This week’s train journeys involved two books which looked competely different on the face of it and ended up being about the same thing: race. They were both random bookstore, I-need-a-treat, purchases: How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt and Exterminate All the Brutes by Sven Lindqvist. (Yes, I am weird.)
The former is an analysis of the way democracies turn into authoritarian regimes, from Hitler’s Germany to Fujimori’s Peru – and, the book argues, Donald Trump’s United States. It does not paint an authoritarian US as inevitable, but it’s hard to emerge from reading it feeling confident about the health of American democracy. And the reason is race. US democracy has functioned well, with civility, healthy checks and balances, and strong norms averting damaging partisanship only when it is democracy among white citizens. This is the same message as Ta-Nehisi Coates’s We Were Eight Years in Power. The politics of the US, both books, suggest, are fundamentally determined by the legacy of slavery.
Lindqvist’s book is an extraordinary reflection through the course of the author’s journey across the Sahara into Congo, and intellectual journey through 19th century authors including Conrad and Darwin, on imperialism. It vibrates with anger at the injustice of what Mike Davis described as Late Victorian Holocausts. Lindqvist also draws the line from imperialist to 20th century holocaust. I would say this is a must-read book for anybody concerned with global justice. For it points forward to the conflict to be expected in a world where – as in the era of Victorian imperialism – technological changes create a superfluous labour force looking for domains to exploit.