Saturday, 19 August 2017

Keynes and Revolution



There was a time in autumn 1917 when Vladimir Illyich Lenin, firebrand of the revolution and scourge of reformism, let it be known that he favoured the peaceful formation of a social-democratic government. In the essay On Compromises Lenin called on his erstwhile enemies the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries to form a government with Bolshevik support in order to shepherd the faltering February revolution through the gates of democracy. As Lenin prevaricated Hegel's World Spirit itself - in the form of St Petersburg's radicalised popular classes - swelled towards the gates of the Winter Palace. In a foxhole everyone, it seems, is a compromiser. As China Mieville puts it in his recent book on the October Revolution, "To be radical was to lead others, surely, to change their ideas, to persuade them to follow you; to go neither too far or too fast, nor to lag behind. 'To patiently explain.' How easy to forget people do not need or await permission to move." After preparing all their lives for the definitive revolution, when the irresistible moment came the Bolsheviks almost blinked.


Geoff Mann's strange book, In the Long Run We Are All Dead (2017), is subtitled Keynesianism, Political Economy and Revolution. Much of the book is not concerned with revolution of the kind Lenin was contemplating, but what Robespierre famously termed révolution sans révolution. The book is strange in two ways: first, it is a very leftist (self-confessedly Gramscian) intervention into the world of high political economy, placing Keynesianism not so much in a context but in a genealogical map. Thus, thinkers and political actors as diverse as Hegel and Robespierre are Keynesians. "The key is that the Keynesian critique is not only Keynes's critique, but a thematic and a set of concerns, that runs throughout the history of liberal capitalism since its first moments."(44) For the essence of Keynesianism is the impulse to rescue civil society (bürgerliche Gesellschaft) from the destructiveness of the market system - to save civilisation from its own internal contradictions whilst ultimately preserving it. These contradictions arise from the "sphere of self-interested particularity" in which "individual interest is unmoored from collective welfare." (46) Mann describes the Hegelian-Keynesian - or just Keynesian - intellectual project as one which sets out to remedy the modern world's ills by careful palliative work rather than overthrow. What is surprising is how little explicit effort Mann makes to shield himself from accusations of anachronism, and one wonders how seriously he expects the categorisation to be taken. Mann's defence, when it comes, is to argue no more than that putting thinkers in their proper "place" is a "holdover" from the age of "progress." (45) We can choose to accept this relative suspension of linearity or not at little cost to Mann's overriding preoccupation, which is really to affirm the existence of something that is not liberalism as conventionally understood and not radical socialism or conservatism, but some other thing related to all three but nevertheless distinct.

The second strange thing about Mann's book is the recurrence of the first person, as Mann repeatedly identifies his own attraction to Keynesianism even as he chides much of the left for falling into this very trap. At a certain level there is an honesty to this and a willingness to accept that there is no non-ideological, god's-eye-view perspective to be taken against ideology as such. But it also begs the question of how urgent Mann feels it is to unpick Keynesianism or to escape it when he repeatedly professes his own fondness for it. This is not so much a criticism as a question about aims and intentions. It is not clear if Mann believes that Keynesianism needs to be substituted with Marxism or if the two can coexist. Perhaps it is not his intention to be so proscriptive, but the scope of the explicitly political diagnosis feels betrayed by too little attention to a politics beyond Keynes. The book really comes into its own in the final pages, when he accuses the left of harbouring an "inability or unwillingness to follow through on the revolutionary promise." Aspects of this resonate with Mieville's argument that all too often the left believes it has to a great extent explained past failures by merely admitting them: 'Of course, mistakes were made.' Here Mann is arguing that in revolution we all too often turn back from the precipice, and even in our analyses after the fact the same gesture is repeated so that the true scope of the failure is never revealed to us. Yet Mann does not properly embrace revolution either. In the final lines of the book we find Mann talking up the "radical kernel at the heart of Keynesianism" and its refusal either to properly reject the present system or simply to celebrate it.

