2023 Massey lecturer Astra Taylor recommends 6 books about insecurity
The Age of Insecurity lectures air every evening this week on CBC Radio's IDEAS
Above all other titles, writer, filmmaker and organizer Astra Taylor is a reader. She's also presenting 2023 Massey Lectures on her book The Age of Insecurity — and she caught up with CBC Books ahead of its release this week.
"I'm actually feeling very eager to share it and to share the spoken version of it because this is the first book I've ever written that was meant to be read aloud in that way, and I think it changed the way I wrote for the better," she said.
In The Age of Insecurity, she explores the pervasive insecurity in our current reality and how the institutions that promise to make us more secure actually contribute to this feeling. Throughout the book, Taylor argues that embracing this vulnerability is the key to more caring, sustainable notions of security.
"Fundamentally, it's a book about how we feel in the world today. So I'm hoping it speaks to people's experience," she said. "I hope that people find the framework that I'm offering of existential insecurity and manufactured insecurity to be something that they can actually apply to other situations that I don't talk about directly in the lectures or in the book."
Taylor was born in Winnipeg and currently lives in New York. Her other books include The People's Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age and Remake the World: Essays, Reflections, Rebellions.
In honour of the 2023 Massey Lectures, she shared the books about insecurity that shaped her thinking.
"There aren't a lot of books that are explicitly about insecurity," she said, "but if you expand the definition of it and think about anxiety or vulnerability or precarity or inequality, then actually a lot of books tie into the theme."
All five lectures are already available to download wherever you get your favourite podcasts, or you can listen daily through the CBC Listen App and at cbc.ca/masseys. The CBC Massey Lectures airs every evening this week on IDEAS at 8 p.m. (8:30 p.m. NT) on CBC Radio One. For more Massey Lectures, visit the archives.
Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit
"Hope in the Dark is really about maintaining political optimism amid crises and uncertainty. I think that that is part of the ethos of The Age of Insecurity: amid rising inequality and ecological calamity and strengthening authoritarianism and this sense that we don't know what's going to happen next — and a lot of bad stuff has been happening — that there's there's still space for hope, and there's still space for the kind of alchemy that can turn our troubles into possibility."
Commoners by J. M. Neeson
"[Neeson's] book, more than any other book, lays out what this transition [from feudalism to capitalism] was like, specifically the tail end of it, because it's a process that actually began in the 1200s. So she's talking about the culmination of the long process of enclosure and the displacement of commoners from common lands.
"It's one of those works of history that makes you really feel what it was like. She has voices of people who you typically wouldn't regard as historical actors. But she also has a lot of insightful material from the enclosers themselves, so these are the people who were the landlords and the aristocrats who were kicking peasants off the land and very plainly stating their political agenda. [The book also shows] the ways the insecurity of the peasantry would benefit them because they'd have a more pliable labour force.
It's a period that has shaped the modern world, and she does it with real compassion for the ordinary people whose lives were impacted.- Astra Taylor on Commoners
"So that book is, historically, really important. It's a period that has shaped the modern world, and she does it with real compassion for the ordinary people whose lives were impacted. I can't recommend it enough. She's really amazing."
"It was a pivotal book for me in terms of understanding liberalism and the corporate counter-revolution against the gains of working class movements in the mid 20th century.
"What the book says is that conservative beliefs have made it part of their political project to take advantage of periods of destabilization and crisis. So that's the shock doctrine.
"She talks about disaster capitalism so she looks at, for example, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and how there was this terrible disaster and that was seized as an opportunity to enforce an agenda of privatization and a further erosion of social services and to move out already vulnerable poor communities in service of gentrification, basically increasing people's insecurity and increasing inequality."
"Unsettling Canada looks at the way that Indigenous peoples were made insecure, were dispossessed of their land, were severed from their traditions and their territories in service of the settler colonial project.
"We can look at the word unsettling as both undoing settler colonialism. But also as unsettling the status quo, destabilizing it.
"I used the book in a way that reminds us that you don't want everything to be secure. We don't want an oppressive political status quo to be secure. And that in the pursuit of what I consider a more democratic, sustainable, egalitarian form of security, we will have to challenge some interests and unsettle some things.
Every aspiring activist should read that book. It is truly one of the best strategy books I have ever read.- Astra Taylor on Unsettling Canada
"The other thing I'll say as an organizer, because that's really a big part of my life, is that this is a book that is so incredibly insightful about political strategy and organizing strategy. It gives an amazing account of how Arthur Manuel actually organized people through the decades and I found it amazingly useful as a strategic book.
"Every aspiring activist should read that book. It is truly one of the best strategy books I have ever read."
"We're still grappling as a society with policing. And that raises the question of whether we can ever achieve security through state violence and through incarceration, or if it's better to try to actually achieve security through an abolitionist agenda of what is embodied in the slogan, 'Care Not Cops,' that a lot of the problems that we think could be solved by policing are ultimately social problems. It's things like housing insecurity, job insecurity, healthcare insecurity, the fact people don't have access to basic services, the fact that people aren't paid enough to actually live in places where the rent is rising and rising month after month and wages are stagnating.
"And so these are some of the core themes raised by this book. And I think it's a really useful volume for people who want to understand the stakes of the current debate about policing and abolition and anyone who wants to have a sense of that history, in the context of Canada specifically. So I learned a lot from it."
Beasts of Burden by Sunaura Taylor
"This is nepotism. The last book I want to recommend is Beasts of Burden by my sister Sunaura Taylor. A mind-shifting book.
"This book is an amazing introduction to disability theory for those who are curious. But she takes it even further and connects the need for disability liberation to animals. And in a way, she makes the case for solidarity across species based on the fact that creatures can suffer, all creatures are vulnerable. And it's a beautiful, unusual, insightful book.
She makes the case for solidarity across species based on the fact that creatures can suffer, all creatures are vulnerable.- Astra Taylor on Beasts of Burden
"I think you can see it's marked in that 4th chapter [of The Age of Insecurity] where I argue that we actually will never be able to be secure if we only think of the human, if we prioritize human needs. Because we're embedded in a larger web of life, we're embedded in ecosystems and we're connected to other species and we need to broaden that frame."
Astra Taylor's comments have been edited for length and clarity.