We asked editors and contributors for suggestions about what left foreign policy enthusiasts should be reading, supporting, and wearing in 2021. Here are our best picks for holiday gifts for budding Pams Campos-Palma and Tobitas Chow in your life.
Zachariah Mampilly’s Rebel Rulers: Insurgent Governance and Civilian Life During War (Cornell University Press, 2011). Being an effective radical in the world of political science requires many of the same skills as being a canny hostage in a proof of life video. Your work has to situate itself within the structures of your field, communicating your research in the terms tenure committees and academic publishers expect to hear. Yet your writing also needs to blink out the Morse code of your real argument to anyone else who might be able to make use of it. I can’t think of a political science book in the last decade that has blinked as insistently and persuasively as Mampilly’s Rebel Rulers. Ostensibly, Rebel Rulers is an attempt to create a taxonomy of how rebel groups choose to meet or ignore the governance needs of the civilians under their control. It accomplishes that goal admirably, but accepting its conclusions about how rebel groups work to be accountable to the civilians they seek to rule requires accepting the premise that rebels are no less capable of establishing that accountability than states.
To people trained in the foreign policy establishment, that premise is a radical one. Every policy school, every think tank, and nearly every academic international relations program starts from the premise that the proper work of a political scientist is to improve the function and power of the state. As we reflect on a year in which anti-state organizing and mutual aid systems grew in the US to levels not seen in decades, Mampilly’s book serves as an important corrective to the establishment view. If social scientists wish to use their work to improve people’s lives, they owe no automatic allegiance to existing states. Instead, they need only focus their work on improving whatever institutions most affect people’s lives.
Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March (Harry N. Abrams, 1932). This long-unappreciated interwar Austrian novel ended up being one of the first books I read during the pandemic, and since then I’ve been recommending it to every history and international relations nerd I know. It covers the duration (1867-1918) and the territory (from Bohemia to Galicia) of the Austro-Hungarian Empire through three generations of a military family, beginning with the almost accidental rescue of Emperor Franz Joseph’s life during battle and ending with—spoiler—his death and the imminent collapse of his multiethnic domain. It’s a tragically beautiful and bleakly funny story, one centered on a hapless failson whose personal blunders foreshadow those of the empire he serves. If for whatever reason you find this thematically resonant as we close out 2020—or if you’re just interested in the Habsburg monarchy because you’ve been playing a lot of Diplomacy—then you will surely enjoy.
Wars of Future Past and the rest of the left foreign policy e-mail newsletter world. There’s no institution paying leftists to understand the Pentagon, with an eye towards guiding war policy some day, but there is this z-level replacement: a subscription to Wars of Future Past, the fortnightly newsletter I write. It’s my best attempt to keep covering war technology and the weird policy implications of training robots to identify people and point guns at them. A subscription comes with the ability to comment, and the knowledge that you’re helping a writer sustain a beat in an especially bad time for journalism. (Fair warning, the beat may venture into Star Wars commentary at times).
Here at Fellow Travelers Blog, we also support a united front approach to better foreign policy writing, so I’d also like to recommend Foreign Exchanges, Border/Lines, Critical State, and Discourse Blog.
Victor McFarland’s Oil Powers: A History of the US-Saudi Alliance (Columbia University Press, 2020). In writing about the US-Saudi relationship, there is a high ratio of high-minded think-pieces (I know, having written some) to nuanced, deeply researched works of diplomatic history. Fortunately, University of Missouri historian Victor McFarland is out with a new book, Oil Powers: A History of the U.S.-Saudi Alliance, that covers the tumult from the Second World War up through the 1970s. McFarland’s book details the bloated defense budgets in both Riyadh and Washington, the bilateral commitment to the global oil economy, and the elite relationships that have underpinned the relationship ever since. Well worth the paperback price, or ask your local library to order a copy!
Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman’s The Triumph of Injustice: How the Rich Dodge Taxes and How to Make Them Pay (W.W. Norton & Company, 2019). This November, Arizonans backed a referendum to increase the state’s education funding by imposing an additional income tax on people who earn over $250,000 in a year. This long-fought outcome of the 2018 teachers’ strike is one of many hopeful signs that things are headed in the right direction. But for reluctant converts to tax justice, we recommend The Triumph of Injustice by Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman. This concise but incendiary work shows how poor people in the United States have paid an ever-higher share of their income to taxes over the past forty years while contributions from the top of the trickle-down pyramid have diminished.
At this point, you might be wondering how taxation is relevant to foreign policy. Dear friends, national borders do not exist for the ultra-wealthy in this final cycle of the neo-liberal dystopia. Instead, our ruling classes use these frontiers offensively to keep their hoards away from the reach of people who might demand more money for schools or (god forbid) health care. Saez and Zucman have a solution for this as well. But first, we need citizens who are woken to this injustice.
Timothy Pachirat’s Every Twelve Seconds: Industrialized Slaughter and the Politics of Sight (Yale University Press, 2013). Timothy Pachirat’s brilliant ethnography of an industrial slaughterhouse takes place entirely in a small, unnamed town in Nebraska, but foreign policy lefties don’t have to look hard to see the parallels between other hidden processes of mass violence, acts of brutality sequestered and outsourced for so long that they’re hardly recognizable as such.
Pachirat’s clean, descriptive narrative is almost sterile. He describes the activities of the slaughterhouse from multiple vantage points, as he was employed in three different positions across several months, but he doesn’t attach political bias or analysis in these descriptive chapters. Instead, the process of mass violence he describes speaks for itself, slowly over time. His Nebraska slaughterhouse is a microcosm of labor exploitation and the emotional and psychological toll of having a role in the larger project of mass killing. Pachirat observes that the work does indeed take a toll, despite the fact that the majority of workers are separated both from the act of killing and from ever seeing the whole, intact animal.
Every Twelve Seconds is the best of ethnography. The author and his subject matter successfully humanize an industry that functions as a ‘zone of confinement’ that will, by and large, never be accessible to ‘ordinary members of society,’ while also creating deep psychological unease around this type of concealed, routinized violence.
Pachirat ends the book with what I consider to be a call to action—almost a manifesto, the final chapter diverges from the crisp description of the slaughterhouse itself and instead maps that slaughterhouse outward onto the similarly clandestine violence underlying so much of the modern world. Analogous social and political processes abound: The Amazon behemoth; subcontracted mercenaries terrorizing civilian populations far from Congressional oversight; drone warfare conducted in video game form thousands of miles away from the physical carnage of the attack itself; and the steady militarization of police departments worldwide. I first read this book almost three years ago and still think about it at least once a week. Why not give your favorite lefty the gift of an obsessive thought pattern?
A donation (or two) to Study and Struggle. For the radical reader on your list, a donation to Study and Struggle could not be more timely. Based in and focused on Mississippi, Study and Struggle organizes study groups of currently and formerly incarcerated people, scholars, and community organizers around a curriculum rooted in abolition, deconstructing borders, and transnational solidarity. A small bonus: Getting involved with Study and Struggle sticks it to the University of Mississippi, which unjustly fired scholar-activist and historian Garrett Felber earlier this month. In fact, why not make two donations? One for you, and one in the name of Mississippi’s own Socialist-Fearing House Foreign Affairs Committee Member and Certified Proponent of Border Imperialism™️, Michael Guest.
Hell is Patient t-shirt. Ayesha Siddiqi’s brilliant side biz, The Ones We Love, has produced a lot of excellent content but none so wonderful, in my opinion, as her Hell Is Patient design. This supremely unique tee is emblazoned with a youthful portrait of none other than H*nry K*ssinger below the eponymous adage. I got mine in forest green. The second best part (other than the image of our #1 villain finally making his way into the fiery depths) is that Siddiqi donates proceeds from the shop to a wide range of causes—from GoFundMes for legal aid and trans healthcare to bail funds and Action Contra la Faim. Take it from me—this goes over great at family holiday parties.
