2017 Books

I didn’t read very many books this past year. Can’t claim this guy as an excuse, he was only present the last month of it.

Here are some I did read; I might be forgetting one or two.


Przeworski – Capitalism and Social Democracy. I’m not sure what the author’s political trajectory has been; nothing encouraging, I’m guessing. But I got a lot out of this history of European social democracy as a concrete political phenomenon. He’s asking the right questions: how is it that wage-earners, “workers” in the broader or narrower sense, constitute a constituency for the purposes of electoral politics, and how in practice do avowed socialists govern a capitalist economy? One insight of the book was the importance of Keynesian demand management as an answer to the latter question. For the first generation of electorally successful socialists, there was a seemingly unbridgeable gap between managing an economy based on private ownership, in which maintaining business confidence was critical; and using the state as scaffolding for the construction of the cooperative commonwealth. Until “aggregate demand” became a way of talking about public spending, every step toward the latter tended to undermine the former, so that — it seemed — the gap had to be crossed in one big leap or not at all.


Rothermund – The Great Depression in Global Perspective. One of several books I read because I assigned it. (Teaching economic history is great for this purpose.) It does what it says on the tin: describes the depression of the 1930s as a global phenomenon, with as many pages devoted to Latin America or South Asia as to the United States or Western Europe.  It’s a short book and readable — worked fine for my undergrads — but a dense and systematic one. Rothermund is particularly attentive to the ways in which the 1930s collapse in agricultural  prices played out differently in countries specializing in different kinds of commodities – staples versus luxuries, small farm products versus plantations. He also has some interesting things to say about the way in which the impact of the Depression in the colonial world — most of humanity at the time — was shaped by the specific institutions of imperial rule, with for instance regimes based on land taxes, head taxes and excise taxes responding to global deflation in different ways.


Grandin – Fordlandia. Did you know that in the early 20th century, Henry Ford bought up a tract of the Amazon bigger than Delaware, built a substantial city there on American lines, and hoped to source all the rubber for his cars from it? This is the book about that. It’s a great piece of history, artfully crafted and readable, on an episode that I (certainly) and you (probably) had never encountered before. I have to say, though, that the whole is a bit less than the sum of the parts. Grandin himself has serious left politics but this book presents itself as almost explicitly anti-Marxist. It insists that we think about Ford’s rainforest outpost not in terms of any objective need for a reliable source of industrial inputs, but some deep-seated desire to recreate an idealized American small town out of virgin material.

I have to say, I’m not happy with this thesis. Economic imperialism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as I understand it, generally involved control of the upstream parts of commodity chains – efforts by both states and firms to substitute direct control over input production for sourcing in open markets. And it involved efforts to gain more direct control over labor – to replace direct producers with control over their own labor time and recognized rights to the land and the its products, with forms of labor somewhere on the wage work-slavery continuum that could be more directly managed. Fordlandia fits both of these patterns perfectly. It’s true, of course, that the effort to create an American-style small town from scratch was not a typical imperial project, which normally would rely more on the coercive powers of local political authorities. (It’s also true that the project failed to generate any significant rubber for Ford’s factories.) But I think Grandin’s preferred story should be seen as overlaying the basic economic logic, rather than an alternative to it.

On the other hand, the book itself does not really support the thesis. It provides plenty of evidence that however sincerely Ford and his lieutenants may have believed in their vision of Normal Rockwell on the Amazon, Fordlandia was fundamentally about managing labor and assuring a stable supply rubber. Perhaps these two criticisms cancel out. In any case, it’s a fascinating story, and the book itself reads like a novel.


O’Malley – On Another Man’s Wound. I read this after watching The Wind that Shakes the Barley – a great movie on the Irish war of independence and civil war – and realizing I knew almost nothing about this history. When I was first becoming politically aware, in the 1980s, northern Ireland was still sometimes mentioned alongside South Africa, Palestine and Central America as a frontline in the war against Empire, but in general Irish politics has never been something that one needed to know much about. Anyway, someone online (in a Crooked Timber thread, I think, years ago) had suggested O’Malley as the thing to read on the Irish independence struggle. As it turns out, it’s a wonderful book – from a literary standpoint, the best thing I read this year.

