11 Books From 2013

I haven’t posted anything on here for some time, having been busy trying to write journal articles to get me through my PhD. 2013 has in any case been a year of small victories for radical politics in a sea of gloomy reaction.

The situation here in Japan is especially concerning, as a convergence of factor has allowed for a kind of recreation of the Cold War order in Asia, and the near total identification of a shockingly reinvigorated Japanese ruling class with the American imperial interest. The definitive analysis of this dismal turn of events remains to be written, although it seems clear that it is a result of a combination of global political and economic factors that span well beyond the Japan-US-China relationship alone. For those interested in the subject, and who have access to the journals, I highly recommend reading Ho-Fung Hung’s “China: Saviour or Challenger of the Dollar Hegemony?” and Perry Anderson’s “Imperium” – two recent articles that have done a great deal to clarify the current situation through historical perspective and political economic analysis. In any case there seems to be a sort of agreement between the US and Japan, wherein the US will encourage the success of “Abenomics” through its trade and monetary policy in exchange for Japan’s unwavering support of its policy of containing China (And of course, once the containment succeeds handing over as many Chinese assets as possible to Wall Street) and endorsement of the TPP, a matter which remains politically controversial here in a way it is not in Canada.

While there is a great deal of scare-mongering about China done these days, usually in the midst of talk about the similarity of the situation in Asia now to the pre-World War I situation in Europe, I feel it is important to emphasize that China’s situation is worse in almost every conceivable way than Germany’s was prior to World War I. Germany before World War I was not only industrially, but also intellectually dynamic, with many of the world’s leading intellectuals in a variety of fields living there. Its capital was largely domestically owned, and the surplus value it accrued from its capitalist production was frequently reinvested nationally. Furthermore, Britain never had the immense productive and strategic advantages that the United States does. China on the other hand, is a laggard intellectually, much of the surplus value it produces is snapped up by multinational corporations, and it is surrounded by at least mildly hostile states while the United States remains in splendid isolation, able to present a real threat to a rival half the world away. This is not to make apologies for the Chinese regime, but rather to try to give some perspective to the situation. The CCP has very few cards available to try to maintain Chinese sovereignty and if there is indeed a war in the near future between China and the US and its allies, the Chinese will be sorely outmatched. I feel that leftists need to maintain this perspective in order to work against the escalating atmosphere of jingoism.

The situation in Canada is somewhat less grim, although it is by no means positive. The Tory government has been every bit as much a nightmare of reaction as I had feared upon their election, and it is only on the issues of the Enbridge and Keystone XL pipelines, where activists have made common cause with Aboriginal Canadians’ struggles that the government has been frustrated. The best we seem to be able to hope for as a result of the fight is a greater recognition of treaty rights, but it seems from here that there is not a clear sense on the Left of what the end game is for their fight. It is all very well and good to propose a pipeline running to Eastern Canada in order to increase the number of value added jobs in Canada and to build East-West solidarity, but if the oil is still extracted under extremely lax regulations by capitalist firms it brings us no closer to social management of the resource and our victory will only be a parochial one against our fellow workers in the United States. Furthermore that proposal is concerning in that it could be just as detrimental to Aboriginals as ones currently under discussion. Thinking of the problem in terms of the struggle for an inclusive socialism in Canada that can reconcile the interests of the Aboriginal population with the rest of Canadian workers seems to me a more fruitful direction for thinking.

My contribution to politics this year has been minor, but I thought that perhaps sharing some of the interesting books I read might be of value to those who are engaging more directly in praxis and struggle. The following are a number of the most interesting books I read in no particular order.

Fanaticism: On the Uses of an Idea – Alberto Toscano

Toscano gives us a genealogical account of the development of debates on fanaticism in Western history. Beginning with the German Peasant Revolts of the Middle Ages, and concluding with a discussion of current Islamophobia. While the conclusions one can draw from the book are a bit muddled, Toscano’s investigation of how the charge of Fanaticism is used by reactionaries to suppress threats to their rule, and how fanaticism has an ambiguous cousin in the concept of “enthusiasm,” as well as a great number of historical points of interest make this book worth reading.

The Reactionary Mind – Corey Robin

Robin’s book pairs well with Toscano’s, both investigating similar phenomena. Robin attempts to articulate a theory of conservative ideology, and his results are very interesting. In the midst of the debt ceiling crisis in the US this year I found this book to be illuminating compared to the lazy Democratic truisms passed off as analysis that were found in much of the liberal press.

