Some Notes on the Year in Left Books
Lists of the best books of the year are an exercise in hubris. Even if I was to narrow things down to the relevant books for this site — most of the works published by independent left publishing houses like South End Press and AK, a sizable number of titles from academic publishers like Temple and University of California, as well as the occasional book from a major publishing house or an independent not associated with the left — the amount of printed matter far exceeds what one person, or even a small committee, could reasonably absorb in a year. So the following is instead a few notes on trends, highlights and directions that became visible during 2011. I welcome your additions in the comments.
I’ve already described elsewhere one of the most important trends — books illuminating the history of the U.S. in the ’70s, which culminated in a decisive defeat for labor and a turn towards finance that has set the stage for our current predicament. Relevant titles included Judith Stein’s “Pivotal Decade: How the United States Traded Factories for Finance in the Seventies,” Jefferson Cowie’s “Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class,” Aaron Brenner and Cal Winslow’s “Rebel Rank and File: Labor Militancy and Revolt from Below During the Long 1970s” and Joseph A. McCartin’s “Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike That Changed America.”
A second striking trend was the almost simultaneous publication of three works, “The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin” by Corey Robin, “The Modern World-System IV: Centrist Liberalism Triumphant 1789-1914” by Immanuel Wallerstein and “Liberalism: A Counter-History” by Domenico Losurdo, that took long views of the political ideologies that have dominated the modern world. Of the three, Corey Robin’s received the most attention. He argued that rather than standing for tradition, or some policy goal (“small government,” “the free market,”) or a philosophical attitude (“the importance of society over the individual,” or perhaps the opposite), what unifies reactionary thought is the attempt to maintain or reconstitute hierarchy in the face of challenges from below. Reactionary thought re-emerges as more vital, dynamic, modern and, it should be said, sinister than it is usually imagined to be. Immanuel Wallerstein, on the other hand, focuses on the rise of centrist liberalism, a concept he has been working with for years, but here is finally fleshed out in historical detail. As a result of the French Revolution, the concepts of progress and the sovereignty of the people were well entrenched. Centrist liberalism responded to these concepts with limited reforms, even while reaffirming the supremacy of the capitalist economy. Hopefully this book will strike a death blow to the hoary notion of “classical liberalism” in the 19th century, in which, supposedly, the individual, the free market and the limited state were valorized. What emerges in Wallerstein’s detailed historical study is a very different liberalism of the 19th century, one nearly as committed to limited reforms as that of the 20th. Like Wallerstein, Losurdo focuses on liberalism to call attention to the conservative features of this ideology. I have not had a chance to read this work, but Paul Heideman summarizes its main argument: “Losurdo shows that liberalism historically has functioned by establishing a ‘community of the free,’ to whom the vaunted promises of rights and privileges correspond, while those outside that restricted community were entitled to no such enjoyments.” Reforms mostly appear when the efforts to suppress popular aspirations start to impinge on the freedom of the “community of the free.” Between Robin, Wallerstein and Losurdo, there is a great deal to think about with regards to liberalism and conservatism. What is now manifestly needed is a fresh examination of the demand for liberation, not reforms, i.e. the left. For starters, a new perspective would decenter the trajectory of various socialist internationals.
