The recent revival of Marxist thinking offers perhaps the best perspective on the failures of late-stage capitalism.
To the disappointment of friends who would prefer to read my fiction — as well as of my literary agent, who would prefer to sell it — I seem to have become a Marxist public intellectual. Making matters worse, the relevant public has been a small one consisting of readers of the two publications, the London Review of Booksand n+1, where all but one of the essays here first appeared, and my self-appointed role has likewise been modest…
The purpose of this modest explanatory volume is nevertheless immodest. The idea is to contribute something in the way of intellectual orientation to the project of replacing a capitalism bent on social polarization, the hollowing out of democracy, and ecological ruin with another, better order. This would be one adapted to collective survival and well-being, and marked by public ownership of important economic and financial institutions, by real as well as formal democratic capacities, and by social equality — all of which together would promise a renewal of culture in both the narrowly aesthetic and the broadly anthropological meanings of the term.
Theory, and writing about theorists, brings no victories by itself. Nor is there any need for everyone on the left or moving leftwards to converge on the same understanding of “late” capitalism, in the sense of recent or in decline, before anything can be done to make it “late” as in recently departed. Imperfect understanding is the lot of all political actors. Still, for at least a generation now, not only the broad public but many radicals themselves have felt uncertain that the left possessed a basic analysis of contemporary capitalism, let alone a program for its replacement. This intellectual disorientation has thinned our ranks and abetted our organizational disarray. Over the same period the comparative ideological coherence of our neoliberal opponents gave them an invaluable advantage in securing public assent to their policies or, failing that, resignation. Gaining a clearer idea of the present system should help us to challenge and one day overcome it… Social injustice and economic insecurity — bland terms for the calamities they name — would make overcoming capitalism urgent enough even if the system could boast a stable ecological footing; obviously, it cannot.
The odds of political success may not look particularly good at the moment. But the defects of global capitalism have become so plain to the eye — if still, for many minds, too mysterious in their causes and too inevitable in their effects — that the odds appear better than a few years ago…
Already in the unpropitious year of 1993, with the Soviet Union freshly dissolved and amid proclamations of the liberal capitalist end of history, I’d announced to my parents, who were visiting me at college after my first year, that I was a socialist. I added that I was a democratic socialist who wouldn’t send them to reeducation camps. They took the news with bemused indulgence. My mother has always wanted me to be happy, through socialism if necessary, while my father just asked me to define the word reification; besides, he is an open-minded man who not long ago told me he was enjoying the free edition of Bakunin’s God, Man and State that I’d downloaded to a Kindle account we share. My parents in any case couldn’t reproach their nineteen-year-old son with the obvious parental comeback to undergraduate avowals of socialism in a country where higher ed. costs are exorbitant: “It’s our ill-gotten gains, you know, that pay for you to sit around reading about reification.” This was because I’d gone to Deep Springs College, in California, which charges no tuition or room and board: a small lesson, perhaps, in conditions favorable to intellectual freedom.
Still, for many years the national atmosphere of ideological consensus deprived me of some belief in my beliefs. Neoliberal principles were ardently proclaimed by some people I knew and shruggingly accepted by most of the rest. Where economic prosperity was lacking, excessive government deserved the blame. Maximum liberation of the market would secure the best social outcomes not only in terms of aggregate wealth but its concentration in deserving hands. Socialism of any kind was a recipe for -political oppression and shoddy goods, whereas free markets could be counted on to foster democracy and other forms of consumer choice.
My respect for neoliberal doctrine, always resentful and incomplete, was a reflex all the same. It could be triggered by the flushed faces of politicians on TV or the hearty dispositions of businessmen or finance guys met in real life; it could be activated by the smooth invisible inferences drawn by newspaper journalists whenever a wave of growth swept another country adopting economic “reform,” in the neutral-sounding promotional term for deregulating capital and labor markets. I armed myself against these forces with facts and counterarguments, and occasionally shouted sarcastic invective at uncles over dinner. But for years I didn’t write directly about politics or economics, or imagine that I would…
Most of my youth went by during the end of history, which has itself now come to an end. If no serious alternative to liberal capitalism can yet be made out, surely it’s also become difficult for anyone paying attention to view the present system as viable…
In the era of the end of history, mass political parties that might have advanced a transformative program were almost everywhere going over to neoliberalism, shedding adherents, or both. The very idea of revolutionary socialism seemed discredited by Communist terror from the Bolsheviks to the Khmer Rouge and the failure of centralized planning in the countries of the Warsaw Pact. The typical interpretation of Soviet disintegration was that Marxism stood disproved and capitalism vindicated. “Another World Is Possible,” said the placards at demonstrations, and to insist on that point may have been about as much as could be done at a time when so many denied it and the left had no platform to offer, only a few stray planks.
Over the past five years or so, a different era has begun. For more and more people, global capitalism is losing or has already lost its air of careless munificence, strewing its blessings generously if unevenly across the world, as well as that claim to final historical inevitability that could always be made when other justifications failed. It’s in light of this change that the next-to-last essay here argues, against Slavoj Žižek and others, that the left needs to supplement its anticapitalism with a basic conception of another order, a sort of minimum utopian program (no doubt to be continually elaborated and revised by societies in a position to enact it). Capitalism is after all not the worst conceivable form of economic organization; the point is to ask whether something better and less ecologically fatal may succeed it, and what that might be.
