague island.” In recent months, that epithet has lost some of its edge. The country’s COVID-19 vaccination program has been hugely effective. Just over 28 million Brits—almost half the country’s population—have been fully dosed against the virus; death and hospitalization rates have plummeted. Prime Minister Boris Johnson promises spring and summer will be “seasons of hope,” with social distancing rules relaxed and economic restrictions lifted. 

But in a devastating, blow-by-blow account, investigative reporters Jonathan Calvert and George Arbuthnott argue that nothing the Tory leader says about COVID-19 can or should be taken at face value. Despite the striking turnaround exhibited by the vaccine rollout, Calvert and Arbuthnott contend in their recent book, Failures of State, that policies implemented throughout the pandemic failed to prevent Britain’s grim absolute mortality figures (the highest in Europe, in absolute numbers) and the severity of its recession (the deepest in the G7). 

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Scotland’s coalfields once sprawled across the central belt, from Ayrshire and Lanarkshire on the west coast to Fife and the Lothians on the east. In 1947, 77,000 people worked in Scottish coal. By 1990, that number had slumped to just 6,000. Popular history dictates that the UK coal industry was rapidly wound down during the latter part of the 20th century by Conservative politicians hostile to organized labour. But as Ewan Gibbs explains in Coal Country: The Meaning and Memory of Deindustrialization in Postwar Scotland, the reality is more complicated. 

Competition from cheaper fuels and the emergence of nuclear power pushed British coal into decline soon after the Second World War. In the 1950s and ‘60s, governments and mining unions negotiated the closure of nationalized pits and collieries. In the 1970s, there was a sharp uptick in industrial action. In the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher abandoned the consensual strategy of previous decades in favour of a more militant – and politicized – approach to the sector. Coal mining in Scotland had already shed half its pre-war employee base by the time Harold Wilson became prime minister in 1964. That base had halved again by the time Thatcher entered Downing Street 15 years later. 

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It’s difficult to take anything Bill Gates says about climate change seriously. Through his trust, the Microsoft co-founder owns $10 billion worth of shares in his friend Warren Buffet’s holding company, Berkshire Hathaway, which invests heavily in natural gas and other polluting utilities. According to Lund University professor Stefan Gossling, he is, along with other celebrities, responsible for ten thousand times more carbon emissions, annually, than the average person. In January, he tried to buy the world’s largest private jet operator, Signature. (Gates has previously described using a private jet as his chief “guilty pleasure.”) And yet, even if the Seattle-based billionaire didn’t have a vast carbon footprint – even if he was the greenest oligarch on earth – the ‘solutions’ to global warming outlined in his new book would still lack credibility.

How To Avoid A Climate Disaster tells us nothing we didn’t already know about environmental break-down. The opening chapters are packed with commonplace insights into the crisis. An average rise of two degrees Celsius in the earth’s surface temperature will decimate crop yields in developing countries. A hotter planet means more intense and protracted wildfires. By 2100, major urban centres like Miami will be underwater. Gates’s solution? Market-driven innovation. With the right combination of state and private sector support, companies can slash the (currently prohibitive) costs of renewable energy, thus reducing our reliance on fossil fuels and dragging the global economy across that all-important zero-carbon threshold.

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Evan Osnos’s neatly timed biography of Joe Biden, a collection of pieces previously published in the New Yorker, is brimming with insights into America’s new president-elect. The insights are not always flattering. “When Barack Obama, newly arrived in the Senate in 2005, heard Biden hold forth in a meeting of the Foreign Relations Committee,” Osnos writes, “he passed an aid a three-word note: ‘Shoot. Me. Now’.” Over more than three decades on Capitol Hill – “the windbag Mecca” – Biden had earned a reputation as a self-important blowhard with a “harrowing tendency” to put his foot in his mouth.

Still, a few years later, Biden found himself serving alongside Obama in the White House, where the two men formed an unusually tight personal and professional bond. “Obama took to telling aides and audiences that naming Biden vice president was the best political decision he had made,” Osnos reports. The trials they faced together – healthcare reform, Republican obstructionism, familial loss – “had brought them closer than many expected.”

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From the “rotten boroughs” of the early nineteenth century to the “Cash for Honours” scandal of the 2000s, patronage, nepotism, and grift have always been part of British political culture. But in recent years, the problem of corruption in UK public life seems to have intensified — or, at least, become more visible.

