December 28, 2018   3 mins

2018 was a great year for books. Here are my top picks covering the key political and social debates – from the gig economy to global authoritarianism, the state of democracy to identity politics – that have defined the year.

Hired: Six months undercover in low-wage Britain by James Bloodworth

Low paid, insecure and precarious work has come to characterise the modern labour market, and UnHerd columnist James Bloodworth’s book Hired exposes just how exploitative much of it is. In a similar vein to Polly Toynbee and George Orwell before him, Bloodworth goes undercover in various low paid jobs across the country to experience first hand the conditions millions of workers face. Hired is an illuminating piece of journalistic work and sheds light on a topic that rarely gets serious coverage. For this reason it is a must read.

Betraying Big Brother by Leta Hong Fincher

Leta Hong Fincher’s excellently researched book draws on extensive interviews with women across China to paint a portrait of a burgeoning feminist movement that is flourishing despite repression by the powerful Chinese state. Hong Fincher focuses on the feminists’ activism against domestic and sexual violence, unequal pay, sexual harassment in education and the workplace, arbitrary detention and political surveillance, and the more general fact that the Chinese Communist Party relies on patriarchal authoritarianism to enforce “harmony” and social stability. The stories of these Chinese women are inspirational and remind us of the need for continued feminist activism across the globe.

Mistaken Identity by Asad Haider

I have my differences with Asad Haider politically, but Mistaken Identity is a nuanced critique of identity politics from a socialist and anti-racist perspective. He briefly, yet energetically charts the history of identity politics from the Combahee River Collective in the 1970s to the present-day reemergence of social movements like Black Lives Matter. Haider argues that “identity politics” has lost any emancipatory potential it may once have had, and has degenerated into essentialism – viewing ‘identity’ in itself as an organisational category and a condition of being political. I did feel Haider could have further developed his advocacy of strategic “insurgent universality”, but Mistaken Identity is nonetheless an important contribution to the debate about identity politics on the Left.

HATE: Why We Should Resist It with Free Speech, Not Censorship by Nadine Strossen

The role of free speech is at the centre of the culture wars that are polarising Western society, and the concept of hate speech, and whether it should be criminalised, is a frequent topic of debate. Supporters argue that hate speech laws are a tool in the fight against racism and other forms of bigotry, and can remedy the injuries hate speech can cause.

Using strong legalistic arguments and evidence from other countries Nadine Strossen takes the view that hate speech laws are at best ineffective, and worst counterproductive, to their stated aims. In particular, she shows how vague the concept tends to be, leading to very loose interpretations and the propensity for abuse. It should not be a surprise that reactionary politicians and commentators in the US refer to Black Lives Matter as a “hate group”.

Strossen’s core argument is that the best way to fight against hate, and for equality and social justice, is not through censorship, but with the vigorous use of free speech. Her argument may not be popular in some circles, but the need to defend free speech from all threats is more important than ever.

Indefensible by Rohini Hensman

This is one of my favourite books of this year. Rohini Hensman has written a much needed critique of certain tendencies on the Left to subscribe to a hypocritical form of “anti-imperialism” – opposing imperialism from Western powers while expressing indifference, or worse support, for Russian imperialism, Iranian clerical imperialism or various Bonapartist regimes that are authoritarian and nationalist in nature and who give lip service to anti-Western populism. Indefensible should serve as a clarion call for the Left to practice a more consistent internationalism, where the values of freedom, democracy, self-determination and human rights apply to all parts of world.

Ralph Leonard is a British-Nigerian writer on international politics, religion, culture and humanism.