Anyone who has struggled through Keynes's General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money (1936), will be relieved that Mann dispenses with much of the technical argument of High Keynesianism in favour of outlining its broad theoretical and political preoccupations. He identifies several. Firstly, Keynesianism situates itself within the concrete being (Sein) of "modern communities" - expressed through political economy - as opposed to an abstract vision of how those communities ought to be (Sollen).(230) Next, it assembles several key economic concepts and their inter-relations. For Keynes the central motivation of the investor was yield - return on investment - the expected future rate of which determined the level of investment and the level of liquidity (cash) preference in the economy at large. The key word here is expected: as capitalism is a forward-facing system in which investments are made with one eye trained on the future, the inherent "qualitative uncertainty" (234) of the future has a central role to play. If the rate of interest - the price of money, reflective of anticipated risk - increases relative to profits (or the "marginal efficiency of capital"), liquidity preference will rise and the rate of investment in enterprise decrease. Psychological preferences, Keynes argues, are such that a modern community will always consume slightly less than it earns - "effective demand" is the expected rate of this demand and if it is expected to fall then of course the environment for productive activity is perceived to contain greater uncertainty and therefore liquidity preference will rise.(246) "According to Keynes, investment decisions are determined by the difference, if any, between the return businesses can expect from investing in "productive activity" and the return they can expect from lending money (by purchasing corporate or government debt) relative to their desire to hold cash for speculative or precautionary reasons (their liquidity preference)."(247) Third, Keynes uses this theory - in which psychological uncertainty is so central - to elaborate an analysis of the great scourge of his day - unemployment - and its corrosive effect on capitalist civilisation. If the level of effective demand - that is, that based on future expectations and taking into account increasing uncertainty - in an economy falls, there will be involuntary unemployment - or a labour market that cannot reach a price floor and cannot clear. By adding such caveats to the "classical" theory of self-righting markets, Keynes - just like all "past" Keynesians - believed he was advancing a scientific corrective to a flawed theory. Finally, Keynes re-articulates the classical theory's separation of politics and economics. The system of liberal capitalism can be saved from the entrance of mass politics - that is to say, revolution - onto the stage of economics by technical and specialised correctives to a flawed theory that poorly reflects how the world truly is. Keynes believed in cheap but controlled access to credit - low interest rates to ensure productive investment remained inviting and to maintain business confidence - coupled with some government activity to shape the climate in which private investment decisions were made. The problem with Mann's assertion that such a corrective is "the principal objective of all varieties of Keynesianism" (257) is that there is no reason to think it is unique to Keynesianism. Mann implies that is is only when the separation of the political from the economic spheres which founds modern civilisation is placed under threat that Keynesianism appears. Yet this unstable separation of politics from economics is constantly under threat in the modern world. Since the capitalist state helps to produce capitalist markets and they in turn impact upon it, the line between them is crossed as a matter of course. As Mann puts it, "the tools of political economy as science are the principal means by which liberal government implements and maintains this separation [of politics from economics]; on the other, the separation is produced so as to make the expression "political economy" appear oxymoronic" because the economy is supposed to be by definition non-political. Keynesianism is, Mann argues, the project of legitimating the existing social order by careful construction of and maintenance of the separation. But could this not apply to any attempt to save liberal capitalism from itself and restore civilisation to its supposed "sanity"? What is missing here is the historical specificity of Keynesianism as it is widely understood: as one intellectual facet of a broader class compromise that developed out of the breakdown of liberal order in the first half of the Twentieth Century, one which could not have found the success it did in any other epoch.

The most succinct way of justifying this latter claim is through a brief digression into the internal tensions of formal structure. For many radicals, the capitalist "mode of production" (the name given to the vast, multi-tiered, interconnected structure of modern social formations) is distinguished by its epistemological and existential separation of politics from the economic. Under capitalism the state is theoretically and practically distinct from an autonomous sphere called the market; the practice of liberal, democratic or authoritarian politics distinct from commodity production and exchange, labour and capital. Fredric Jameson is fond of applying formal oppositions to his readings of culture. In particular the Greimasian semiotic rectangle is used to map the oppositions and negations in the formal structure of a text. My contention is that much the same process can be undertaken in relation to political economy. In the Greimasian semiotic rectangle of political economy, the opposition politics/economics is counter-posed to its negative opposition not-politics/not-economics.


