Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain – review

Journalist James Bloodworth’s story of being ‘embedded’ for six months as a zero-hours worker is vital reading for all

We perpetrate a swindle every time we use that hip phrase “the gig economy” to describe the modern labour market. If we wanted to be accurate, we could call it the “piece-rate” or the “precarious” economy. If we wanted to be polemical, we would call it the “rapacious” or the “boss-takes-all” economy. Silicon Valley’s success in prompting us to talk of “the gig economy” instead suggests that exploited men and women are the equivalent of rock stars, nipping into a club for a surprise session one night and heading off to Glastonbury the next. Far from being beaten down by lives of grinding insecurity, workers are freewheeling bohemians liberated from the routines that tied down their boring parents.

By allowing the myth that drudgery is freedom to pass unchallenged, we have ...

How Democracies Die review – the secret of Trump’s success

Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt have written a fascinating – and alarming – account of how the US shook off its democratic safeguards and gave the world Donald Trump

History, the surprisingly fashionable Alexander Hamilton remarked in 1787, teaches that men who overthrow republics begin “by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues and ending tyrants”.

In other words, dictators do not always arrive at the head of columns of troops. When they seize the television stations, they do not send in soldiers but party loyalists who promise to end “fake news”. They do not need to imprison judges, just pack their courts and rewrite the constitution to make opposition impossible. They win democratic elections, then dismantle democracy.

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To Kill the President by Sam Bourne review – has Trump saved the thriller?

Having a sociopath in the White House has helped resurrect a genre that seemed short of ideas, as this all-too-plausible page-turner provesIn normal circumstances, To Kill the President would be just another thriller. “Sam Bourne” is the pseudonym of Jonathan Freedland, a senior figure on the Guardian, our sister paper. Freedland is always worth reading, of course. But a book that began with US officials scrambling to stop their president replying with a nuclear strike to mockery of his manhood from North Korea would have seemed ridiculous only a year ago. Everyone knows the North Koreans would retaliate by reducing Seoul to rubble. Readers would not just have to suspend their disbelief but send it off on holiday, if those same representatives of the Washington deep state had then concluded that the only safe option was to assassinate their commander-in-chief. Continue reading...

Post-truth review – Nick Cohen on three timely books

Matthew d’Ancona, James Ball and Evan Davis examine fake news and its corrosive impact on western democracy If the medium is the message, then the message of the web is “bullshit”. Long before today’s crisis, the American philosopher Harry Frankfurt broke from the conventions of a discipline not known for its plain speaking and explained Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Andrew Wakefield, the Canary, Breitbart, Putin propagandists, Holocaust deniers, climate change fantasists, truthers, birthers, Salafists, sexbots and Mr Michael Gove of the London Times. Liars respect truth in their way, wrote Frankfurt in his 2005 essay On Bullshit. They care about it enough to know what the truth is and find ways to suppress it. Bullshitters are more dangerous. They neither know nor care whether what they say is true or false, only whether they can advance their interests by fooling the gullible. Continue reading...

The Shortest History of Germany review – probing an enigma at the heart of Europe

James Hawes’s brief yet rewarding history of Germany examines its place in a continent in the throes of upheavalIn AD843, Charlemagne’s grandsons divided his empire like mafia bosses parcelling out territory. Louis received the land we were to later call Germany. A large part of it had been in the Roman empire, lying behind the Limes Germanicus, the great wall the Romans built to keep out the barbarians to the east. Cologne, Stuttgart, Vienna, Bonn, Mainz and Frankfurt, all the greatest cities of the future West Germany and Austria, with the exception of Hamburg, grew up within or in the immediate shadow of Rome’s western empire. Louis knew where his kingdom began – Germany began at the Rhine, of course. He knew, too, that at its heart were territories that were now Catholic lands and had once been part of the Roman empire. But where did Germany end? He wasn’t ...

Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World by Timothy Garton Ash – review

This urgent, encyclopedic study explores what freedom of speech means in an age of diversity Freedom is worthless if it is not lived. However important rights are in a constitutional democracy, they will wither unless you use them. From John Milton’s polemics against the Presbyterian attempts to enforce Calvinist censorship on the England of the 1640s, via John Stuart Mill’s rebellion against the conformism of the Victorians, to Salman Rushdie’s argument with the Islamists, the urge to defend and expand freedom of speech has been created by the threats of its enemies What applies to great writers applies to everyone else. No one thinks hard about freedom of speech until they are forced to. In Timothy Garton Ash’s case, the pressure came from within. Continue reading...

Chronicles: On Our Troubled Times by Thomas Piketty – review

Eight years on from the banking crisis, Thomas Piketty’s calls for financial reform are still ignored. This collection of articles finds him undiminished in his beliefs

Thomas Piketty depresses as much as inspires. Read him and you become convinced that western democracies have set themselves problems they no longer have the will to solve.

Democracy’s superiority to dictatorship is not that democratic leaders are necessarily more virtuous than dictators are. Nor can anyone but a cockeyed optimist believe that democratic publics are by definition always clever and benevolent. Democracies’ great advantage is meant to be that they have a rubbish chute. When leaders and policies fail, we shove them through it and replace them with something better.

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Party Animals: My Family and Other Communists by David Aaronovitch review – at home with the hard left

The columnist’s account of his Marxist upbringing is compassionate and wiseWhen the Soviet Union fell, my grandfather’s second wife did not share the wonderment at the passing of one of the most terrible regimes humanity has seen. She felt as if her life had been wasted, and hinted that her one consolation was that my grandfather had not lived to see it. “How could you?” I thought as I listened. The same question powers David Aaronovitch’s account of his communist upbringing, and takes it far beyond the boundaries of memoir into an often moving and always wise examination of the legacies of childhood. Continue reading...

Number 11 by Jonathan Coe review – a spider woman snares the super rich

Jonathan Coe captures expertly the insecurities of a sick Tory Britain – but he also reveals a few of his own

A few years ago, Jonathan Coe denounced the dominance of comedy in British culture. A country where Have I Got News for You had political significance was in danger of sinking “giggling into the sea”, as Peter Cook had once warned. At best, political comedy encouraged an easy cynicism about everyone in public life. At worst, it substituted sniggers for protests. It certainly didn’t change society. Boris Johnson and other slippery political operators responded by adopting comic personas of their own, and neutered well-founded attacks by showing they could give and take jokes as well as any standup.

The critique reappears in Coe’s state-of-the-nation satire, Number 11. A detective investigating the murder of celebrity comedians reads an anonymous blogpost. Comedians who turn corrupt politicians and rightwing newspaper columnists into jokes, ...

The Great British Dream Factory: The Strange History of Our National Imagination by Dominic Sandbrook – review

A history of British popular culture is learned and exuberant but fails to answer why it’s in decline

If you had told a British television executive 40 years ago that television drama would be the great art form of the early 21st century, he (for it would have been a he, with long hair, flared trousers and a hungry ambition) would have been in no doubt that British drama would still be “the envy of the world”.

In those days, the British compensated for the loss of empire by abandoning our “quintessential” understatement and bragging like drunks at a bar. We were the greatest. We were the tops. We had the best health service, best police force, best judiciary, best monarchy and, of course, best television.

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Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar review – deft and skilful

A formidable account of Rome’s terrifying first dynasty doesn’t skirt the cruelty and depravity

Writers have always conscripted the Caesars to fight their battles. In 1934, Robert Graves turned Claudius into a liberal surrounded by tyrannical monsters, not so different from the tyrants who surrounded Graves in the 1930s. During the sexual revolution of the 1960s, Gore Vidal assailed Americans’ belief that monogamous heterosexuality was “normal” by showing them that the Roman emperors abused men and women, boys and girls with bisexual abandon. Contemporaries did indeed regard Claudius as an eccentric because he only wanted to sleep with women. But as the defining feature of tyrants is their tyranny, Claudius’s readiness to execute opponents for real and imagined treasons is more striking than his taste in concubines.

Modern academic historians can be as blind. They live in well-ordered, democratic societies and work in liberal institutions. When they are presented with ...