A Marxist intellectual accessing mainstream economicsby Jonathan Derbyshire / February 20, 2014 / Leave a comment
Utopia or Bust: A Guide to the Present Crisis by Benjamin Kunkel (Verso, £8.99)
Benjamin Kunkel, an American writer who made his name as one of the founding editors of the fashionable literary journal n+1, has a new vocation. “I seem to have become,” he writes at the beginning of this engaging little book, “a Marxist public intellectual.”
Marxism, Kunkel acknowledges, remains a “bogeyman” to many, especially in the United States, where it can be advocated “only a little more respectably than pederasty.” He is exaggerating slightly, for since 2008, when the US sub-prime mortgage market blew up with the consequences we all know about, it has become marginally easier to get a hearing for the Marxist insight that capitalist economies are congenitally prone to periodic crises.
In six elegantly turned essays on contemporary Marxist thinkers, Kunkel argues that the crisis of 2008 and its aftermath are hard to explain in the terms favoured by mainstream economists. The latter have shown little interest in what he calls “capitalist dynamics,” the long-term trends that have shaped advanced economies in the western world over the past four decades. Until now, that is.
Suddenly, an account like Robert Brenner’s (discussed by Kunkel here) of the way that declining productivity led to capital choosing a “fleet-footed speculative career” over investment in manufacturing looks less heterodox than it once did. And recent remarks about “secular stagnation” in western economies made by the former US Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, among others, suggest that even those in the mainstream now accept that a reckoning of sorts is upon us.