Welcome to the second edition of the LSEUPR ExCo Book Club: twice a term our five executive committee members recommend a book each for students and UPR followers to read. The books may be fiction or non-fiction, but will always have some value to those interested in politics.
“Anti-System Politics: The Crisis of Market Liberalism in Rich Democracies” by Jonathan Hopkin
Recommended by Jintao Zhu, Editor-in-Chief
Populism has been a popular political concept in the last few years. Many treat populism as irrational, emotional riots organized by the ignorant majority under the manipulation of the evil-intentioned political opportunists. This book provides a thought-provoking interpretation by reflecting on the mistakes of the democratic process and how these mistakes lead to the rise of populism. Populist movements have certain detrimental aims and impacts, but they and their supporters should not be demonized.
To me, the book highlights the danger of “perceived truths”. We must be extremely cautious in taking certain principles or ideologies as “rules that do not worth discussing but must be followed”, no matter in economics, politics or general policy making. When controversial ideas have become the consensus and off the policy debate table, it will be difficult to blame the depressed, sizable population to support unorthodox parties who are willing to overthrow the whole system in order to restart the debate?
“Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media” by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky
Recommended by Helen Ainsley, Deputy Editor-in-Chief
This excellent book repositions mainstream views of mass media’s function and ‘societal purpose’, arguing that while it superficially represents freedom of expression, this image does not correspond with the reality of its outpourings in America. The mass media is not, Herman and Chomsky argue, a rebellious, force for truth-seeking, nor an obstinate critic of governmental decisions. It does not provide the tools and information that would allow the public to seek out meaningful control over the political process. It instead abides by a propaganda model that serves to uphold and defend the agendas of elite groups that dominate both domestic society and the state itself. It does this in a variety of different ways, such as choosing which information or cases to present and confining debate to within purportedly ‘reasonable’ premises.
This book is vital to the process of enquiry into political phenomena, and certainly helped to widen my perspective when considering the realm of possibilities that a news story (or academic paper!) might entail, and how the narrative pushed by a certain media organisation could change my perspective of certain peoples or issues. It also facilitated my curiosity into critical theory because of my newfound awareness surrounding the narratives that certain theories, or papers, posit as objective truth, and what lay on the other side of these underlying assumptions.
“Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup” by John Carreyrou
Recommended by Kitty Thompson, Marketing Director
What do Henry Kissinger, Rupert Murdoch, Joe Biden and James Mattis have in common? They were all in some way involved with the infamous American pharmaceutical technology start-up Theranos. The true story of Theranos and its founder Elizabeth Holmes, as presented in Bad Blood, is definitely a wild one, but when viewed through a political lens the plot thickens. Evolving into a who’s who of the American elite, the real extent of elite networks in the US is revealed.
While an interest in Theranos is not the only thing these four men have in common, the ability for so many of the American elite to coalesce around one single startup is certainly indicative of wider socio-political power structures. Their shared preference for hopping on the Silicon Valley bandwagon without so much as the simplest of due diligence checks also highlights both the power of storytelling and the shaping of one’s own narrative in modern politics as well as the ease with which these can persuade even the most powerful members of society. Bad Blood is therefore perfectly able to capture political phenomena such as regulatory capture and the revolving door that exist within modern day political systems.
For anyone interested in power, politics, or even just a good story, Bad Blood delivers on all three counts.
“The Plague” by Albert Camus
Recommended by Florian Sichart, Research Director
In 1947, ten years before winning the Nobel Prize for Literature and 13 years before dying in a car crash, Algerian-born French writer Albert Camus published The Plague. The book chronicles a fictional outbreak of the bubonic plague in the Algerian coastal town of Oran, sometime in the 1940s.
I know what some of you might think now. After all, did I really have to remind you of the pandemic that is currently devastating our very own lives? And isn’t this blog supposed to feature politically relevant books instead of a mid-20th century fictional account of fictional people fighting a fictional pandemic? Yes, you’re right. But bear with me — I promise I have a point.
I chose to write about The Plague because — contrary to what the title suggests — it is not a book about a disease per se. Camus, staying true to his usual, incisively existentialist analysis of the human condition, tracks not only the physiological ramifications of the pandemic but instead focuses primarily on the sociological, psychological, and philosophical implications of such a fundamental shock to society. While doing so, his primary intent is allegorical: the Black Death serves to illustrate the effects, both on the individual and on the collective, of any contagion that may wreak havoc on society.
Such contagions need not be physiological; they span everything from diseases like AIDS or COVID-19 to corrosive ideologies like Totalitarianism or Fascism. As a result, for all those of us trying to make sense of any of the contagions that are currently either lingering within our societies or openly ravaging them, this book is a good starting point.
And while you read, keep in mind that Camus’ timeless masterpiece is timeless for a very simple — if disconcerting — reason: disruptions such as the one the author addresses here have occurred over and over again and will continue to do so in the future. “There have been as many plagues as wars in history,” Camus writes. “Yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.”
“Perestroika!: The Raucous Rebellion in Political Science” by Kristen Renwick Monroe
Recommended by Vernon Yian, Academic Director
In the summer of 2000, an anonymous email evocatively titled “On the irrelevance of APSA and APSR to the study of Political Science” was written by a “Mr Perestroika” to the editors of the American Political Science Review (APSR). The email contained 11 questions challenging the perceived methodological bias in American political science towards the quantitative, behavioural, rational choice and formal modelling approaches, while bemoaning the side-lining of ‘qualitative’ scholarship commonly associated with political sociology, critical theory, interpretivism and area studies. Alluding to the political and economic reforms during the perestroika and glasnost era of the Soviet Union, the email called for institutional changes to the APSR’s leadership to reflect the methodological plurality of a discipline broader than quantitative research.
Monroe’s edited volume contains the reflections of 39 American political scientists on the case for qualitative research and the movement’s implications on APSA governance, journal publication and graduate education. For the social scientist, the methodological tussle has since motivated hybrid approaches such as analytic narratives and mixed methods; and for the philosopher and historian of (social) science, the conflict indicates at broader epistemological tensions between positivism and constructivism-interpretivism, inference and description, amongst others.
Sitting between politics and philosophy (my degree programme), this easily-digestible volume had sparked my enduring interests in social scientific methodology—I hope you’ll be equally captivated!
Thank you for taking the time to read these book recommendations, we hope you have found a book you want to read. When you have read one of the books please do leave a comment at the end of this post to let us know your thoughts on it!
LSEUPR Executive Committee 2020/21