This book only hints at an answer. Its main burden is to introduce a half-dozen bodies of contemporary thought by writers who have been more concerned to diagnose the economic or cultural condition of capitalism than to imagine a successor. Their emphasis has not been misplaced. The past and present are available to study as the future can’t be; more than this, it was only natural for left intellectuals in recent decades to devote their energies not to political strategy, revolutionary programs, or utopian devisings, but to the analysis of this or that feature of capitalism. Marxism had first to survive before it could recover a more constructive role. (Anarchism, the fraternal rival accompanying revolutionary socialism through modern history, emerged from the past two decades in better political shape: less theoretically developed than Marxism and never used as a warrant for party dictatorships, it had, among other attractions, less explaining to do before it could move on to new tasks.)
The past few years have seen a revival of Marxist thought, which might loosely be defined as the collective effort to contemplate capitalism as a whole or, in the traditional idiom, a totality, from the standpoint of a politics of its transcendence…The recovery of Marxism, still very new and incomplete, was already underway before 2008, as Cold War taboos faded and global capitalism manifested its dominance in many of the smallest as well as the largest features of contemporary life. Any regime on such a scale may be, for some of its subjects, so pervasive as to become invisible, but will compel others to dissent. Since 2008, generalized crisis has exposed to wider view the shortcomings of mainstream economics and other non-Marxist varieties of social thought, much as the historian Perry Anderson foresaw in 1992. Pointing out that intellectual approaches to society once considered outmoded had recently acquired new life (in renovated forms of structuralism, evolutionism, functionalism, and existentialism), Anderson predicted that
the future of Marxism is unlikely to be different. Its most powerful intellectual challengers…share a blind side whose importance is constantly increasing. They have little, if anything, to say about the dynamics of the capitalist economy that now rules without rival over the fate of the earth. Here the normative theory which has accompanied its triumph is equally — indeed avowedly — bereft: the Hayekian synthesis, for all its other strengths, disclaiming systematic explanations of the paths of long-term growth or structural crisis. The comeback of historical materialism will probably be on this terrain.
The economic doctrine, inspired by Friedrich von Hayek, to which Anderson referred is today more often called neoliberalism, as is the accompanying politics. (Not by its practitioners, however: like a dog unaware of its name, a political regime answering to no designation can better elude control by its supposed master, the citizenry, than one which turns its head when called.) The present economic crisis is one that neoliberal economists cannot explain, and that even their Keynesian colleagues can account for only incompletely. It is also a crisis that neoliberal politicians — whether free-market boosters of the right, technocrats of the center, or muddlers-through of the former left — cannot credibly propose to resolve. Their delinquency in the face of history has had many dire effects; a rare auspicious one has been to tempt people who knew little about Marxism beyond its reputation as debunked economics and totalitarian politics to look into the matter for themselves.
More important than intellectual debates is a generational shift underway. Global capitalism or neoliberalism under US hegemony or just the way things are going: call it whatever you like, it has inflicted economic insecurity and ecological anxiety on the young in particular. They emerge today from their schooling onto job markets reluctant to accommodate them at all, let alone on stable or generous terms, and they will bear the consequences of planetary ecological disorder in proportion to the years lying ahead of them. In any genuine renaissance of Marxist thought and culture, it will probably be decisive that capitalism has forfeited the allegiance of many people who are today under thirty.
In the meantime Marxism surely remains a bogeyman or forbidding mystery to far more people than not. Whether this changes counts for more than whether the name Marxism is retained. The name pays homage to a brilliant, admirable, flawed man of the nineteenth century: an excellent and entertaining father, a devoted if not entirely faithful husband, a tremendously hard worker who was also a serious procrastinator, and a generous personality prone to a terrible anger that can mar his writing too. Is this well-merited tribute, not only to Marx himself but to the best of his intellectual and political heirs, a price worth paying for the connotations Marxism acquired during the twentieth century? If so, let the word thrive along with the thing itself; if not, it can fall away.
Marxism under whatever name can only serve present needs as a set of questions, not a battery of ready answers. These include questions about the development of capitalism, from its genesis to the present day; about the role of class struggle in historical change; about the relationship between social classes and government; about how culture reflects — or can’t help reflecting — economic conditions; and about how a climate of opinion or “hegemony” achieves the consent of exploited people.
Other questions are more prospective in nature. How can the left build a hegemony of its own, to both prefigure and prepare a new society? What factors are likely to bring about the end, gradual or sudden, of capitalism? How should a postcapitalist society be run to ensure the dissolution of social classes as opposed to domination by any one class? How would ownership and control of productive resources be shared in the society we want? How far are markets compatible with such changes? What way of organizing social reproduction might be most satisfying to us both while we are working and while we are not? A list like this is far from exhaustive, nor do the questions themselves admit of final answers. Even so, better or worse answers can be given, and Marxists will usually have the best answers to questions that often they alone are willing to pose.
Excerpted from Utopia or Bust: A Guide to the Present Crisis (Brooklyn and London: Verso Books). © 2014 Benjamin Kunkel. Used by permission.