Saturday, January 16, 2016

Books I'm Glad I Read in 2015

Having a two year old in the house is a joy in many ways, but not exactly conducive to serious reading, so I was pleased to find a baker's dozen of titles I read in 2015 and consider worth sharing. All of them in their way touch on important topics worthy of the time of general readers; not all is lost to academic specialization.

The Global Transformation--Barry Buzan and George Lawson. Addressed to international relations scholars, this book neatly summarizes the 19th century emergence, 20th century consolidation, and 21st century beginnings of the supercession of a highly unequal world with a core whose economic and military advantages enabled it to organize the world for close to 200 years. Looking ahead, they see an end to superpowers and consequential growth of regionalism, but fail to consider whether mass struggles or a terminal crisis of capitalism might further reshape the world.

Black History of the White House by Clarence Lusane. Simultaneously a social history of the various slaves, musicians, dressmakers, secret service agents, cabinet members and others who constituted an African American presence among the presidents and a history of those presidents' efforts (or, mostly, not) to grapple with racism,   this is a fresh optic to examine that most over-discussed aspect of American history, the executive branch. Also offers a new way of looking at Obama by setting him in a lengthy line of African American presidential candidates. I don't understand why Eartha Kitt was left out, tho.

A War for the Soul of America--Andrew Hartman. Reading Hartman's tour of the Culture Wars of the last three decades of the twentieth century is a little headache inducing--like reading one after another of those annoying Facebook squabbles constantly cropping up. Still, somebody had to sort it out and put it together in one place. And the discussion of how Christian conservatism became ecumenical in the seventies is particularly useful. Right and wrong that the culture wars have been superseded by class divisions in the last few years.

Radicals in America: The US Left Since the Second World War--Christopher Phelps and Howard Brick. Here is a topic you don't see books about everyday--a history of the post-war left in the United States. Covers a lot of terrain, much of it likely to be familiar to those who closely follow left politics. Particularly good at rendering the seventies as an open moment that faded, although it doesn't quite capture the craziness that prevailed in many circles then. Misses a number of things, including the MOVE bombing and the US Social Forum. And adopts a testy tone about the limits of Occupy Wall Street. But again, very useful to put it all in one place.

The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power--Steve Fraser. Ambitious effort to order American history through a stark comparison of two gilded ages, the one in the nineteenth century, when American industry was ascending and workers ferociously fought back, and the more recent one, which he (at least partly) accurately  describes as an age of auto-cannibalism, when worker fight back has been largely absent. I think he overstates the "acquiesence" (between the introduction and conclusion of this book, obviously conceived during the tea party ascendancy, he is scrambling to make sense of Occupy, de Blasio, etc. irrelevant blips? neo-populism?) and overemphasizes ideological reasons for the difference, but well worth reading for its descriptions of class struggle in the nineteenth century.

The Occupiers: The Making of the 99 Percent Movement--Michael A. Gould-Wartofsky. A thoughtful history from a participant grad student. Highlights the contradictions of the 99% utopia. I would like to hear more about encampments beyond New York (and a little Oakland) but that is what the next generation of grad students is for, I guess.

Cyber-Proletariat: Global Labor in the Digital Vortex--Nick Dyer Witheford. Pretty solid walk through of the political economy of the internet and its implications. Uses the autonomist theme that demands from below and struggle spur new forms of capitalist development--hence social media fulfills the demand that content be free while turning this into something worth billions. Read it yourself to understand why it is not a question of accelerating, but of swerving to a better place.

To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party--Heather Cox Richardson--This history identifies three points in American history when  Republican party presidents played an important reform role--Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Dwight Eisenhower--is that last one a bit of a stretch? Could it happen again? Seems unlikely to me.

Global Unions, Local Power: The New Spirit of Transnational Labor Organizing--Jamie McCallum Closely observed study of the practice of transnational unionism, which depicts a more complicated global role for SEIU than the neoliberal-union-leftists-love-to-hate would lead one to expect.

Crucibles of Black Empowerment: Chicago's Neighborhood Politics from the New Deal to Harold Washington-- Jeffrey Helgeson. Detailed history of the ecology of African American organizations in Chicago over many decades. Helps to clarify the complex political and ideological terrain out of which such social movement and political highpoints as the Black Panthers' Rainbow Coalition and the Harold Washington campaign emerge.

Disciplining Terror: How Experts Invented "Terrorism"-- Lisa Stampnitzky. This run through of the various academic and journalist discussions of terrorism since the 1970s, when the term took hold in the United States, has a bit of a surprise ending. The political class in the US pretty much doesn't care about those debates, raising questions about the "power" aspect of "power/knowledge" in the social sciences in general.

Empire of Cotton: A Global History-- Sven Beckert. If there were a Pitchfork for left leaning academics with a social science historical bent (and why isn't there?) I bet this would top the best of the year list. Not just an excellent history of the production and distribution of cotton; also offers a more general framework for the history of capitalism--from an early phase when capitalists were unified with war making, to the industrial period, to the contemporary period, when capitalists no longer need to pledge allegiance to any particular state.

The American Deep State: Wall Street, Big Oil, and the Attack on American Democracy-- Peter Dale Scott Scott is too conspiratorial for many--at times to conspiratorial for my own taste. I do wish his topic--the secretive networks of businesspeople, intelligence officers, military, etc which may or may not move forward assasination plots, terrorism, etc but surely do play an important role in shaping policies of such institutions as the Pentagon and CIA--were the subject of more professionalized research. Compared to practically any more traditional topic, it is extraordinarily difficult, hence the lapse into the conspiratorial isn't too surprising. Here he tells a story where, during the fifties and sixties the deep state, like the executive and legislative branches, typically played a centrist role, with Hoover unleashing dirty tricks on violent actors on the right (such as portions of the KKK that wanted a race war in response to the civil rights movement) as well as the left. The aftermath of Watergate spurred the triumph of deep state neocons, who pushed forward a metastatizing deep state that becomes more and more central over the next few decades.