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his is an extraordinary book. It is lucid, compelling, insightful, and a tremendous achievement. It is dense and scholarly but also fascinating, moving, gripping even. Geoff Mann really wants you to understand, he wants you to see what he sees, and he has a gift for involving you in the process of discovering all the threads and alleyways that animate this study.
What he offers us in this book is a monumental history of the present, and specifically, a study of a kind of curled up anti-revolutionary larvae that has resided in the modern liberal psyche since at least the French Revolution (a psyche, Mann argues, that many more of us share than we realize), and that has most recently expressed itself as a turn to Keynesian economics following the 2008 financial crisis. Mann traces the expression of this anti-revolutionary impulse within Keynes’ own thought, but also in the thinking and action of those who came before and since. Far from a straight up history of Keynes’ ideas, then, (although it is also that), the book is an extraordinarily creative tracing of a political-economic imagination that, Mann argues, long predates Keynes’ own work and far exceeds the reach it is normally understood to occupy within this tradition.
We needed this history more than we realized. I needed it more than I realized, and one of the many reasons I am grateful for the opportunity to have reviewed this book is that it gave me an excuse to read it with care, and the rewards are many. For those who have found themselves in the disorienting position of both critiquing the liberal foundations of various institutions and bemoaning neoliberal attacks on those same institutions, Mann’s book is instructive. He tells a story that helps us make sense of the present moment, and in particular make sense of why so many progressive movements and thinkers find themselves defending and even longing for the old-timey liberal state, the very same state they were attacking not so long ago.
But this isn’t the book Mann thought it would be. And it is precisely the distance between the confident, tidy critique of Keynesianism he thought he was going to write, and the messy, complicated, brilliant study it became, that I find fascinating, and that I would like to focus on here. You can read this book for the story it tells about Keynesianism, and it will be well worth your efforts. It will make you think differently about the history we tell of left political thought, it will help you understand both liberalism and neoliberalism in a wholly new light, and it will rearrange your mental map of a great deal of western political-economic theory.
But you can also read this book as a powerful example of vulnerability and courage in academic inquiry. Mann thought he knew what he was doing when he started this project: he was going to write a Marxist-Gramscian critique of Keynesianism, and show us what was wrong with the recent turn to Keynes. But very quickly, it seems, the material itself began to lead him in other directions. It got under his skin. It did not bend itself to analysis in the way he thought it would. And it got personal. He began to see himself in unexpected places, to recognize the reach of a certain kind of thinking into his own soul. He had a run-in with his own inner Keynesian, in other words, and rather than look away, he allowed the angst and horror this encounter provoked to reshape the entire project.
That takes courage. We can all get behind the notion of letting a project unfold and not knowing the answers to the questions we pose, but Mann wasn’t asking himself “do I really understand what motivates that government program?” or “do I really have a grip on the meaning of nature that circulates within this discourse?” He was confronting his entire identity as a left progressive intellectual, his entire understanding of who the good guys and bad guys of western political thought and liberal modernity are (and I use “guys” advisedly), and even, eventually, the entire structure of Enlightenment reason and the political-philosophical world he has spent a good deal of his life orienting within. (This last part is a hunch, and I’ll say more about that in a moment, but my point is that the stakes of this inquiry were pretty high.)
As a result, this is a deeply affective book. You feel it as soon as you start—the tension, the hope, the uncertainty, the horror, the yearning. It’s not just a description of someone else’s hopes and fears. It is a deeply embodied evocation of the affective stakes of thinking and doing revolution as a bourgeois intellectual (and for Mann, to be an inheritor of this intellectual tradition is to be a bourgeois intellectual). This book has a charge, in other words. As I read it, in fact, I found myself increasingly thinking of it as a form of academic method acting, as a kind of work that was only possible because of the profound immersion of the author in his subject, a sympathetic immersion, in which Mann strove to really understand, from within Keynes’ own constellation, where Keynes was coming from, and in so doing to recognize something of Keynes in himself and in all of us.
I kept thinking about Daniel Day Lewis as I was reading this book, whose commitment to inhabiting his characters with absolute, consuming devotion is legendary. Daniel Day Lewis understands, as a performer, that it is only by fully inhabiting a character that he can offer us some kind of truth, some kind of encounter that will touch us, move us, lead us to understand the deep recesses of our own selves differently. There are no simple villains and heroes in Daniel Day Lewis’ body of work, no caricatures of human experience. Every character is a deep dive into the messy glory of human existence, and that is why people are so glued to the stories he tells.
Reading In the Long Run was, for me, kind of like watching a really long Daniel Day Lewis movie. I’m not particularly interested in Ricardo or in liquidity preference, and this book would have put me to sleep if not for the magic of being drawn in to the world Mann evokes for us. And that magic, I think, derives in no small part from that fact that Mann really, really went there. If, in the early stages of this project, Mann imagined that Keynes could be held up as a kind of caricature of liberal appeasement, as a target for left organizing, as a villain we needed to recognize as such, that kind of distance from his object of study quickly collapsed, and what we find is a careful, complicated, contradictory portrait of the Keynesian in all of us, and how it got there.
But method acting, as Daniel Day Lewis well knows, has its costs. Immersing oneself in this way changes us. Shining a light on the inner recesses of our soul can profoundly destabilize us, it can begin to distort our understanding of who we are, and the road back to the self we were before the journey can seem hopelessly foreclosed. Day Lewis recently announced that he is actually leaving the profession of acting (again) because the process of inhabiting his last character exacted such a cost on him that he didn’t want to do it again. He didn’t think he could do it again and remain who he is.
