Don’t trust “best books of the year.” Nobody really has the time to assess more than a tiny portion of the titles actually published. My own tastes run towards academic historical work, but I recommend these ten books to anyone curious about changing the world and interested in learning more about oppressive structures and efforts to change them. A few were published before 2013, but all were published in the last couple of years.
Part ethnographic research on Occupy, part insider account of how things worked at Zuccotti, part sprinkling of the author’s thoughts on various topics like capitalism and anarchist strategy (better on the latter than the former), this book provides strong evidence for its thesis--that, at heart, Occupy was an anarchist movement that deliberately toned down its rhetoric so as to appeal to a much larger community.
Covert Capital: Landscapes of Denial and the Making of the U.S. Empire in the Suburbs of Northern Virginia--Andrew Friedman
Mixing biographical vignettes, architecture criticism, and post-colonial history, Friedman illuminates the way Northern Virginia, home of the C.I.A., numerous private contractors, and more, has been critical to U.S. imperialism, and vice versa. Particularly vivid rendering of the evacuation of Saigon, which you may think has nothing much to do with Northern Virginia, but you would be wrong. Among other things, Nguyen Ngoc Loan, the general executing a man during the Tet Offensive in one of the most famous photos from the Vietnam war, opened a pizza shop there.
Power to the Poor: Black-Brown Coalition and the Fight for Economc Justice, 1960-1974--Gordon K. Mantler
Recovers the history of multi-racial coalitions as they developed during the sixties. Particularly memorable for its chapters on the Poor People’s Campaign, Martin Luther King’s last effort, an encampment in Washington D.C. that came to fruition just months after his assassination. Although remembered as a failure, Mantler shows the way it was a step forward in the construction of multi-racial coalitions, and also as a way to draw attention to a number of group’s causes. The largest demonstration of the campaign, the Solidarity Day March, compared favorably with the larger and much better known March on Washington in 1963 in terms of radicalism of message, diversity of speakers and inclusion of women.
Debunks the idea that the US is exceptional for its failure to exercise its power in the form of empire building. By closely comparing the US to Great Britain, Go shows how the forms of rule exercised by both states are virtually identical, varying in their application mostly because of changes in the global context. For example, while it is often said that the US exercises power indirectly while Britain formally subordinated colonies, Go reminds readers that the US had, and continues to have colonies, while Britain at times ruled indirectly, either using native elites to run colonies, or exercising decisive influence over formally sovereign states.
Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil--Timothy Mitchell
Ambitious book that maps the history of workers’ power, democracy, and decolonization on to the transition from coal as the major source of fuel to oil. In a nutshell, coal production and usage actually facilitated democracy and workers’ power, which were undermined by the move to oil. What’s next?
The Black Revolution on Campus--Martha Biondi Did you know that in 1969, historically Black A&T university in North Carolina was subject to a “”combined ground and air offensive” ...featuring six hundred National Guardsmen, a tank, several armed personnel carriers, (and) an airplane and a helicopter”? No? Perhaps, like me, your understanding of the campus revolts of the sixties is mostly limited to predominantly white campuses. This book is a good place to start to fix that. It also explores the Black revolts on predominantly White campuses, and the movement for Black Studies. Like the Mantler book above, it leaves little standing of the myth that the identity-based movements of the sixties ignored economic issues.
We Created Chavez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution by George Ciccariello-Maher--Focused on the evolving relationship between the revolutionary left in Venezuela and the people, culminating in two great moments--the Caracazo riots of 1989 and the reversal of the coup in 2003--one hopes this book will lay to rest racist myths of Chavez as caudillo holding the Venezuelan masses in thrall. Instead, Chavez is here portrayed as a product of an upsurge in struggle, yet not the limit of that struggle. This book could conceivably lead to a more fruitful dialogue between Marxists and anarchists.
River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom--Walter Johnson
Incredibly rich description of the slave system in the Mississippi valley, the heart of American capitalism in the decades before the Civil War. Johnson describes everything from the dogs used to chase slaves to the financial transactions that underpinned steam ships. He ends with chapters describing the adventures of those who tried to expand the system to Nicaragua and Cuba. Essential American history.
The Fracturing of the American Corporate Elite by Mark S. Mizruchi
In response to a new climate at the end of WWII, with labor unions strong and assertive, a corporate elite consolidated committed to proposing solutions to the nation’s problems. For the most part, the policies it advocated for were to the left of what has been on offer from the Obama administration. Then the economic climate worsened in the seventies, and the corporate elite moved to the right, and successfully smashed its two constraints--labor unions and state regulators. Having triumphed, the elite fractured, and the US has drifted to the right ever since, unconstrained by either popular forces or a corporate elite that can see beyond its next tax break.
Another new perspective on the sixties, here dispelling the persistent notion that the anti-war movement consisted of students at elite colleges. Instead, Lewis highlights anti-war activity like rebellions of GIs, the anti-war aspect of African American and Chicano nationalism, and even anti-war activity in unions.