Books That No Politically-Engaged Person Should Be Without: A List

These days it’s important to be politically literate to ensure that one is in full possession of the available evidence before making decisions. All too often our leaders decide they know what’s best for us without consulting the opinion of their voters, and sometimes propaganda, misinformation and distortion are employed in order to get voters onside with policies that are completely against their best interests.

Of course, the best way to get engaged in politics is through a good book. Books can open us to new ideas and completely change the way we think, and, fortunately, there’s a vast array available. Not just bland non-fiction books either, everything from comedy to thrillers feature in this round-up of some of my favourites:

1. 1984 – George Orwell

This one goes without saying really. 1984 is a modern classic, and indisputably one of the most important and influential novels of all time. Written in 1948 (the title was a transposition of when it was written), the story follows Winston Smith, a civil servant in a terrifying regime whereby the government controls thought and speech. Dissenters are not tolerated, which bodes badly for Winston, who is starting to have his doubts about Big Brother…

1984 describes the dystopia Orwell thought we were heading for: constant surveillance, media control, and a cutback of freedoms. Some of his predictions came true, and some didn’t. Nevertheless, Orwell’s vision was incredible disturbing and often hits a little too close to home. Not only that, but he was one of the most important writer’s of his generation and many of his other works, such as Animal Farm and Homage to Catalonia are also highly recommended for those interested in politics.


2. Fahrenheit 151 – Ray Bradbury

fahrenheit-451From an oft-banned book to The Book on banning books, Fahrenheit 451 is Bradbury’s masterful tale of a grim world in which books are illegal. In this dystopian future, it’s the job of firemen to burn literature. But when, Guy Montag, a fireman, encounters a free-spirited girl named Clarisse he finds himself magnetically drawn to her unconventional ideas. When Clarisse disappears and is known to have died, it has a profound effect on Montag and, at his next opportunity, he surreptitiously steals a book. He begins to horde literature and read it, curious as to whether it holds any wisdom that would benefit a world dominated by the threat of nuclear war where the people greedily consume entertainment to keep their minds off the situation. But when he lets his new found love of literature slip to his wife and her friend he puts himself in mortal danger…

Fahrenheit 451 is an invaluable novel not just for its comments on censorship and the value of books, but also due to its prescience regarding the development of technology and society. Bradbury managed to predict our modern consumerist society in every way, from flat-screen TVs to 24 hour cash machines. He also stated that Fahrenheit 451 was a comment on the rise of minority groups – ethnic or creed-based – who might want to burn certain literature for their own ends. Think ISIS and their destruction of history, or governments the world over suppressing undesirable information.


3. The Establishment – Owen Jones

029This is the book that politicised me and – disclaimer – it’s written by a lefty. But that shouldn’t put off any potential readers. Jones is restrained and even-handed in his analysis of the current political situation in Britain, bringing to light many of the stunning revelations and gross hypocrisies on both side of the political spectrum that have either been forgotten or quietly swept under the rug. The Establishment breaks into the seamy underbelly of UK politics, to reveal the secret handshakes and dirty deals that have gone on – and continue to go on – between politicians, businessmen, media figures and many more who have vested interests. It’s an incensing portrait of revolving door politics in which the elite scratch one another’s backs whilst the concerns of voters fall by the wayside.


4. Nothing is True and Everything is Possible – Peter Pomerantsev 

003An eye-opening look at the turning cogs in Russian television, Nothing is True and Everything is Possible sees TV producer Pomerantsev pulling back the iron curtain surrounding Moscow’s media. What he finds is a lively and amorphous system of propaganda designed to create the illusion of democracy in a totalitarian state. Some of the tactics, hypocrisies and personalities involved seems almost satirical and, in a way, Russia seems to have reached the giddy heights of Orwell and Huxley when it comes to running a dystopia. Politics, propaganda and postmodernism combine to create an at once chilling and undeniably clever system of control with Pomerantsev guiding us through with his intelligent eye for detail and ability to put the most farcical sideshows into the context of this strange system. But it’s the parallels with our own country that prove most disturbing…


5. A Very British Coup – Chris Mullin

Mullin served as MP for Sunderland South for 23 years and is well-known for his early activism and journalism, as well as his political diaries. In 1982, he wrote the classic political thriller A Very British Coup – a speculative novel following ex-steel worker Harry Perkins who leads Labour to an unexpected victory in the 1988 election. The establishment, terrified by the prospect of an “extremist” in power throws everything it has at the Perkins government, and Perkins is forced to fight for the survival of his party.

