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I’m sure I’m not the first to say that Geoff Mann has produced an incredible tour de force, but I’ll say it anyway because it’s true. The book is an extraordinary accomplishment, compelling us to understand both Keynesianism and our bourgeois selves in an entirely new light. As he so eloquently puts it, “The Keynesianism of Hegel, Keynes, and Piketty is less a project to save capitalism from communism than to protect modern bourgeois civilization from disorder and the chaos and disastrous totalitarian fundamentalisms—Stalinist, Nationalist Socialist, or otherwise—to which they expect it inevitably leads” (page 381). In light of the Monty Pythonesque horror show to which we are treated every night on cable news, it’s hard after reading this book not to yearn for someone up there to beam down Keynes—our radical aspirations notwithstanding. But that is, I think, Mann’s point: after discovering “the reluctant, even repressed Keynesian” (page 391) in himself, he is forcing us to confront the profound challenges posed by his making Keynes our Hegel.
The argument is incredibly rich, complex and multifaceted, and I cannot even begin to do justice to it. I do, though, want to highlight a key line of argument that seems to me hugely important—namely the Keynesian critique of the liberal doctrine of separation of political and economic realities, since it is precisely this separation (and the liberal “freedoms” attendant upon it) that helps to produce the scarcity and poverty that make the separation difficult to maintain. This does, I think, send out a signal warning to those on a quest for the ontological grounds of “the political,” since they are re-inscribing precisely the separation that underpins liberal doctrine.
Not surprisingly, the issues on which I want to engage Mann in conversation turn around his insistence that Keynesianism “has hardly reached beyond western Europe and North America.” When I read this statement on page 47, I wrote NO!!! in the margin—mindful of how the Development economists I used to hang out with in my previous incarnation were insistent self-defined Keynesians (this was in the late 1970s and early 80s). I recall how almost every time I ran into Paul Rosenstein-Rodan, the great-granddaddy of Development economics, he would declare that his heart was where God intended it to be—slightly to the left of center (with the implication that mine was not). I also observed first-hand how the Devlops (as Axel Leijonhufvudcalled them in his wickedly funny parody “Life among the Econ”) were caught up in the rapid erosion of Keynesian economics by the neoliberal tsunami.
Mann comes back to this issue in Chapter 8, “A Theory of Political Economy,” in which he does indeed recognize that the work of those such as Albert Hirschman and Lance Taylor “is as Keynesian as political economy gets” (page 213)—but so too were those such as the Argentinian economist Raul Prebisch, a key architect of import substitution industrialization, who was widely known as Latin America’s Keynes and similarly discredited by the neoliberal counter-revolution. I do concede, though, that the impulses for rapid industrialization in much of Asia, Africa, and Latin America extended well beyond Keynesianism.
There was, however, an important Keynesian moment: the Colonial Development and Welfare Act of 1940, driven by what historian Fred Cooper calls closet paternalists in the Colonial Office, and quite explicitly designed to contain anti-colonial movements, strikes and riots all over the colonial world in the late 1930s. In other words, colonial “Development” can be seen as a Keynesian (if oxymoronic) effort to save colonial civilization. Cooper also shows how, in their desperate efforts to hang on to their African colonies after World War II, the British deployed this colonial version of Keynesianism, but in so doing “opened numerous points for contestation in the colonial powers’ own discourse,” and paved the way for decolonization. Hence one wonders whether Keynesianism “worked” (at least for a while) in Euro-America in part through pervasive articulations of racial superiority and nationalism in the “civilizations” he sought to save.
This leads me to a related set of points regarding the global engagements that formed the bookends of Keynes’s life, namely: (1) his key membership in the Commission on Indian Currency and Finance in the early 20th century, in which he fiercely defended the sterling exchange standard that greatly facilitated Britain’s extraction of resources from India; and (2) his crucial role in the Bretton Woods conference that Brett Christophers usefully underscored in an earlier commentary on Mann’s work. I agree with Christophers’ points, but would like to add some additional considerations on the basis of the book as a whole.
These considerations hinge on calling attention to how Mann accomplishes his arguments about Keynes in relation to Hegel and Marx by an act of sharp analytical circumscription: “Keynes” is the Keynes of the General Theory; “Hegel” is the Hegel of the Philosophy of Right; and “Marx” is the Marx of the Manifesto. Maybe I’m being unfair here—and I totally understand the need for circumscription—but a question is whether this is correct?
If so, the further question is what would it mean both for Mann’s argument, and for the challenge he throws down for us at the end of the book, if we attend to the later work of all three? In the case of late Hegel, perhaps the less said the better. It’s possible, though, that the conversation between Doctor Marx and Mister Keynes (as Mann puts it) in their latter years could offer some useful resources for confronting contemporary challenges.
We should recall that the Keynes of Bretton Woods in 1944, two years before his death in 1946, was a strong proponent of global financial regulation and that what emerged from Bretton Woods was a compromise that was broken when the Nixon administration closed the gold window in 1971, paving the way for the neoliberal counter-revolution, the rise of new forms of finance capital, and the demise of Keynesianism. If we could beam Keynes down now, I think the chances are very high that he would make a strong case not just for regulation but also taxes on transnational financial flows to be transferred into public channels—that in principle, at least, could go a long way to addressing global poverty.
Late Marx offers us a very different, but in principle a related set of insights. Kristin Ross’s wonderful book Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune (2015) makes clear how the Paris Commune profoundly changed Marx’s thinking, reinforcing many of the arguments in Teodor Shanin’s earlier collection on Late Marx and the Russian Road: Marx and the ‘Peripheries of Capitalism’ (1983). One of those that stands out for me is Sayer and Corrigan’s “Late Marx: Continuity, Contradictions and Learning.” Citing The Civil War in France they argue that, for late Marx,
What is needed is not simply political emancipation but emancipation from politics, understood as a particularized set of activities, occasions and institutions. This is why Marx hails the Commune as “a Revolution against the State itself … a resumption by the people for the people of its own social life” (87).
It is, I think, a tribute to Mann’s book that he inspires us to stretch our thinking in directions that extend well beyond the text. I, for one, have been deeply inspired and challenged by reading it, and will be chewing over it for years to come.