Reaching for perspective: books to make sense of the new world order | Jeff Sparrow


From gonzo class analysis to a retrospective about racism, here are some books that bring context to a bleak political period

In the 70s and the 80s, the young Donald Trump was mentored by none other than Roy Cohn, the infamous cold war prosecutor who helped send the almost certainly innocent Ethel Rosenberg to the electric chair in 1953.

The playwright Lillian Hellman once recounted a story about how Cohn had helped remove novels by her lover Dashiel Hammett from government-funded libraries.

Hammett was eventually summonsed before one of Senator Joe McCarthys red-baiting committees where he was asked: If you were in our position, would you allow certain books in the library?

Hammett shot back, If I were you, senator, I would not allow any libraries!

The tales probably apocryphal. Nonetheless, it captures something about the importance of books during bleak political periods.

In that spirit, here are some titles that might help those feeling overwhelmed by what has been a long and miserable year. Its a random and arbitrary selection (alternatives welcomed in the comments!). Still, one way or another, all of these books have been brought to mind.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander

Anyone interested in US politics needs to engage with Alexanders argument about the effects of that nations swollen prison-industrial complex. All races in the US use and traffick drugs at roughly equal levels. But African Americans are far more likely to end up in jail.

In fact, the US incarcerates a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did during the apartheid era. In Washington DC, 75% of young black men will spend time in prison, an astonishing statistic replicated in urban centres throughout the country.

Alexander argues that the war on drugs was launched in the wake of the civil rights movement to target urban (that is, black) crime: a key element of the so-called southern strategy by which Republicans dog-whistled to white voters.


In the first half of the 20th century, racist Jim Crow laws controlled where and how black people could live, work and vote. Today, the law forbids discrimination on the basis of race. But its perfectly acceptable to discriminate against felons and ex-felons a high percentage of whom happen to be black.

Thats what Alexander means by the new Jim Crow. She writes:

The total population of black males in Chicago with a felony record is equivalent to fifty-five percent of the black adult male population and an astonishing eighty percent of the adult male workforce in the Chicago area In Chicago, as in most cities across the country, ex-offenders are banned or severely restricted from employment in a large number of professions, job categories, and fields by professional licensing statutes, rules, and practices that discriminate against potential employees with felony records They are also routinely denied public housing and welfare benefits, and they find it increasingly difficult to obtain education

Formally, these restrictions are colour blind, affecting all races equally. In practice they replicate the patterns of Jim Crow, excluding African Americans from public life.

Alexander published The New Jim Crow book back in 2010 but it makes particularly interesting reading in the wake of the Trump ascendancy, partly because she identifies the Clinton administration as playing a crucial role in extending mass incarceration but also because the book is a polemic against the liberal anti-racist strategies associated with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

The notion that giving a relatively small number of people of colour access to key positions or institutions will inevitably redound to the benefit of the larger group is belied by the evidence, she declares.

Thats something to think about (and not just in respect of race) in the renewed debates about identity politics and its limitations.

Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from Americas Class War, by Joe Bageant

I helped cast out a demon the other day, Joey. I wish you could have been there.

Thats Joe Bageants brother: a blue-collar working-class man from Winchester, Virginia, who also happens to be a conservative Christian.

In this compelling piece of what we might call gonzo class analysis, Bageant writes of returning to his hardscrabble hometown after a 30-year absence, and trying understand the gulf between his old friends and the progressive liberals he knew from the publishing world.

Its difficult to remember now but the re-election of the hapless George W Bush in November 2004 spurred a similar debate to that prompted by Trumps victory.


One New York editor says to Bageant: It is as if your people were some sort of exotic, as if you were from Yemen or something.

In Winchester, he talks to his old buddy Tom, once an acid-dropping freethinker and now a Fox News-watching Republican, and to Nancy, a forklift driver whose life is dominated by her church. Both of them work dead-end jobs in the towns Rubbermaid plant. Both of them feel that Americas gone off the rails and both of them voted for Bush.

