For more than a decade, academia has been enthralled by critical theory, setting out to demonstrate that concepts such as nation, society, and personality are all social constructs rather than being valid characterizations. Mitchell brings this approach to his work on recent Middle East socioeconomic history. But what a difference between his writing and the usual turgid tomes from the critical theory school: he is engaging, even when theorizing. He brings rural Egyptian society to life in this set of nine essays. Three chapters on the pre-1950 era cover the 1940's malaria epidemic, the 1900's cadastral survey, and the development of landed property law. The middle three chapters, mostly about the mid-century period, critically analyze how academics view three issues: peasants, the use of force in politics, and Egypt's past. The final three chapters sharply attack the economic reforms of the 1990s for enriching the wealthy at the expense of the poor and for misunderstanding or misrepresenting how Egyptian agriculture functions.
That said, Mitchell's leftist politics and theoretical framework intrude all too frequently on what would otherwise be a good book. He goes off on the occasional conspiratorial rant, for instance, when he speculates that Richard Critchfield, the author of a study about Egyptian peasants which he rips apart, may have been doing the bidding of the CIA because his brother James was a long-time CIA officer. And Mitchell has some particularly strange images; he writes that capitalism "survives parasitically, like the Plasmodium falciparum [which causes malaria], taking up residence in human bodies and minds, or in sugarcane or private property, drawing its energy from the chemistry of others, its force from other fields, its momentum from others' desires." To be sure, he occasionally makes a worthwhile point for his side, for instance, that political violence has been a much more common feature of Egyptian socioeconomic life than has been acknowledged by politicians, businessmen, or most academics. But still, what a shame that such scholarship, facility with the written word, and detailed knowledge of Egyptian society are marred by ideological fixations.