This article appeared in The Herald
Many of the books on the politics shelves this year have been overtaken by events. As crisis became crash, the realisation that political economy is to politics what money is to banks was a little late in dawning, but there were at least one or two lonely voices who claimed to have seen the whole thing coming in time to dash off guides to where it had all gone wrong.
Robert Shiller’s The Subprime Solution: How Today’s Global Financial Crisis Happened and What to Do about it (Princeton, £9.95), a short expose of the lax borrowing that led to America becoming the world’s first subprime superpower, falls into that category. Niall Ferguson’s The Ascent of Money (Allen Lane, £25) does too but isn’t just a paean to capitalism’s convulsions: it’s also a thorough-going history of the rise of capital (the foundation, Ferguson believes, of human progress).
For anyone who takes fright at mention of stocks and bonds, securities, bears, bulls and hedge funds, it is essential reading. Ferguson’s lessons are that sooner or later every bubble bursts and that human greed and ignorance, rather than the financial system itself, created the current crisis.
There’s something atavistic about AN Wilson’s Our Times (Hutchinson, £25), an indictment of Britain’s national collapse. Wilson is a cultural conservative, yet there’s nothing rigid or canonical about him: neither the old establishment nor the new, the Britain of aristocratic humbug nor of health and safety tutorials, is spared his vituperation.
Britain’s shared sense of identity and purpose has been undone since the war, he believes, by political elites, mass migration, yoof culture, the demise of organised Christianity and the replacement of trains by cars. He can be contradictory, factually wayward, even scurrilous, but he is always entertaining and always illuminating.
China’s story over the last two decades – thanks to its economic reforms – has been one of rise rather than demise. Philip Pan’s Out of Mao’s Shadow: The Struggle for the Soul of New China (Simon & Schuster, £14.99), challenges utterly, however, the notion that democracy will be the inevitable corollary. In a sobering, saddening study he narrates the stories of men and women, dead or imprisoned, who dared to break rank. Their heroism, obscured and written out of history by the Party, a de facto “mafia”, deserves to be honoured everywhere.
Left-wing commentators lobbed so much mud at Martin Amis this year that even his virtuoso prose style was filed as a charge against him. Too clever, not self-effacing enough, crowed one reviewer, a marginally more coherent remonstrance than the view, expressed by the Marxist academic Terry Eagleton, that one should no more listen to a novelist talking about Islamism than a window cleaner.
The Second Plane (Jonathan Cape, £12.99), a collection of essays and short fiction written in response to 9/11 and all its consequences and bifurcations on the world stage, is a brilliant riposte to that view. Literature, for Amis, is “reason at play”; religions are repositories of “ignorance, reaction and sentimentality.” Islamism (“an ideology superimposed upon a religion – illusion upon illusion”) is a death cult every bit as pernicious as Nazism or Stalinism and the novelist – for whom morality and reason are, in the end, all – has in fact a duty to say something about it.
When confronted by Islamist terror, Amis believes, too many on the liberal left evade the truth: they see not a desolate and implacable ideology but misguided liberators whose cause is fundamentally righteous.
Where Amis’s eloquence is trained on anti-Americanism as an ideology, Simon Schama proffers instead its antidote. His The American Future (Bodley Head, £20) is both a history and a treatise on that most nebulous of constructs, hope. Our television don assumes a triangular perspective – daydreaming about the future as the past looms like a gently stirring branch at the window of the here and now. America’s history of violence is explored in considerable detail: from the obliteration of the Cherokee, to Gettysburg, to Vietnam. The liberty so prized by the early settlers, then, came at a cost to others; on the other hand, the country’s enduring racism and paranoia should be understood as inevitable by-products of being the world’s melting pot.
Convinced of America’s ability to reinvent itself once more in the 21st Century, Schama hoped for an Obama victory, and he got it. In the president-elect he sees a Jeffersonian figure salving the wounds of the bedraggled republic and renewing a sense of “common purpose.” Others tend, similarly, to see what they want to in Obama. One hopes he can be something more than that: his own man.