Culturally-significant texts – Across genres, across the ages



A Modest Proposal

A Modest Proposal
Jonathan Swift

“A burlesque of projects concerning the poor” it has been called. Swift’s little satire on commodification of human life, the ‘roll-up-your-sleeves’, ‘can-do’ attitude to social ills and the political economy of emergent industrial capitalism has become a standard cultural reference point, its title a part of everyday parlance. It’s the name of a student newspaper in Dallas, it is referenced in books and films and journalism regularly, and it even provided a major source of inspiration for the classic slasher film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Continue reading “A Modest Proposal”


The German Ideology

The German Ideology
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

Before there was The Communist Manifesto there was The German Ideology, Marx’ and Engels’ first thorough articulation of the theoretical framework that would come to be called Marxism – its historical materialism, its critique of capitalism, its idea of socialism. It is, really, an outline or notebook, a text in which Marx and Engels work through the insights and critical appraisals of other thinkers in order to set out what’s different about their own analysis. That is, The German Ideology is not the place to go for the most sophisticated or polished word on Marx’s framework; but it is the place to go to see how Marx got to his framework, how he put it all together in the early years, and where the origins lie of so many other of his and Engels’ works. Continue reading “The German Ideology”

Theory of the Leisure Class

The Theory of the Leisure Class
Thorstein Veblen

Economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen is a tough nut to crack. Half the time he wrote seriously, half the time he wrote satirically, and much of the time readers and even his own colleagues couldn’t tell which was which. Mostly he seemed to hate just about everything, reaching deep into human history and prehistory to make the point that the world of industrial liberal capitalism was in large part just more of the same human folly, vanity, and parasitism. Continue reading “Theory of the Leisure Class”

What Is To Be Done?

What Is To Be Done?
V. I. Lenin

There is, obviously, no single traceable text or single cause behind the rise of the Bolshevik Party, which seized power in Russia in 1917 to establish the world’s first socialist state and which would – rivaled only by the holocaust and the Second World War – come to define the twentieth century. If you’re looking for somewhere to begin, though, this little booklet by Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov – or V.I. Lenin as he is known – is a good choice. Theoretician, organizer and a key leader of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP), Ulyanov went into exile in 1900 after a number of years of communist propagandizing and organizing in Russia. In 1902, he took the alias “Lenin” and penned a short book that would shake the world. Continue reading “What Is To Be Done?”


Mikhail Gorbachev

Translated to English as ‘restructuring’, Perestroika was the term coined by then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev for his wide-ranging program of political and economic restructuring – a program which initiated a half-decade of rapid transition culminating in the collapse of the Soviet Union altogether, profound crisis for the socialist left around the world, and the end of the Cold War. The book, then, is not the significant issue here. Rather, it is important as a discussion of a tremendously-significant time in modern history and as a document of economic, geopolitical and cultural upheaval that re-drew the socio-political borders of the world in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Continue reading “Perestroika”

The End of History and the Last Man

The End of History and the Last Man
Francis Fukuyama

As the 1980s drew to a close and the walls – concrete and symbolic – around what was the Soviet bloc crumbled, American political philosopher Francis Fukuyama turned Marx on his head and dusted off Hegel to produce an analysis that was immensely popular and immensely controversial – political history was at its end; the great battle of ideas had been won; society had within its sights “the final form of human government”: western liberal democracy. Wow. Big claim. Everywhere the free market, the multi-party electoral system, the regime of liberal rights had triumphed or was soon to triumph and no where no way no how could anything ever challenge its dominance again.

Expanding on his own 1989 essay, “The End of History”, the book argued that history was an evolutionary process, and though events, conflicts, transitions would still occur, liberal democracy had become the universal ideal, the standard for political governance, and no other system could forseeably replace it. There may be steps backward, there may be alternatives proposed and attempted – in the grand march of history, however, there could be nothing better, but only a further consolidation of the basic tenets and institutions of liberal democracy.

For those who liked to think of themselves as victors in the Cold War, Fukuyama’s analysis was touted as the academic messiah, the philosophical explanation for western triumph. For critics, however, it was less genuine triumph and more triumphalism, a short-sighted analysis that took a temporary state of affairs and generalized its universality and timelessness, and operated more as propaganda for the post-Cold-War order than sophisticated political theory. The End of History, that is, simply outlined the basic principles of an existing state of affairs and attempted to explain these as some moral good rather than a political-economic order. Any facts that contradicted the argument were simply ignored, as were very real and continuing political, cultural and ideological conflicts across large swaths of the globe.

