Geoff Mann’s important new book, In the Long Run We are Dead, moves beyond conventional understandings of Keynesianism as a largely one-dimensional antecedent and foil for neoliberalism. Through careful historical and exegetical analysis, beginning in the wake of the French revolution and extending through to the 2007/8 financial crisis, Mann develops a nuanced understanding of Keynesianism as a complex and cohesive, pervasive and enduring set of ontological groundings, political presuppositions and aspirational visions that infuse much of what is considered to be left political thought. As my contribution to this forum, I will explore some ways in which Mann’s work offers a powerful and much needed lens upon forms of first world environmentalism that seek to address climate change through the deployment of technological and technocratic resources.

The core preoccupation of Keynesianism is, according to Mann, an effort to preserve civilization, what Keynes describes as “a thin and precarious crust, erected by the personality and will of a very few, and only maintained by rules and conventions skillfully put across and guilefully preserved” (page 9). In my own research on liberal environmentalism, I regularly come across what I now realize, after reading Mann’s book, to be an analogous green Keynesian commitment to “saving the planet.” In each case, whether referring to “civilization” or “the planet”, these largely unqualified universals are loaded with political assumptions, exclusions and unspoken violence that run to the heart of Keynesianism’s political ontology, green or otherwise. While Mann focuses his attention on the way in which Keynesianism is structured by a post-revolutionary desire to avoid civil dissent - or to placate “the rabble”, I would like to focus on some less-developed aspects of Mann’s analysis - specifically Keynes’s concern with population control and with the promotion of scientific and technological advance. These aspects of (green) Keynesianism cast an elitist, colonial shadow over mainstream environmental thought. They perpetuate a way of seeing (oneself as the center of the world) that we need to identify and learn to leave behind.

Beginning with Robespierre, Hegel and the French revolution, Mann traces the roots of Keynesianism to post-revolutionary anxieties that precede Keynes himself. At the heart of Keynesian thought lies a “dialectic of hope and fear,” or “an extraordinary optimism concerning the quasi-Utopian potential of human communities and human ingenuity with an existential terror at the prospect that it might not be realized” (page 14). For Keynesians, it is always civilization that is at stake, or at risk of coming undone by some combination of the internal logic of liberal capitalism and “the rabble” whose destructive angst is stoked by incessant and unrelenting immiseration. Keynesianism begins with a fundamental distrust of “the people” or “the masses” and a fear that any revolution could only ever succeed in tearing down the existing order, destroying the glorious peace of civilizational advance without ever being able to offer anything sufficiently “civilized” in its place.

Mann questions whether this inability to imagine more generative possibilities arising out of revolutionary upheaval belies an “imaginative or ideological crisis” (page 8) endemic to Keynesianism and therefore by extension, much of what is considered left thought. He argues that Keynesianism operates on a highly constricted ontological plane in which the only civilization worth saving is our civilization, the only people worth mollifying are our people, and I would add, the only planet worth saving is our planet.

Everything hinges on these liberal universals: ‘civilization’, and in the shift towards environmental concerns, ‘the planet,’ as seemingly innocuous yet in fact highly politicized and violently exclusionary categories of political and economic, human and non-human, social and technological relations. Here it is worth turning to the quote that Mann uses to title his work. In the midst of the depression, Keynes famously remarked, “in the long run we are all dead.” He then continues, “I could have said equally well that it is a great advantage of the “short run” that in the short run we are still alive… The best we can do is put off disaster, if only in the hope, which is not necessarily a remote one, that something will turn up” (Quoted in Mann, pages 13-14).

As Mann explains, Keynesianism’s elitist, pragmatic approach to governance via techno-bureaucratic solutions can be read as an effort to endlessly put off disaster so as to maintain the peace (here, now) by whatever means possible. As such, it represents what Antonio Negri describes as an “attempt to rule out a range of catastrophic possibilities and to cancel out the future by prolonging the present” (Hardt and Negri: 1994, 40) Keynesianism, as with much liberal thought, aims to produce a perpetual present, endlessly improved but never superseded. In the case of environmental politics, this takes the form of an ideology that I have called planetary improvement, where technological solutions (clean energy, advanced materials, etc.) are meant to incrementally improve, but never radically transform, a status quo predicated upon fossil-fueled wealth extraction and the unique forms of abundance that follow; what Stephanie LeManager calls petromodernity and Andreas Malm calls our petro-subjectivity (Goldstein 2018; LeMenager 2014; Malm 2016).

