Review of Yanis Varoufakis (2017), Adults in the Room: My Battle with Europe’s Deep Establishment, London: The Bodley Head.
Appeared in Inference: International Review of Science 4 (3), March 2019.
What a strange book—strange but indispensable nevertheless. From January to July 2015, Yanis Varoufakis served as the Greek government’s finance minister. Adults in the Room is an account of his battle with what he calls Europe’s deep establishment. It is often self-indulgent, sometimes sentimental. He also takes pains to show he is human. He describes his happy marriage. He takes dinner with friends. He remembers his student days, and argues with his daughters. He encounters German secret service agents who unaccountably urge him to continue fighting the good fight. His mistakes he assigns to a nature that is too trusting given the intrigues both abroad and at the court of Alexis Tsipras, his prime minister and the leader of Syriza.
And yet, the book is indispensable. For whom? For the journalists who helped the masters of Europe get rid of Varoufakis; for the armies of European functionaries, les ronds-de-cuir; and, one might hope, for teachers and students of the policy sciences. Varoufakis’s book provides an honest account of how our world is governed. It will be plausible to anyone who has tried to make sense of political life without falling victim to the charm of political power. (…)
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Review of Joshua B. Freeman (2018), Behemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World, New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Appeared in London Review of Books 41 (3), 2019, 29-31.
It was in the early 1960s, I think, that our class at a small-town Gymnasium made a trip to south-western Germany, accompanied by several teachers. We visited Heidelberg and Schwetzingen and similar places without really seeing them; 17-year-old boys have other things on their minds. But we also went to Rüsselsheim, near Frankfurt, for a tour of the Opel car factory. I had never imagined that a place like this could exist: the deafening noise, the dirt, the heat, and in the middle of it all, people stoically performing minute predefined operations on the cars-in-the-making that were slowly but relentlessly moving past their work stations. The high point of the visit was the foundry in the basement – which, as I now learn from Joshua Freeman’s marvellous book, was the standard place for foundries in car factories of that era. Here, where the heat seemed unbearable and there was almost no light, half-naked men carried the molten metal, red-hot, from the furnace to the casting stations in small buckets filled to a back-breaking weight. Trained in the classics rather than the real world, I felt I had entered the workshop of Hephaestus. Looking back, I think it was on that day I decided to study sociology, which I then believed could help me and others to improve the lives of those slaving away in the basements of factories everywhere. (…)
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Review of Joseph Vogl (2017), The Ascendancy of Finance, trans. Simon Garnett, Cambridge: Polity Press.
First published in German as Der Souveränitätseffekt (2015), Zürich-Berlin: diaphanes.
Appeared in New Left Review 110, March-April 2018, pp. 141-150
Like blood in Goethe’s Faust, money ‘is a very special fluid’. It circulates in the body political-economic, whose sustenance depends on its liquidity.  And it is surrounded by mystery. In fact, money is easily the most unpredictable and least governable human institution we have ever known. Allegedly invented as a general equivalent, to serve as an accounting unit, means of exchange and store of value, it has over time penetrated into the remotest corners of social life, constantly assuming new forms and springing fresh surprises. Even Keynes had to admit that his attempt at A Treatise on Money (1930) ran into ‘many problems and perplexities’. How money came to be what it is today, in capitalist modernity, may perhaps with the benefit of hindsight be reconstructed as a process of progressive dematerialization and abstraction, accompanied by growing commodification and state sponsorship. But how money functions in its present historical form is more difficult to say; where it is going from here, harder still. This social construction has always been beset with, and driven by, unanticipated consequences—caused by human action, but not controlled by it. (…)
Review of Bruno Amable (2017), Structural Crisis and Institutional Change in Modern Capitalism: French Capitalism in Transition, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Appeared in ILR Review 71 (2), 2018, 550-552.
This book is historical-institutionalist political economy at its best. Obviously it is on industrial relations, but it is also, as it should be, on capitalism and the state, on politics and markets, and most important, on their dynamic over time. One thing that we learn (unless we have learned it previously) is that industrial relations cannot be understood outside of its capitalist-political context, and it must be conceived as a story, a movie, not a still, embedded in the long history of modern capitalist society. That history, quite appropriately, can be recounted as one of “modernization,” but not in the 1950s and 1960s American sense in which it stands for quiet, steady, universal, and basically self-driven development toward ever-higher levels of prosperity, democracy, and general happiness. Rather, what Bruno Amable identifies as modernization is a political project of a state under capitalism trying to design a regime that overcomes the dysfunctions of liberalism while avoiding the lure of socialism or communism—a perennial political search for a “Third Way” and for a political coalition capable of sustaining it that goes back to the beginning of capitalist industrialization in the 19th century. […]
Review of Jürgen Habermas, The Lure of Technocracy, Polity: Cambridge, 2015
European Political Science, Vol. 16 (2017), No. 2, 246-253. Manuscript finished January 18, 2016.
The book to be reviewed here – The Lure of Technocracy – is Jürgen Habermas’ latest statement on Europe, its crisis, its politics and its prospects. It is the English translation – a remarkably good one – of Im Sog der Technokratie (Habermas 2013). The German original came out as Volume XII of Kleine politische Schriften, a series that dates back to 1980 and which, according to Habermas (2013, 10), it is to conclude. The twelve volumes, all of them collections of occasional papers, interviews and public lectures produced alongside Habermas’ main works, have long become an object of wide admiration, in Germany and beyond, for their unique combination of political activism, profound scholarship and, not least, brilliant essayistic prose, and they can already now claim a prominent place in the political and cultural history of postwar Germany. The Lure of Technocracy consists of ten pieces from the last three or four years, seven of them more or less directly concerned with European integration and its crisis since 2008. (…)
Review of two books by Perry Anderson
London Review of Books, Vol. 39, No. 24, December 2017, pp. 25-26
What is the relationship between coercion and consent? Under what circumstances does power turn into authority, brute force into legitimate leadership? Can coercion work without consent? Can consent be secured without coercion? Does political power depend on voluntary agreement and values shared in common, or does it grow out of the barrel of a gun? When ideas rule, how is that rule maintained? Can associations of equals – built on common interests, ideas and identities – endure, or must they degenerate into empires kept together by force? Such questions go to the foundations of political theory and practice. There is no better way to explore them than by tracing the complex career of the concept of hegemony, from the Greeks to today’s ‘international relations’. That is the task undertaken by Perry Anderson in The H-Word and The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci. (Continue on lrb.co.uk – Paywall)
Review of three recent books on Germany
London Review of Books, Vol. 39, No. 9, May 2017, pp. 26-28
How could Germany of all countries have become a paragon, politically stable and economically successful, of democratic capitalism in the 1970s – ‘Modell Deutschland’ – and later, in the 2000s, Europe’s uncontested economic and political superpower? Any explanation must have recourse to a Braudelian longue durée, in which destruction can be progress – utter devastation turned into a lasting blessing – because capitalist progress is destruction, of a more or less creative sort. In 1945 unconditional surrender forced Germany, or what was left of its western part, into what Perry Anderson has called a ‘second round of capitalist transformation’ of the sort no other European country has ever had to undergo. Germany’s bout was a violent – sharp and short – push forward into social and economic ‘modernity’, driving it for ever from the halfway house of Weimar, in a painful dismantling of structures of political domination and social solidarity, feudal fetters which had held back the country’s capitalist progress and which, in locally different manifestations, continue to block capitalist rationalisation in many other European countries. (Continue on lrb.co.uk)