The Left in a Foxhole?

Keynesianism embodies capitalism's contradictions — and is unable to deliver itself from them.


In The Tailor of Ulm, his farewell before assisted suicide in 2011, the Italian communist Lucio Magri remarks that the post–World War II left’s constant “gesture to Keynes” has no “clear-cut content”: Keynes is “never read, never reflected upon.” My book is, among other things, an attempt to understand that gesture to Keynes and its unreflective persistence, by reading and reflecting upon Keynes and other Keynesians. It reexamines the force of the Keynesian critique of capitalism and its relation to political economy as both knowledge and a way of knowing. It argues that the Keynesian critique is a distinctively postrevolutionary political economy, assembled and reassembled again and again to address an existential anxiety at the heart of liberal modernity.

Like all things social, it has taken a variety of forms, each of which reflect the world in which it seemed necessary. Yet it is always, at its core, a reluctantly radical but immanent critique of liberalism, a science and sensibility that allows us to name “the crisis” — poverty, unemployment, inequality — when everything hangs in the balance and “something must be done.” For Keynesians, from Hegel to Piketty, it is always ultimately civilization itself that is at stake.

This stance, and the critical theory of liberal capitalism upon which it rests, are not confined to the “centrist” or “progressive” political realm we might immediately associate with nominally Keynesian ideas or policies. In other words, to say that Keynesianism is distinctively postrevolutionary is not to say that “we” (whoever that might be) are past the time of revolution. Rather it is to say that whatever the fate of future revolutions, Keynesianism is a critique of liberal modernity that could only be formulated after revolution. It would never have emerged without a revolutionary past to endlessly haunt it.

As a result, the same forces that have animated two centuries of the immanent “reform” of liberalism have also animated much — although certainly not all — of the nominally radical critique of liberalism in what we now call the Global North. As Robert Lucas, among the most influential economists of the “counterrevolution” against Keynesianism in the 1970s and 1980s, put it in 2008, “everyone is a Keynesian in a foxhole,” and there is wisdom in this.

I say this not to undermine or dismiss the radical politics or political economy that has developed in the Euro-American tradition, as if it is not “really” what it claims to be. Rather, to lean on Magri once more, I say so because “we need to confront the true evolution of the situation, without despondency but also without pretence.” There are threads the Left must trace, leading twisted and knotted but basically unbroken from Hegel’s response to the French Revolution to our twenty-first-century triple crisis and, more important, to the politics of our attempt to conceptualize and confront that crisis.

Moreover, these threads are not necessarily red: the ghost of Robespierre haunts the contemporary Left, but not always in the manner in which some might hope. On the contrary, some of the threads to which we unwittingly cling touched Robespierre’s fingertips only briefly. Together, they lead us back and tie us irrevocably to both a revolutionary tradition and a collection of modern anxieties that he and his colleagues also felt and inspired and which have never gone away.

At the risk of making claims regarding a broader political condition sure to misrepresent many, I would contend that Keynes’s most recent return thus presents a propitious opportunity to undertake a critical accounting of his particular political economy so as to understand what Keynesianism means for “progressives.” Why does Keynesian reason have such a hold on progressive thought, and why, at moments of crisis like the present, does a “progressive” knee-jerk Keynesianism seem to reappear? 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? What facets of the modern varieties of “Keynesian” policy and political economy reproduce the wisdom that seems so consistently appealing, and on what historical premises could they possibly deliver on their promises?

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