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Capitalism and its Discontents: On Utopia or Bust, by Benjamin Kunkel

I have written on the intersection of capitalism and literature in the past, and I’m intrigued about Benjamin Kunkel’s project in Utopia or Bust of giving a number of leftist thinkers (some of whom are more relatively unknown than others, especially to North Americans) a public hearing. I find his style to be engaging, personable, and forthright. Note:I will be adding reflections on each chapter of the book as I get to them — as of right now Chapters 1 and 2 are complete and can be found below.

Chapter 1: David Harvey locates the essence of Harvey’s work in the capitalist tendency to overaccumulate — “the fount of all crisis”, a word Harvey defines as “surplus capital and surplus labor existing side by side with seemingly no way to put them back together.” Investors sit on piles of cash, unwilling to put it into the hands of workers they won’t risk hiring, but upon whom the economy relies as consumers.

So far Harvey is depicted as assembling stray bits of Marx into a coherent picture of how, in “normal” circumstances, fictitious capital (credit), uses the promise of tomorrow’s profits to bridge today’s gap between a economy’s ability to pay its workers and the workers’ ability to consume what the economy produces. Thus always borrowing from the future imposes the GOD (Grow or Die) imperative on the economy.

Again, these contradictions come straight from Marx, in Volume II of Capital, […]: “Contradiction in the capitalist mode of production: the laborers as buyers of commodities are important for the market. But as sellers of their own commodity—labor power—capitalist society tends to keep them down to the minimum price.”

Thus in the long run, as profits in the “real economy” become increasingly more difficult to attain, where investors are driven into non-material investments in the credit sector and workers are squeezed into accepting lower wages (and the lower buying power that comes with it), a crisis of underconsumption becomes inevitable.

And since Harvey is a geographer by training, he rescues (via the idea that property is inherently fictitious capital, since its market value = a claim on future rent income) the Marxist notion of Ground Rent by introducing a spatial element: future rents are leveraged in the present day to invest elsewhere: finance becomes a hypermobile, global jetsetter who is yet paradoxically tethered to an inert real asset back home.

This “spatio-temporal fix” to the problem of overaccumulation is often beset by “switching crises” as the “equilibrium” between “real” asset values and what they are leveraged for is distorted…

imageBut if this appears to you as an ever-growing House of Cards waiting to fall, well, keep on waiting, since capital will just keep expanding in other ways (privatising what’s public, commodifying what is not yet a commodity, colonizing other territories either directly or by proxy [all that used to go by the name “Enclosure” of the commons. See Michael Perelman’s The Invention of Capitalism for that])

Now, while capital is partying around the world at increasingly fictitious/profitable parties, we poor humans are stuck in the real economy, one beset, since 1973 or so, by the “long downturn of persistent stagnation” (a term from Robert Brenner, subject of another chapter).

imageAnd, from the 1980s to today we too were given credit (since there was a class war on wages that began with the “Volcker Shock” of deliberately driving interest rates sky high in the closing years of the Carter administration, and that continued in much more celebratory fashion during the Reagan-Thatcher years) to party with in our own, somewhat diminished fashion.

But that all ended. In 2008.

Yes, remember 2008? When I was writing my dissertation in 2005, I was living in the UK and every other TV program seemed to be about selling your English home and buying another somewhere else, particularly in Spain or eastern Europe. The housing bubble collapse was one of Harvey’s “switching crises”, and a big one. It also marked what may be a waypoint of a longer-term switching crisis, that of the handover of global supremacy to the Chinese.

image(Kunkel cites Gianni Arrighi’s monumental The Long Twentieth Century on this, but the roots are in the Russian economist Nikolai Kondratiev’s theory of long-term economic history, perhaps beyond the scope of his book.)

In any event, capitalist empires last but 80-120 years or so (“long centuries”), says Arrighi, borrowing this notion of Kondratiev waves or K-waves that track the rise and fall of capitalist empires. If you Google Kondratiev or Kondratieff waves you’ll see that many of the graphs that come up seem to be driven by technological change, but Marxists like Harvey locate the cause for change in contradictions in “social property relations”, particularly in property owners’ compulsive search for ever-greater rates of profit.


