Books I read in 2023. I’m probably forgetting some.
Geoffrey Ingham, The Nature of Money. One of the fundamental divides in thinking about money is whether we start from the commodity or the unit of account. Do we begin, logically and historically, with the idea of exchange and then bring in money, or do we start from an abstract unit of measurement which then, among other things, is used to value commodities? The latter view defines what’s known as chartalism; Ingham offers the most persuasive statement of the chartalist position that I know. The most visible (though, it seems to me, fading) contemporary version of chartalism is the one offered by Modern Mone(tar)y Theory. There’s a clear affinity between Ingham and MMT but also some important differences; taking Mitchell Innes rather than Knapp as its starting point, Ingham’s version emphasizes money as a measure of obligations in general, rather than taxes specifically.
Like the next five books on the list, I read this one in as I worked on Money and Things, and in conjunction with the “Alternative Perspectives on Money” course I taught this fall.
Lev Menand, The Fed Unbound: Central Banking in a Time of Crisis. I am a big admirer of Menand’s writing on monetary policy and the Fed. He’s a good example of how many of the most interesting conversations around economics these days are happening in law schools. I am constantly pointing people to his short piece on the “The Fed’s Sole Mandate,” which does a brilliant job reframing debates around monetary policy. I would love to see that argument developed at book length. Unfortunately, this is not really that. The book falls a bit awkwardly between two sets of stools — between a general history of the Fed and a comment on pandemic-era interventions, on the one hand, and between a popularization and original argument on the other. I’m sympathetic – these are both tensions I also struggle with. (Despite some encouragement from me, Lev also has not been quite able to give up the idea of a definite quantity of money.) I will certainly continue to draw on and assign his work in the future, but I think I’ll look more to his law review articles rather than this book.
David McNally, Blood and Money: War, Slavery, Finance, and Empire. I would also put this in the broad category of chartalism, again emphasizing the role of money as an abstract unit of measurement rather than as a specific commodity. This is a more eclectic and Marx-influenced version, focusing on money as quantification as such rather than of obligations. The most importnat things being reduced to commensurable quantities, in McNally’s telling, are human bodies — for him, money is the obverse of slavery, and of coercive violence more broadly. The book’s title should be taken literally.
The historical material here makes an interesting complement to Ingham. Most chartalist writing, in my experience, draws from a relatively short list of historical parables — ancient Babylon, colonial Madagascar. Ingham mostly sticks to the canon, but McNally ranges more widely. As with many books of this kind (Graeber’s Debt is the notorious example) the analysis starts glitching a bit when the story reaches the modern world. It’s not surprising. When you are writing about a general topic like money or debt, there is nothing wrong with picking whatever particular examples from the vast palette of the past that work best for the picture you’re trying to paint. But when you are writing about recent history, you are stuck with the specific things that actually happened.
Stefan Eich, The Currency of Politics: The Political Theory of Money from Aristotle to Keynes. The subject of this book is the question — one which motivates so many debates about money — of how, and to what extent, the form and management of money shapes broader social relations. It’s the question of whether money is, in the broadest sense, neutral, or whether changes in the terms on which money is created can transform politics and relations of production. The book, to be clear, is not framed this way; it’s set up, rather as six distinct essays, on particular thinkers and milieus, from classical Athens through Locke, Fichte, Marx and Keynes to the “political theory of money after Bretton Woods.” As Colin Drumm suggests, the book is best understood (and perhaps read) backward. To make sense of current debates about money, we need to go back to the early 20th century Years of High Theory, and then back to the thinkers that influenced them, and on back to Aristotle. Personally, I learned the most from the Athens and Marx chapters; but the whole thing is very worth reading
Merijn Knibbe, Macroeconomic Measurement Versus Macroeconomic Theory. This is a book-length struggle with a question dear to my heart, the disconnect between the categories of economic theory and measurement. Concepts like output, employment, the price level or the capital stock can be defined unambiguously within a formal economic model. But when we use them to describe developments in the real world, their meaning depends on a whole host of specific decisions about what exactly to count, what to impute and where to draw various more or less arbitrary lines. The data we look at is highly sensitive to these choices — a full third of US consumption, for instance, consists of non cash items like the notional rent paid by homeowners to themselves, services provided gratis by nonprofits and government, and the notional value of financial services provided by low-interest bank accounts. Mainstream economists — and, I’m afraid to say, many heterodox ones — are blissfully unconcerned with these choices. But it is impossible to make any meaningful statements about real economies except in the terms that they are actually observed.
