Ben Kunkel is bringing
sexy Marx back. It’s an imperfect but important start.
“Now I was tearful too, feeling definitely a little apprehensive about the hard study of political economy that I would have to do to confirm my undeniable intuition.”
~ Dwight Wilmerding, Indecision
In Benjamn Kunkel’s 2005 debut novel, Indecision, the protagonist’s moment of triumph is his decision to pronounce himself a democratic socialist. But he realizes that there’s no victory in a hollow label, in mere posturing; he must commit himself to the hard work of substantiating and acting on his beliefs. Even then, there’s a lingering concern whether this choice is just hopeful naïveté, whether, as Kunkel puts it in the introduction to his new book of essays Utopia or Bust, released last month by Verso Books and Jacobin, “we American leftists were on a fool’s errand.”
This insecurity is, at least to me, a familiar one. We start with a hunch that the system is flawed, and begin to hone this suspicion into conviction as we identify one flaw after another. Then we end up dissatisfied when this litany of piecemeal critiques doesn’t sum up to a coherent whole. Even if Occupy’s “shit is fucked up and bullshit” constituted a diagnosis, it didn’t point to a cure. And while the earlier leftist movement against globalization had the motto “another world is possible,” what good is insistence without any content? It’s enough to make you question the hunch, or at least, whether you can do anything about it.
After the publication of Indecision, Kunkel followed in Dwight’s fictional footsteps, holing up in South America to teach himself Marxist thought. Utopia or Bust is the product of that autodidacticism, and serves as Kunkel’s answer to that insecurity. A collection of essays exploring and examining some of the most prominent thinkers of the intellectual Left, Utopia is billed as “A Guide to the Present Crisis.” But this really undersells the book’s purpose. The global economy collapsed and remains insufficiently resuscitated, and most of the solutions the mainstream takes seriously have been drawn from the same well of discredited ideas that got us here in the first place. This should be a moment of opportunity, but no alternative, no reimagining has filled this vacuum. And so even something as hope-inspiring as the Occupy uprisings struggled to develop beyond an expression of mass discontent.
The problem, as Kunkel sees it, isn’t an absence of alternative ideas, but the inaccessibility and relative invisibility of them. His mission is to beat past the stigmatization of “Marxism,” to translate it out of academia, and to take a highly specialized vocabulary and reformulate it in a way that’s generally comprehensible. With his lucid, novelist’s prose and non-academic background, Kunkel seems especially well positioned to endeavor on such a project. And while Utopia is only a start down this path, it’s a good start.
But is that all we really need, to bring these great ideas out of the academy and down to the people? Kunkel considers various Marxish interpretations of what caused the financial crisis, each of which grapples with what went wrong at a systemic level. Where mainstream coverage has looked at failures of banking regulation, overly lenient monetary policy, or other flaws that could be patched up with a bit of reform, these theories look at the dynamics of capital itself. David Harvey, for instance, focused on the spatial, geographical element of finance: even if financial capital can quickly be reallocated from disappointing investments to new more promising ventures, real-world efforts like the building of homes leave a physical residue that cannot be reversed by a keystroke, and damage and loss that cannot be neatly avoided.
But in other cases, Kunkel observes that these theories, whether from misguided fealty to orthodox Marxism or outdated assumptions based on the economics of yesteryear, don’t seem to fit today’s landscape. He explores the peculiar durability of the wage-induced profit squeeze hypothesis, born of the 1970s, when economists across the spectrum diagnosed low unemployment and increasing wage demands of workers as the cause of stagflation. Yet, since then, we’ve witnessed the decline of organized labor, the entry of about a billion low-wage workers into the labor market through globalization, and persistently high unemployment at home. Wages have stagnated but the economy continues to struggle. Robert Brenner also locates the problem in a profit squeeze, and prescribes a “slaughter of capital values,” in which firms who have competed each other into low profit margins are destroyed. It’s a nice appropriation of a Marxian idea, but corporate profitability is soaring, and destroying so many firms would displace more workers than the housing crash ever did, actually reducing productive capacity, leaving us with a lower standard of living until growth (hopefully) resumed.
The more reasonable interpretation that Kunkel reaches from Brenner’s data, that demand and therefore profitability would actually be better served by higher wages, can be found in the writing of Michael Kalecki, a Marxist who arrived at much the same conclusions as his more famous contemporary, John Maynard Keynes. Letting unemployment drop low enough to pressure wages upwards, allowing and even targeting higher inflation to erode indebtedness and encourage the deployment of corporate cash reserves, expanding public works—all of these are great ideas that are met with irrational opposition by the status quo, and yet they aren’t particularly radical.