001Mullin’s “thriller” is short on violence and big on important men having conversations in oak-paneled rooms (just to warn anyone expecting a shoot-em-up). But it does cast a revealing eye at the vested interests and machinations that go on behind closed doors. It may be fictional, but the novel draws deep parallels with the current Labour leadership ‘crisis’ which has seen democratically elected leader Jeremy Corbyn under fire by the media and his own party for a variety of petty reasons. A Very British Coup is an enlightening look at what the establishment will and won’t tolerate, and the extent it will go to defend it’s so-called values.


6. Hiroshima – John Hersey 

When it comes to the nuclear question, the first book you need to read is Hersey’s elegantly-written account of the bombing of Hiroshima at the end of World War II. One of the first international journalists on the scene after the bombing, Hersey’s book follows the intertwining stories of six survivors of the nuclear bast that eventually killed nearly 150,000 people. Hersey’s crisp prose and flowing style do nothing to diminish the horror, if anything, allowing the full barbarity of the incident and the sheer range of emotion to come through with shocking clarity. It’s a chilling look at the human cost of war, and the real effects of a war crime. Despite it’s shortness, this is one of the most challenging books on this list.


7. What A Carve Up! – Jonathan Coe

002A fantastic political satirist, Coe’s most famous novel is a fabulous takedown of the 80s establishment. What A Carve Upchronicles the life of the Winshaw family, a gentrified dynasty of nasty people working in high society: Henry is a ruthless MP with loyalty to none, Roddy is selling art for sex, Hilary is a rabid newspaper columnist, Thomas makes millions on the stock exchange whilst losing ordinary people thousands, Mark is selling arms to dictators, and Dorothy has revolutionised farming to become as cold and heartless as any ultra-capitalist endeavour. But the family biographer, Michael Owen, is catching up with their various misdeeds, and providence is aligning to suggest that this rogue family of blue-blooded nitwits is about to get their comeuppance…

What A Carve Up! is a perfect satire of neoliberal politics and the revolving doors and relationships that regulate our country. It gets literary in places, relying on heavy symbolism and obscure plot devices, but its basic premise is genius, and the scathing satire and comic moments hit their mark superbly (particularly Henry quite literally spewing statistics on Newsnight). It’s dark, grotesque, hilarious, emotional and, ultimately, ridiculously satisfying; a fantastically fun and farcical take on British politics.


8. How the World Works – Noam Chomsky

001Chomsky is the author of hundreds of works, all incredibly important, but this recent release is arguably the best one to go for as an introduction. How the World Works collects What Uncle Sam Really WantsThe Prosperous Few and the Restless ManySecrets, Lies and Democracy, and The Common Good all in one handy volume. These texts were all published between 1992 and 1998, so the events and examples within are somewhat dated, but its easy to pick out countless patterns and developments that are remain worryingly relevant to modern politics. This is also one of Chomsky’s easiest works, as it’s formed mostly from edited interviews, meaning that the prose flows a lot easier than some of Chomsky’s denser volumes.

Chomsky is ignored in America but mostly respected outside of it and, from his writing, it’s easy to see why. In How the World Works he shows the repugnant, underhanded ways in which the USA puppeteers other states and has destroyed progress in countless countries, how propaganda is used to keep the populace ignorant and present a peaceful, rational facade to the rest of the world. He recounts various incidents worldwide to demonstrate how the business and political elite are entirely self-serving and unconcerned by the plight of ordinary people. Chomsky, Professor Emeritus of MIT, is undeniably one of the greatest living intellectuals, and his work is indescribably important. Read him and be shocked to your core.