Many economists will acknowledge this problem in principle but Knibbe’s book is a rare attempt to address it head on. It is brilliant, perceptive and original, but also digressive, a bit of a ramble. One of its strengths is the author’s less academic background — he has a deep knowledge of topics, like exactly how milk prices are set in the Netherlands, that are not taught in any economics program. A challenge for any book like this is how much work it takes to explain the intricate fantasies of orthodox theory as a prelude to dismantling them; I don’t know what the solution to this problem is, if one is going to write critically about economics at all.
I provided comments on early chapters of the book, and at one point we discussed coauthoring it. That didn’t happen, obviously, but he did just fine on his own.
Anitra Nelson, Marx on Money: The God of Commodities. The most thorough and convincing account of Marx’s (incomplete and sometimes contradictory) writing on money that I have read. I won’t attempt to summarize Nelson’s arguments here; perhaps I’ll do so in a future post.
Enzo Traverso, Fire and Blood: The European Civil War 1914-1945. This book presents itself as a history of Europe’s second thirty years war. It is organized not chronologically but thematically, around various concepts that structured what Traverso presents as fundamentally an intra-European rather than international conflict — dual power, the partisan, the trauma of industrial violence, the new legal concept of war crimes, and so on. At its heart is an effort to reclaim anti-fascism as positive political project. Resistance to fascism required, and called forth, a creative fusion of socialist and Enlightenment values. Antifascism, in Traverso’s telling, was not merely a negative reaction to right-wing authoritarianism. It was a “civil religion of humanity, democracy and socialism”; it was “a “shared ethos that, in a historical context that was exceptional and necessarily transitory, made it possible to hold together Christians and atheist Communists, liberals and collectivists.” Traverso amasses a great range of historical, artistic and literary material to flesh out this view of antifascism as a positive political program. Anti-fascism is not just resistance to movement in the fascist direction; it is pressure for movement away from the status quo in the other direction. It’s a timely reminder that one cannot effectively defend democratic values and practices where they already exist without also fighting to extend them where they currently do not.
This is very much an intellectual history — personally, I wouldn’t have minded if Traverso had included a few less reproductions of paintings and introduced some quantitative material. Its antagonists are liberal historians — Francois Furet in particular — who see “the West” following a steady path toward liberal democracy as a kind of technical progress, with the violent conflicts between Left and Right as a friction or distraction. Traverso’s argument – not stated in so many words, but the overarching theme of the book — is that there was no technological inevitability to universal suffrage, civil liberties or the rest of it. Human progress, such as it is, is the result of active struggle. The battle against fascism yielded something quite different from a straight line projection from the years before 1914.
Luciano Canfora, Democracy in Europe. Another book by an Italian historian, developing many of the same themes as Traverso, though on a broader canvass. The central argument is that if democracy means “rule by the people,” then we should think of this not as an institution but an event, as the rare episodes in which the propertyless majority are able to collectively exercise power against the interests of the rich. Democracy, in his words, means “the temporary ascendancy of the poorer classes in the course of an endless struggle for equality”. Elections with broad suffrage are at best an enabling condition of democracy, not a definition of it. They create an arena in which the mass of people may sometimes be mobilized if the conditions are right. As Friedrich Engels put it, elections are important because they offer “a means to make contact with the masses where they are still distant from us,” not so much as a direct route to power.
By the late 19th century, Engels believed, democratic politics offered an open road toward socialism. In Canfora’s view, however, he underestimated the ability of elites to mobilize mass support for their own programs. The development of mass political participation in the early 20th century owed as much, he argues, to efforts by conservative government to inoculate the population against socialism, as to any advance of democratic values. Conservatives were nonetheless hostile to universal suffrage right down to World War One. The book quotes the British writer George Cornwall Lewis urging that “the attempt to attain perfect equality in … the powers of government seems … as absurd as the attempt to attain perfect equality in the distribution of property.” Canfora accepts this equivalence but turns it around — sustained equality in government has never been compatible with concentrated property ownership. Historically, expansion of formal democracy was either a step toward broader social equality, or a defense against it.