Apart from an opening chapter on O’Malley’s childhood, the book is limited tothe period of fighting against the British from 1917 to 1921. (A sequel, which I’m reading now, covers the Irish civil war, in which O’Malley was a leader of the Republican or anti-Treaty side.) It’s a first-person story of a mid-level leader in the countryside (and, in some late chapters, of British prisons) so it’s better for the texture and day-to-day experience of the war than the big picture questions a historical account would focus on. There are also long lyrical passages on the Irish countryside, which O’Malley travelled through on bicycle while organizing IRA units in various towns and villages. They make a striking contrast with the descriptions of fighting and brutality.  One thing I especially liked about the book was how much attention it gives to the problems of building a political movement – recruiting leaders and activists, establishing reliable forms of collective decision-making; in the book O’Malley is as much an organizer as a soldier. I also appreciated the limited place of actual fighting in the book. There are a couple of brilliant set-piece battle scenes, but many more descriptions of attacks that had to be called off at the last minute, or encounters between Irish and British forces in which somehow no one ended up using their weapons. O’Malley’s last act in the war is typical: the matter-of-fact execution of two British officers who were captured by accident, without a shot fired. I have a feeling this is what most war is like.


Mark Wilson – Creative Destruction. Read my review here. My dad says: I liked your review, but I can’t say it made me want to read the book. Which, yeah.


Koistinen – Arsenal of World War II. If you’re interested in the subject matter of the Wilson book, this is the book you should read. From my point of view, it has two great virtues that Wilson’s book lacks. First, it talk about conflicts within the federal government – in particular the gradual displacement of New Deal officials by a coalition of military leaders and “dollar a year men” from industry – rather than treating the state as a unitary actor, as Wilson does. Second it gives a comprehensive account of how wartime planning actually worked – what kinds of claims on inputs were assigned, to who, by who, on what principles.


Harrison – Economics of World War II. Like the Koistinen, I read most of this in the course of reviewing the Mark Wilson book. Possibly this was overkill. It’s a useful comparative overview of economic management and performance in all the major belligerents.


Beckert – The Monied Metropolis. I read this because I was so impressed with Beckert’s magnificent Empire of Cotton. The subject here is how the American bourgeoisie constituted itself as a class, through the lens of New York. Posing this question is I think one of the distinctive strengths of Marxism: People have a variety of material interests that overlap in various criss-crossing ways: Which ones become politically salient depends on political, cultural, or more broadly ideological structures; and the existence of shared interests doesn’t by itself create the capacity to act on the collectively. In the concrete case explored by this book, it wasn’t obvious, in early 19th century New York, that ownership of capital as such defined a politically relevant category of people. Merchants and traders had little in common, socially, culturally or politically, with bankers, and even less with master manufacturers, even if they all showed up as property owners in the census. Beckert’s project is to show how by 1880 these different groups had come to constitute a coherent, self-conscious bourgeoisie. He looks at where they lived; what churches they went to; who they socialized with, who their children married; as well as the more directly political questions of what parties and politicians won their support, on what kind of basis. One striking bit, on that last point, is how much the New York elite embraced an explicitly anti-democratic program — restricting the franchise, limiting the powers of elected bodies — into the 1880s. It’s fascinating stuff, and all carefully organized around the central question.

