Favorite reads of 2013
SocialistWorker.org contributors recommend some of the best books they read in 2013.
Last year, the ongoing epidemic of sexual violence became mainstream news as one horrific story after another surfaced. I spent a lot of my reading time trying to understand how and why gender-based violence remains so prevalent decades after the anti-violence movement that began in the early 1970s.
Beth Richie's Arrested Justice: Black Women, Violence and America's Prison Nation (NYU Press, 2012) should be required reading for anyone fighting around this issue. Written in an incredibly accessible style, and filled with devastating and illustrative stories, this book documents the specific experience of women of color who are victims of sexual violence.
Richie describes how "the political dynamics of a prison nation interact with racial and other stigmas in such a way that women of color are more likely to be treated as criminals than as victims when they are abused." Arrested Justice brings attention to the experiences of women of color that Richie argues are too often ignored both within their own communities and in the broader anti-violence movement.
This is an invaluable (and gut-wrenching) contribution to the literature on sexual violence. But what I found most illuminating was Richie's analysis of the political evolution of the anti-violence movement. She argues persuasively that this movement adopted strategies that became "more focused on establishing credibility with elite power holders than on challenging state institutions or creating social change."
Over time, a focus on establishing legal reforms and tougher sentencing laws coincided with a conservative law-and-order agenda. But the building up of a prison nation relies on the "aggressive enforcement of social norms."
As Richie points out, marginalized women are often seen as the transgressor of these social norms and further victimized. Arrested Justice shows how the buildup of America's prison nation has made women of color more vulnerable--rather than less--to violence and victimization.
While Richie focuses on the specific impact of this process on women of color, I believe her analysis of the anti-violence movement and its relationship to the buildup of the prison nation (including the ideological aspects of this) is vital for anyone trying to understand the treatment of sexual violence today.
In particular, it provides a basis for understanding the centrality of victim blaming in justifying such violence. A new generation of activists needs to learn the lessons from previous struggles and chart a new course forward. For this project, Arrested Justice is indispensable reading.
One of the most informative and terrifying things I read in Socialist Worker this year was the interview Eric Ruder did with the media scholar Robert McChesney. The back story to the NSA spying operation exposed by Edward Snowden, explained McChesney, is the "military-digital complex" of information gathering carried out both by government agencies and by internet monopolies like Google, Facebook and Amazon.
If you like a little dark comedy to help you cope with this frightening prospect, then you will probably appreciate Dave Eggers' new novel, The Circle (Knopf, 2013).
The book takes its name from a fictional corporation that within a few short years has supplanted Apple, Google, Twitter and the rest with its convenient model that allows users to run their entire lives from their Circle accounts. We follow an eager new employee named May as she rapidly climbs a New Age corporate ladder. On the way up, we meet the Circle's three-headed leadership, a wonderful parody of tech CEOs: there's Ty the recluse genius, Bailey the visionary do-gooder, and Stetson the ruthless capitalist.
The Circle's opulent corporate campus is plastered with Orwellian slogans that promote the goal of universal surveillance: Secrets are Lies. Privacy is Theft. Sharing is Caring. And there is ominous talk among company executives about the coming day when they will finally "complete the circle."
In short, the Circle is both a monopoly and a cult. But it's a clever cult that just might believe its own propaganda that, under its leadership, the world can crowd-source away all forms of corruption and oppression.
As a novel, The Circle is flawed. The central characters are not memorable and the pitch perfect satire fades as the plot hurtles towards a dystopian climax. But it is an intelligent and funny cautionary tale about where the military digital complex is taking us.
It's hard not to recommend Cathy Porter's Alexandra Kollontai: A Biography (Merlin, 2013, forthcoming from Haymarket) as one of the highlights of my 2013 reading list.
If "Marxist biography" was a specific genre of writing, then this book ought to be seen as exemplary. It is notoriously difficult to write a biography of an important figure like Kollontai, who made history in so many different ways--what sort of details about her personal life do you include, what kind of social factors do you detail that may have influenced her, which events do you prioritize.
And this is where the Marxist method can be used to make sense of what would otherwise appear to be a dizzying array of facts and minutiae. Marx reminds us that people "make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past."
This is one of Marx's clearest expositions with which to understand the complex relationship between individuals who make history and the structures of society that may aid or inhibit such actions. And Cathy Porter has done a masterful job of applying just such a method to Alexandra Kollontai's life making it intelligible and inspiring for the rest of us.
Susan Eisenberg published We'll Call You If We Need You: Experiences of Women Working Construction (ILR Press) in 1998, but I only came across it this year. A wonderful find! Eisenberg was herself an electrician and a lifelong activist with the IBEW.
In 1991, she began to gather oral histories of 30 women from 10 states and the District of Columbia who were among the first in their union locals of five trades: carpenters, electricians, ironworkers, painters and plumbers. A third of the women interviewed were women of color. The book is a collection of these voices and one I think we should pay close attention to.
Finally, no holiday is complete without a mouthy female detective kicking against some glass ceilings. Sarah Paretsky's Critical Mass (Putnam, 2013) returns my favorite sleuth V.I. Warshawski to working-class Chicago, fighting corporate bosses and Homeland Security. Special treat: a homage to the Occupy movement when Warshawski says with rage and disgust "We may wake up tomorrow to find the Bill of Rights applies only to the 1 Percent."
May 2014 bring us many Kollontais, Eisenbergs and Warshawskis--not just to our Kindles, but also to our streets.
For my picks of best books I read in 2013, I'll name two works that apply the insights of Marxism to the political economy of a particular region.
The first is Adam Hanieh's Lineages of Revolt (Haymarket Books, 2013). This work is a richly informed analysis of the imperial and class dynamics in the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA) that presaged the revolutionary upheavals sweeping the region since late 2010.
Hanieh demonstrates that "neoliberalism" isn't some of abstraction, but a real set of policies with outcomes that have transformed the region's class structure. As a result, not only have the region's ruling classes become junior partners in the imperial domination of the region, but a growing urbanized workforce is finding that challenging its economic exclusion also means challenging the political authoritarianism that props it up.
Unlike the superficial mainstream "Middle East experts" who see the Arab revolutions as reflecting a desire for more "transparent" governance and an end to crony capitalism, Hanieh argues that the "long-standing social crisis facing the Middle East...are not the result of too little capitalism but are direct consequences of capitalism itself."
My second is a Marxist classic, published in 1928, that deserves more attention from contemporary readers: José Carlos Mariátegui's Seven Interpretive Essays on Peruvian Reality (University of Texas Press, 1988).
Seven Essays is a pioneering Marxist work on Latin America. Mariátegui, a founding member of the Socialist (later Communist) Party, dedicates each of the essays to a crucial question of Peruvian society: the economy, the "problem of land," the problem of the Indian," religion, regionalism, education and literature.
Seven Essays' most consistent theme is the division of Peruvian society into two: an indigenous, Andean society where remnants of Spanish feudalism persisted, and a coastal, mestizo, more economically developed, neocolonial society.
Mariátegui's key message is the necessity for Peruvian socialists to break down these divisions, by championing the rights of the indigenous majority, to build a multiracial working-class movement.