As I was reading this book, I wondered if a similar process was at play in Mann’s journey through this material. Identification with Keynes is the fuel that runs this book, and he takes great imaginative leaps because of it. But in inhabiting this world so fully, it seems to me, he began to over-identify with the limitations on the Keynesian imagination. In training his attention on the anti-revolutionary larvae that interested him, he was starting to see a full infestation, and he was starting to believe that the horizons of possibility that constrained Keynes (because they constrain all political thought that operates in the shadow of Eurocentric philosophy) were the horizons of possibility, period. He was buying into a constellation of meaning and reality that is actually profoundly limited and specific, but presents itself as universal and complete, and he couldn’t find his way out.
I began to feel this way especially while reading the section on the role of colonialism in the intellectual history he was discussing, and in his discussion of the concept of honorable poverty. Why, I wondered, in a book that is willing to make the case that Keynesianism pre-dates Keynes by 150 years, was Mann not offering us a more radical reading of the place of empire in these men’s conceptualizations of political economy? And why, in the case of honorable poverty (a concept that pushes back against bourgeois figurations of poverty as inherently dishonorable, while at the same time being haunted by bourgeois fears that the poor might form a distinctly dishonorable rabble), did I walk away from these sections of the book with the uncomfortable sense that the distinctions between Robespierre’s and Keynes’ and Hegel’s conceptualizations of poverty and the rabble represent, for Mann, the horizon of possibility for thinking this concept? This was the knife edge of this book for me; in being so true to his material, there were times, it seemed to me, that the book became captured by its terms.
This is perhaps an inevitable and even necessary side effect of immersing oneself so fully in a vast and complicated literature. It wasn’t Mann’s goal to think outside this material, nor should it have been. Thinking so lucidly and creatively within this material is a monumental achievement in itself, and my argument is not that the book should have been different than it is. Although one could certainly make the case that engagement with the many Black, feminist, queer, crip, Indigenous, and anti-colonial thinkers who, among others, have thought poverty and revolution and liberalism radically differently would have fundamentally changed this book, that is also a truism, and it is a line of argument that neither does justice to the immense intellectual riches to be found within these intellectual traditions nor to the riches within this book. I want to honor what this book accomplishes precisely by not looking outside of itself; it is a faithful, serious immersion in a specific body of thought, one that could only have been written by someone with immense knowledge and understanding of this particular intellectual tradition. It’s an inside job, an immanent critique of an immanent critique of liberal capitalist modernity, and he has done us a great service by guiding us through this world with such acuity.
But there is still the matter of the worlds outside of it. Because Mann immersed himself in a tradition that thinks of itself as universal, because its adherents are expected to worship at the feet of thinkers who claim not only to know but to have apprehended the horizons of what is knowable, the dead ends and impossibilities one encounters in one’s travels in this world can start to seem absolute. They are not absolute. Ask any of the subjects who have fallen short or been expelled from the hegemonic subject position and they will tell you. They will tell you that they had to look elsewhere a long time ago; they had to craft worlds that would nourish their spirits and afford them the dignity that is rightfully theirs. They had to imagine and make the revolutionary worlds that their oppressors have deemed both impossible and far too dangerous to entertain. They have already made these worlds. And what I wanted readers of Mann’s book to be reminded of is that, whether or not you pay attention to what these thinkers and creators have said and are saying (and are doing and creating), you must never mistake the limits of what is possible from within this very particular, specific intellectual constellation as the absolute limits of possibility.
For Keynes and for his brethren, poverty will always be a form of lack. It will always be figured as something to fear, as a fall, as a pitiable state. Whether or not the bourgeois intellectual understands poverty as personal failure or as a horrific and inevitable outcome of capitalism, whether or not they are advocating for the material well-being of all people, they simply cannot think poverty outside of the idea that it is a terrible, terrible fate. Now, the point is not that poverty is great. It’s not to make some kind of facile claim that the poor are actually really happy, or to at all downplay the punishing, grinding suffering of poverty, or to suggest that it’s okay that some of us are, and always will be, poor. No. But there is more to being poor than what it looks like to the rich. Whole bodies of thought and practice have arisen among those who have been deemed broken, disabled, lacking, pitiful, simple, dangerous, incapable of managing their own destinies. They know things that their masters can’t even imagine as thinkable. They know the cracks and escape hatches and brick walls of their master’s houses better than their masters. And when you get to the end of this book (or, for many readers, as you’re reading it), you’re going to want to spend time with them. To call yourself back. To apprehend other possibilities. You’re going to want to put this book in a larger frame, and to remember that there is more.
There are some hints of this larger frame in the conclusion, which is a remarkable piece of writing. In it, the Geoff Mann who has read and listened far beyond the confines of the Keynesian tradition begins to reappear. If you squint slightly, in fact, you can almost read it as a queer feminist anticolonial abandonment of Enlightenment reason. Almost. You have to squint. But the crescendo of this study, Mann’s answer to the inevitable question of “what now,” is the most beautifully humble, collectivist call to not know. The “radical kernel” that Mann finds in the vast and complex intellectual landscape he has mapped for us is Keynes’ observation that despite our best efforts to understand and plan and manage things, “we simply do not know” (citing Keynes, p 395). There is no Truth, no Way. And that rather than be deflated or horrified by this recognition, we can embrace the path it opens for us. We can turn our attention to pragmatic, specific, relational action. To the mess. To ensuring that care for the material needs of everyone is at the heart of our movements. It is a spectacularly non-masterful and radical conclusion to the journey Mann has taken us on. And it clears some ground to look beyond the rubble of Enlightenment certainty and start to see what else is there. Thank you, Geoff, for this remarkable book and for the chance to travel with you through it.