There is no good reason, Bageant concludes, why for the past thirty years the uncertainty and dissatisfaction of people like Tom and Nance was automatically snubbed as unenlightened by so many on the Left. If the Left had identified and dealt with this dissatisfaction early on, if they had counteracted the fallacies the Republicans used to explain that dissatisfaction and maybe offered some gutsy, comprehensible and practical solutions, we might have witnessed something better than the Republican syndicates lying and looting of the past six years. Real movements take advantage of the protest-potential to be found among dissatisfied and disappointed people people disenfranchised by bureaucracy, technocracy and experts.

Bageant died in 2011 but this funny, mournful and angry book remains vital and relevant today.

Hand to Mouth: The Truth About Being Poor in a Wealthy World, by Linda Tirado

In 2013 Tirado wrote a blog post entitled Why I make terrible decisions, or, poverty thoughts an attempt to explain why poor people made the choices they did.

Yes, she said, she knew smoking was hazardous and expensive but it was also the best option.

You see, Im always, always exhausted. Its a stimulant. When I am too tired to walk one more step, I can smoke and go for another hour. When I am enraged and beaten down and incapable of accomplishing one more thing, I can smoke and feel a little better, for just a minute. It is the only relaxation I am allowed. It is not a good decision but it is the only one that I have access to. It is the only thing I have found that keeps me from collapsing or exploding.

That post went viral and Tirado eventually followed it with a full-length book.


In some respects, Hand to Mouth recalls Deer Hunting with Jesus. But where Bageants emphasis on the small town of his childhood sometimes feel nostalgic, even dated, Tirado describes a contemporary experience of shift work in the service industry. In that sense her books a kind of updated, US version of Friedrich Engels The Condition of the Working Class of England, but set in suburban fast-food chains rather than Manchester mills.

Tirado endures constant low-level pain because she cant access medical treatment. She describes a working life controlled by capricious, vindictive bosses in an environment in which shes expected to display servility and worse still gratitude.

Though she writes of a base solidarity among her workmates, its expressed mostly through day-to-day acts of little kindnesses rather than through industrial action. And she understands why many have no interest in politics at all.

I think that most poor people have too many disasters in their own immediate future to worry about to be concerned about whatever natural or political disasters might be occurring way outside their circle Its not that I dont care about global warming or the environment; its that theres only so far out of my way Im willing to go. I dont really have the time or energy to worry about macro concerns.

The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, by Robert Tressell

Tressell was the pseudonym of a house painter named Robert Noonan, who died of tuberculosis in 1911, having been unable to convince a publisher to accept his 1,600-page handwritten manuscript.

The book, which eventually became a classic of the British labour movement, tells the story of Robert Owen and his attempts to break his companions in the fictional town of Mugsborough from their conservative ideas.

For many in the 20th century, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists appealed because of Owens didactic presentations of social theory. The book was often circulated as a kind of novelised primer of leftist ideas and even lauded, as Alan Sillitoe put it, as the book that won the 45 election for [the British] Labour [party].


But the contemporary reader might take something different away.

It is, after all, very much a novel about being leftwing in a rightwing era. The philanthropists of the title are Owens workmates. Theyre men so poor that they can barely clothe their families and yet they insist on supporting the bosses who exploit them.

At times, Owen despairs of his fellows. Yet the book shows him, over the course of a year, trying again and again to explain his ideas, looking for different ways to make progressive theories meaningful in the lives of ordinary people.

Thats why it repays re-reading. The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropistsmay be set in an Edwardian world very different from our own, yet the process it depicts essentially, the slow and sometimes painful work of rebuilding a left from the bottom up could not be more relevant.

Oh, its also very funny.

Pitched Battle, by Larry Writer

Pitched Battle gives an account of the 1971 Springbok rugby tour of Australia: a key moment in anti-racist activism in this country.

Today everyone agrees that apartheid was an abomination. But in the early 70s, plenty of Australians found a great deal to admire in South Africas racist regime, and it took considerable political courage to protest against a popular sporting code.

The Liberal prime minister Billy McMahon described anti-Springbok campaigners as stooges of communists and declared sporting tours to be non-political even though, as Writer explains, the South Africans were quite clear as to their propaganda value. In fact the Springbok manager openly announced: South Africa and Australia have very much in common We have come here to try to foster good relations and friendship.


Most of the newspapers editorialised in favour of the Springboks. When the ACTU placed black bans on the tour, the Sydney Morning Herald accused it of usurping the role of government. Despite a few honourable exceptions, the dominant right wing of the Labor party wanted no part in any protests, terrified by the prospect of an electoral backlash.