Politics                                  Political economy                          Economics




State                                                          Market





Not-economics                           Abstract reason                          Not-politics

Between the opposition of politics and economics there is the apparent oxymoron of political economy itself. Here is where the separation is policed through a concrete science in the possession of specialists, experts and technocrats - Keynes's "universal class." On either side of this opposition stand the State (the realm proper to the non-economic, political type) and the Market (that of the non-political, economic type) respectively. Finally, the fourth logical position is that of the non-political, non-economic type or the sphere of detached, abstract reason occupied, in the Keynesian imaginary, by the Kantian Sollen (Ought) as opposed to the concrete Sein (Being). As is the case with Fredric Jameson's work in The Political Unconscious, this mapping of the formal structure of political economy merely highlights the internal tensions between the different points. Precisely because the structuring opposition politics/economics is never complete, we find that the state and the market are never finally separable either. Nor for that matter is abstract reason a mere shadowy projection of the real thought of political economy. The formal structure of political economy is rather an attempt to resolve what are ultimately antagonisms in the social situation of modernity, or more specifically an attempt to prevent the intrusion of mass politics into the realm of economic policy. Public choice theory, which in its most extreme iterations excoriates democratic politicians for indulging people's desire for welfare payments, is one of many non-Keynesian theoretical innovations which operate with these formal tensions. Political economy is always ultimately an attempt to regulate how the economic is politicized through its separation from formal politics.

The space of political economy is self-evidently contradictory, of course, tasked as it is with policing the politics/economy distinction, whilst, in the sheer fact of its existence, pointing to a deeper identity between the two separated terms. As Jameson again argues, difference must be based on the background of a prior identity. Both radical and heterodox critics of conventional political economy are wont to criticise the depoliticization of various aspects of public policy which pertain to the economy - a classic being the so-called "production of money", which takes place in both the private sector (among banks issuing loans and so forth) and the public sector (the central bank of a given economy or economies). Radicals will also often remind conventional economists that a good deal of what happens "in the market" relies not on the formal equalities of market exchange but on politically-constituted power. A further complication arises from the fact that most radicals and heterodox economists are themselves Keynesians or heavily-influenced by Keynes. An ambivalent relationship exists between this awkward critique of political economy and Keynesianism per se (which, like Marxism, is also a critique of political economy). After all, radicals do not entirely reject the Keynesian gesture of the critique of abstract reason or its preference for practical knowledge and science. The very status of abstract knowledge would, Marxists argue, not be possible without the evolution of the commodity form, the specific mode of abstract reification unique to capitalism. It is only possible for thought to attain such autonomy from practical life where the world itself has become abstract through the spread of the commodity form. This process of abstract specialisation and separation of branches of knowledge and disciplines depends on the spread of commodification itself: it is the source of capitalism's special intellectual strength, its infinite adaptability, and simultaneously the source of so much of the radical critique of it. Marxism endorses the separation of politics and the economic not as a bold innovation in the science of governance, but as a fundamental social fact of modernity. It is Marxism itself which, having entered into the most protracted and arcane political conflicts with the capitalist state, has done more than any other science to develop a theory of its "relative autonomy". Mann's book is both a player in this long tradition of self-reflexive critique in political economy and a victim of it.

Like so many books - both good and bad - which negotiate a vast pre-existing body of work in an unconventional way, the text comes fully into its own only at the end, when the theoretical position is fully drawn and the anticipated objections (however fleetingly) dealt with. In this space of relative autonomy from the weight of dead generations, it becomes clear this is a book about Marx-as-revolutionary and Keynes-as-reformer. Though Mann does not use the word reform and is careful to distinguish Keynes from the distinctive tradition of reformist social democracy, the two amount to something similar. If social democracy's intellectual telos is the conclusion that it is best not to throw out the baby of market-based exchange with the bath water of capitalist iniquity, then for Keynes this is both destination and point of departure. What is a journey for social democrats is self-evident for Keynes. For both Hegel and Keynes, Mann writes, "Freedom develops in the recognition of necessity's necessity."(386) Marx's "freedom from the realm of necessity" becomes, then, an enlightened embrace of the essential role necessity - that is, poverty - plays in disciplining and shaping civil society.

It is in this section on Marx and Keynes that Mann confesses that, in writing the book, he discovered the "reluctant, even repressed" Keynesian in himself.(387) Yet in the end the choice between Marx-the-revolutionary and Keynes-the-reformer is rarely made definitively by anyone outside of the most dogmatic sects. Movements of the radical left around the globe issue calls for both restoration of liberal institutions and the overthrow of the existing regime, often in the same breath. The choice - when it comes - is made for us, and it is only on the precipice that the question of whether our institutions, forms of organisation, modes of activism, and intellectual culture render us capable of assenting to the decision of world history.

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