Like Traverso, Canfora emphasizes how “antifascism was widened from a negative concept — rejection — to a positive one. … the forces that had fought fascism … could by definition transform society in a progressive direction.” He sees a fundamental parallel between developments in eastern and western Europe after war. On both sides, the upheavals of war and and popular mobilizations created new opening for demands from the masses. In the immediate postwar period, governments gave ground to pressure from below both substantively and in terms of public participation; but as they became more established, genuine popular involvement was displaced by self-confirming legality. The relationship of the US to Italy was not fundamentally different from that of the USSR to Poland or Hungary, even if military intervention was only prepared and not carried out. To drive this point home, he notes that it was Churchill, not Stalin, who proposed the division of Europe into spheres of influence; while the latter, for his part, urged an acceptance of liberal norms by communists in Western Europe, since “the parliamentary course [may] prove to be a more effective process for bringing about the revolution … than it was in Russia.”
Moving to the present, Canfora rejects the idea that the countries of “the West” are democratic simply by virtue of their electoral arrangements, while at the same time insisting that changes to electoral systems can be very important for narrowing or widening the possibilities for substantive democracy. In particular, he sees the movement from proportional representation to single-member districts, or hybrid systems (as occurred in both France and Italy in recent decades) as closing off space for democracy. In his view, steps away from proportional representation are no different from outright restrictions of the franchise. They “combine the electoral principle … with the reality of the protected ascendancy of the … upper classes.”
Rebecca Karl, Mao Zedong and China in the Twentieth-Century World: A Concise History. This is a sympathetic but not uncritical account of Mao’s life and the surrounding history. One of the book’s big virtues — besides providing the basic narrative of events that I knew much less about than I should — is that its perspective is always the situation and context in which Mao himself operated. It tries to understand why he made the choices he did in the circumstances that he faced. This is partly a matter of how the book is written, but it also requires the writer (and reader) to be able to imagine themselves as part of the revolutionary project Mao was engaged in.
I learned a great deal from this book. Here are a few general points that stand out. First, Mao’s formative political experiences involved China’s political disintegration and subordination to outside powers and, interestingly, the subordination of women in the traditional Chinese family (the subject of his first significant political writings.) His embrace of class politics and Marxism came afterwards, as a response to the practical problems of national independence and revival. (And to the savage repression by the nationalists.) Second, despite being an early leader of the Communist Party, he was, in Karl’s telling, almost constantly in conflict with it. He never had the unquestioned authority of a Stalin, and for much of the period after 1960 or so he was effectively excluded from day to day leadership. The cult of personality — the Little Red Book and so on — were real enough, but they reflected relative marginalization rather than dominance; they arose from, on the one side, his efforts to pressure from the outside a government he no longer dominated, and from the other, the Party’s efforts to claim his legacy even while rejecting his positions substantively. Conversely, the “reforms” after his death don’t represent a repudiation of the Revolution so much as a reassertion of alternative tendencies that were there all along. Third, Mao’s worst mistakes were in large part overreactions to correctly perceived problems with the Soviet model. The Great Leap Forward — disastrous as it was — is in no way comparable to the great famines under Stalin. It was the result rather of a search for a form of industrialization that would not favor the cities at the expense of the peasants. The problem was a breakdown in the systems of coordination, communication and transport rather than — as under Stalin — a systematic extraction of grain from the countryside. The Cultural Revolution, meanwhile, came from the conflicts between Mao and the party leadership mentioned earlier — it was intended by Mao as a revolution against the party — as well an effort to avoid the consolidation of the Party into a new ruling class or stratum, as he believed had happened in the USSR.
These broad brush summaries don’t do justice to the book, which is much more concrete and historically grounded. One question that it does not answer, however — that it does not even pose, given its choice to write largely from Mao’s own perspective — is, how and to what extent did the Chinese revolution lay the groundwork for China’s astonishing success — maybe the greatest in history — as a late industrializer. (Isabella Weber’s book, while also very good, only addresses a small part of this question.) But I still found it extremely informative and worth reading. One other virtue: it is very short. I would love to see more books in this format. There are a lot of big topics on which I would be happy to read 150 pages, but probably would not manage 700.
