latest from the magazine
latest journal issue
In the Long Run We Are All Dead by Geoff Mann is an extraordinary accomplishment—an almost Talmudic reading and exegesis of Keynes and Keynesianism, their influences in Hegel and Robespierre among others, and their effects on contemporary political economy and everyday understandings of how the world works (or should). To borrow a phrase from my friend and colleague, Kandice Chuh, the book is a bit ‘show-offy.’ The threads of philosophy, critique, economics—classical, neoclassical, unclassical, and déclassé—and the looping in of obscure critiques of small tangents in Hegel’s, Kant’s, or Keynes’s writing are breathtaking. And did I say he translated Robespierre and Piketty from the French and Raul Prebisch from the Spanish? The book is show-offy in the most dazzling, daunting, and impressive ways. It is an astonishing accomplishment from which I learned so much. I should also add that I am going to have to trust Mann’s readings of the authors he read (almost all men with the exception of Rosa Luxemburg and Joan Robinson) because I am never going to read them again, or in some cases ever. Mann read them so we don’t have to, but he read them deeply and so well; his compass is a trustworthy guide. In the Long Run We Are All Dead is a work of amazing confidence and generosity, rooted in years of dedicated hard labor to make sense of Keynes and Keynesianism in our political moment and historical geographical conjuncture in all their messy sprawling entanglements.
As others have noted, Keynes’s ambition was to create conditions of revolution without revolutionaries. His aim was to cope with and reroute—for all time—the contradictions at the heart of liberal capitalism without violent upheaval and without coercion. Among the contradictions that propelled Keynes was the inability to have freedom for all under capitalism given the systemic poverty it produces but cannot contain or dignify. As a result of these structural inequalities, capitalists and the ideology of capitalism deflect responsibility and blame poverty on poor people. Mann brilliantly elucidates the philosophical, theoretical, and practical strategies Keynes developed and deployed to overcome these contradictions and their ensuing crises through civil society and the state as leaveners, managers, and regulators of capitalism’s inevitable inequalities. Keynes offered a techno-managerial-expert strategy, “leave it to me,” to overcome these often-overwhelming contradictions and ensure “sufficient honor to the poor” (page 162). His heirs such as Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz have the same ‘leave it to me’ confidence that if only policymakers and capitalists would listen to them (which of course they do) capitalism’s limits and inequalities would be overcome sufficiently to be palatable, and thereby derail the formation and potentially destabilizing and violent actions of ‘the rabble.’ Note that the ambition is to make the contradictions of inequality ‘palatable’ or more ‘bearable.’ The impossibility of their elimination under capitalism is not just acknowledged, it is baked in.
While alternatives to these harsh conditions are not hard to imagine, getting from here to there—and infinite, indeterminate ‘theres’ to come—to ‘make the world we want to inhabit’ remains easier to imagine than do. And what are the stakes? For whom? Who’s ‘we’ anyway? Mann is driven by these questions, bracing on the flipside of the techno-managerial class’s confident sense of expertise and viewing it as a troubling vanguardist (non)‘revolutionary’ stance—“leave it to me, I know what you want!” Their bullish confidence echoes and is echoed in the sort of crowing associated with Donald Trump.
All of these claims and interests rattle around crisis: a crisis of overaccumulation, of so much wealth and the uneven distribution of its fruits. Keynes was focused on the industrialized economies of the Global North, not on all the unevenness of imperial globalism, the persistence of colonial extraction, and the unfreedoms in the midst of capitalism’s ‘freedom.’ Nor was he focused on the ways race is mobilized to divide those dispossessed by the rapacious nature of capitalist accumulation. Keynes’s and Mann’s discussion of crisis are discomfiting for those of us who seek and express a desire for and commitment to radical change. This discomfort and a cold hard reckoning with it were surely a spur to Geoff Mann’s plunge into Keynes’s ideas and work. As I mordantly distilled it following the 2008 financial crisis, how did we spend so many years studying crisis and the possibilities for praxis it might offer only to find ourselves worrying about our pensions instead of seizing the day when the crisis came? This response was sobering and ghastly in so many ways, and I note that it came from those of ‘us’ who were lucky enough to have pensions, possibly even stock portfolios, to worry about, not the ‘us’ who were losing homes in the sprawling foreclosure crisis/bonanza following the predatory subprime loans and their mortgage backed securities. One person’s securities were, as ever, premised on another’s insecurities.
But my quip, like many jokes, had a deadly serious underbelly, and while I left it at that, Geoff Mann set out to understand why. He wanted to understand and critique the resurrection of Keynesianism in the wake of the 2008 crisis not just among liberal economists, but also to fathom its allure—reluctant and surprising—even for him. Why with so much misery, injustice, dispossession, and rage, did ‘we’ acquiesce to bailing out the auto industry and let those foreclosed endure their pain? And was the pain of the foreclosed and evicted—the losers of life savings—hidden and rationalized by racialized class myths of irresponsibility or were they the ‘rabble’ who didn’t rebel? Or did they rebel and vote for Trump, that ‘blue collar billionaire’ who fitthe description of the rich rabble and who seemed to speak their rage? For Hegel,
The rabble disposition also appears where there is wealth, the rich man thinks he can buy anything, because he knows himself as the power of the particularity of self-consciousness. The wealth can lead to the same mockery and shamelessness that we find in the poor rabble.
