The best books on how to renew our divided societies

Paul Collier Author Of The Future of Capitalism: Facing the New Anxieties
By Paul Collier

Who am I?

Our societies have become increasingly polarised, both materially and psychologically. Our youth are riven with anxieties. Most people expect their children’s lives to be worse than their own. This reflects a staggering failure across business, politics, and public institutions. Fortunately, an intellectual revolution has begun that is resetting our course: you can become part of it. My own life has straddled these increasingly bitter tensions. My parents left school at 12, and we lived in a city whose industry moved to Korea so the jobs evaporated. The lives of my relatives collapsed, but by fortune’s wheel, I became a professor at Oxford, Harvard, and Paris. We can reverse such cruel divides: I want to share what I have learned from my work and my life to show how we can do it.

I wrote...

The Future of Capitalism: Facing the New Anxieties

By Paul Collier,

Book cover of The Future of Capitalism: Facing the New Anxieties

What is my book about?

From world-renowned economist Paul Collier, a candid diagnosis of the failures of capitalism and a pragmatic and realistic vision for how we can repair it.

Deep new rifts are tearing apart the fabric of the United States and other Western societies: thriving cities versus rural counties, the highly skilled elite versus the less educated, wealthy versus developing countries. As these divides deepen, we have lost the sense of ethical obligation to others that was crucial to the rise of post-war social democracy. So far these rifts have been answered only by the revivalist ideologies of populism and socialism, leading to the seismic upheavals of Trump, Brexit, and the return of the far-right in Germany. We have heard many critiques of capitalism but no one has laid out a realistic way to fix it, until now.

In a passionate and polemical book, celebrated economist Paul Collier outlines brilliantly original and ethical ways of healing these rifts--economic, social, and cultural--with the cool head of pragmatism, rather than the fervor of ideological revivalism. He reveals how he has personally lived across these three divides, moving from working-class Sheffield to hyper-competitive Oxford, and working between Britain and Africa, and acknowledges some of the failings of his profession.

The books I picked & why

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The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It

By Robert D. Putnam,

Book cover of The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It

Why this book?

The Upswing is the culminating triumph of Robert Putnam’s work on ‘social capital’, - the glue that binds people into a community. Although his book charts the trajectory of an American tragedy – the erosion of community in America over the past 60 years, it comes with an uplifting message. He shows that America has climbed out of a society rabid in self-obsession before. That upswing began around 1900 and was build bottom-up, as people came together, community-by-community. What happened then – an ‘inflection point’ in which new ideas and brute shocks combined to change the downward trajectory, is underway once again. Putnam, a top professor at Harvard, is the world’s most distinguished political sociologist, but don’t be alarmed: Upswing is a joy to read.

The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous

By Joseph Henrich,

Book cover of The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous

Why this book?

Don’t be by the weirdest title in the world, this is another landmark book and it perfectly complements The Upswing. Combining deep social history, - Europe in the Early Middle Ages – with revolutionary research on evolutionary biology, it shows how a distinctive inflection point fortuitously broke the otherwise universal practice of kin-group mating. This gradually released parts of Europe into forging the purposive social capital that Putnam celebrates. Nor need you be deterred by Heinrich’s polymath credentials – he currently heads Harvard’s Department of Evolutionary Biology, but could equally hold chairs in Anthropology or Economics – he writes beautifully for a general audience.

The Tyranny of Merit: What's Become of the Common Good?

By Michael J. Sandel,

Book cover of The Tyranny of Merit: What's Become of the Common Good?

Why this book?

Tyranny is the landmark book that is moral philosophy’s contribution to the inflection point. Its fundamental concept of ‘contributive justice’ magnificently supersedes Rawls’ dated ‘distributive justice’. To give you a glimpse of two profound works, Rawls invoked some moral gymnastics involving a hypothetical withdrawal from society to a veil of ignorance about a hypothetical lottery of how a hypothetical national cake might be cut up. Sandel places us firmly back in our society and focuses on the agency needed for the moral duty to contribute to the baking of our national cake. Sandel, again at Harvard, is the most famous philosopher in the world, his superb online lectures have been so downloaded that they have triggered complaints from lesser philosophers fearing redundancy. Tyranny will shift your moral compass, but don’t be scared.

Radical Uncertainty: Decision-Making Beyond the Numbers

By Mervyn King, John Kay,

Book cover of Radical Uncertainty: Decision-Making Beyond the Numbers

Why this book?

It’s time for some economics. I am embarrassed to say that following the Global Financial Crisis my profession has fallen into acute disarray, its models have proved to be utterly inadequate. Radical Uncertainty in the landmark book explains why this was the case. Economists had reduced all unknowns to quantifiable probabilities, which could then be inserted into models and managed by diversification and insurance. Unfortunately, the world is not like that: with disturbing frequency, people, businesses, and societies are hit by ‘unknown unknowns’ like COVID. Managing uncertainty requires an approach quite alien to economics, its priorities being the resilience of strategies such as built-in redundancy, and rapid recovery that comes from decentralised experiments around a common purpose. Kay was once Britain’s boy-wonder of mathematical economics; King was once a top professor of finance who became the Governor of the Bank of England. Heroically, they have recanted the ideas they once taught. Fortunately for the lay reader, they know how to write.

Reimagining Capitalism in a World on Fire

By Rebecca Henderson,

Book cover of Reimagining Capitalism in a World on Fire

Why this book?

The rise of the selfish society was given massive impetus by Milton Friedman’s 1970 dictum that the sole responsibility of business was to maximise profits for shareholders. ‘Greed is good’ spread through business schools, and by the 1990s their students had risen to the boardrooms, - a corporate contagion. Reimagining Capitalism is therefore heartening in its message, its timing, and its provenance. Its message is the categorial refutation of Freidman: when profit becomes the purpose, instead of simply necessary for the sustainability of a larger purpose, it blights lives and ruins businesses. Its timing coincides with the American Business Forum – over 180 of America’s top CEOs – rescinding their endorsement of the Friedman mantra, which for nearly thirty years they had endorsed. The inflection point is upon capitalism. Its provenance could not be more impeccable: Rebecca Henderson holds the highest rank of chair – University Professor - at Harvard Business School. Business’s pope has pronounced Friedman a heretic.

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