A new leftist critique of power and money.
Srećko Horvat is a Croatian philosopher and activist. With Yanis Varoufakis he started the Democracy in Europe Movement 2025. In Poetry from the Future, Horvat provides a critique of modern capitalism and the policy trends it has created from a leftist point of view. Most of the world's major ills – the overreach of information technology, increasingly authoritarian governments, climate change, the phenomenon of Donald Trump – all get examined in detail.
While Horvat's style can be dense and wordy at times (he is a philosopher after all, so can be forgiven for the many references to Hegel, Marx, etc.), he still manages to put across his point in a succinct manner. The basic takeaway of the book is that we all need to do our bit in chipping away at the seemingly impenetrable capitalist fortress that keeps our lives in check. Traditional activism, Horvat argues, is tired and isn't working particularly well. More is needed. That means individuals need to take more action in their daily lives if climate change and rampant capitalism is to be successfully tackled.
The sheer power that business and government wields against the everyday citizen, as grimly outlined in the book, can often be daunting. A feeling of helplessness often overtakes the reader. Nevertheless, for those seeking new ways of confronting establishment power, Poetry from the Future is informative and thought provoking.
Poetry from the Future: Why a Global Liberation Movement is our Civilisation's Last Chance, by Srecko Horvat. Penguin. $19.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Academics Clive Hamilton and Mareike Ohlberg examine how the Chinese Communist Party influences world affairs by stealth.
Following on from Clive Hamilton's Silent Invasion (2018), which investigated the influence of the Chinese Communist Party on Australia's politics and culture, comes Hidden Hand. This new book is written with Mareike Ohlberg and takes a global perspective, examining in granular detail how the CCP has slowly and quietly made its influence felt in business, politics and academia. In short, it uses money as leverage. Fear of having markets cut off or finance denied makes business leaders and politicians toe the China line, often parroting Xi Jinping's talking points. It's a creeping and insidious infiltration of Western democracy and business. Many of the guilty Western parties (economist Jeffrey Sachs is highlighted in the book) should really know better.
Hidden Hand makes for depressing reading. Its detail and exhaustive research, with its endless listing of names, government bodies and institutions, is often quite dizzying. That said, it's an important book that raises a lot of important questions. For several decades, we in the West have courted China, thinking of it as a capitalist democracy in the making. Instead, it has become increasingly autocratic.
Essential reading for the informed citizen.
Hidden Hand: Exposing How the Chinese Communist Party is Reshaping the World, by Clive Hamilton and Mareike Ohlberg. Published by Hardie Grant. $32.99
Jonathan Safran Foer explains the impact of diet on the environment.
Changes in diet may well be one of the most difficult requirements for reducing our carbon footprint. As novelist Jonathan Safran Foer discusses in his new book, We Are the Weather, emissions from livestock pose an enormous danger to the planet. Not only does livestock create methane and other emissions, but land cleared for grazing removes trees and foliage that would usually sequester carbon. A double hit to the environment. Some researchers even suggest that if the world went on a plant-based diet this would quickly and dramatically reduce carbon in the atmosphere.
No doubt this is all daunting to consider. Foer doesn't preach or thunder from on high about the need to eat more plants, and confesses to his lapses as a vegetarian. Indeed, for the most part, We Are the Weather addresses the psychology of inaction and draws parallels with historical examples of looming catastrophes that were ignored.
We Are the Weather is a book of ethical conundrums, a personal quest to find the right way to live. Melancholy reading for sure, sometimes confronting, yet searingly honest about our collective failure to act and what needs to be done.
We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast, by Jonathan Safran Foer. Published by Hamish Hamilton. $35
Review by Chris Saliba
Hop, Skip, Go: How the Mobility revolution will transform our lives and our planet: John Rossant and Stephen Baker
Two experts explain how we will travel in the future.
Cars are great, as long as everyone doesn't drive. When everyone does, congestion and dangerous emission levels are the result. Commuting by car in some major cities, such as Los Angeles, has become almost impossible. Traffic barely moves, resulting in lost hours better spent elsewhere. What to do?
Mobility expert John Rossant and business journalist Stephen Baker team up to present transport solutions from the future. They visit cities and tech start-ups that are pushing ahead with new, better ways to do travel. There are businesses trying to build cars with less of a carbon footprint, cutting edge ride-share services and apps galore to more efficiently marshal travel services. The authors even look at the possibilities of drones – either to carry online ordered packages or humans.
Most of the future's mobility revolution will be run not on fossil fuels, but on data. Our mobile phones will allow technologists to figure out the most efficient ways for us to get around. The downside, or course, will be the loss of privacy and surrendering so much of our personal data to big business and government.
Hop, Skip, Go is one of those technology books that likes to repeatedly predict how we will live in the future. At best, we're given an array of nascent technologies. Which ones take off, if any, is anyone's guess. Also, there are bound to be “black swans”, those unpredictable events that turn all received wisdom upside down. Having said that, Rossant and Baker have written a valuable book that explains why car travel has become untenable and the possible ways it might be wound back to some degree.
Hop, Skip, Go: How the Mobility Revolution Will Transform Our Lives and Our Planet, by John Rossant & Stephen Baker. Published by HarperCollins. $32.99
An excellent primer on emerging power struggles in our region.
How does the world balance China's emergence as a global super-power? What are the risks ahead? How do nation states dilute China's hegemony and avoid capitulation to its interests? These and other pressing questions are examined in Rory Medcalf's elegant and absorbing Contest for the Indo-Pacific.
