Top 10 Books of 2022

January 2023

Here is a list of the top ten books I read in 2022, accompanied by short summaries of each. N.B.: I would not necessarily recommend every book to every person in every situation. However, a few of these books I would recommend generally (Common Wind, Coffeeland, Weavers of Revolution, Sweetness and Power). Click here to jump to my list of the 10 worst books that I read in 2022. Enjoy!

1. Common Wind: Afro-American Currents in the Age of the Haitian Revolution by Julius Scott (2018)

This book is full of gorgeous, romantic prose that will transport you to another world. The historical methodology in this book is also very creative. Scott finds a way to study the underground slave communication networks swirling across the Caribbean in the colonial period that allowed for the planning and execution of the Haitian Revolution, freeing the nation of colonialism and slavery. Since these communication networks left behind very few written records of their own, Scott uses the correspondence and official records of enslavers, new world government officials, and European imperial powers, “reading against the grain” to find traces of self-organization among enslaved people who found ways to communicate over many hundreds of miles from the U.S. South all the way to Brazil. The writing imparts an inspiring and exciting feeling of revolutionary fervor. I could not put this book down!! It is probably one of my favorite books of all time and I now recommend it to anyone who asks for book recommendations.

2. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History by Sydney Mintz (1985)

An interesting, easy/shortish, and fun read. This book examines the anthropology of sugar through a historical materialist framework. In this book you will read about the historical origins sugar, how it has been produced and consumed throughout history, how it came to be such a staple in our modern diet, and what the meaning of sugar in our modern society says about our history, political economy, and culture. Mintz shows how the widespread production and consumption of sugar mutually arose from the emergence and development of global capitalism. His analysis historicizes the cultural meaning of sugar among consumers in industrial and post-industrial societies and demonstrates that these meanings are conditioned by political, economic, and military structures. The changes in dietary and consumption patterns that emerged in the West with the rise of the industrial era were not random; rather they were the result of the same processes that gave rise to a global capitalist economy, with its asymmetrical relationships between metropoles and their colonies, and its powerful mechanisms of production and distribution.

3. The Revolution Disarmed by Gabriel Smirnow (1979)

An analysis of the Unidad Popular years, when Chile was governed by the first Marxist president ever elected under a liberal democracy, from 1970 until Pinochet’s U.S-backed coup d’etat in 1973. Smirnow (a founder of the MIR and leader of the Socialist left) provides a left wing critique of the more moderate governing coalition of the Unidad Popular, and pays special attention to the self organization of the working and popular classes in Chile during these years. Gives a good overview of the challenges the government faced stemming from domestic and foreign sabotage, as well as problems resulting from the UP’s own contradictory economic and political program. Smirnow also carries out a self-critique of the far left during the period and tries to identify what the left could have done to overcome the problems Chile faced at this time.

4. Coffeeland: One Man's Dark Empire and the Making of Our Favorite Drug by Augustine Sedgewick (2020)

This is a history of coffee production and consumption, and in many ways it is similar to Mintz’s Sweetness and Power. Sedgewick explores many themes, including the free labor plantation system in El Salvador, the global political economy of coffee, the growth of mass marketing and consumption in the United States, and also ideologies around energy, labor, and politics. The writing is also really nice; Sedgewick is an excellent writer and story teller. One of my favorite parts is when he draws a narrative thread from 19th century scientific ideas about energy, to the ideas of Marx and Engles, to those of Lenin, and finally to the theory and practice of the Salvadoran Communist Party in the 1920s and ‘30s. Really great read and apparently there’s an audiobook!!

5. Weavers of Revolution: The Yarur Workers and Chile's Road to Socialism by Peter Winn (1989)

This book by Peter Winn tells the story of how the weavers of the Yarur factory in Santiago, Chile formed an independent union to fight for higher wages and better working conditions, and later used their power as workers to petition the Unidad Popular government to nationalize their factory for the benefit of all Chileans. The ex-Yarur workers went from weaving fine luxury textiles that they could never have afforded themselves, to weaving sheets that even landless peasants in the south of Chile could afford to purchase for the first time. Winn looks closely at the relationship between Chile’s “revolution from above” (wherein the state nationalized key sectors of Chile’s national industry) and Chile’s “revolution from below” (wherein workers and peasants self-organized to expropriate factories and farm land from the Chilean bourgeoisie and latifundistas). He shows the ways in which these processes were symbiotic but also contradictory. Really nicely written book; I especially like how Winn pulls from written primary source material as well as oral history testimony, which he collected from the Yarur factory workers themselves in the early 1970s.

6. Solidarity Under Siege: The Salvadoran Labor Movement, 1970–1990 by Jeffrey Gould (2019)

Tells the story of workers and fishermen in a small port town of El Salvador in the 1970s. Interesting discussion of the relationship between rank and file union politics and the Latin American organized left. But overall the book is super sad and difficult to read, since the narrative Gould tells happens within the context of the Salvadoran Civil War, characterized by U.S.-backed counterinsurgency campaigns and the death and disappearance of thousands of civilians, including many left wing organizers, by military death squads funded and trained by the Reagan administration. Definitely worth reading if you are interested in learning more about contemporary Salvadoran history and politics and Reagan’s legacy of terrorism in Central America.