The Hegel Variations: on the Phenomenology of Spirit – Fredric Jameson

Like most of Jameson’s books, this is by no means a clearly written text. Yet Jameson’s “variations” on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit were interesting to me because his anti-teleological interpretation of Hegel – which describes the dialectic as a succession of failures – seemed to me to be the philosophical counterpart to the historical theory we find in regulationism, a theory which is so influential today through its critique of neoliberalism. Having at least a basic understanding of the Phenomenology of Spirit would be useful for reading this book.

After Capitalism – David Schweickart

Scheweickart provides one of the most readable accounts of what a future market socialism might look like. I will address this in more detail with a future post comparing his ideas to those of Cockshott and Cottrell, but for now I will simply recommend the book for those who wish to expand their understanding of future socialist possibilities.

A Parting of the Ways: Carnap, Cassirer, and Heidegger – Michael Friedman

This is another difficult read that is not easily accessible to those without training in philosophy, and it is made more difficult by the fact that in order to address its subject matter (The split between analytic and continental philosophy in the 1930s) it has to bridge both varieties of philosophy in order to do so. While I am familiar with continental philosophy, I struggled to get a grasp on the discussions of the analytic philosopher Rudolf Carnap in this book. Nevertheless I found the discussion to be of great historical interest, and the book to be valuable in understanding a wide range of 20th century thought, including the debates regarding socialism that were taking place during and after the period it covers.

Lenin – Lars T. Lih

Any socialist most likely wants to read at least one account of the life of the most famous socialist of the 20th century. Lih’s work attempts to give a fair account of Lenin, and is mainly interesting because of how it attempts to outline the continuities as well as differences between his thought and that of Kautsky and the Germany SPD. This book should do much to impress upon the reader that Lenin was BOTH a Russian and a European intellectual and not simply one or the other.

The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change – Randall Collins

While I have not read this whole book, I recommend it because it brings the methods of sociology (such as network analysis) to bear on intellectual history in a way that is both illuminating and consistent with a historical materialist analysis.Although the author distances himself from Marxism, a Marxist reading of this text is still fruitful. The historical and geographical scope of this book is so massive that I would advise reading the sections of the book that are of interest to you and leaving the rest, unless you have a great deal of time available.

Paris: Capital of Modernity – David Harvey

I consider this to be Harvey’s best book, even though his work on Capital remains of considerable interest. Harvey’s blending of literature, popular and high art, politics, economics, and urban studies into one brilliant historical narrative that culminates in the great catastrophe of the Paris Commune is deeply moving. This book is also notable in how deftly it rejects all the revisionist accounts that attempt to write class struggle out of the history of Second Empire Paris.

The Myth of Mondragon: Cooperatives, Politics, and Working-Class Life in a Basque Town – Sharryn Kasmir

This controversial book presents a critical account of the celebrated Mondragon cooperatives in Spain. Kasmir provides a sociological analysis that draws on the often ignored history of the Basque region and an ethnography of the Mondragon workers instead of the sorts of management analysis that are more common to discussion of the cooperative corporation. While I do not believe that Kasmir’s account is so damning as to provide grounds for rejecting cooperatives, I do believe that it is essential reading for any socialist so as to appreciate the complex challenges that the cooperative form of organization presents.

Hayek on Liberty – John Gray

Written by Gray first when he was a disciple of the famous Austian economist and vociferous critic of socialism Friedrich Hayek, and later when he became disillusioned with Hayek’s ideas, Gray provides a brilliant synthetic account of Hayek’s ideas and the theories behind them, even though his prose is marred by occasionally sliding into outright hero worship. This is the account of Hayek that Hayek himself endorsed, and it is a valuable read for socialists who want to know what the substance of Hayek’s criticisms were.

The Player of Games – Iain Banks

The only novel I am including on this list. The Player of Games includes a fairly detailed description of Banks’ far future communist utopia called the Culture, as well as some of his strongest criticism of class society. It is easy to become consumed by the details of the struggle for socialism and lose sight of the sorts of possibilities we are fighting for. Banks’ Culture novels give us a glimpse into what a world without class antagonism, gender discrimination, private property and material want might look like. Orwell complained that leftist novelists were bores, but thankfully this criticism done not apply to Banks’ imaginative work.

I wish everyone the best of prospects in creating a better world in 2014.

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