Best Political Economy Books of 2022

Gabor Scheiring

1) The Economic Weapon: The Rise of Sanctions as a Tool of Modern War, by Nicholas Mulder, Yale University Press, January 2022

Economic sanctions against Russia in response to invading Ukraine: this was one of the biggest novelties of international economic policy in 2022. Do such sanctions work? If yes, what do they achieve? How were economic sanctions invented, and what does history tell us about their efficiency? These are the questions that Nicholas Mulder, an economic historian at Cornell, set to answer in his book, The Economic Weapon.

Tracing the use of economic sanctions from the blockades of World War I to the policing of colonial empires and the interwar confrontation with fascism, Nicholas Mulder uses extensive archival research in political, economic, legal, and military history that reveals how a coercive wartime tool was adopted as an instrument of peacekeeping by the League of Nations. This timely study casts an overdue light on why sanctions are widely considered a form of war and why their unintended consequences are so tremendous. First developed in the early twentieth century to exploit the flows of globalization to defend liberal internationalism, sanctions can have devastating consequences for the target populations. However, achieving their stated goals is a different issue. Despite being able to afflict great economic pain, sanctions are often inefficient as political tools. Mulder’s book is a masterful economic history, digging deep into the controversial history of economic sanctions.

2) A Brief History of Equality, by Thomas Piketty, Harvard University Press, April 2022

In his powerful new work, A Brief History of Equality, Thomas Piketty reminds us that the grand sweep of history gives us reasons to be optimistic. While Piketty’s previous books are around a thousand pages each, enough to discourage many motivated citizens from reading them, this latest addition offers a friendly 300-pages review of the main lessons from those earlier books. As such, A Brief History of Equality will not revolutionize political economy, but it will surely reach a much bigger audience than the previous editions.

Explaining the basic facts of inequality and the reasons for its persistence and recent growth, the new book also presents a new perspective on the history of inequality. It offers a more optimistic reading of human society, foregrounding the positive developments over the long term. With the French and American Revolutions and the revolt of the slaves in Haiti in 1791, there was a general movement toward equality. The march has been nourished by revolts against injustice within countries and internationally, moving us away from societies of privilege and colonialism. It is a movement that has never completely stopped.

The book reminds us that we need to learn from history and recommit to what works, to institutional, legal, social, fiscal, and educational systems that promote equality. Piketty argues that ending the free movement of capital without tax or social compensation is necessary to continue the march toward more equality. In response to readers’ criticisms, Piketty paid more attention to the environment. The wealthiest 1% on the planet emits more carbon than the poorest 50%. Only a substantial reduction of inequalities and the significant involvement of the wealthiest countries will resolve these contradictions.

3) White But Not Quite: Central Europe’s Illiberal Revolt, By Ivan Kalmar, Bristol University Press, April 2022

In this startling and original book, Ivan Kalmar joins the fledgling new narrative arguing that Central European illiberalism is a misguided response to the devastating effects of global neoliberalism, which arose from the area’s brutal transition to capitalism in the 1990s. A prejudice Kalmar calls’ Eastern Europeanism’ conjures up the image of a desperate, destitute region rife with exploitation by a corrupt elite, where most people will do anything for a euro or a dollar. This demoralized population, moreover, seems culturally inclined to support autocratic governments. They appear to be congenitally antisemitic, Islamophobic, homophobic, and racist. Eastern Europeanist prejudice functions as a binary divider, picturing Eastern Europe as the direct opposite of the West. It also functions as a gradual distinguisher, with each country to the East in Europe imagined as progressively less Western, including in their own minds. Kalmar argues that these dismissive attitudes towards ‘Eastern Europeans’ are a form of racism closely intertwined with the region’s economic dependence. He shows that authoritarianism and intolerance are not inherent to the Eastern European or any people’s psyche. Musings about the distinctiveness of Eastern European culture and character provide the wrong explanation of the illiberal ascendancy in Central Europe.