9. Postcapitalism – Paul Mason 

Mason, an English journalist, is a refreshing, dynamic and radical voice in a generally conformist media scene. In Postcapitalism he outlines his theory that capitalism is in its death throes and that, to survive, it will have to morph into something new. One of the things it could become, Mason argues, is Postcapitalism. Postcapitalism is not something he can readily define. It could take many forms, but what Mason argues is that it must include digital technology and transcend our current ideas of economic systems.

002The crux of his argument is based on complex economic and Marxist theory. Having taken us through many theories, he shows that capitalism is dependent on cycles, but the most recent one hasn’t conformed to the trend. This is because digital technology and the internet network is fundamentally incompatible with the idea of capitalism. Economics is based on scarcity. Supply, demand and price all depend on scarcity, but information – the internet’s product – is abundant. For example, a single that can be infinitely duplicated has no value and the only reason it costs £0.99 is because iTunes artificially holds that value. If it didn’t, it simply wouldn’t make money.

So we live in a time of abundance. Mason argues that, as a result, digital technology as an innovation cannot lead to an industrial boom in capitalism because it so intrinsically conflicts with the tenets of capitalism. Thus, a new system must arise to replace the old, stagnant one. Postcapitalism isn’t an easy read, or even a transcendental one. But it’s an intriguing thought-experiment which sheds new light on our situation, and reminds us that political systems aren’t infallible.


10. The Shock Doctrine – Naomi Klein 

img_3622When I got to page six of this book, I decided it had to be included on this list. In this volume, Naomi Klein charts the rise of “disaster capitalism” – the Friedman-inspired practice of taking the shock of a disaster and using it as a justification to push through harsh neoliberal reforms. For example, Pinochet’s military coup in Chile was used as one of the first experimental grounds for introducing radical economic reform. The harsh dictatorship pushed through unpopular policies and quashed protest violently. The whole idea of disaster capitalism is to exploit terrible events for the monetary gain of a select few. It’s neoliberalism taken to its logical extreme; the endgame of political immorality.

It only gets more shocking. Disaster capitalism has caused poverty, starvation and violence the world over: from Russia after the fall of the iron curtain to the latest experiments in Iraq and Afghanistan. Other victims include Poland, Brazil, Indonesia and most of Latin America. Whilst the populations suffer, the “Chicago Boys” who run such groups as IMF and a little thing called the US government force countries to surrender to privatisation, cuts and free market access, at the cost of their people’s freedoms, and often at the cost of their lives. It would be easy to become fatigued by this book, as country after country falls into the same trap and witnesses variations on the same horros, but Klein throws so many outraging facts at you per page that anger will propel you through the bulk of this work in virtually no time at all. This is very much a case of ‘last but not least’ as this book is one of the most incendiary and important politics books I’ve ever read.


Honorary Mentions

In a list of the best politics books, it’s always going to be difficult to whittle it down to ten. So there are a few entries that didn’t make the cut but are nonetheless great reads well-worth picking up, these include:

Brave New World – Aldous Huxley: The antithesis of 1984, a dystopia masquerading as a utopia looking at what happens when a “savage” is thrust into a godless futuristic society he struggles to come to terms with.

Number 11 – Jonathan Coe: A novel composed of a series of related vignettes cutting to the heart of 2000s society – everything from the Iraq war to I’m A Celebrity… is skewered in Coe’s latest outing.

Private Island – James Meek: Who owns Britain? Meek investigates the fate of our energy sector, railways, postal service and many others in a behind-the-scenes look at what exactly “privatisation” means.

Chavs – Owen Jones: Jones’ first polemic uncompromisingly charts the systematic denigration of the working class in England from the reign of Thatcher to present.

Them: Adventures with Extremists – Jon Ronson: A thoroughly entertaining and fascinating look into the world of conspiracy theorists, investigate journalist Ronson finds himself caught up with all sorts of fringe groups – from Abu Hamza to the KKK – in the hunt for the elusive and shadowy New World Order.




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