söndag 18 augusti 2013

Books I've read on my vacation (part 2)

"Books I've read recently" is a recurring topic and here is the previous blog post about the books that I read this summer. The books below have little in common except for the fact that I read them on my vacation.

Katherines Boo's prize-winning "Behind the beautiful forevers: Life, death and hope in a Mumbai slum" (2012) has rightly been praised for its portrait of the concerns and the lives of the people living in the Annawadi slum area right next to the Mumbai airport. India's economy has been growing in leaps and bounds, but not everyone in society benefits. Boo's book is a gripping tale of individual life destinies and of the severely limited choices that dirt-poor people face.

"almost no one in this slum was considered poor by official Indian benchmarks. [...] True, only six of the slum's three thousand residents had permanent jobs. (The rest, like 85% of Indian workers, were part of the informal, unorganized economy.). True, a few residents trapped rats and frogs and ate them for dinner. A few ate the scrub grass at the sewage lake's edge. And these individuals, miserable souls, thereby made an inestimable contribution to their neighbors. They gave those slumdwellers who didn't fry rats and eat weeds, like Abdul, a felt sense of their upward mobility. [but] For any two people in Annawadi inching up, there was one in a catastrophic plunge."

"Behind the beautiful forevers" is a book about many different things. It is among other things a tale of the corrosive effect of corruption and powerlessness on the poorest and weakest members of society. I had a hard time understanding how the book had been written since it describes events in the slum from the perspective of the people who live there. How could Boo, an American journalist, know so much, and how does she dare describe the actions and even the thoughts and very life philosophies of specific slum dwellers? It turns out she recurrently visited the slum for years and interviewed the same people over and over again (though translators). Boo's book is a great read and it allows for a view of something that is totally remote and even alien to anyone who reads this blog. It really is one of those books that can change your perspective on things. It also made me intensely thankful to live in an affluent, peaceful part of the world.

I've read Klein's "No Logo" (2000) and I bought her 2007 tome "Chockdoktrinen: Katastrofkapitalismens genombrott" [The shock doctrine: The rise of disaster capitalism], on a spur of the moment a year ago. It's a hefty, 600-page book which treats the links, or indeed the unholy alliance between (right-wing) politics, the Chicago school of economic thinking and financial and military oppression (or terror) during the last 40 years.

On an overarching level, it's a tale of how an oppressive, winner-takes-it-all economic system has made inroads in country after country during the last 40 years. Individual chapters treat different countries in a rough chronological order and describe how radical, deeply unpopular, and often previously-rejected free-market "reforms" are rushed in after "shocks" of different kinds (typically natural or financial disasters) hit a society. The ideology comes from the Chicago schools of economics (for decades led by frontman and Nobel laureate Milton Friedman), the impetuous from American companies and commercial interests, the military muscle and advisers from the US military or selected intelligence agencies (especially the CIA), and the torture methods (for handling those who protest the loudest and for shocking everyone else into silence) come from a 1960's CIA manual ("The Kubark manual"). This cocktail is Klein's "shock doctrine". The idea is to remake societies from the bottom up and "liberate" it from the shackles and "inefficiencies" of government regulation and government ownership (typically of infrastructure; mines, oil, energy, trains, postal services, telecommunications, water etc.).

Klein's story is compelling. It's hard to gauge her knowledge though of the myriad of topics she writes about and that she weaves together into one dramatic tale of the surrender of civil society to unholy military-economic-polical alliances.

"Spelet om staden" (2005) [the title is hard to translate and it's about the game or perhaps the gamble about the city] is part of a series of popular science books that Formas [The Swedish Research Council for Environment, Agricultural Sciences and Spatial Planning] publish. These are easy-to-read texts by, I presume, researchers who have gotten research grants from Formas. I started to read this book more than two years ago, put it aside, but took the opportunity to finish the book during my vacation.

It's a primer into some issues and the politics of how cities are planned and built, who gets a say etc. It's a complicated process with many stakeholders and with very long time horizons. The book was ok didn't make a huge impression on me even compared to other books in the same series that I have read before.

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