I do have some criticisms. First, Beckert obviously has awesome files of archival material at his disposal, and understandably, he wants to use it. But in practice this means that he never gives one example when four will do. There’s a section in chapter five on how the post-Civil War New York rich, embracing a new aristocratic identity in place of their old stern republicanism, began to marry their sons and daughters to European nobility. Fine – but I swear he devotes two full pages to listing one of these marriages after another. More substantively, I’m concerned that the before-and-after frame of the book telescopes together longer processes, especially in the post-Civil War decades. Reading the book, you could get the impression that wealthy New Yorkers in 1880 mostly owned stocks and bonds rather than businesses directly; but this wouldn’t be the case for another two decades. Finally, there’s the scope or focus of the book, which is very much the American bourgeoisie in New York, as opposed to the New York bourgeoisie. It’s striking that in Beckert’s typology of capital – finance, trade, and manufacturing – real estate doesn’t appear; and real estate owners hardly make an appearance. Especially in the later section, the interests at play are almost entirely national, in which wealthy New Yorkers have the same stake as wealth-owners anywhere else in the country. There is a great deal on the political interests of capital vis-vis New York city and state government, but almost nothing on the local development and land-use issues that are the overwhelming concern of wealth-owners with respect to local government today. I suppose it’s possible that in the 19th century land was relatively abundant even in New York and real estate didn’t constitute an important category of wealth or material interests; I think it’s much more likely this just wasn’t where Beckert’s interests lay.

Still, it’s a great book. It’s not Empire of Cotton, but what else is?


Varoufakis – The Weak Suffer What They Must? I read this in order to write a review essay on Varoufakis three recent books, of which this is the second. The review is now very late but will show up eventually.


Goodwyn – The Populist Moment. Another one I read for teaching. (I’d read part of it in college.)  The book is a classic and deservedly so. It is sort of the flipside of Moneyed Metropolis: It asks how a section of small farmers and laborers came to constitute themselves as a class in the late 19th century – a much more fragile and transitory development but in some ways parallel to the one Beckert describes. The central thread of the book is the growth and decline of the People’s, or Populist, party in the Plains and South. It’s worth noting in passing that this is the only historical movement that explicitly used that label – yet with its detailed and explicit program, absence of charismatic leadership, and embrace of black participation, it fits very little of what gets called populism today.

The interest of the book is, first, simply that this movement existed, with institutions, mass membership, and its detailed program for nationalization of key industries, regulation of prices, and redistribution of land, developed from the bottom up. There’s a tendency in looking back at American history to see these sorts of mass movements as either absent, or else as inchoate, reactionary explosions. Second, there’s Goodwyn’s main argument, about the conditions that made this movement possible. For him, the key thing was the concrete experience of exercising political power, the first-hand practice in collective decision-making that came from running cooperative stores, crop marketing arrangements and so on. It was this experience of democratic decisonmaking in meeting immediate needs that laid the foundation for a broader democratic politics. Where electoral programs came first, Goodwyn argues, they were soon taken over by professional politicians or demogogues.


Kelley – Hammer and Hoe. Another book about political organization by small farmers and agricultural workers, set a generation after Goodwyn’s story — in this case, the surprising success of the Communist Party among African Americans in Alabama during the 1930s. Like Goodwyn, it’s a useful complement to Beckert — the one serious weakness of Empire of Cotton, in my view, is the almost complete absence of political activity among the direct producers of cotton, except in the form of James Scott-style passive resistance. As these books make clear, there was also organized, radical mass politics in the countryside, even if its successes were limited and temporary. I don’t know anything about Kelley’s other work, but Hammer and Hoe is a magnificent piece of scholarship, about a story that should be better known. A central fact in American history is white supremacy. One group of people, one of the few, who have recognized this, and fought it even at moments when it seemed like an unchangeable fact of nature, were American communists. It’s important not to forget that.


O’Brien – Going after Cacciato. Perhaps I’ve forgotten something, but as far as I can tell, this is the only novel I read in the past year. I wouldn’t recommend it over The Things They Carried, but there is something profound and compelling about its overarching metaphor of the war as a permanent fact, with fantasies of escape from it always eroding around the edges as reality seeps back in.


Previous editions:

2016 books

2015 books

2013 books

2012 books I

2012 books II

2010 books I

2010 books II