Jared Diamond: Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997) [Must buy, Must read!]

Jared Diamond sets out to answer the question of why the Eurasian Continent came to colonise the other continents. He uses archeological, geographical, technological, and linguistic evidence to support his deterministic thesis: Given the endowments of the Eurasian continent in terms of domesticable crops and animals, and the favourable orientation of its landmass since 13.000 years ago, it could hardly have been otherwise. That is, the fact that the Eurasian continent came to dominate the others has nothing to do with the genetic characteristics of its population but is simply a deterministic function of its endowments. The argument of the book is presented clearly and lucidly, with an eye for it's weaknesses. The book is well-structured, and argues coherently for it's thesis rarely digressing into irrelevant arguments. The scientific approach to long term history is refreshing. This book is of great interest to Historians, Geographists, Economists, Scientists and anyone with an interest in the general course of history. To avoid disappointment, do no expect an answer to why for example Europeans came to dominate the world, this book will not give you one! For a summary of the book click here

Naomi: No Logo (1999) [Don't buy but read!]

The book describes the raison d'être of the ant-globalisation movement and the rise of it. Written before the battle of Seattle Naomi Klein, more a journalist than an academic writer, has certainly some prophetic gifts. The author describes vividly the emergence of branding. A process that changes manufacturing companies, such as Nike used to be, into marketing companies. She makes clear that companies are not becoming bigger but broader. They are subcontracting the manufacturing parts of the production and brand via adds, travels, sponsoring etc. Branding goes even into well-respected media and universities and threatens according to her the journalistic and academic objectivity. By penetrating in all aspects of public life it creates a kind of unbridled consumerism. Her line of arguing is more anecdotic than academic, but since she comes up with so many anecdotes in her 440 pages book, her argument is rather convincing. Especially her visits to the Export Processing Zones are interesting and illuminating to read, and require further investigation. Her argument is that it does not create economic growth in those countries, but does create unemployment in the United States. Also her argument that top down implemented codes of conduct still do not offer workers that what they want most: the right to govern themselves. This book provides a well-written rational behind the protesters in the streets, but is a bit long-winded.

Schiller: Fast Food Nation (2001) [A must read]

Schiller's Fast Food Nation tells you so much nasty things about MacDonald’s with so much empirical evidence that it is hard to ever order anything there again. Not anger and cultural superiority are his starting points, but concerns for the health of consumers and working conditions of immigrants in the meat industry and in the Fast Food restaurants. He is committed to the freedom of farmers in the U.S. and the impact of cultural homogenisation. He starts his argument with a historical description of the emergence of fast food. He shows the increasing cosy links between Coca Cola, MacDonald’s and Walt Disney. With striking figures, he illustrates the huge size of the Fast Food Industry. (He continuously provides you with data you really do not want to know but are always useful in pub-based-discussions: e.g. 20% of the 2 year old in the United States drink soft-drinks). He shows the successful policies of both the fast food chains and the meat industry in preventing government regulation from taking place and effect. This has serious implications for the occurrence of diseases carried by the meat and the working conditions in the meat-industry. He than shows how easy it is to continuously exploit young, part-time, low-skilled, non-unionised workers. Slightly less disturbing is his description of the polarization of the agricultural sector in marginalized farmers and gigantic cattle raisers. One disadvantage of book is that it primarily focuses on the United States, and thus does not deal with implications on the environment of Third World countries and global cultural homogenisation. He does write about the libel case in London in the nineties and the erection of the first MacDonald’s in East Germany. This book is so eloquently written that is as digestible as MacDonald’s French fries, the only difference being that you do not forget you consumed it one hour after use.

Peter Evans: Embedded autonomy (1995) [Must read for believers in the role of the State]

Berkeley based sociologist Peter Evans is very smart and after reading embedded autonomy you realizes it. He has several core arguments, which he carefully works out throughout the book: First, he states that development outcomes depend on the general structure of a state and the policies it pursues. He attacks the neo-liberal visions of downsizing the state for the sake of economic development. He divides actions the state can take in the promotion of industry in 4 roles. The custodial role (policing private players), the demiurge role (production by state companies), the midvery role (tries to stimulate the emergence of the entrepreneurial activities by creating new entrepreneurs or making existing entrepreneurs more courageous. Policies are the erection of greenhouses, subsidies, incentives (more promoting than policing) and the husbandry role (preparing the companies for international competition by stimulating R&D and to actually expose them to it). He argues that in different sectors different roles are appropriate, but that in the IT sector a midvery role, combined with a husbandry role is the best. He shows this by applying a constitutional comparative approach of the IT sector in South-Korea, Brazil and India. He shows that they all engaged in midwifery but that South Korea was more successful in it than the other two since the state enjoyed more embedded autonomy in the former. Embedded means being within in a set of social ties, which facilitate continual negotiation of goals and policies. If a state is only autonomous, it misses sources of intelligence and decentralized possibilities for implementation. However, if it would be only embedded, than the state can be too much under the influence of particularistic influences. Hereby he has made his second point: even in the IT sector state involvement can be a success. His last thesis is that the reconstruction of state-society relations after transformation is as well important, because in many cases the development state is the victim of its own success. Through midwifery, it creates mature industrial players. Those players will oppose internationalisation and not let husbandry happen unless the state is enough isolated. In the meanwhile, Evans gives a concise overview of other authors who saw larger role for the state than just being a night guard. In his argument, he convincingly rejects the predatory view of the state, which is neo-utilitarian in assuming that all civil servants are rent-seekers. In the last chapter of the book he provides some more intuitive points of view. Such as the fact that a state can be linked up the several entrepreneurial elites over time. It is one of those book that you cannot read on the beach or with a glass of beer in your hand because of the complexity of the material, but which cannot be missed by anybody who feels that the role of the state is not over but needs to see it proven. They have successfully resisted increased political regulation on the quantity of salmon.

Authors of reviews:
JS: Jorim
DJ: Dirk-Jan