In the years since its initial publication, The End of History has seen its fair share of detractors. And since 2001, particularly, many have suggested Fukuyama’s claims have proven premature and overly-simplistic. Many, though, still hold fast to the basic thesis, and the notion that liberal democracy is as good at is gets and constitutes a universal political morality like nothing else, continues to hold sway.

The Wealth of Nations

The Wealth of Nations
Adam Smith

The definitive theory of the free market, the basic economic premise of the current order, the very foundation of what we call economics – if all of sociology is a dialogue with Karl Marx, all of economic theory is dialogue with Adam Smith. An economist and philosopher of morality, Smith’s Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations analyzed the emerging industrial revolution and its attendant economic framework to produce the theory of the free market as we know it and to situate that particular economic arrangement in a broader analysis of human nature and human morality.

The few-sentence summary? We have natural instincts of both duty and self-interest that together cause us to behave, overall, in ways that are socially-beneficial; economically-speaking, the ideal arrangement is one free of domination by either monopolies or the state, in which the creativity of and competition among producers allows for a stable and expanding economy. In pursuing our own individual interests and allowing our produce/ skills to be judged and assigned a value by the free operation of the market, we achieve a society that grows stronger as a result of natural competition. The market is, in effect, an ‘invisible hand’ guiding productive development, and by which the pursuit of individual ends brings positive collective results. (Or, as Keynes put it, critically and somewhat unfairly to Adam Smith, at least, though less unfairly to his followers – “the extraordinary belief that the nastiest of men, for the nastiest of reasons, will somehow work for the benefit of us all.”)

Increasing complexity in the division of labour, the centrality of industrial technology for boosting production, the role of exchange and development of currency, the relationship between labour and scarcity in determining prices of commodities in the marketplace, the relationship between capital and labour, the role of the state in economic activity, debt, taxation, the opportunities and inequalities produced by the market – it’s all here in Adam Smith, who with David Ricardo and Thomas Malthus forms the great triumvirate of neoclassical economic theory.

Small Is Beautiful

Small is Beautiful
E. F. Schumacher

History repeats itself, the fist time as tragedy the second time as…well, worse. Small Is Beautiful was economist Schumacher’s response to the global economic and energy crises of the early 1970s, and if you’re looking for either a case of deja vu or a reason to reflect on humankind’s unique ability to learn absolutely nothing, then this book is for you.

A collection of essays on ecology and economics, the seminal Small Is Beautiful tackled not just capitalism but the very premise of a growth-based economy, seeing the 1973 oil crisis as the beginning of the end for the global economic order as it was. The first stirrings of what we know as globalization, the first clear indications of ecological collapse, the bankruptcy of an economics whose funamental premise was ‘bigger faster more’. And the possibility, instead, of a local, needs-based way of doing economic life that was both socially and environmentally stable.

The organic food movement, sustainable development, the ecological footprint, fair trade, decentralization, peak oil – Schumacher didn’t invent these. Schumacher doesn’t necessarily talk about them, nor was he in any direct way the father of the current movement. But all of the above arise from a basic analysis to which E.F. Schumacher was a major contributor. His Small Is Beautiful was a hugely important text in the 1970s, and one of the major intellectual foundations of the alternative economics and growing environmental movements of that decade, and remains profoundly important for anyone interested in the current economic and ecological crisis. Or, more to the point, it’s profoundly important for all of us; but a must-read for those who are not content to ignore this crisis like we all tried to do after 1973.

An Essay on the Principle of Population

An Essay on the Principle of Population
Thomas Malthus

One of the most important non-fiction books of its day, and still a classic of economic thought, Malthus’ theory of population continues to influence thinking on resource use, distribution, demographics and population health – and continues, too, to inspire significant controversy and debate.

Originally published anonymously, …The Principle of Population outlined the Reverend Thomas Malthus’ “iron law of population” – that continued population growth would increase the supply of labour and drive down wages, ultimately triggering crises that would only be resolved by significant population loss. War, famine, and disease would signal severe population crisis, and result in widespread and furious struggles for survival until such time as the population was reduced to manageable numbers – only, however, a temporary relief, before the cycle repeated itself.

Malthus’ solution? Active state management of populations, through the enacting of poor laws, celibacy for those deemed ‘unproductive’, discouragement of charity, and higher wages for those who were working productively. Attacked as lacking in morality and effectively promoting an increase in social inequality and the use of state power to control the poor, Malthus’ book has for over 200 years been both a central target of reformers and radicals and a foundational text of classical economic theory.

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