An essay of mine comparing James Crotty’s newest book, Keynes Against Capitalism with Bhaskar Sunkara’s The Socialist Manifesto and applying their lessons to the Democratic Primaries, especially the grappling between the farthest left contenders (Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders), or, perhaps more accurately, their supporters, has just been published by Challenge. It has a very spicy title that I would never have chosen on my own: “Can America Truly Turn Socialist?”* However, that is kind of what the piece is getting at. Why these books together? Why Socialism, or anti-capitalism? It’s a meandering story, but it will get to the point.
As a grad student in a heterodox/radical program, I gravitated toward Keynesian ideas, particularly as espoused by my professor Jim Crotty. Some of this had to do with Jim the man: when we met, before I learned his name but after I learned that he had recently retired, I asked if he were a professor from a very different ‘camp’ (who, in my defense, was also recently retired). Rather than taking offense, Jim laughed (my cluelessness about the three ideological factions of the department must have been obvious), and then decided that he liked me after learning that I had played rugby as an undergrad. This earned him my undying affection, before I figured out that I agreed with him on a lot of other stuff too.
The three camps then, with only a little generalization: analytical Marxists (lots of models, high technical rigor, sometimes hard to distinguish from … neoclassical?); the other Marxists (post-modern and orthodox; lots of arguing about Capital and the Grundrisse and who was truly Marxist); and the Crotty types (some hodge-podge of Keynesian and Post-Keynesian leaning, a lot of critical macro along an empirical-institutional spectrum, and a substantial portion of whom just wanted to go work for a government or central bank somewhere). If you were there to study, say, development or economic history, you might observe arguments in the elevator warily; if you had really wanted to go to the University of Chicago, you might have transferred already. But if you asked Jim point-blank how he saw himself, he would tell you that he was a Marxist. No one else that I was aware of gave him credit for this.
If you cared about the camps, and you recognized yourself in Crotty’s, you were soft to your peers. You were reformist! You didn’t want to destroy systems, you wanted to make them kinder. Just like Keynes, an aristocratic ideological dilettante, who wanted to protect capitalism from the rabble. Maybe this only bothered you if you were inclined to talk to the revolutionary Marxist types, but on more than one occasion, I remember trying, unsuccessfully, to make the case that taken to their full potential, Keynes’s ideas could be radical. Still, though, I hung on to key ideas from Crotty’s lyrically named Macro 2 class: fundamental uncertainty, finance and crisis, euthanasia of rentiers (how could this be soft I wondered), fraternal and fratricidal competition, and … something about aggregate demand? I was working for the Graduate Employee Union at the time, and didn’t always keep up with the readings, but I liked them. The approach of integrating Keynes, Marx, Minsky, Schumpeter, and eventually Arrighi contra Brenner made sense. The pieces would come to fit together in my head years later as they tend to — a combination of teaching diluted versions of these ideas to undergrads, wrestling with them in my own work, and simple observation of the post-crisis period. Because, also, I happened to take his class in the fall of 2008, right as the shit was hitting the fan in the US, Iceland, and beyond. I remember meeting with him one morning when he looked extra spent; he’d just finished a two hour long interview with someone about the crisis, which his then current research on financialization had kind of predicted.
Around the same time, two political figures gradually came to my attention — this Elizabeth Warren who hated the banks (I hated the banks) and this Bernie Sanders who was a socialist (my then boyfriend, now husband, and his family, Vermonters, had been voting for him for years). Over the Obama presidency, they fought good fights: battling for the existence of the Consumer Financial Protection Board, persistently resisting attempts to neuter what would become the Affordable Care Act, among other struggles. I was sad not to get a chance to vote for either — neither was up for election or reelection to the senate in the years I was registered to vote in Vermont and Massachusetts. Both, to me, represented major change within and outside of the status quo of Democratic party politics. And both were crucial to farther left aims, when the Democrats in the Obama administration seemed so eager to compromise or roll over. This, to be fair, is also an unkind generalization. I believe that the Democrats failed to push hard enough, but I also remember arguments about this with Jim, who would gently note that sometimes getting something passed is better than getting nothing.