The Indo-Pacific, a term first used in the mid-nineteenth century, is making a comeback in government circles, its geographically inclusive language seen as a bulwark against Chinese aspiration. Currently the region, spreading across East Africa to West Asia, is a strategic puzzle as countries jostle for power and position.
Medcalf, an academic and former diplomat, argues that the so-called Indo-Pacific's middle players – Japan, Australia, Indonesia, India, etc. - could collectively hold China's power in check. By mid-century, the combined economic and defence capability of these middle powers will match China's. Cooperation and coordination in such an alliance would not be easy, but could bring substantial benefits.
Contest for the Indo-Pacific provides a nuanced and subtle assessment of emerging power struggles in the region, with a strong focus on China. Optimistic, yet realistic about the possibilities of war and conflict, this is an essential guide for anyone – politician, policy specialist or informed citizen - interested in the future of the region.
Contest for the Indo-Pacific: Why China Won't Map the Future, by Rory Medcalf. Published by La Trobe University Press $32.99
Review by Chris Saliba
This review first published at Books + Publishing. Click here.
Niki Savva examines in forensic detail the 2019 election of the Morrison government.
Who were the plotters in Malcolm Turnbull's downfall, and why did they want him gone? And how did Scott Morrison come up the middle, surprising everyone to win the Liberal Party leadership? These questions and more are answered in Plots and Prayers, a detailed account of the tumultuous leadership challenges of 2018.
Author Niki Savva has worked both as a political journalist and as a Liberal staffer, giving her unique insights and a broad range of insider contacts. She brings all this into play, painting a drama of almost Shakespearean proportions, with a cast of ego driven, ambitious men and women, all sharpening their knives and either plotting or planning. The book is a stark, if ugly, reminder that politics is primarily about personalities, with policy coming a poor second.
What went wrong? A decade long war between two of the party's titans, Abbott and Turnbull, meant the Liberals were in constant turmoil. Turnbull didn't help. Brilliant, yes, difficult according to his friends, he was a poor communicator with a Quixotic streak who couldn't see what was happening around him.
Comprehensive and with a wealth of fascinating interview material, Niki Savva has given us a definitive document of the times.
Plots and Prayers, by Niki Savva. Scribe $35
Review by Chris Saliba
Chef, writer and farmer Matthew Evans tackles the thorniest of ethical issues concerning our food choices.
On Eating Meat investigates every aspect of meat production – ethical, economic, practical and environmental. In essence, argues Matthew Evans, Australians eat too much meat (three times the global average). Not only that, Australians want to eat cheap meat. And therein lies the problem. Cheap meat is ruinous to the environment, of questionable value to human health, especially when consumed in large quantities, and lastly, is terrible for animal welfare. The sections describing attempts to inspect intensive farming operations – piggeries and chicken factories, most notably – are worrying. Evans was blocked and frustrated at every step. Big corporate producers are secretive and defensive, not wanting the general public to see how they operate.
What is the solution to this problem? More consumer activism for a start, whether it be at the checkout or simply demanding better welfare standards. Evans believes the debate has been set solely by animal welfare activists, especially vegans, whereas meat eaters should be taking a leading role. Ideally, he would like to see vegans and carnivores come together to advocate for better animal welfare standards. While this seems unlikely, there are good arguments made in its favour. Evans shows that whether your diet is vegetarian or vegan, animals still die as a consequence. Orchards cull animals to protect their fruit, seasonal crops kill small animals, such as rodents, egg production involves feeding unwanted male chicks into mulchers and the dairy industry produces unwanted male calves, either killed on site or sent to market.
This is a book that always strives for honesty and balance, in what is often an ethical minefield. Matthew Evans leaves no stone unturned as he looks at food production and its impacts from all possible angles. Every reader will find some new fact to surprise and shock: commercial bees employed to pollinate food crops, the amount of bugs that end up in food, the rampant use of antibiotics to promote animal growth, the impact of feral cats on Australia's native wildlife, etc.
A book perhaps as important as Peter Singer's Animal Liberation for its thoughtfulness and intellectual rigour.
On Eating Meat: The Truth About Its Production and the Ethics of Eating It, by Matthew Evans. Published by Murdoch Books. $32.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Chloe Hooper, author of the acclaimed The Tall Man, returns with a fascinating and compelling chronicle of the Black Saturday fires.
Victoria experienced some of its worst bush fires in 2009. The so-called Black Saturday fires in the Latrobe Valley town of Churchill killed 173 people. The conflagration, a court found, was started deliberately by Brendan Sokaluk, a Churchill local.
Chloe Hooper’s chronicle of the fire, the detective work to find the culprit and the ensuing court case reads like a crime thriller. At the centre of the mystery is the child-like Brendan Sokaluk who never admits to intentionally lighting the fire. He maintains that he may have started it, by throwing a cigarette out a window. Sokaluk has very poor cognitive and social skills (although he is a skilled map drawer and has a superb memory for locations). During the trial, he appears totally unaware of what is happening around him, doodling with pen and paper during the proceedings and making childish jokes.
The Latrobe Valley backdrop to this terrible crime – its decomissioned Hazelwood power station, the poverty and lack of opportunity the area provides – makes for a fascination socio-economic portrait. When towns lose their main source of jobs and income, a brooding sense of hopelessness pervades everything, even the environment.
With its mix of detective mystery, social history and environmental science,The Arsonist is a story of Australia today.
Rivetting, fascinating and full of brilliant research.
The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire, by Chloe Hooper. Hamish Hamilton $34.99
Review by Chris Saliba
North Melbourne Books