Apr/May 2014

Beyond Indecision

A young novelist goes left and gets serious

David Marcus

Western Marxism, like capitalism, operates on thirty-year business cycles. Ever since the First International, in 1864, approximately every third or fourth decade has seen a Marxist renaissance. At the turn of the twentieth century, in the turbulent 1930s, in the malaise-ridden 1970s, and now in the second decade of the 2000s, the specter of Marx has come back to haunt us. As Marx wrote of the reaction that put down the 1848 revolutions, the “ghost walks again.”

This is no coincidence. After all, Marx’s great subject was the underlying instability of capitalism; his theory of history was based on its elaborate pattern of crisis. For Marx, “all that is solid melts into air” was not only a description but also a call to arms: When markets stop making sense, when they stop working, Marxism starts to work, and to make sense—as a revolutionary movement, as a social and cultural lament, and as an economic explanation. But what’s perhaps most striking about the twined history of capitalism and Marxism is how every crisis—er, I mean, “correction”—seems to choose its own Marx. In the 1870s, it was Marx the political conspiracist and revolutionary; at the turn of the twentieth century, it was Marx the social scientist and movement organizer; in the 1930s, it was Marx the cultural critic and moral pessimist; and in the 1970s, it was Marx the social theorist.

Today’s Marx, like his predecessors, is not entirely new; he’s just an exaggeration of one feature of the original model. Instead of focusing on alienation and systems of exploitation, he is primarily concerned with the structural inadequacies and contradictions of capitalism. Instead of delivering clipped polemics and revolutionary manifestos, he writes highly technical surveys of trade balances and speaks the language of Adam Smith rather than of Hegel. This is Marx the political economist, the Marx of the incomplete Grundrisse and his epic, if also never finished, masterwork, Das Kapital.

Benjamin Kunkel’s Utopia or Bust invokes the spirit of this new Marx. His book—a series of essays published in the London Review of Books and n+1 since the 2008 crash—is not, as its subtitle suggests, “a guide to the present crisis” but rather a guide to several of its master theoreticians. Beginning with the updated Marxist crisis theory of David Harvey, Kunkel then works through the historical narratives of Robert Brenner and Ernest Mandel and the cultural criticism of Fredric Jameson before making his way—briefly—out of the Marxist tradition and into the anarchist one of David Graeber.

It’s revealing that Kunkel begins with Harvey and ends with Graeber, for it is between these two Davids—Harvey the Marxist and Graeber the anarchist—that much of today’s left politics lies. On the one end, there is a welcome resurgence of Marxist and what Kunkel calls “Marxish” social criticism. Grouped around magazines like Jacobin, which is publishing Utopia or Bust with Verso, this Left is critical of capitalism’s economic inadequacies: What troubles them most about Western capitalism is how its financial deficiencies and various contradictions disproportionately harm the poor. On the other end, there are the anarchists and radical democrats, whose grievances are more political in nature than economic. They are less interested in capitalism’s maldistribution of goods and services than they are in its maldistribution of power—in the ways that multinational corporations and institutions limit our ability to participate in everyday decision making.

Kunkel identifies himself more with the first camp, but he is not unsympathetic to the political complaints of the second. In part this is because Kunkel has a generous and eclectic political sensibility—a trait common to many leftists who cut their teeth after the Cold War and in the antiglobalization and Occupy movements. But it is also because Harvey’s Marxism and Graeber’s anarchism, when combined, offer us the outlines of a new kind of left politics: a critique of capitalism that is sensitive to the structures of accumulation and power, a theory of inequality that highlights political as well as economic inequities, and a view of history that sees the 2008 crisis as just one of capitalism’s many.

It is, in fact, this sense of history that unites all of Kunkel’s guides. Mandel, Harvey, Brenner, Graeber, and Jameson operate on world-historical scales, moving from Babylon to Brooklyn, from seventeenth-century British farm exchanges to the high finance of London’s Paternoster Square. Central to their projects is the question of what has gone wrong with capitalism since the early 1970s. But they’re also not afraid to look for deep roots, to go way back. Encyclopedic in detail and often monumental in scope, their narratives have little patience for the poststructuralists’ anxiety about representing a greater social whole.