Kunkel concludes this chapter by noting that Harvey proposes several hard, actual limits to the expansion of capital, most of which are ecological. He doesn’t really deal with any criticisms of Harvey’s model, and maybe we shouldn’t expect him to here. He also leaves out Harvey’s uneasy flirtation with postmodernity theory—which, post-1989, drew many a Marxist to recant their materialist beliefs entirely, drawn as they were like moths to the flame of the “Cultural Turn” (signifying that Saussure’s decades earlier “linguistic turn” had somehow initiated a completely new epoch, one in which culture/language was always already mediating/ constitutive of “material” or economic matters, among other things) that filled the intellectual void they felt was somehow created by the fall of the Berlin Wall.

But there is an important debate about the “essence” of capitalism, between Harvey and Ellen Meiksins Wood, which stretches back to another, older debate (“Dobb–Sweezy”)—

Dobb Sweezy Debate - Transition to Capitalism ed Rodney Hilton—a debate about the ORIGIN (and thus essential character) of what is meant by “capitalism”. Is it the IMPERATIVEor the OPPORTUNITY to make a profit? In other words, is the metaphor called the “market” something to which we are all driven, by capital, or something to which we are attracted? Harvey seems to say the latter. Wood counters then how is that different from all previous eras, in which merchants have always sought to make a profit, to buy low and sell high. Wood claims that Harvey’s schema thus tends to naturalise capitalism and make it ahistorically a part of our “nature”.

Still, Kunkel does a very good job of being true to what Harvey himself might say if called upon to draft a “for beginners” essay on his thought, and can you ask for more than that?

Chapter 2: Fredric Jameson

Fredric Jameson - Kunkel - Utopia or Bust
If Kunkel’s first chapter was a marvel of lucidity, this one left me in something of a quagmire: it’s been nearly 6 years since I have read anything of Jameson’s, and this did not exactly refresh my memory, so I have to wonder: what is it going to do for the target market of this book, those who are hoping to be given a bit of a “leg up”, for some kind of comprehensive synopsis of his thought?

The answer: absolutely nothing.

But perhaps that is the the method in the author’s apparent madness: to give the reader the lived experience of what it must be like to read Jameson. As Kunkel notes,

reading Jameson himself has always reminded me a bit of being on drugs. The less exceptional essays were like being stoned: it all seemed very profound at the time, but the next day you could barely remember a thing. Indeed there’s no other author I’ve frequented or admired to the same degree so many of whose pages produced absolutely no impression on me

Kunkel goes on to say that the experience of the “drug” that is Jameson is no less mind blowing for that, but we’ll just have to take his word for it I guess, because it ain’t easy to get a secondary contact high off of this chapter, the best bits of which give the reader the impression of the kind of impact that Jameson has made upon Kunkel himself, and those are good enough to make me want to revisit several of Jameson’s books and read a number of them that I should be ashamed to admit to not having yet read (there’s an academic drinking game in which you own up to not having read this or that classic, and, on the honour system, everyone else at the table who can admit to the same gaps in his or her education must imbibe as well: I’d be under the table on Jameson’s output alone).

You see, back in 1992, one particular book was something of a bête noire for me, and it was Jameson’s Postmodernism: The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism—

image—the cover of which still sends chills down my spine, not because I object to its evocation of the unbelievably detailed and lucid taxonomy of postmodern art, architecture, etc that can be found within its pages (and  many of those pages are indeed brilliant), but because the “late capitalism” bit in the title seems to get all but lost in the tour de force of the “cultural logic” (indeed the 19 of the book’s 300 pages that comprise chapter “Economics” are particularly, opaquely infuriating, as I’ll get to below). The book seemed a bit too eager to help create a bandwagon to jump onto, and trumpeted that some sort of epochal shift, some total break with the preceding culture was taking place (we would henceforth celebrate/mourn the depthlessness and affectlessness of PoMo life), and it had something to do with globalization, with the supposed decline of the nation state, with whatever was meant by the term “Late” Capitalism. . . .