Even when armed with such a precise diagnosis, the Left always has trouble deciding what’s to be done about it. This is the problem with having as your opponent something systemic, something so totalizing as neoliberalism (or postmodern late capitalism, whatever you want to call it). When we identify every aspect of our reality as having been influenced or mediated by this economic order, imagining that other possible world isn’t just made more difficult by the marginalization of leftist thought; it’s made practically impossible. The reluctance of radicals to engage with policy or make specific demands is a reflection of this, the fear that anything we propose will be tainted by being born into our fallen world of capitalist injustice. We restrict ourselves to “not this” or a necessarily content-less “something else.” It might even be that the retreat into identity politics and relentless “problematization” is the path of least resistance in maintaining a politics of ideological purity. These variants of today’s leftism may also point to capitalism as the culprit, but they do so in a manner that tells us nothing: a given institution, or behavior, or tradition is problematic, like all things it is a reflection of a capitalist superstructure, so capitalism must be bad and partially to blame. True enough, in its own tautological way, but then what?
Kunkel considers this problem in the writing of beloved and supremely irritating intellectual Left icon Slavoj Žižek. Žižek basically rejects gradualism, the idea that anything about capitalism can be reformed, or that anything about representative democracy could get us there. To Žižek, the “radical emancipatory politics” that we are all waiting for consists of a moneyless communism, in which the direct exchange of activities somehow takes the place of markets. To Kunkel, markets are neither inherently flawed nor synonymous with capitalism. More importantly, Žižek fails to actually consider any details of how production, ownership, management, or governance would operate in his system. By ruling out fundamental features of our present reality because they are tainted by capitalism, Žižek ”reproduces the same intellectual blockage” he ascribes to the current economic order, of being a system that “can’t imagine how another kind of society might function.” This provides us no way forward from our present situation.
Kunkel points out that this old leftist habit of pitting reform against revolution is misguided; he notes that the post-WWII growth of the welfare state was accompanied by an era of labor and student activism—a radical hopefulness that is absent in our neoliberal era. To him, “projects of reform…nourish hopes of revolution and vice versa.” Few of us accept the old “exacerbating the tensions” line, in which we’re willing to see things get bad enough to turn people revolutionary. Our recent past tells us that things will just get worse. And if, by implication, this means we have an idea of how things could be made better, what excuse do we have for not working towards it?
Perhaps another way to assuage the Left’s anxiety about being insufficiently revolutionary or co-opted by the state is to distinguish between reformism and radical gradualism. There’s a difference between liberals and radicals even when they’re calling for similar things in the near term. The difference is that radicals have a grander vision, and take these steps in pursuit of utopia, however vaguely sketched, rather than to prop up a flawed status quo. The radical program is based in a belief that this system is inherently unsustainable and morally unacceptable, not that it merely has a few weaknesses to be patched up. The goal is post-capitalism, not (superficially) improved capitalism. This concept of vision could even give purpose to liberals, for they too struggle to articulate a positive project beyond serving as speed bumps in America’s otherwise inexorable drift to the right. The gulf between radicals and left-liberals can’t merely be one side’s fault. The liberals who helped enact the welfare state might have supplied the strategy to get there, but the project was never uniquely their own.
But the only way this works, the only way we might be different from and doing more than liberals, is if our reformism is the product of a radical mindset, discussed in a radical vocabulary, in service of a radical goal. To couch our critique in the terms more familiar to American politics, a calculus of profit and loss, markets and utility, might be easier in the short run, but it ultimately cedes the terms of debate and leaves us playing on the field our opponents. To develop our own theories and nurture a shared vocabulary is a daunting task. But it’s worth doing, and it helps us move beyond being purely reactive. This distinction is not trivial. As radical economist J.W. Mason puts it, “[t]he real challenge isn’t showing the other guys are wrong, it’s showing that we have something better.” Utopia is a product of ideology, a device to orient ourselves. Kunkel’s essays are a good compass to start with.
The concepts are difficult, and so through no fault of Kunkel’s, his essays are sometimes difficult as well. As an econ guy, I can’t speak to what might help make more sense Kunkel’s exegesis of Boris Groy’s aesthetics. But for the rest of it, there are a few ideas about our modern economy that might help us draw Kunkel’s Marxism more into the present, and to help us develop a radical economics that is prepared for the future. Peter Frase’s “Four Futures,” published in Jacobin, is a fascinating analysis of the different forms post-capitalism could take, as we come to terms with an increasing ability to produce material goods without employing labor, and the concentration of wealth that may entail. Izabella Kaminska (a writer for the Financial Times, of all places), has authored numerous blog posts on how poorly suited our present system is to the “problem” of material abundance. I cannot recommend her “parable of water” highly enough for making a very large idea seem so graspable. Steve Randy Waldman is another thinker of incredible depth and insight, whose writing makes the most fraught concepts of economic justice seem incredibly obvious (see this, on why mobility is no salve for inequality). For those interested in what happens if a modern economics training is paired with a thorough understanding of Marx, the aforementioned J.W. Mason is an invaluable resource. See his work on debt dynamics, showing how households became more indebted since the 1980s for reasons having nothing to do with irresponsibly borrowing more.
Kunkel’s next book, also from Verso and Jacobin, will begin to articulate what our policy responses should be. This is the right next step, and we should look forward to taking it with him.