Losing Reality: On Cults, Cultism and the Mindset of Political and Religious Zealotry by Robert Jay Lifton (New York: The Free Press, 2019). Lifton is a United States psychiatrist who helped to conceptualise the 1970s and 1980s debate on ‘thought totalism’ and brainwashing. This small book is a collection of Lifton’s insights on topics ranging from the Korean War and Nazi doctors to Aum Shinrikyo and President Donald Trump’s political psychology. Lifton observes that we have a ‘protean’ Self that can change and transform under existential and psychosocial pressures. A doorway to understanding the contemporary metapolitical issues in liberal democratic, authoritarian, and totalitarian societies.
The Twittering Machine by Richard Seymour (London: The Indigo Press, 2019). Seymour is a United Kingdom and Marxist-influenced social critic who has previously profiled the UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, prior to his disastrous 2019 election campaign. In this polemical book, Seymour looks at the addictive psychology that underpins the ‘social [media] industry’, and its emergent phenomena such as internet celebrities and trolling. One of the side-effects of this industry is a new immersive dynamic of writing, Seymour observes. This book is a reflective primer to think more deeply about how you interact with the internet and social media in a more mindful and strategic way.
Status: Why Is It Everywhere? Why Does It Matter? by Cecilia L. Ridgeway (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2019). Ridgeway is a Stanford University professor and sociologist and her publisher the Russell Sage Foundation is a major philanthropic investor in social inequality research. In this book Ridgeway advances a cultural schema of status as a form of social inequality, and how this informs the importance of status beliefs and the microdynamics of status. Ridgeway’s cultural schema framework builds on the earlier insights of sociologist Charles Tilly and others to explain how social stratification works in the United States.
The Man Who Solved The Market: How Jim Simons Launched The Quant Revolution by Gregory Zuckerman (New York: Penguin Books, 2019). Jim Simons is a former National Security Agency-affiliated cryptographer and Stony Brook University mathematician who in 1982 founded Renaissance Technologies: the world’s most profitable quantitative hedge fund. Zuckerman’s investigative reportage provides a glimpse of Renaissance’s black box and how Simons used pattern recognition to generate record profits from the financial markets. Robert Mercer – Renaissance’s co-Chief Executive Officer – was a major donor and strategist to President Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign.
The Gig Academy: Mapping Labor in the Neoliberal University by Adrianna Kezar, Tom DePaola and Daniel T. Scott (Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University, 2019). In the past two decades the elite status of academic tenure has steadily been eroded in the United States and in many other countries. This book surveys what has replaced it: a ‘neoliberal university’ of more short-term and fixed term contracts, a focus on obtaining external, competitive-based research funding, and resulting social stratification. The authors trace recent developments in the academic labour market to the ‘gig economy’: labour practices adopted from Uber and similar platform capitalists.
Poisoner In Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control by Stephen Kinzer (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2019). Sidney Gottlieb (1918-1999) was a United States chemist who spearheaded the Central Intelligence Agency’s now infamous MK-Ultra research program. Kinzer fills in some gaps about Gottlieb’s life; the medical and ‘special interrogation’ projects he oversaw in MK-Ultra; and how he dealt with United States Senate and public investigations into MK-Ultra’s abuses and legacy. There is plenty of conspiratorial myth-making about what Gottlieb did and what he did (or did not) achieve: Kinzer’s investigative reportage gets closer than most to what probably happened.
Capitalism Alone: The Future of the System That Rules the World by Branko Milanovic (Boston, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019). Milanovic is an influential economist and senior scholar at the City University of New York’s Stone Center on Socio-Economic Inequality. In this book he examines the political economy success of Liberal Meritocratic Capitalism; its challenger in Political Capitalism; and the implications for globalisation and the future of the capitalist economic system. An insightful and empirical data-informed analysis of the ‘hypercommercial’ world that is highly likely to emerge in the 21st century.
Fortress Russia: Conspiracy Theories in the Post-Soviet World by Ilya Yablokov (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2018). United States political discourse since its 2016 election outcome has been dominated by allegations of Russia’s political meddling. Less well understood is the metapolitical function of conspiracy theories in Russia itself and in post-Soviet nation-states. This book based on Yablokov’s doctoral dissertation advances some new explanations as to why and it also profiles some of the more leading and influential practitioners. For contrasting views, see Eliot Borenstein’s recent book Plots Against Russia: Conspiracy and Fantasy After Socialism (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2019) and Peter Pomerantsev’s This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality (London: Faber & Faber, 2019).