According to journalist Peter Geoghegan, in his best-selling new book, Democracy for Sale, this shift reflects the growing “Americanization” of British politics. Anonymous donors hold sway over the major parties, the Conservatives in particular; dark money has pushed radical fringe agendas into mainstream debate; lies and disinformation are now common currency among Westminster legislators.

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In 1965, the nationalist government of President Sukarno in Indonesia was toppled in a military coup d’état. Sukarno was a visionary and idiosyncratic leader who, over the preceding 15 years, had struck a precarious balancing act between the country’s ultra-conservative armed forces on one side and its popular and assertive communist party, the PKI, on the other. He was also instrumental in establishing the so-called ‘Third World’ movement of left-leaning, non-aligned states that emerged after the Second World War.

By the start of the 1960s, however, that act had begun to falter. In the middle of the decade, the generals made their move. With the explicit backing of the United States, the Indonesian army ousted Sukarno and then rapidly set about eliminating their ideological rivals. Over the next 12 months, up to one million Indonesian civilians and suspected PKI members were slaughtered in what was, by any measure, one of the worst instances of organised political violence to have occurred during the 20th-century.

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In Twilight of Democracy, Anne Applebaum charts the fracturing of the Transatlantic right. The book is part-memoir, part-polemic. Over the past 20 years, the conservative movement has split into two factions, Applebaum contends: traditional neoliberals, who believe in free-markets, democratic institutions, and the rule of law, and populists, who thrive on division, confusion, and nationalist paranoia.

Applebaum – a journalist and academic based, variously, in Poland, Britain, and the US – belongs firmly to the first faction. A veteran contributor to the Spectator, Sunday Times, and Washington Post, she has enjoyed ringside access to rightwing elites for decades. Until recently, she was on good terms with Boris Johnson, a man she now describes as an “all-consuming” narcissist with a “penchant for fabrication.” (“Nobody serious wants to leave the EU,” she quotes the future prime minister as saying in 2014. “Business doesn’t want it. The City doesn’t want it. It won’t happen.”) In 2008, she broke with the Republican Party after John McCain added Sarah Palin – “a proto-Trump” – to his presidential ticket. McCain “never spoke to me again,” she writes. In Poland, Applebaum and her husband, the politician Radek Sikorski, have become targets of anti-Semitic propaganda linked to the country’s ruling Law and Justice Party. “Whether I like it or not, I am part of this story,” she laments.

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Modern Scottish nationalism was born in the pages of the New Left Review, sometime in the mid-1960s.

That’s the bold claim at the heart of Ben Jackson’s excellent new book, which traces the intellectual origins of contemporary nationalist politics through the work of writers like Tom Nairn, Neal Ascherson, George Kerevan, Isobel Lindsay, and my own late dad, Stephen Maxwell. 

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Compared to the sweeping liberal romanticism of Barack Obama and the raw political cynicism of Bill Clinton, Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. is a void. There is simply nothing there. The figure that emerges from Yesterday’s Man — Branko Marcetic’s biting profile of the former senator and vice president, and now presumptive Democratic presidential nominee — doesn’t have a transformative national vision or an eye-catching policy platform or even a particularly interesting personal backstory to sell. At some point in the early 1970s, Biden decided that American elections were won and lost in the dead centre of the ideological spectrum — and that is precisely where he has stayed for the full span of his 50-year political career.

As Marcetic — a staff writer at Jacobin magazine — argues, being a centrist in American politics doesn’t make you a moderate. It just means that you’re prepared to strike legislative compromises with the hard-right, or with uniquely predatory forms of capital, in order to burnish your institutional credentials. Biden has done this time and time again in the US Senate, to the extent that ‘working across the aisle’ in a ‘bipartisan fashion’ is all that meaningfully exists of the 77-year-old’s political identity.

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Climate change has traditionally been a cause for the left. In recent years, the right has begun to take it seriously, too. “Borders are the environment’s greatest ally,” Jordan Bardella, a spokesman for France’s ultra-conservative National Rally party, remarked last year. “It is through them that we will save the planet.”

In his new book, Climate Change And The Nation State, the journalist Anatol Lieven develops a response to the environmental crisis that draws on both the radical social democracy of Bernie Sanders’ Green New Deal and the burgeoning ‘eco-nationalism’ of European populists.

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