image(Still, really, that first chapter is required reading if you want to know anything about postmodernism—see? I’m kinda doing what Kunkel does all through this chapter, giving you a sense that Jameson is essential, required reading, without precisely coming out and telling you why…Go here for an excellent synopsis of that first chapter’s high points)


Kunkel does tell us that those spectral dancin’ shoes of FJ’s aren’t dancin’ alone, that Jameson’s partner in theory, Ernst Mandel, provides the economic heft to Jameson’s cultural panache.

His idea is that we have reached a new stage of capitalism that deserves the appellation “Late”, which connotes (as Kunkel suggests) both “recent” and “obsolescent”, but whose multi-national reach and commodification-of-everything pervasiveness has allegedly created entirely new cultural forms:

(source here,where you’ll find a good potted explanation of postmodernism’s broader features, and you’ll find a clear headed unpacking of Jameson on postmodernism here, which I won’t be getting into…)

Now, if that above table makes you think that FJ is an unreconstructed Marxist good ol’ boy, that he subscribes to a “stagist” theory of development of “modes of production” in which the economic “base” somehow still manages to determine (in the last instance) the postmodernist “superstructure”, you’d be right—and wrong. As Kunkel notes,

the weak point in his strongly Marxist account of recent culture has been his relatively thin description of the economy, the mode of production. It is too easy to read much of his work and conclude that a given film or novel could indeed be read as a blind allegory of “late capitalism,” without late capitalism meaning anything much more distinct than “the economy” or “the system.

imageKunkel also tellingly—if fleetingly—worries that in Jameson we see a “blurring” of notions of what Marxists call the “base” and “superstructure”: if for classical Marxism, the economic base is somehow causally related to the culture (the superstructure) that arises out of it, by the time we get to the 1960s, to Louis Althusser’s For Marx, culture becomes “semi-autonomous” from economics: the two interact, somehow mutually determinative, except capitalism remains primary, responsible for generating culture “in the last instance” (whatever that means). Well, here it is from the horse’s mouth:

In History, these instances, the superstructures, etc. – are never seen to step respectfully aside when their work is done or, when the time comes, as his pure phenomena, to scatter before His Majesty the Economy as he strides along the royal road of the Dialectic. From the first moment to the last, the lonely hour of the ‘last instance’ never comes. (Althusser, For Marx)?

Now, both Jameson and David Harvey both, during their postmodernist moment, flirt with the attractiveness of all this “semi-autonomy”, the way one can entertain the possibilities inherent in the paradox of an “open” marriage. It’s not a very big step from Althusser to this, from the aforementioned “Economics” chapter in Postmodernism:

Today, culture impacts back on reality in ways that make any independent and, as it were, non- or extra-cultural form of it problematical (in a kind of Heisenberg principle of mass culture which intervenes between your eye and the thing itself), so that finally the theorists unite their voices in the new doxa that the ‘referent’ no longer exists […] Here, then, the media, as which the market was itself fantasized, now returns into the ‘market’ and by becoming a part of it seals and certifies the formerly metaphorical or analogical identification as a ‘literal’ reality.

I’m giving you just a little taste, but as you can see the economic all but disappears in this “economics” chapter (and it’s all but absent elsewhere in the book, despite Kunkel’s claim that Postmodernism marks but a “slight shift” from his earlier work). It is also indeed tiresome to see a major academic resort to employing one of the most clichéd academic tropes of the recent scientific past: by invoking the “Heisenberg principle” Jameson imputes a quasi-scientific plausibility to his “proof” that it is now impossible to conduct an “extra-cultural” examination of capitalism, or even culture itself (one half-awaits a cryptic allusion to a “paradigm shift” from Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions at this point). Jameson also flies dangerously close to Richard Rorty’s consensual pragmatism, and his position is a complete inversion of, for one, E.P Thompson’s, for whom culture is  “shot through” with traces of real market imperatives.

