Prospect’s best books of 2021: ideas

From reforming capitalism to how to tackle gender-based violence
December 9, 2021

When Covid closed everything down, governments had to save the economy. Their most useful tool, argues historian Adam Tooze in Shutdown (Allen Lane), was quantitative easing (QE). Tooze calculates that, in 2020, some $18 trillion of government debt was issued by advanced economies. “The most spectacular surge in debt in peacetime,” he says, could only have been done with QE. Duncan Weldon’s Two Hundred Years of Muddling Through (Little, Brown) argues that more muscular intervention in the economy will only be accomplished through a wider overhaul of the British way of thinking.

Mariana Mazzucato agrees. Her Mission Economy (Allen Lane) proposes that we need to corral the state’s energies into risky moonshots—just as JFK did with space travel. The mission then needs translating into a target whose achievement can be monitored. According to ex-Bank of England governor Mark Carney, the missing ingredient in economics is morality. In Value(s) (William Collins), Carney says sustainable growth must be rooted in an ethical framework. LSE head Minouche Shafik, who was born in Egypt, is mindful of the need for social contracts to go with the grain of local traditions. But if one sentence sums up What We Owe Each Other (Bodley Head), as she told Prospect, it’s “do it like Denmark.”

Two big beasts of the Labour Party outlined their visions in 2021. Ed Miliband’s Go Big (Bodley Head), based on his podcast, is a chatty guide to the new ideas—big and small—that could transform lives. In one striking example, he shows how Preston council regenerated the city by borrowing from Lancashire’s pension fund. Former prime minister Gordon Brown paints an even bigger picture. In Seven Ways to Change the World (Simon & Schuster), he calls for a more powerful UN, WHO and World Bank. He wants these institutions to resolve critical problems created by “ungoverned spaces”—policy domains that reach beyond national borders.

Boundaries of a different sort were investigated in three new books about feminism, sex and power. On Violence and On Violence Against Women (Faber) by Jacqueline Rose addresses sexual harassment in universities as well as the Harvey Weinstein trial. In The Right to Sex (Bloomsbury), philosopher Amia Srinivasan delves into consent, pornography and the ideological shaping of desire. Here, the political isn’t just personal: it’s intimate. Model Emily Ratajkowski has lived out these theoretical debates. In My Body (Quercus), she admits that “I have been undeniably rewarded by capitalising on my sexuality.” Now she thoughtfully critiques the boyfriends, pop stars, photographers and managers who have exploited her—as well as the systems that enabled them. 

When she was pregnant, embryologist Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz discovered a chromosomal irregularity with her unborn child. After giving birth to a healthy baby, it took a decade for her to prove that an embryo has an extraordinary capacity for self-correction. In The Dance of Life (WH Allen)—with Roger Highfield—she says that “we are entering a new era, one where we can manipulate the cellular units of life as skilfully as a potter works clay.” An equally stunning scientific discovery took place in June 1925, when Werner Heisenberg examined atomic experiments that revealed a submicroscopic realm where a single atom could be in two places at once. Physicist Carlo Rovelli tells the story in Helgoland (Allen Lane), named after the island where Heisenberg was staying. 

In Islands of Abandonment (William Collins), Cal Flyn travels to the Amani nature reserve in Tanzania, where, in the early 20th century, German scientists created an “experimental arboretum” with hundreds of species of imported trees. Yet when the reserve was abandoned, its native species slowly began to reappear. 

A Swim in a Pond in the Rain (Bloomsbury) by George Saunders is an eagle-eyed breakdown of short stories by four great Russian writers: Chekhov, Tolstoy, Gogol and Turgenev. Based on a course he teaches in creative writing, the book will soon be extended on Substack. Sometimes the best ideas are shown, not told.

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