Are we at a moment in the U.S. where mitigating rabble mentality is no longer possible, Krugman and crew notwithstanding? At this conjuncture can it be said that the only thing worse than Keynesianism is its disruption and derailment by the rich rabble whose excesses and disregard for ‘civilization’ and civil society are breathtaking? Have we been left in the shards of its ‘anxiety’ with none of the ‘hope’?
Keynes’s concerns are taken up with ‘existential insecurity,’ and the anxieties it produces. This insecurity is palpable among wealthy and poor people alike; an ontological insecurity that is difficult to manage, let alone overcome, through the policies and practices associated with contemporary Keynesianism. In my current research I have been looking at the ‘management’ of children and childhood in the wake of this profound and widespread insecurity—political economic, political ecological, and geopolitical—riddling everyday life. I am intent on understanding why ‘managing’ is the response of so many to these insecurities rather than social movements or oppositional politics. Reading Mann, I now see these concerns as a sort of Keynesianism come home. As Mann suggests, “Keynesianism may be a scientific form of political anxiety endemic to modernity,” one that “aims to provide a non-revolutionary pharmaceutical science of and for crisis.” This is not enough. We are reaching the limits of management—pharmaceutical and otherwise—for the crises of capitalism.
I want to bring in the rabble and recognize the racialized and gendered violence by which they are excluded, dispossessed, exploited, managed, and policed. If managing the crisis is the horizon of possibility, it is not enough. Nor is it acceptable in the ‘long run,’ because we may all be dead, but most of us prematurely. This response suggests that a pharmaceutical approach is only palliative when the condition is terminal—and it is—but it is a slow painful death that certainly can use the mobilization of state and civil society to alleviate the many vectors of pain from capitalism’s intersecting and overlapping crises, as Keynes and his heirs would have it. But the current crises call for more, much more.
What else can be done? I want to think about people as subjects rather than objects of political economy in all of its unfoldings; to recognize people as makers of ‘civil society.’ This perspective invokes the invisible hands of social reproduction, reminding us that these conditions—horrific and splendid, foreclosing and possible—are made in the course of everyday life. Indeed, the sittlichkeit—the moral and ethical obligations and ideas of a community, which were of such concern to Keynes—are created, argued over, sustained, and undone in the material social practices of social reproduction. They could be made otherwise. Fugitive and oppositional undercurrents are palpable in the incremental, but real (and non-Keynesian) shifts in activity and consciousness that inch toward making the world we want to inhabit, and are immanent in the material social practices and relations of social reproduction. That is, in the practices of everyday life people produce and exchange knowledge and labor that reproduces—but also in a variety of ways changes—the conditions of everyday life, making possible new forms of social relations and aspirations for more. We have only to look at the movements associated with anti-black racism, women’s liberation, environmental justice, anti-colonialism, and indigenous rights to see forceful and effective political mobilizations on the grounds of everyday life. Recognizing these possibilities honors poor and oppressed people with respect rather than ‘ensuring’ them sufficient honor in their poverty and exclusions, which is nothing more than a means of tempering and deflecting the oppositional impulses of a system rigged against them and dismally shortening the horizons of possible political economic and social relations. These practices and the possibilities they hold make clear that people can, have, and do not only aspire to more, but sometimes achieve it, though the revenge of the capitalist state, among other forms of power, is harsh and often violent. It is easy (and dangerous) to feel defeated these days, but as the saying goes, there is a world to win, and it is beyond Keynes.
At the very least it is important to imagine something more than the pharmaceutical quiescence of dignifying poverty, and work collectively to chart ways toward more just and liberatory political economic and social horizons. Reaching the conclusion of In the Long Run and facing the ways it is convincing about the limitations of political practice and possible attractiveness of ‘revolution without revolutionaries,’ I thought hard about the possibilities for imagining change and materializing it, the cruel heart of capitalism—Keynesian and otherwise—notwithstanding. Somehow, Philippe Petit’s high-wire stroll between the towers of the World Trade Center came to mind. Nothing said capitalism in built form as clearly as those two towers, insisting upon themselves in an imposing, unattractive, and inhospitable way, as anyone who walked the windswept plaza in their shadow would attest. Looming over one of the centers of world finance as New York City entered bankruptcy, the towers were a perfect foil for a situationist action. Petit managed to sneak in more than 60 meters of heavy cable and other equipment, get themto the roof, work through the night with co-conspirators atop the other tower to shoot some thin line with a bow from one tower to the other so as to heave heavier and heavier cable across the space between them, and in the early morning light stepped out ontoit. He crossed back and forth eight times, dancing, snoozing, and playfully defying the police who were soon called to the parapet to do something about his act of beautiful madness. Petit’s 45-minute walk gathered an impromptu crowd of hundreds of amazed onlookers who quickly became his supporters, making space between these emblems of world trade, capitalism and governance to play and dream, daring authority to stop him. The start of a little drizzle eventually drove him inside.
A single high-wire act won’t change the world, but in dismal times it is useful and inspiring to imagine the unimaginable, applaud and make space for the impossible, and work out new ways to make them happen (Petit spent years planning his escapade). There are lots of high-wires to cross over the dead spaces of Keynesianism and the cautions of its expert enablers, but it’s useful to recognize, as Mann does in his conclusion, that Keynesianism “embraces impossibility, hope, and fear as inescapable elements of both politics and the future toward which we hurtle” (page 394). Going for it may be terrifying but it’s necessary. For the long run, people are stepping out all over the place.