As we approach Christmas, we offer selections from Lowy Institute staff and Interpreter contributors for the best book they have read this year.
Swimming with Sharks: My Journey into the World of Bankers, by Joris Luyendijk. Selected by Interpreter contributor Daniel Woker.
'Retain paper copies of all your internet banking statements' is one memorable piece of advice from Anglo-Dutch author Luyendijk in this somewhat breathless hybrid of a blog and a book. His couple of years with (London) City bankers in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis led to The Guardian's Joris Luyendijk Banking Blog, which entertained and educated its readers, and encouraged insiders to break the City's omertà and open up to this investigative journalist about their daily work.
Bankers high and low appear to be enveloped in a 24/7 world of brutal schedules, few friends but many competitors, and a primordial pecking order from the front to the back office. Somewhere in between sit badly dressed 'quants' brooding over ever more complicated financial products which not even top management, let alone the investing public, can possibly understand. Over all of it hangs the Damoclean sword of a culture spawning disdain for honest and solid work at the base (eg. in IT systems; hence the paper copies), where some of Luyendijk's sharks see the trigger for the next blow to our financial system.
PostCapitalism: A Guide to our Future, by Paul Mason. Selected by former Lowy Institute Executive Director Allan Gyngell.
This book provided me with more food for thought about the international system in 2015 than much of the writing from the international relations experts (I'm thinking of you, Henry Kissinger). Mason, economics correspondent for Britain's Channel 4, is a fine journalist and an engaging story-teller. His central argument is that information technology, far from creating a new and stable form of capitalism, is in fact dissolving it. The market can no longer do its signalling job and capitalism, like feudalism before it, has reached the limits of its capacity. I've no idea whether Mason's economics hold up (although it was a respectful review in the Financial Times which alerted me to the book) and I'm certain things won't work out in the way he prescribes. Critics have been piling on. But even if he's only half right, the implications for the strategic order will be at least as significant as those for the global economy.
Empire of Cotton: A Global History, by Sven Beckett. Selected by Interpreter contributor Julian Snelder.
This is not the first book to explain the modern world's making through the lens of a commodity. That has been done before with petroleum, silver, sugar and spices. But none is more evocative than cotton, a material which transformed human comfort, impacted every region on earth, and directly bore three mighty political-economic institutions: steam power, international supply chains, and slavery. Sven Beckett describes in piercing detail the coldblooded prosecution of 'war capitalism' by colonists, plantation owners, strip-miners and industrial mercantilists. For readers educated in Anglo-liberal traditions of free trade and the rights of man, Beckett's acclaimed book delivers a rude shock.