7. Buying Into the Regime: Grapes and Consumption in Cold War Chile by Heidi Tinsman (2014)

In this book Tinsman looks at consumer practices among grape workers and consumers in Chile and the U.S. during the Cold War. Tinsman does so much in this book and pulls from so many different disciplines (notably feminist-materialist paradigms such as social reproduction theory and critiques of consumer culture) and uses a wide variety of methodologies (archival research, ethnography, oral history, discourse analysis and semiotics, and sociological & quantitative analyses.) Tinsman shows how Pinochet’s military dictatorship affected gender dynamics in Chile in both the domestic and public spheres, and she challenges the widely held view that consumer culture during the military dictatorship served mostly reactionary purposes by exploring the ways in which concrete organizing against the regime often centered around issues of consumption. Chilean women played key roles in organizing soup kitchens, consumer cooperatives, housing committees, and unions— all of which became vehicles for criticizing discrimination and violence against women as well as for protesting military rule. Also includes a great look at the way U.S. and Chilean agribusiness and mass marketing campaigns mutually developed in the mid 20th c., and grape boycotts organized by the UFW and Chile solidarity groups in the U.S.

8. Sorting Out the Mixed Economy: The Rise and Fall of Welfare and Developmental States in the Americas by Amy C. Offner (2019)

When I was reading this book I kept thinking to myself that I should be bored and confused to death by the subject matter (lots of people's names and alphabet soup...) But the writing in this book is really very good. It's about how the U.S. attempted to export the American Dream abroad in the mid- to late- 20th C, focusing on Colombia. Offner’s argument is that the U.S. postwar welfare state contained the seeds of its own destruction, eventually devolving into neoliberalism. Old school New Dealers who emigrated from the US to take part in the development of the third world devised and instituted policies of decentralization, privatization, and austerity in the state-building projects in which they participated; these neoliberal policies came back home to the States in the 60s and 70s as politicians and progressive social movements attempted to apply the lessons of third world developmentalism domestically in the U.S. Offner tells interesting stories about the development of neoliberal universities, the rise of a new managerial class in Colombia, how and why the Colombian middle class and U.S. progressive groups (for example the Quakers) embraced self-help housing programs … etc., to reveal the entangled histories of state building and development projects in the U.S. and the Third World.

9. Gendered Compromises: Political Cultures and the State in Chile, 1920-1950 by Karin Alejandra Rosemblatt (2003)

Very interesting subject matter and this book is well-written, but it’s definitely not a light read. This book takes a look at the realities of domestic/reproductive labor in Chile during the Popular Front period, and ideologies around gender and sexuality from the perspective of Chilean feminists, socialists, doctors, labor activists and social workers. A key idea in the book is that the political strategies pursued by the various groups studied had the effect of both advancing and circumscribing their political goals. The popular front era was an interesting time period in Chile, as the development of a welfare state instituted a lot of changes in Chilean society through the work of new healthcare, labor, and social welfare agencies, all of which had direct impacts on gender dynamics and ideologies throughout Chilean society.

10. Class Conflict and Economic Development in Chile, 1958-1973 by Barbara Stallings (1978)

Hobsbawm once wrote something about how dialectical materialism is so irresistible because it is so comprehensive, allowing us to study a complex and ever-changing world by paying attention to linkages between nature and human affairs, the objective and the subjective, the collective and the individual. I think this is why I like this book by Barbara Stallings so much; I like how it’s simple, orderly and systematic, and yet how illuminates a lot about the effects of three different developmental models that were carried out in third world nations such a Chile in the mid-20th C (conservative/liberal capitalist, developmentalist/reformist capitalist, and socialist). This book is an analysis of the political economy of Chile during three consecutive presidential administrations in Chile’s history that embodied these different developmental models— Alessandri, Frei, and Allende. Stallings neatly and methodically analyzes the class structure, social conflicts, and economic programs of each administration using a Marxist framework and draws conclusions about how third world states in other places around the world might be able be able to successfully pursue a project of equitable economic development (the tldr is that socialism is the only way). This book I would recommend to anyone wanting to learn more about mid-century Chilean history, or even to anyone who would be interested in seeing an example of a classic Marxist analysis of a nation’s political economy.

Special Mention: Workers of the World Undermined: American Labor's Role in U.S. Foreign Policy by Beth Sims (1999)

This book is about how American labor has been a central protagonist in the U.S. imperialist project for the entire 20th century (and things have not changed...). U.S. labor has taken an active role in undermining militant labor and left-wing movements around the world, undermining movements for radical change not only abroad but also at home in the U.S.

Special Mention: The Chinese Question: The Gold Rushes and Global Politics by Mae Ngai (2021)

Looks at Chinese laborers who migrated to California, Australia, and South Africa during 19th and 20th century gold rushes, and the way they were received by non-Chinese workers, politicians, and capitalists. Themes include anti-Chinese nativism, settler colonial ideology, analysis of labor regimes and working class lived experience, immigration politics, geopolitical dynamics between U.S./Australia/South Africa and the Qing Dynasty.

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Top 10 Worst Books of 2022

1. Dawn of Everything (2022) — David Graeber and David Wengrow (too anarchist)

2. Gender Trouble (1990) — Judith Butler (many reasons for this but basically this book promotes a horrible postmodernist & deafeatist attitude towards feminism and it's the reason feminism is dead today)

3. Menace to Empire (2022) — Moon Ho Jung (too focused on abstract notion of race as an explanatory mechanism)

4. Subaltern Lives (2012) — Claire Anderson (too boring)

5. Empire of Cotton (2014) — Sven Beckert (too up his own ass to recognize that all the terms he coins are just new words for concepts marxists have been talking about for 150+ years. Otherwise okay book)

6. American Labor’s Global Ambassadors (2013) — edited vol. (too much apology for empire)

7. La Unidad Popular y el Conflicto Político en Chile (1983) — Tomás Moulián y Manuel Garretón (too liberal/terrible analysis of the state)

8. Reckoning with Slavery (2021) — Jennifer Morgan (micro history, too speculative)

9. Black Legend (2021) — Paulina Alberto (micro history, too speculative)

10. Revolution in Development (2021) — Christy Thornton (too much of a traditional history of intl relations and diplomacy; boring)