This book presents six occasional essays in which the American novelist Benjamin Kunkel gives an account of recent work by contemporary thinkers of the left.
In an autobiographical introduction, Kunkel declares his support for “replacing a capitalism bent on social polarisation, the hollowing out of democracy, and eco-ruin with another, better order... marked by public ownership of important economic and financial institutions... and by social equality”. In Kunkel’s view the left has been intellectually disorientated for a generation. It appears uncertain about how best to analyse contemporary capitalism as well as about any programme for capitalism’s replacement. At the same time, in the wake of the financial crash there has been a revival of interest in current Marxist, or marxisant, thinking. Kunkel would bring some of the fruits of this thinking before a wider audience, and so help the left to find its way.
The half-dozen intellectuals whose work Kunkel expounds are all eminent academics. They are also all male and white, and of a certain vintage.
The youngest, anthropologist and self-described anarchist activist David Graeber, was born in 1961. Kunkel uses Graeber’s book, Debt: The First 5000 Years, to précis several ideas from economic theory. (Graeber’s recent series on money and debt is still available to download from Radio 4.) In Kunkel’s view an understanding of at least the broad lineaments of neo-liberal economics is essential for challenging the capitalist social order, and for meeting its defenders on their own ground.
Kunkel outlines Graeber’s examination of the changing role of money in its credit/virtual and bullion/metal forms. He touches on sovereign debt, on the need for debt forgiveness (rather than default) and on the credit system as a network of human relationships. Kunkel exhorts the left to propose “credit systems and monetary authorities that can prise apart debt and hierarchy, exchange and inequality”. The left must make clear how our alternative vision of society would retain the complexity of today’s world, rather than regress from it.
Economic issues also dominate the essay devoted to Robert Brenner, whose 2006 book, The Economics of Global Turbulence, is said to have anticipated the credit crunch. Kunkel considers the structural role of unemployment in capitalism, and the nature of inflation. He outlines an explanation (drawn from Ernest Mandel and Andrew Glynn) for the stagflation of the 1970s and the end of the post-World War Two “long boom”, in order to confront it with the position held by Brenner.
Against explanations based on a wage-induced profit squeeze, Brenner advances the role of increased global competition. As the global market matures, so investment in manufacturing declines and footloose capital scampers towards financial speculation.
The essay on Brenner has much in common with what Kunkel has to say about David Harvey’s work, principally The Limits of Capital and The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism. Harvey locates the source of crises in the over-accumulation of capital, or “capital unable to realise the expected rate of profit”. Lack of investment ensues. Where labour has been disempowered wages are low, slackening demand. Cheap forms of credit increase, ensuring deepening indebtedness. Kunkel’s survey takes in what Harvey thinks about under-consumption theories, the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, ground-rent as a feature of fictitious capital, and the sharpening contradictions between highly mobile finance capital and fixed capital.
For a reader as ignorant as I am about economic theory, Kunkel’s mediation of these matters is clear and manageable. Readers with more knowledge and understanding may take a dimmer view of the substance of what is argued.
In the one essay (on Fredric Jameson) where my own awareness of the works discussed is less cursory, I found Kunkel’s summarising uncontentious.
As a literary/cultural critic Jameson has defended a totalising perspective in the teeth of post-modernist objections, and in doing so has maintained Marxism’s claim to be the key interpretative method for understanding our times. Kunkel writes: “Totalization might be defined as the intellectual effort to recover the relationship between a given [physical, intellectual or cultural] object... and the total historical situation underneath and around it... Anathema to conservatives, the recourse to ‘totality’ was no more endearing to a cultural left whose slogans included difference, heterotopia, nomadism et cetera”.
Kunkel notes Jameson’s characteristic provisionality: his “preference for a conditional over a declarative mood”. He might also have pointed out that Jameson’s demanding prose style is, like Adorno’s, a strategy of resistance: an attempt to keep the act of thinking properly difficult, and hence less likely to be assimilated by viewpoints more at ease with the currently dominant dispensation.
Kunkel criticises what he sees as Jameson’s “political paralysis” and relative neglect of economic questions, his “thin description of the economy”. Oddly, in view of the title of his book, Kunkel avoids engaging in any depth with the quintessentially Jamesonian theme of the role of the Utopian in social struggle.
The two final essays are on Slavoj Zizek’s The Year of Dreaming Dangerously, which is mainly about the Arab Spring, and two books by the Stalinophilic art critic Boris Groys. In a brief essay Kunkel tends to dismiss Zizek. Implacable hostility to reformism prevents Zizek from recognising that, in Kunkel’s view at least, the reform versus revolution debate is outmoded. Nor can Zizek offer in any detail a viable post-capitalist alternative to the market, of the kind that socialists must be equipped with if our arguments are to carry credibility. Kunkel wants to know whether, under a mode of production characterised by common ownership, productive enterprises would be “owned by those who worked for them or by society at large — or somehow jointly between the two groups? Zizek doesn’t ask, let alone answer, such questions”.
As for Groys, Kunkel is wary of his subject’s politics, recognises him as a provocateur, and says that “the big question is how seriously he means to be taken, and how seriously he can be taken”. Kunkel dutifully picks over what Groys argues about the value of Stalinist socialist realism, the role of the avant garde, the point of museums, and how the USSR was a society which granted art its due. Of all the six essays, which are really expanded book reviews, this was the one which made me happiest to be reading Kunkel rather than the books he was considering.
Kunkel’s writing is lively, engaging and at times aphoristic. He conveys the pith of his reading with clarity and verve. Yet he never reflects on the exclusively male composition of his authorial line-up, or what it might suggest about today’s Left as well as yesterday’s. Rosa Luxemburg is name-checked, and the “guide to further reading” which concludes the book makes passing mention of the work of Silvia Federici and Ellen Meiksins Wood. These can’t be the only women writing in the academy whose Marx-inspired critiques of capitalism are especially important.
The question which grips Kunkel, of how the capitalist mode of production might be made to give way to a better, and what such a process might look like and result in, is as urgent as it is necessary. But Kunkel has nothing to say about matters we would see as fundamental to an answer. The pivotal role of the organised working class as a historical agent and subject, the experience of workers’ self-management in industry, or the nature of a communist party, merit no mention.
Kunkel’s guide serves to underline how much has withered from the intellectual hinterland of the left and needs to be restored.