Seven of my favourite books for understanding capitalism

Liz Kessler

a person sitting cross legged with a book in their lap

We know capitalism is killing us. Especially those of us who came of age in the 21st century: we know it is the underlying cause of poverty, the main driver of climate change, and it is responsible for more deaths than we can count. We have to work against it if we want to survive.

But working against it is hard, and so many of us don’t know where to begin. We have to organize and fight back against austerity and neoliberalism, but to do that we need to be able to articulate how capitalism is at the root of almost every major political issue. What does the war in Syria have to do with capitalism? How do capitalists coerce us into being good workers? How do we apply socialist and anarchist theories to the history we learn about in school, the things we see in the news, and the decisions we make in our everyday lives?

The books on this list are my favourites because they can help you to answer those questions — in lots of depth. While reading political theorists like Marx, Bakunin, or Gramsci can be really useful, high-level political theory is not accessible to everyone and can require a lot of time and concentration. Many of these books are easier things to read, and a little bit more clear on how they are applicable in 2018.


1. The Shock Doctrine, by Naomi Klein

This one is almost a classic at this point but I’m putting it first on the list because it deserves it. Klein’s incredible research documents how neoliberals have used, and even manufactured, disasters (like the Iraq war) in order to justify oppressive political policies that would otherwise not be able to fly, for the sake of profit. She also documents the way developing countries are coerced into economic policy that benefits western capitalists while harming citizens. While some of the examples in this book are probably a bit out of date, I’ve never read anything that does a better job of explaining how capitalism controls global politics.

The Shock Doctrine also just gives the reader a good sense of how capitalists use their power both overtly and covertly. I don’t agree with all of Klein’s conclusions – but that’s only a small part of a thoroughly excellent and relevant read.

2. Debt: The First Five Thousand Years, by David Graeber

While the title says this book is about debt, it’s really a sort of history of economic systems (which debt is inherently a part of). Graeber, who is an anarchist anthropologist, takes us through different methods of exchange and trade that have been used throughout history, before and as a part of capitalism. He talks about different forms of currency, about other ways of tracking who-owes-who, and pre-capitalist notions of owing, trade, and community. Notably, Graeber debunks many of the myths that economists have taught us about why our economic system works the way it does.

This book is particularly helpful for articulating the fact that capitalism is not the natural way of things and imagining different ways of organizing the economy to meet human need that are not driven by profit.

3. Undoing Border Imperialism, by Harsha Walia

Harsha Walia is a South Asian activist, located on Coast Salish Territories (Vancouver) who is known for her work with No One Is Illegal (NOII), a highly-effective membership-based organization that fights for justice for migrants. Her book is a must-read for radical community organizers as it takes us through some of the strategies that NOII uses. It also explains the fact that borders between countries are a social construct, used by capitalism to control workers and keep the cost of labour low and profit margins high.

This book uses some language that might require a bit of experience – or using the dictionary – but it is well-written and very much worth spending some time with. It helps us to understand the connection between racism against migrants and drive to make profit, among lots of other useful things.

4. Work, by the CrimeThinc ex-workers’ collective

Work is a short, easy read and a good place to start. It’s especially a good read if you’re not sure what we mean when we say capitalism is a system, or you want to learn how to better articulate that idea. It takes us through different forms of labour and explains how each is connected to and supports capitalists in their quest for profit. This is based on an anarchist idea that the way we work and the way our society organizes work is unnecessarily difficult on individuals and serves only to create wealth for those who are already wealthy.

Work is also creative. It’s the only book on this list that is illustrated, and you can buy a companion poster-diagram called “Capitalism is a Pyramid Scheme” that’s a pretty good visual.

I have one major critique of this book which is that its’ analysis of sex work is misogynistic and anti sex-worker. It’s only a small section of the book, so I am still including the book on this list because the rest of it is so useful and the reality is that I can’t offer a better alternative. This is the unfortunate reality of the sexist society we live in: it is hard for women and pro-sex work feminists to have our voices heard and publish our own work on this kind of topic, and I hope future books can be written that give more voices to women and especially sex workers.

5. Caliban and the Witch, by Silvia Federici

This book really did blow my mind. Federici is a Marxist thinker, and her main argument in Caliban and the Witch is that historical witch hunts played an important role in the establishment of early capitalism in Europe. She explains that prior to capitalism, European gender roles, especially among peasants, were not nearly as entrenched as patriarchy would have us believe, and men and women were initially united in fighting against their capitalist oppressors. I’m oversimplifying a bit, but witch hunts were used to make men fearful of powerful women and women’s knowledge and sew seeds of mistrust between genders, and this impacts the way we understand gender today. Her analysis also explores how capitalism has shaped our understanding of race, sexuality and ability.

Caliban and the Witch helped me to understand how capitalists use gender, as well as race, to divide-and-conquer us. This is important in understanding why and how we need to work against sexism, racism, homophobia and transphobia as part of working against capitalism. “Identity politics” are not in opposition to class politics: this book helps to articulate why and how these things are inherently intertwined.

6. Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition by Glen Sean Coulthard

Glen Coulthard is a member of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation and a professor at the University of British Columbia. His book is a radical exploration of what self-determination means for the indigenous people of Turtle Island. Critical to this analysis is the idea that rejecting colonialism necessarily means rejecting capitalism: contrary to some current popular narratives, we cannot “decolonize” and leave our current economic and social system intact. Coulthard draws on Karl Marx’s work to demonstrate how colonialism and capitalism are inherently connected.

Red Skin White Masks is not the easiest read, and probably not a great introduction to indigenous politics But we can’t understand capitalism without understanding colonialism, and this book is particularly important because it’s a radical analysis of contemporary colonialism.

7. The Parable of the Sower, by Octavia Butler

Yes, this is a work of Fiction. Fiction – especially science fiction – matters because it can help us to imagine the consequences of our actions and the potential alternatives to our political and social systems. The Parable of The Sower was published in 1993 but set in the 2020s, and it imagines suburban California as the United States falls into chaos as it becomes a failed state.

Because it’s a work of fiction, The Parable of the Sower will of course not be a perfect prediction of what happens in the 2020s. However, it’s an excellent take on what couldhappen if the U.S. continues on it’s current path of escalating violence, legislative gridlock and profit-driven government. And because the story focuses on a group of relatable and diverse characters (the main character, like Butler, is a black woman), it makes us think about what the consequences could be for our own lives and the lives of others. It’s also, quite simply, a gripping story.

Get reading

It’s not enough to understand capitalism: we also need to build social movements if we want to eventually get rid of capitalism. But understanding and being able to articulate anti-capitalism is a necessary skill for movement building. These are the books that have helped me the most in making sense of the world around me. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.

Many of these books are available at your local library or local independent bookstore. (If you’re located in Winnipeg, McNally Robinson is always your best bet). Work and Undoing Border Imperialism might be harder to find, but you can order them online hereand here.  If you’re interested in talking about these issues in more depth, contact us or follow us on Facebook to hear more about our upcoming events and discussion groups.


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