It is important to see the inherent privilege in the civilizing mission at the heart of Keynesianism, unapologetically committed to a very specific ‘us’ that is able to experience the world as a series of short run peaces. The presumption is that ‘we’ are to put off disaster into an indefinite future - a long run that will never actually arrive (at least not until we are dead) - but the unspoken and unacknowledged reality of this peace is that disaster is actively being enacted upon other people, other “we’s” who bare the colonial brunt of this ‘peaceful’ progress and who experience instead some combination of violence, dispossession and destitution resulting from the extractions of living and non living capacities, beings, energies, and materialities. As Mann writes, “Keynes and Keynesians have always felt a vague and sometimes even urgent sympathy for the plights of the rest of the world, but ultimately, beyond the possibility that disorder elsewhere might impinge upon “civilization,” they do not really care” (page 214).

“In the long run we are all dead” is not just a temporal metaphor but a spatial one as well - the long run isn’t just a distant future - it is also a distant present, which remains abstract and othered - cast into another, sacrificial time – lived by people who must deal with the “looming” or “potential” planetary crisis as an inescapable and incredibly immediate reality.

Here it is important to turn to Keynes’ belief that one of the keys to “economic bliss” lies in population control (page 15). As Michelle Murphy explores in The Economization of Life (2017), Keynes was a committed eugenicist.[1] Throughout the 20thcentury, the developed world waged a war against the world’s poor in the name of progress, development and modernity. Population control measures - whether forced sterilization or more biopolitical efforts at family planning - provided a means of dealing with those people for whom ‘civilization’ would be better off without; lives, as Murphy explains, that for the general well-being of the population as a whole, should never be lived in the first place.

This war against the world’s poor is tacitly accepted, normalized and naturalized in Keynesian thought as the modern-order of things; the price paid for civilizational advance. It is not as if eugenics was a misfortunate racist past that has since given way to enlightened inclusivity. As Murphy argues, the racial exclusions that were, in Keynes time, voiced through the science of eugenics persist in new forms. Which is to say (as many decolonial scholars already have): coloniality lurks in the shadows of modernity (Mignolo 2011); it remains an unspoken premise, the invisible meat and potatoes laying beneath that “thin crust of civilization” that Keynes and Keynesians aim to protect.

In the name of civilization, Keynesianism offers a way of seeing the world that is stuck in a very narrow and particular sense of abundance, and then seeks to expand that abundance as far and as wide as necessary to avoid social destabilization. In environmental terms, this manifests in the tension between a desire to create universal access to technologies that make modern life possible (electricity, the internet, automobiles, etc.) coupled with a deep-seated fear (and recognition) that achieving anything even approximating universal access to these things - along with the material and energetic flows they depend upon - would be environmentally catastrophic. That is, unless of course (for the techno-optimists its just a matter of when) some combination of new, clean technologies can reconcile this contradiction and provide everything to everyone. Or at least everyone who can pay.

As Mann writes, “the essential problem that obsesses all Keynesians at all times [is] the political sustainability of modern (“bourgeois”) privilege” (page 356). Mann sees the bourgeoisie as a still-relevant conceptual frame that defines a specific aspect of what we might more commonly refer to as the middle class, who according to a report from the 2010 US Commerce department, “want economic stability, a home and a secure retirement. They want to protect their children’s health and send them to college. They also want to own cars and take family vacations” (quoted in Mann, page 385). Abundant life has come to mean a life of uninterrupted energetic flows and resources extracted elsewhere: gadgets, flights, data and disposable goods; we know this abundance and we live it unquestionably. Green Keynesianism simply accepts that this is what abundance is, and then asks ‘how do we make more of it available to more people, and at less of a cost to the environment from which we extract this wealth?’