This is capital critique in longue durée, visions of our present crisis stretched to its world-historical maximum, and Kunkel, I think, is right to be drawn to this framework. By capturing capitalism’s “long downturn”—as Brenner puts it in his last book—these longue durée Marxists help reveal the tectonic instability underneath the surface calm, and in employing Marx’s own antiliberal political economy in their readings of the 2008 crash, they provide a theoretical substitute for Keynesian and neoclassical analyses. Most important, by putting capitalism back into its fuller historical context, they help remind us that—contra the famous catchphrase of Margaret Thatcher—there is an alternative. As Kunkel writes, “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.”

But something is also lost. After all, one of the lessons of the longue durée is, well, its length—and in producing narratives that focus on the ways in which capitalism operates upon us instead of how we can rebel against it, these big-picture Marxists tend to shrink our sense of historical possibility. The Marx of Capital offers us no way out of capital—a limitation Kunkel himself recognizes. As Kunkel writes, Marx’s multivolume opus provides us with “a thorough critique of capitalist society,” but its concept of socialism or communism is “far less developed. . . . In this sense, its premise is a utopian conclusion never yet demonstrated.”

Click to enlarge

A Marxist poster in Birmingham, England, 2012.

There are two other Marxists—and another perhaps less gloomy Marx—who make an appearance in Utopia or Bust: the cultural critic and provocateur Slavoj Zizek and his neocommunist ally Boris Groys. Born in Slovenia and the Soviet Union, respectively, they have a lot in common besides Eastern-bloc ties. Interested in the creative expressions as much as the economic practices of late capitalism, they insist that culture is a site not only for reproducing capital’s logic of fragmentation but also for resisting it. And while they’re the only Marxists in the book who have suffered through some of the terrible excesses of communism, they’re also the only ones to invoke its politics as a source for inspiration. In our age of splintered social and political identities, they aspire to construct—or, perhaps more accurately, provoke—a Left that can be based on stable and more unitary sources of identification.

Of all the figures in Utopia or Bust, Kunkel is perhaps most critical of Zizek and Groys, and not without good reason. The avuncular and distinctly manic Zizek has a way of talking himself in circles, often insisting upon the sincerity of a claim and then spinning it as rhetorical jest. Likewise, Groys, a reconstructed Sovietist, makes—at least from the perspective of history—a set of rather untenable assertions about communism.

But both offer us something that the longue durée critics of capitalism don’t: a vision out. Neither feels constrained by history; instead, they both find hope in it. Possibility, they argue, comes out of ruin, the possible by demanding, as Zizek puts it, the impossible. Their Marx is not the Marx of the Grundrisse and Capital; he is the young Marx—the Marx who sought to overturn Hegel’s sense of teleological inevitability and offer us a theory of political action. This Marx—the Marx of On the Jewish Question—insists that formal freedoms are never enough; that equality is more than just a set of rights; and that democracy, in its most radical sense, is always the act of picking a fight, of choosing sides.

Zizek and Groys might be wrong about which side to choose; indeed, I think they are. But they are right to insist that, in the face of the long historical arc of capitalism, we must understand socialism not as something of the past but as a struggle to define our future. They are right to insist that left politics cannot only exist within the longue durée—and that it happens every day in our social interactions, creative expressions, and human desires.

Kunkel’s first book—the now almost decade-old novel Indecision—concluded in such a moment of political utopianism. His young protagonist, Dwight Wilmerding, consumes a small jungle’s worth of hallucinogens, sleeps with his Belgian travel partner, and then declares himself to be a socialist—a democratic socialist, as his travel partner clarifies.

There was—at the time I read Indecision—a lot that I found shrewdly and painfully humorous about the novel’s conclusion: Wilmerding’s Gumby-like hallucinations, his unwarranted fear of plant life and spiders, the oddly mystical elocutions of the Belgian, and, most of all, his postcoital declaration. To be a socialist, a democratic socialist, at the beginning of the millennium—this was perhaps the most outrageous joke of them all.

But Kunkel was on to something—as he is in this imaginative new collection of essays. Utopianism is as much an enunciation of a better world as it is an enactment of one. We must first begin to believe—and to say we believe—in a future alternative to our present. Marxism does not necessarily need to deny this; the radical democratic Marx did not. Had he heard Thatcher’s terrible slogan, he would have insisted, “There is an alternative.”

David Marcus is an editor at Dissent and a doctoral candidate at Columbia University.