A third trend involves books which examine recent art history by considering artists as social groups rather than as individual geniuses, or even members of stylistic schools. These books turn away from the fetishized, overvalued items at the center of the contemporary art world in favor of the flow of ideas and practices among the ever growing numbers of artists. According to the publisher’s description of “Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam War Era” by Julia Bryson Wilson, “In her close examination of four seminal figures of the period — American artists Carl Andre, Robert Morris, and Hans Haacke, and art critic Lucy Lippard — Bryan-Wilson frames an engrossing new argument around the double entendre that ‘art works.’ She traces the divergent ways in which these four artists and writers rallied around the ‘art worker’ identity, including participating in the Art Workers’ Coalition — a short-lived organization founded in 1969 to protest the war and agitate for artists’ rights — and the New York Art Strike.” “Art Gangs: Protest and Counterculture in New York City” by Alan W. Moore looks at the different collectives, such as Art & Language and Group Material that shaped the art world during the seventies and early ’80s, a politically vital and experimental time. Although this milieu withered with the onset of the hypercommercial atmosphere of the ’80s, political art remained an important counter-practice to dominant art world trends, paralleling the non-disappearance of ’60s social movements. This brings us to the last book I am noting here, Gregory Sholette’s “Dark Matter: Art and Politics in the Age of Enterprise Culture.” Sholette begins in the early ’80s, discussing an effort he was involved in to create an archive of political art. Both a history and a theoretically ambitious work, Sholette develops a theory of the mass of artists, mostly not legitimated by the commercial world, as the “dark matter” of culture. Although not honored, their work is necessary for the production of the art that is monetarily valued. Now, in part because of the new technologies, it is becoming more difficult to keep the “dark matter” hidden. He also considers the way practices of political art have changed as the traditional, bureaucratic, coherent project of the old left has given way to the new politics of the multitude. It’s impossible to do justice to the work in this space, but suffice it to say that this was perhaps my favorite book of the year.
Occupy Wall Street has focused the attention of the left public since its initiation in September, and already there are a number of books illuminating the movement, most notably “Occupy!: Scenes from Occupied America” edited by Carla Blumenkranz, Keith Gessen, Marc Grief and Sarah Leonard and “Occupying Wall Street: The Inside Story of an Action that Changed America” by writers for the 99 percent. But here I want to call attention to a number of books that were completed before the movement began but may help to grasp the context for the movement. First and foremost is “Debt: The First 5,000 Years” by David Graeber. Graeber highlights the use of debt to create fundamentally unfree ties of dependency. The author himself played a significant role in Occupy Wall Street, although the claim that he introduced anarchism to the United States is exaggerated. For example, Barbara Epstein’s “Political Protest and Cultural Revolution,” published in 1991, described similar movements in the ’80s. The movements Epstein documented inspired many of the participants in the Seattle World Trade Organization (WTO) protests that helped shape Occupy Wall Street. “Debtor Nation: The History of America in Red Ink” by Louis Hyman examines a much shorter period than Graeber’s opus, roughly the last 80 years. Hyman tracks the history of consumer debt, from a practice that enabled consumers to afford industrial goods to a highly profitable end in itself, as it has mutated in the last 50 years. Meanwhile, a revised and expanded edition of “Debunking Economics” by Steve Keen should provide ammunition for what has emerged as the key intellectual project of Occupy Wall Street, a frontal assault on neoclassical economics. Not yet drawing the mainstream attention that Graeber has attracted, but widely read among anarchists involved in the Occupy movement, is a volume from Minor Compositions, edited by Benjamin Noys, called “Communization and Its Discontents,” which attempts to take stock of the theoretical innovations by Tiqqun, the Invisible Committee and others to theorize new practices of “‘human strike’, autonomous communes, occupation and insurrection.” Finally, it should be noted that novelist Gary Shteyngart proved far more prophetic than many social scientists: his slightly futuristic novel “Super Sad True Love Story,” published in 2010, envisioned two protest encampments in New York City. After the encampments are destroyed through repression, the protesters are never heard from again. In this respect, I think his vision of the future will prove to be inaccurate.
Not quite a trend, but surely the strangest coincidence of the year was the publication of two books with the title “The Beach Beneath the Street.” MacKenzie Wark subtitled his “The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International.” As implied, it is a history of the group of artists and intellectuals, the Situationists, who were a key inspiration of protests in the ’60s. Some would say their influence is visible in Occupy Wall Street. Wark’s book has been widely acclaimed. Benjamin Shepard and Gregory Smithsimon’s book, subtitled “Contesting New York City’s Public Spaces” has gotten much less attention. But its analysis of the creation of largely privatized “public” spaces, like Zucotti Park, the home of Occupy Wall Street, and their contestation by social movements, might also be of interest to occupiers.
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