So, the books. Jim’s book — Keynes Against Capitalism — was a long-term project he’d been tinkering with in my last years on campus. Then a group of dedicated UMass students — current and from decades past — together with his colleagues in the economics department managed to encourage him to dust the manuscript off, revise it, and eventually send it off for publication. It highlighted the themes I remember from his classes — the radical potential of corporatism, the ability to set aside Keynes the man (Crotty always noted that he could appreciate the scholar’s contributions though Keynes would likely have disdained Jim for his Irish heritage) from the work on display, the far-reaching aspect of Keynes’s proposals — and introduced new ones that were compelling. The increasing urgency of Keynes’s recommendations, pleas even, for active planning by governments and a relaxation of the grievances that had shaped the punitive Treaty of Versailles, followed by the curious apparent cooling down of Keynes’s ardor for big change. Why would he turn down opportunities to publish high-profile reports or commissions that would fly in the face of the more conservative stand the British Treasury had taken in the previous years? Crotty argued that Keynes’s tactics — like his proposals — were subversive: they cloaked his radical goals in the language of incrementalism, and went out of his way NOT to humiliate government actors that had stood in his way before. The ends justified the means and the lack of public laurels in their pursuit.
Bhaskar Sunkara’s seems, from the outside, to be doing three things. First, it is trying to dispel negative connotations readers may have with socialism, by imagining a United States gradually transforming into a market socialist economy, distinguishing between the concepts of democratic socialism and social democracy, and presenting a very cursory introduction to Marx and Engels’s ideas about socialism. Next, it presents a whirlwind history of socialism in the world — mostly in the west, and a relatively narrow selection of western countries at that — with one chapter about socialist movements in the third world. This history aims to define the trade-offs inherent to both top-down implementation (in Russia and China, and to a much smaller extent, Cuba) and democratically elected (roughly speaking) strategies, and its portrayal of successes and tragedies attest to the difficulty of achieving something worthwhile that dramatically challenges the capitalist status quo. This section at the end charts the fall of social democracy and center left socialism in the west, outside of Russia anyway, and segues to the last section with a brief discussion of the rise of a new socialist (though it is vague on the specifics of what this socialist vision is) energy wave with Bernie Sanders’s dark horse candidacy in the 2016 Democratic primaries, and Jeremy Corbyn’s traction with the UK Labour Party in the mid-2010s. (Like my essay, elements of this narrative feel dated just by the pace of political change since the time of writing and publication; I empathize with Sunkara on this front.) The last section of the book gives the reader the manifesto promised in the title: it talks about what the left must do to break from a centrist rut that seems to have enabled different forms of right-wing pro-business interests to take power in the US and elsewhere, and this includes embracing the title socialist, accepting the need for universalist struggles on the left, and transforming political systems that disproportionately favor two-party systems and entrench partisan interests to the detriment of the public at large.
The two key takeaways I got from the political aspect of The Socialist Manifesto were (1) the reality of tradeoffs and compromise in any strategy to establish socialism, and (2) the unreliability of individuals. Without a broad movement to back them, an individual advocate, however charismatic, may be a John the Baptist type figure, with the potential to be ignored, exiled, martyred, or, perhaps worst of all, co-opted by antagonistic forces. If we prefer democratic means of establishing socialism, and I’m pretty sure Sunkara does, then we will be confronted by decisions about how or whether to prioritize material concerns, or broad-based revolutionary movements, and we will be challenged by how to achieve those goals at any scale of community. Sunkara and Crotty never pretend that these sorts of transformations are easy.
At the time I wrote the piece, Elizabeth Warren was surging in the polls, shortly before a debate in which she was attacked from all sides, and began to gradually fall in the rankings. I worry, in the piece, about antagonism on the farthest left end of the spectrum, between partisans of both Sanders and Warren; both sides worry that the other will lose the war for left. Sanders supporters worry that Warren will sell out the left if she receives the nomination, while Warren supporters worry that despite his reputation for political pragmatism, Sanders’s defiance in using the word socialist will lose the election for the Democrats. There is ample precedent in US history for both camps to worry, and there’s certainly no guarantee that either candidate would win the national election, or even that either candidate will win the nomination. Yet, the periods of the most fruitful gains for the left have also occurred — at least in the US — in the midst of the most heated debates about what the left wanted, whom it represented, and how it would achieve those goals. The active discourse — sometimes, dare I say often, unkind! — has a storied history too, and we should applaud the shared energy and passion both have for the outcomes they want, even if it all embodies contradictions.
What’s going to happen in the primaries? About the future, we simply do not know! And I’m loath to predict. But if the passion on the left sustains through the primaries, and prevails in the national election, it will be a Good Thing. (Though it will never be an easy thing.) If the left prevails in neither the primaries nor the general election, will we have the wherewithal to continue agitating? I sure as hell hope so.
*Here’s a link to the article, if you’d like to read it: https://www.tandfonline.com/eprint/FKGCW6MKWYWCXUP2CKVH/full?target=10.1080/05775132.2019.1694274
And if that link doesn’t work, and you are unable to access it, please let me know.