5 Key 2021 Books in History of Ideas

Ferenc Laczó, editor of the History of Ideas section at the Review of Democracy, presents five key books in intellectual history in 2021.

Dirk Moses: The Problems of Genocide. Permanent Security and the Language of Transgression

Dirk Moses’ ground-breaking new monograph explores how the greatest political evil gets named and defined, by whom, and with what consequences. The author offers a substantial critique of the political and moral consequences of genocide, a new concept coined during WWII, being understood today as “the crime of crimes.” While doing so, the senior editor of the Journal of Genocide Research covers rich ground. He analyzes the language of transgression from the 16th century onwards and its close links to the history of empire; recontextualizes Raphael Lemkin’s coinage of the term genocide during WWII through original research; discusses the strategic logics behind mass violence and how our dominant image of the Holocaust offers a rather poor guide to understanding these logics; explores and critiques the academic field of comparative genocide studies as well as what he aptly calls “the diplomacy of genocide”; compares liberal and illiberal expressions of the utopian and deeply sinister ambition of permanent security and pleads for its sanctioning to protect civilian lives. This critical monograph aims to reshape our public and political debates. It reconsiders the problem of civilian destruction so that our reflections can become truly global and polyvalent. 

Listen to our conversation with Dirk Moses about the book here.

Mira Siegelberg: Statelessness. A Modern History

Mira Siegelberg’s sophisticated first monograph was originally published in 2020 and has since been awarded the 2021 Bentley Book Prize as well as the 2022 Francesco Guicciardini Prize. On its pages, Siegelberg traces the history of statelessness as an object of intellectual reflection and international political activity. The book reveals how bound up the stateless were in the aftermath of the First World War with the destabilizing uncertainties surrounding the meaning of sovereignty, agency, and legal personality in international society. Siegelberg’s unprecedented scholarly effort is particularly interested in how debates about legal theory, and especially debates over what it means to be a person in the eyes of the law, provided a critical backdrop for the establishment of a global norm of citizenship by the mid-20th century. As Siegelberg argues, there was a broader transformation of legal thought that ultimately detached nationality and its absence from fundamental questions surrounding the basis of political and social order. Siegelberg’s rich historical explorations also suggest intriguing ways to think about the climate crisis, and the impending mass migration spurred by it, as a condition of global order and collective security.

Listen to our conversation with Mira Siegelberg about the book here.

Samuel Moyn: Humane. How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War

Samuel Moyn’s new book is an engagingly written antiwar history of the laws of war. Moyn studies the history of expectations and rules for peace as well as the development of rules for humane conduct within hostilities, two subjects that have often been treated separately in previous scholarship. Moyn argues persuasively that, from the 1970s onwards, the laws of war became constraining rather than permissive, and that this was just around the time when the public and professional conversation moved from concern with aggression to concern with atrocity. The US-led conflicts of recent years have indeed been less atrocious than those in previous decades. However, as Moyn points out, this has been accompanied by a bipartisan consensus in the US for ignoring legal constraints on going to war. Even as Europeans can present themselves as the “apostles of morality” these days with centuries of colonial violence behind them, there has been a remarkable move in the US towards a new form of racialised domination that is indeed exercised more humanely for the sake of its legitimation at home and abroad. The result has been a curious “humanised militarism” which has prioritized preventive forms of often deadly counterterrorism and has led to what increasing numbers of scholars call an endless war.

Listen to our conversation with Samuel Moyn about the book here.

Emily Levine: Allies and Rivals. German-American Exchange and the Rise of the Modern Research University

Emily Levine’s new monograph explores the origins of the research university through historical research and sociological frameworks of interpretation: it offers a political and intellectual history that thoroughly attends to organizational form. Levine’s is a transatlantic interpretation focused primarily on Germany and the United States. The author shows how from the moment research universities were founded in Germany and iterated upon in America, there were contradictory cries that the university that combined research and teaching was self-evident and totally inefficient. A special merit of her book is that it zooms in also on extra-university institutions, such as research institutes, experiments in adult education or liberal arts colleges, which have all been developed in the wake of various critiques of modern universities. Levine discusses the institutionalization process of the modern university ideal as a compromise she felicitously calls the academic social contract. As her book shows, universities are spaces of negotiated autonomy: scholars receive relative autonomy in exchange for services to society and the state. Accordingly, Levine’s book reconsiders how the lofty ideals of academic freedom have been institutionalized or undermined in modern times, and with what consequences. Allies and Rivals also offers trenchant arguments that show how US institutions married elitism with the appearance of equality of access, not least through the idea of meritocracy. This is an exciting monograph that can also help us pursue more informed conversations about academic exchange and innovation in the early 21st century.

Listen to our conversation with Emily Levine about the book here.

Christopher J. Bickerton and Carlo Invernizzi Accetti: Technopopulism. The New Logic of Democratic Politics

This counterintuitive and refreshing book is premised around the idea that while technocracy and populism may clash with each other in certain ways, there is in fact remarkable complementarity between them, as shown by such seemingly diverse phenomena as Tony Blair’s New Labor in the United Kingdom, the iconoclastic Five Star Movement in Italy, or Emmanuel Macron and his En Marche movement in France.  Beyond dissecting this powerful new logic, Chris Bickerton and Carlo Invernizzi Accetti also trace broader changes in the relationship between society and politics in Western Europe that enabled its rise. They diagnose the end of structured democracies and the rise of less mediated or even almost unmediated ones. These new democracies foster emotional polarization without interests and values being properly articulated or policies being meaningfully debated in the public sphere. What you get instead is a politics of generality when appeals are directed at everybody in general alongside all the self-conscious particularisms of civil society. At the same time, Bickerton and Internizzi Accetti insist that technopopulism as a logic exists within the framework of political competition and is not something that tries to eliminate electoral competition. The book ultimately shows how entrenches this new logic of democratic politics has become in Western Europe, but also that technopopulism remains a profoundly unstable combination.

Listen to our conversation with Christopher Bickerton about the book here.

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