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Van’s Favorite Political, History, and IR Reads of 2021

December 15, 2021

I read a lot of crap this year, but the good stuff was really good.

The Causes of World War Three, by C. Wright Mills

This book is from 1961, just after Mills’s famous “Letter to the New Left” and just before the Cuban Missile Crisis. The book basically predicts the Cuban Missile Crisis down to the U-2 incident. But what’s remarkable is his ability to marry analysis and prose. His passionate critique of power rivals the evocative language of Fanon or Du Bois, and his criticisms work at the level of both extreme specificity and general frames and mindsets. Nearly every page has memorable scathing indictments, like this:

“the U.S. elite…I do not believe that they know of any way, in which even they really believe, to maintain their capitalist interests and at the same time to industrialize the underdeveloped world…They ‘give foreign aid’ for military reasons, and they invest for reasons of profit; but when there is neither capitalist profit nor military relevance, then little or nothing is available.”

I had to go to ridiculous lengths to get a print edition of this book, but you can pick up an e-copy relatively easily.

Democracy’s Think Tank: The Institute for Policy Studies and Progressive Foreign Policy, by Brian Mueller

I was destined to love this book, which is about the first think tank to pursue foreign policy alternatives to Marxism and Cold War liberalism. I have a soft spot for the Institute for Policy Studies because I got my start after the military writing as a contributor to one of their projects, Foreign Policy in Focus. So I’m biased. But Mueller has the skill of a storyteller — not all historians do — and what he presents is basically an alternative history of US foreign policy, told from below. He brings you inside the world of real public intellectuals — the kind who challenge power with real ideas and don’t mince words. The kind we need more of today. I was blown away by the range of progressive foreign policy thought that had been constructed during the Cold War and largely lost until this book (some of the ideas were frankly not good, but many deserve a new look today). If you’re into how think tanks function, Cold War history, or progressive foreign policy ideas, then this book is a must-have.

The Divide: Global Inequality from Conquest to Free Markets, by Jason Hickel

There are a handful of books that changed how I look at international political economy. This is the one I’d most recommend. You’ll never think about economic development or inequality between the Global North and South the same again.

Mad at the World: A Life of John Steinbeck, by William Souder

I’ve always been obsessed with Steinbeck because he did a lot of his most famous work in Monterey, California, the place that changed my life and put me in a position to do this whole scholar-public intellectual thing. Also Steinbeck’s writing is, you know, pretty good… But to read about his life is to see the Great Depression through the eyes of its best chronicler. He spent his time making sure we saw the poor and oppressed, and when we did we saw ourselves in them. He also captured the emotion and political volatility of an era of unlimited possibilities in American life, in directions utopian and dystopian. I’m not finished with the book yet, but Souder’s rendering of Steinbeck’s life makes me want to never be done with it.

You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History, by Howard Zinn

Before Howard Zinn wrote A People’s History of the United States, he lived an unbelievably rich life as a radical activist and public intellectual. It’s impossible to engage with his life story and not be moved to action yourself in some way. From his youth experience with police brutality in New York, to joining the Army to fight fascism before eventually embracing pacifism, to his early encounters with the burgeoning civil rights movement while teaching at Spelman College, and then eventually going to Vietnam to secure the release of prisoners of war — it’s riveting and infused with passion.

Guns, Guerillas, and the Great Leader: North Korea and the Third World, by Ben Young

This is a serious work of history, not a light read, but it’s really well researched. More importantly, it manages to say something new and interesting about North Korea, which frankly is rare. Young shows how North Korea was once extremely active in the Third World, building movements against western imperialism that today look militantly quixotic but at the time had revolutionary potential. The dense networks of exchange and patronage that North Korea forged, across the Third World but in Africa especially, added to its own sense of purpose and informed its vision of unification of the Korean Peninsula.

For Might and Right: Cold War Defense Spending and the Remaking of American Democracy, by Michael Brenes

There’s a view in Washington that the Cold War was good for American democracy, and by extension a new Cold War with China could similarly be an opportunity to “Build Back Better.” This book is the most recent of many that suggest otherwise. Brenes’s unique intervention is in documenting with fine-grain detail how the policies that massively expanded economic inequality in America were part of a bargain that Cold War liberals made to divert public spending toward defense. American military superiority and arms-racing literally came at the price of creating a war-centric political economy that eventually betrayed American workers.

I, Candidate for Governor: And How I Got Licked, by Upton Sinclair

This is another oldie, but man is it both enlightening and entertaining. Muckraker Upton Sinclair ran for governor in 1934 on a platform to “End Poverty in California.” He was incredibly popular. His program for ending poverty amid the Great Depression was also incredibly popular. But establishment forces with a lot of money ran a smear campaign that painted Sinclair as a dirty commie; it worked. This book is Sinclair’s telling of his own experience getting red-baited by conservative-funded proto-McCarthyists, which made sure nobody ended poverty in California or anywhere else. Fascinating.

Representations of the Intellectual, by Edward Said

It’s a fast, searing read. If you write for the public or ever hope to, you must read this. It’s a manifesto for what it means to be a public intellectual. The obligation to stand alone. To critique power when everyone else wants to get along. It changed my view of what I do, and I wish everyone in Washington would read it.

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Van Jackson is a professor of international relations at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, and a think tanker at lots of places around the world: a distinguished fellow at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada; a senior associate fellow at the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Nonproliferation & Disarmament (APLN); and the defence & strategy fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies in New Zealand. He also hosts The Un-Diplomatic Podcast.