It is important to acknowledge the extent to which any of us have normalized and come to expect an awesome and ultimately unsustainable flow of material and energetic resources as a foundation of everyday, ‘civilized’ life. And it is in this context, of privileging some lives lived in some ways, that we have to interpret green Keynesian calls to solve our climatological problems or even to “save the planet” with technological and technocratic innovations. It compels one to ask: just what planet is being saved and for whom?

That said, the bourgeoisie is not some uniformly callous, politically reactionary force. There are so many people – myself included – who must be counted amongst its ranks and yet who really do care, who really are worried about the status of the planetary system, about climate change and all of the many ways it stands to destabilize life as we know it. In this way Mann’s book, written by someone grappling with the contradictions between their radical political leanings and bourgeois rhythms of everyday life, offers an imminent critique of Keynesianism. Mann does not position Keynesianism, as neoliberalism typically is, as an object external and apart from its virtuous left critics, but as a way of thinking, knowing and planning that remains an ever-present axis of left-leaning thought. Though Mann has identified through most of his career as an anti-capitalist and a Marxist, he nonetheless finds - rather painfully - that he cannot not be at least a little Keynesian. He set out to write an evisceration of the post crisis rise of Keynesianism, only to have to acknowledge “the reluctant, even repressed, Keynesianism in myself” (page 391).

With Keynesianism, Mann tells us, it is not so easy to separate ourselves from the object of critique. He argues that Keynesianism and its “quasi-paralyzing conclusions” have become fully integrated into both liberalism and its critique; that it is “no small part of what ‘progressive’ of ‘left’ has come to mean” (page 20). He asks, “Why does Keynesianism make so much sense to much of the Left, especially in times of crisis, and does that signify some sort of longer term imaginative or ideological crisis?” (page 8) And must we then push back with a politics that can “embrace the kind of change that quite possibly means throwing it all away” (page 25)?

I would like to take up Mann’s challenge and ask: what can and should we be letting go of? What should we be learning to live without? And I would add - how might we redefine and pursue abundance otherwise? Along these lines, there exists a wide range of ecofeminist and decolonial thinkers and social movements who are available for guidance and inspiration, and some of this work is even a little bit Keynesian. Take for instance Alyssa Battistoni’s (2017) call to set aside revolutionary, post-capitalist visions in favor of pragmatic approaches to rapid decarbonization. She writes, “So no matter how necessary a break with capitalism is, for now we’ll have to settle for addressing climate change as best we can within it. That means pushing hard to decarbonize as rapidly as possible in ways that set the stage for a sustainable socialist society.” Against the “old hubris” of mastering nature, Battistoni says “Our socialism is about creating a sustainable politics of joy and abundance for the many.” This will entail a radical re-organization of work “that’s oriented toward sustaining and improving human life as well as the lives of other species who share our world. That means teaching, gardening, cooking, and nursing: work that makes people’s lives better without consuming vast amounts of resources, generating significant carbon emissions, or producing huge amounts of stuff.”

What I appreciate about Battistoni’s work, as well as the LEAP Manifesto, and so many others, is the ways that they ask us to reconsider and redefine what an abundant life is in the first place. Similarly, Jessica Dempsey, Rosemary Collard and Juanita Sandberg, in their “Manifesto for Abundant Futures,” (2015) draw inspiration from postcolonial and decolonial activists and thinkers, challenging us to reconsider how abundance, or “the good life” can be collectively defined and pursued. For all of these thinkers, whether Keynesian or not, civilization is not an elite enclave to be protected and perpetuated (via colonial violence) but an open question, a call for experimentation and for letting go of the safety and comfort that (this) civilization has provided some at the expense of the many. This may also mean then, to return one last time to Mann’s work, a letting go of any Keynesian ways of seeing that are unwittingly structuring our worlding practices and limiting our sense of what is possible.


[1] See also John Toye (2000) for a more thorough account of Keyne’s views on population.


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