Fintan O’Toole, We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland. A charming and very readable first-person account of Ireland since 1960, seamlessly interweaving historical and autobiographic material. When I picked this book up (at The Lofty Pigeon, a lovely new bookstore in my corner of Brooklyn) I knew a bit about the Irish war of independence and of course about the euro-era financial bubble and crisis, but but not much about the period in between. It’s a fascinating story — 20th century Ireland has to be one of the outstanding cases of cultural transformation in just a generation or two, from a closed semi-theocracy to a fully “modern” country, for better or worse. O’Toole has an appealing ambivalence about this transformation. He is unflinching in his descriptions of the stifling cruelty of mid-century Irish schools and the treatment of women who violated sexual norms; it’s interesting how, in his telling even features of this society that might seem appealing — big multi-generational families with neighbors constantly present — could seem oppressive to those living in it. But neither does he whitewash the Irish modernization project or the people who led it.
Edward Burrows and Mike Wallace, Gotham. A massive, comprehensive history of New York from the first European arrival to consolidation in 1898. I consumed this as an audiobook intermittently over the past year or so. Its episodic structure works well in that format, though not so much its profusion of names, dates, and places. (Someone should make a geographic concordance from it, if there isn’t one.) What is there to say about it? If you want to learn about the history of New York City, this is the book.
Adam Hochschild, American Midnight: The Great War, a Violent Peace, and Democracy’s Forgotten Crisis. A history of US politics and political repression in the period around and immediately after World War One. As Hochschild makes clear, nothing in Donald Trump’s dreams comes close to the institutionalized racism, nativism and criminalization of dissent under Woodrow Wilson. If you’ve read some labor history, you won’t be shocked at the stories of the violent suppression of the IWW. But what about the movie director sentenced to four years in prison for making a film about the American Revolution that depicted the British in too negative a light? Or the Swiss-born orchestra conductor whose lynching on suspicion of German sympathies was hailed by The Washington Post as a “healthful and wholesome awakening” of patriotic sentiment? Or the mass roundups of young men suspected of evading the draft by vigilante squads? It’s an important reminder that fascism is a long-established and central strand in American politics, not something introduced by Trump or Newt Gingrich.
Johannes Krause and Thomas Trappe, A Short History of Humanity: A New History of Old Europe. I enjoy books about ancient history and paleantology, especially ones that, like this one, are as much about how we know what we know, as about what we do know. The specific focus here is the new information from the reconstruction of genomes from ancient human remains, something that has only recently become possible; one of the authors is a pioneer in the technique. There is a rather serious problem, which is visible in the juxtaposition of the title and subtitle: Europe and humanity are quite different things. (The authors are hardly the only ones to have trouble remembering this.) Still, it’s fascinating how much detail is now known about ancient population movements.
Thomas Lin, ed., Alice and Bob Meet the Wall of Fire. Essays from online science magazine Quanta. I enjoy their podcasts, but this collection was underwhelming. This is the one book on this list that I do not recommend.
Abdelrahman Munif, The Trench and Variations of Night and Day. These are the second and third novels in the Cities of Salt trilogy telling the story of a fictional gulf monarchy over the first half of the 20th century. (At least, it’s a trilogy in English; I believe there are further volumes that haven’t been translated.) I wrote a bit about these books at the end of this post.
Annie Ernaux, A Man’s Place. A short, beautiful book about the author’s father, about class, education and the the distance between the center and the periphery, and about the irreversible passage of time. It’s one of those in-between-genres books that gets shelved with the novels in France and with memoirs in the United States.
Roberto Bolaño, By Night in Chile. An allegory of the position of intellectuals under right-wing dictatorships, how you simultaneously know and don’t know what is going on — metaphorically, but in the allegory literally — beneath the floors of your literary get-togethers. It’s the story of a well-meaning priest, “the most liberal member of Opus Dei in Chile,” who, improbably … well, I won’t spoil it.
Natalie Ginsburg, The Dry Heart; Happiness, as Such; and Voices in the Evening. Sad, occasionally political, and very occasionally violent family conflicts in small-town Italy from the 1940s through the 1960s. They are good.