Perhaps you have someone more entrepreneurial on your holiday gift list. They’ve noticed that we are in a boom period for foreign policy grifting, and they’re looking to set up their own snake oil shop to cash in on the wave. What can you buy a man (and the grifters are overwhelmingly men) who believes in nothing? We have some suggestions for items that no threat-inflating, civility-fetishizing, political correctness-decrying hack should be without this holiday season.
Space Force Challenge Coins. The paid-newsletter world is a nightmare out there, and while there’s a host of grifters, what’s astounding is there’s also room for writers offering bog-standard blob conventional wisdom as though it’s clever insight. Needless to say, I don’t find this particularly Persuasive.
If you want something absolutely worthless to wring out this very bad year, and don’t want to give money to a bad writer, there are Space Force Challenge Coins. A weird artifact of the forever war, challenge coins are basically up armored Pogs (or, really, slammers) that exist so commanders can give them out instead of actual medals. Space Force, the least necessary extension of the Pentagon, is the worst service to get in a challenge coin, and therefore the best. There are the official Space Force coins, which “look like tokens you’d spend at Chuck E. Cheese.” And then there are the ones from the White House Gift Shop, which cost $125 each and feature Saturn for some reason. Anyone who buys one deserves to have all their assets seized and sold at auction to fund mutual aid groups.
Matthew Kroenig’s The Return of Great Power Rivalry: Democracy Versus Autocracy from the Ancient World to the US and China (Oxford University Press, 2020). For a long time, Matthew Kroenig treated his policy interventions like Rich Homie Quan treats his mixtape titles: with a single-minded emphasis on going in (to Iran, by force). Articles titled “Time to Attack Iran” and “Still Time to Attack Iran” preceded a 2014 book, A Time to Attack: The Looming Iranian Nuclear Threat. Just as we were about to get his magnum opus, “If You Ever Think It Won’t Be Time To Attack Iran Ask JB (John Bolton),” Kroenig noticed that his warmongering wasn’t resulting the intended war, and pivoted to the flipside of his argument: Iranian nukes would be bad, but American nukes are very, very good. Pushing the bizarre and ahistorical view that nuclear stockpile size is the true ultima ratio regnum in international disputes didn’t sell very many books, so this year he expanded his grift catalogue to include Great Power Competition, the greatest foreign policy racket of our time. The Return of Great Power Rivalry expands on Graham Allison’s flawed but influential argument that the US and China are destined for war to argue that the value of American democracy, such as it is, comes from the capacity of democratic institutions to win a contest with Chinese institutions for global supremacy. This line of thinking, rooted in awe for an imagined “passing of the torch of liberal hegemony from Athens to Rome, to Venice, to Amsterdam, and London, and on to its current resting place in Washington, DC,” will sustain those who see anti-Asian racism as a democratic good for decades to come. There’s still time to get the budding grifter on your list in on the ground floor.
Foundation for the Defense of Democracies Chairman’s Circle. Curious to know just how the Foundation for Defense of Democracies… defends democracies? Or which even which democracies count as Democracies for the Defending? Well, a mere $10,000 donation will get you an exclusive email from FDD President Cliff May on the threats posed by
multiple adversaries the world over Iran to Democracies the World Over One Very Specific Questionably Democratic Regime. Tired of trekking all the way to DC for rounds of glad-handing and hob-nobbing with America’s leading DEFEND FORWARD experts? The $25,000 President’s Circle of membership will ensure that FDD comes to you, in a personalized delegation of FDD experts to wherever you are in the United States. Here’s hoping Frank VanderSloot takes an interest so FDD fellows have the privilege of visiting scenic Idaho Falls in all its rustic beauty!