With Jameson, however we have only a concept of a “market” that is “always already” ideologically mediated by postmodern culture. In the end, Jameson, who must surely exempt his own text from such a fate (else what analytical power could it possess?) is here shuttling between both sides of the Lilliputian “Big Endian/Little Endian” debate, unaware that he has thereby transported us to the flying island of Laputa…



…where academics tried to extract light from cucumbers (a real 18C experimment BTW). But I digress. This is about me reading Kunkel reading Jameson, so to get back to the gloss on the gloss:

One thing that rescues Jameson from going down the path trod by postmodernists like Lyotard and Baudrillard is his insistence on maintaining the concept of “totality”—a sense of history that lies beyond language, as ultimately determining in some important sense, the late capitalist postmodern culture in which we live—a “master narrative” in other words, something that ‘real’ PoMos reject. Here is Kunkel on Jameson on totality:

Jameson’s defense of the procedure he likes to call “totalization” has been in a similar vein. Totalization might be defined as the intellectual effort to recover the relationship between a given object—a novel, a film, a new building or a body of philosophical work—and the total historical situation underneath and around it.

If that total historical situation is ultimately unreachable, it is, however, an abstraction that we should not confuse with reality but nonetheless a  “useful fiction” that helps us gain some control over own own lives. We must seek to continually refine  our abstraction by always bringing history to bear upon the present (something else PoMos reject, and vis a vis which capitalism actively encourages a cultural amnesia).

But Kunkel doesn’t really give us that historicizing the historicist good stuff. Instead we get more diverting but hardly essential anecdotes about how marginal Jameson was to the popular culture that he analysed, and less of what links Jameson’s current projects to his earlier work or to the larger project that still goes by the name of Marxism. And when he suggests that perhaps FJ and Sarah Palin may be two sides of the same coin. . .

It’s perhaps not much harder to grasp the idea of Fredric Jameson and someone like Sarah Palin as two faces of the same coin, figures truly as absurd as their opponents make them out to be, but only because the system itself is utterly cracked. So intellectual debility becomes a badge of populism, and socialist learning a hobby of rich people’s children.

. . .I’m not entirely sure where to look. Kunkel does briefly mention FJ’s interest in the utopian gesture, and drops a hint about the potential power of the (“perhaps antique”? WTF?) dialectic:

Dialectical thought, then, would be at once the mirror of capitalism and (in Marxist hands) its rival: the totalizing imperative that is the dialectic confronting the totality that is capitalism. From this it follows that the dialectic, despite the musty air of the word, may be set to come into its own only today, with the universal installation of capitalism.

But Kunkel neither stoops to explain to the average reader of this book why this might matter (much less what the Hegelian or Marxist dialectic is), nor to attempt to fathom (for the readers of the LRB, in which these chapters essays first appeared as discrete essays) a bit more of the how & why the dialectic might be finally “coming into its own”.

All in all, then, this was a somewhat confusing overview of an admittedly difficult thinker’s place in Marxist thought. It had hardly the clarity of the book’s first chapter, much less a sense of how one might begin to build a conceptual bridge between Jameson’s work and that of David Harvey—if we overlook the regrettable, aforementioned flirtation with postmodernism, that is, which is something that, unfortunately, Kunkel  does not do in the chapter’s penultimate paragraph:

Perhaps the outstanding virtue of David Harvey’s  Condition of Postmodernity (1989) was his correlation of sped-up cultural change with a general “space-time compression” operating in contemporary capitalism across such disparate features as a casualized labor market, expanded international trade, shorter-term investment and so on—though it should be added that Harvey’s work along these lines followed Jameson’s and might not have been possible without it.

I’ll have more to say on the limitations in Harvey’s thought in a later post on Ellen Meiksins Wood (the missing chapter to Kunkel’s book!), but for now I must say that I am looking forward to a (most likely) much less stymieing chapter on Robert Brenner in the coming days. And so onwards and upwards, to chapter 3!

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