17 March, 2014Issue 24.5Politics & Society

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It’s the Political Economy, Stupid!

Tom Cutterham

Benjamin Kunkel
Utopia or Bust: A Guide to the Present Crisis
Verso Books, 2014
180 pages
ISBN 978-1781683279

Say what you like about the tenets of New Labourism, at least it was an ethos. In the late 1990s, it was possible for some people to imagine that the ideal of collectively owning the means of production could be justly replaced with the minimum wage, rising property values, and britpop. By contrast, the Labour Party of Ed Miliband promises nothing but a somewhat less aggressive programme of austerity. The situation in the United States is hardly preferable. Having run as Blair, Barack Obama has more or less governed as Miliband. This vacancy in the centre-left has had an interesting effect on its radical flank. It has awakened a phalanx of Marxist writers who have ceased to be content with the utopias implicit in critique, and have opted instead for pragmatic engagement. We are entering the age of the radical policy wonk, and Benjamin Kunkel is its prophet.

Utopia or Bust collects essays Kunkel wrote for the London Review of Books, the New Statesman, and the New York-based journal he co-founded, n+1. It’s not so much a “guide” to recent radical left thinkers or “the present crisis” as it is a sort of intellectual autobiography, and like most works of its kind, it is also a manifesto and a provocation. In pursuit of “an economically just, politically free, and ecologically viable social formation”, Kunkel demands of his leftist audience the same thing mainstream commentators have consistently asked of Ed Miliband: get some policies. Like Erik Olin Wright, whom he doesn’t mention, Kunkel suggests that Marxist politics cannot proceed without a set of clear, if flexible, proposals. Is it really too much to ask for a comprehensible vision of the world after capitalism?

Kunkel doesn’t seem very distracted by the fact that none of the writers he reviews in this book actually offer such a vision. Rather, that’s precisely his point. It is the task of a new generation of Marxist thinkers, himself included, to extract demands from the vast mines of critique established by the likes of David Harvey and Fredric Jameson. “[T]he outlines of an ecologically stable and politically democratic future socialism remain as blurry in his later work as they do almost everywhere else”, he writes of Harvey. “At the moment Marxism seems better prepared to interpret the world than to change it.” The history of Marxist thought Kunkel sketches is, like Jameson’s project of cultural criticism, a series of “prolegomena to work yet to be done.” This book, too, is a prelude to Kunkel’s next—his original contribution.

So, what does that work look like at this distance? In his essay on Robert Brenner, Kunkel suggests a programme of full employment to be achieved by recalibrating central banks’ attitudes to inflation (in short, we can handle a good deal more of it) and by having the state fund workers’ co-ops to take up the slack from private businesses. Observant readers will have noticed that Kunkel’s vision is also an explicitly green one, which presumably resembles Herman Daly’s Steady State Economics, or perhaps more closely André Gorz’s Capitalism, Socialism, Ecology, both praised in a bibliographical epilogue. At last summer’s Left Forum, Kunkel spoke about the ecological potential of a heavily regulated universal basic income, an idea that may have come too late for this book, most of which was written by the end of 2012. We can but wait.

Kunkel’s influences and policy proposals—and, more importantly, his interest in policy proposals as such—place him squarely in a particular space of the American radical left. An emerging landmark in that space is the magazine Jacobin, to which Kunkel is a contributing editor, and which partnered with Verso in the publication of his book. In Jacobin‘s most recent issue, Alyssa Battistani elaborates on the theme of a green universal basic income. She also echoes Kunkel’s frustration with “sweeping critiques [that] aren’t very helpful when it comes to the specifics of what exactly to do about it”–the “it” in this case being environmental calamity but also, of course, capitalism. Self-identified wonks like Mike Konczal and Doug Henwood, both of whom blurb Kunkel’s book, and figures like the MSNBC host Chris Hayes, extend this version of radicalism all the way to the edges of the Democratic Party.

In the UK, the same kinds of relationship connect parts of the radical left with the Green Party and even, in some cases, Labour. It’s as though the policy vacuum over which Westminster politicians now preside has sucked left-wing thinkers inwards, towards the elusive goal of fighting capitalism through the mechanisms of the capitalist state. As Kunkel puts it, “the old opposition between reformism and revolution is no longer useful… In present circumstances, the achievement of reforms might well clear, rather than bar, the way to a new society.” Since the point of Marxism is not merely to interpret the world but to change it, Marxists should start trying a lot harder to concoct and advocate reformist policy platforms. For Kunkel, imminent environmental disaster adds urgency to this mission—time is running out before we face a much more dangerous kind of post-capitalist world.

Often, the essays in Utopia or Bust give the exhilarating sense of glimpsing someone hard at work on a very difficult and important task, the task of transforming our understanding of the world into the tools with which we might change it. As Kunkel almost puts it himself, this is a “modest explanatory volume” which sets itself an “immodest” goal. Nobody would call Slavoj Žižek modest, but there’s a parallel here with the kind of immodest modesty that would imagine that film criticism, or Lacanian psychoanalysis, might help bring about a communist utopia. Kunkel’s short essay on Žižek, however, focuses on the vast difference between them. Žižek has neither a real programme nor a real strategy. He actively refuses to spell out what his utopia will look like. He is “most often and energetically an enemy of reform.” This tells us more about what Kunkel is trying to do than what Žižek is trying to do; or rather, because they are both trying to replace capitalism with utopia, it tells only one story about how that might be done.

In his closing essay, on the neo-Stalinist art critic Boris Groys, Kunkel writes that “even today the experience of art continues to radicalize many sensibilities more decisively, if obscurely, than political argument.” But the recognition comes too late to get us anywhere. Indeed, the very next lines, the book’s closing sentences, render art merely the consequence of social formation, not a part of the cause. By extension, Kunkel seems to disavow the possibility that anything but “political argument” might help to achieve his aims—might, indeed, be absolutely vital. Radical policy wonks are great, and we need to understand political economy properly. But we should also entertain the possibility that there is something more than just a lack of will preventing us from seeing what utopia will look like.

Tom Cutterham is a Junior Fellow at New College, Oxford. He is a contributing editor at the Oxonian Review.