Most of the organising came from a tiny number of very young activists. The demonstrations faced considerable violence, both from police and from local neo-fascists. At the Melbourne protest at Olympic Park, more than 140 people were arrested and many were beaten up. Watching the violence, the Victorian premier, Henry Bolte an enthusiastic supporter of the Springboks declared, The police deserve a medal for the way they handled those ratbags.

Nevertheless, the campaign proved remarkably successful, not only in preventing future tours but in making apartheid a national issue in Australia. As Meredith Burgmann, one of the key activists, explained to Writer, the demonstrations put the issue of racism on the agenda in this country, racism as regards non-white South African and our own Indigenous people as well as the white Australia policy that was then in place.

In times like today, its worth remembering the Springbok protests as an example of how a determined minority can win over others and of how what once seemed impossible can become suddenly inevitable.

It Cant Happen Here, by Sinclair Lewis

The Senator was vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his ideas almost idiotic, while his celebrated piety was that of a traveling salesman for church furniture, and his yet more celebrated humor the sly cynicism of a country store There was no more overwhelming actor on the stage, in the motion pictures, nor even in the pulpit. He would whirl arms, bang tables, glare from mad eyes, vomit Biblical wrath from a gaping mouth; but he would also coo like a nursing mother, beseech like an aching lover, and in between tricks would coldly and almost contemptuously jab his crowds with figures and facts figures and facts that were inescapable even when, as often happened, they were entirely incorrect

Remind you of anyone?

US writer Sinclair Lewis (1885 – 1951). Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When Lewis wrote his description of Senator Buzz Windrip seizing power in the elections of 1936 he drew upon reports about the rise of the Nazis in Germany, compiled by his partner, the journalist Dorothy Thompson.

More interestingly, he also modelled his characters on the populist Louisiana governor Huey Long and the antisemitic radio priest Father Coughlin. Largely forgotten today, theyre both fascinating figures: staunchly anti-communist and yet populist rather than rightwing (Longs organisation was called Share the Wealth; Coughlins was the National Union for Social Justice).

It Cant Happen Hereisnt a particularly good novel, though, as the description above suggests, Lewis captured the distinctive tones of US demagoguery. Aside from anything else, the book reminds us that there were other periods in which the countrys democracy did not seem at all stable.

The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany, by Leon Trotsky

Trotsky provides a better guide to the Trump phenomenon than Lewis, not so much by explaining whats taking place in the US today as by clarifying whats not happening.

The book is a collection of articles written as the exiled Russian revolutionary watched and tried to prevent the growth of National Socialism in Germany. As such, its a useful corrective to those who see Trumps inauguration in 2017 as analogous to Hitlers victory in 1933.

Leon Trotsky in 1940 in Mexico City. Photograph: AP

In these increasingly desperate essays, Trotsky describes the organised Nazi gangs mobilising to physically smash the organisations of the labour movement, while the German industrialists prevaricate about whether or not to throw their weight behind a demagogue they increasingly see as the only hope out of an intractable economic crisis.

The US today simply isnt a comparable situation. Trump might be a demagogue and a bigot but hes not Hitler. The alt-right might be growing but neither Steve Bannon nor Richard Spencer commands the army of well-drilled thugs with which the fascists took control of the Berlin streets.

Which isnt, of course, any reason for complacency.

In an oft-quoted passage, Trotsky describes what he calls the physiology of National Socialism:

Fascism has opened up the depths of society for politics. Today, not only in peasant homes but also in city skyscrapers, there lives alongside of the twentieth century the tenth or the thirteenth. A hundred million people use electricity and still believe in the magic power of signs and exorcisms. The Pope of Rome broadcasts over the radio about the miraculous transformation of water into wine. Movie stars go to mediums. Aviators who pilot miraculous mechanisms created by mans genius wear amulets on their sweaters. What inexhaustible reserves they possess of darkness, ignorance, and savagery! Despair has raised them to their feet and fascism has given them a banner. Everything that should have been eliminated from the national organism in the form of cultural excrement in the course of the normal development of society has now come gushing out from the throat; capitalist society is puking up the undigested barbarism.

Its a disturbing passage, not least because, in 2016, we know exactly what he means.

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