However, Kalmar goes beyond the trope of Eastern Europe as a post-colonial hinterland and explores the close relation between racism towards Central Europeans and racism by Central Europeans. The book’s title is an apt summary of this political-economic and cultural position of in-betweenness: a people “white but not quite.” White privilege has never been granted to all white groups equally. Eastern Europe has remained a white periphery, comparable to the depopulating countryside and the rustbelts of the West, where – there too – some people support illiberal leaders, such as Marine Le Pen or Donald Trump. These people are angry that their access to white privilege is being frustrated by the ‘elites,’ some of whom are, increasingly, not even white.

Long-simmering tensions between the Western members of the European Union and its ‘new’ Eastern members – Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary – have proven to be fertile ground for rebellion against liberal values and policies. However, Kalmar reminds us that this rebellion against liberal values is not simply a cultural backlash against cosmopolitanism. The region’s desire to catch up and evade the status of being a colony of Western multinational companies is a central motive behind the region’s illiberal turn. Kalmar’s book, White But Not Quite, shows that Central Europeans’ anti-liberalism is essentially a reaction to their exclusion from privileges reserved for the core Western countries of the North Atlantic.

4) Cannibal Capitalism: How Our System Is Devouring Democracy, Care, and the Planet—and What We Can Do About It, by Nancy Fraser, Verso Books, September 2022

Nancy Fraser, one of the best-known theorists of capitalism today, has written a book that presents a concise and opinionated summary of her arguments developed over the past two decades. Capital is cannibalizing every sphere of life – guzzling wealth from nature and racialized populations, sucking up our ability to care for each other, and gutting the practice of politics — argues Fraser.

Beyond her eloquent prose and wit, what makes Fraser a unique thinker is her ability to rely on a broad combination of Marxist, feminist, and institutionalist theories. She conceptualizes capitalism not only as an economic system but as an all-encompassing form of society. Capitalism is also about the relation between what we think of as the economic realm and a whole set of other institutions and societal arenas that support the economy. One of the most important institutions is the family, which nurtures, cultivates, socializes, and, in general, reproduces the personnel for the economy. Political systems are another necessary support: the infrastructure, public goods, legal systems, and repressive forces. However, the economic processes that depend on those background conditions are also hardwired to demolish and “cannibalize” them.

Relying on this broad, Marxist social reproduction approach, Nancy Fraser unpacks capitalism’s historically shifting, interlaced dynamics, revealing the interrelations between seemingly disparate crises and social violences. These crisis points all come to a head in Covid-19, which Fraser argues can help us envision the resistance we need to end the feeding frenzy. The book concludes with an argument for the need for progressives to work together to create a society protected against capital’s insatiable appetite.

5) The Capital Order: How Economists Invented Austerity and Paved the Way to Fascism, by Clara E. Mattei, University of Chicago Press, November 2022

In The Capital Order, political economist Clara E. Mattei explores the intellectual origins of austerity to uncover its originating motives: protecting capital — and capitalism — in times of social upheaval from below. This is a powerful argument: the primary purpose of austerity is not to restore macroeconomic balance but to restore capital’s power.

When a new crisis hits, debts start to mount, and the economy seems to lose competitiveness, governments resort to austerity — cuts to wages, fiscal spending, and public benefits — as a path to solvency. Mattei shows that these policies are successful instruments to appease creditors and restore their confidence in the economy. However, austerity also has devastating effects on social and economic welfare in countries worldwide.

Mattei’s book, The Capital Order, traces modern austerity to its origins in interwar Britain and Italy, revealing how the threat of working-class power in the years after World War I animated a set of top-down economic policies that elevated owners, smothered workers, and imposed a rigid economic hierarchy across their societies. Where these policies “succeeded,” relatively speaking, was in their enrichment of certain parties, including employers and foreign-trade interests, who accumulated power and capital at the expense of labor. Drawing on newly uncovered archival material from Britain and Italy, much of it translated for the first time, The Capital Order, offers a damning and essential new account of the rise of austerity at the levers of contemporary political power.

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