On The Nation magazine website there’s a 9500 word article by Timothy Shenk titled Thomas Piketty and Millennial Marxists on the Scourge of Inequality that will require far fewer words to dismantle. As Shakespeare said, brevity is the soul of wit and all the more so when it comes to Marxist polemics.
Shenk’s article is a survey of Jacobin Magazine and three books. One is Piketty’s “Capital in the 21st Century”, ordered from Amazon two weeks ago. Apparently it is back-ordered, a propitious sign given its sweeping indictment of the capitalist system. I know vanishingly little about Piketty’s analysis except that he does not care much for Marx, according to Doug Henwood whose word on such matters I trust implicitly. The other two books are written by N+1 editors, Nikil Saval’s “A Secret History of the Workplace”, a work that examines cubicles and the like, and Benjamin Kunkel’s “Utopia or Bust”.
Shenk is a doctoral student at Columbia University who somehow managed to write a biography of Maurice Dobb in his spare time, no mean feat. For those of you unfamiliar with Dobb, a word or two should suffice. He was a British CP’er who wrote a book on the history of capitalism titled “Studies in the Development of Capitalism” that I highly recommend. Dobb took part in a debate with Paul Sweezy in the 1950s defending a somewhat Anglocentric analysis that put the emphasis on primitive accumulation in the countryside as opposed to the expansion of global trade—Sweezy’s perspective. But unlike Robert Brenner, who took up the cudgel against Sweezy later on, Dobb stated that colonization and slavery was also essential.
It is rather unusual for The Nation to publish such a long article so focused on Marxist theory. The standard fare there is something about the nefarious Koch brothers or the need to hold Obama to his promises, etc. In the back of my mind I wondered if The Nation ever got over Jacobin editor’s Bhaskar Sunkara’s Letter to ‘The Nation’ From a Young Radical, a piece that can best be described as biting the hand that feeds it.
Shenk starts off with an observation that probably looms more importantly in his own mind than in the general left public, namely that Karl Marx preferred to use the term “capitalist mode of production” rather than capitalism. This distinction strikes me as more semantic than theoretical but if it is important to the author, why quibble?
Much more serious is our author’s contention that ”All…socialists needed to seal their victory was a revolution, which capitalism’s contradictions would deliver to them.” In reality, Marx and Engels thought that the tasks were far more challenging. In Critique of the Gotha Programme, Marx writes: “What we have to deal with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges.” Doesn’t that sound like the conditions that have prevailed in every post-revolutionary society over the past 100 years or so? If Marx was referring to a heavily industrialized country like England, where he expected the revolution to occur, what could he possibly have thought about Cuba’s prospects? Shenk talks about capitalist contradictions delivering a revolution like Pizza Hut, when in fact it is after the triumph of the people that the hard work really begins. I say that as someone who was deeply involved with providing technical aid to Nicaragua in the late 80s.
After another thousand words or so on the history of the use of the term capitalism, a word that had lost its sting in the prosperous 50s and 60s except among the hard-core Marxist left, Shenk zeroes in on the ostensible purpose of his review, which is to evaluate the magazines and books under consideration.
For Shenk, the new generation of Marxists such as the Jacobin and N+1 editors made the transition from college to the revolutionary cause rather seamlessly, aided by social media:
Many had just left college, carrying with them fresh memories of an academic world that doubles as Marxism’s heartiest stronghold…The commitment was lighter, but easier to share, maybe with a post on Facebook.
Yes, I quite understand. Most of my Marxist FB friends will regale me with a singing dog Youtube clip one day and a status post the next about a David Harvey lecture the next. This is not exactly the sort of thing that will get you an FBI file but neither will this, I suppose.
After some more excursions (was The Nation paying him by the word?), Shenk finally gets down to brass tacks:
Cloaked in the moral authority of Occupy and connected by networks stitched together during those hectic days in 2011, a contingent of young journalists speaking through venues both new and old, all of them based in New York City—Jacobin, n+1, Dissent and occasionally this magazine, among others—have begun to make careers as Marxist intellectuals.
When Shenk had earlier referred to Marx as a descendant of rabbis who never fancied himself the leader of a religion, the subtle implication was that this was exactly had transpired—socialism as a secular religion. Given that line of thought, it of course logically leads to the conclusion that “cloaked in moral authority” is a jab at the people under consideration who Shenk wants to cut down to size as bible-thumpers–the holy book being Capital:
Combine all this with some fondness for navel gazing and with the fortunes of geography—politics aside, New York writers are New York writers, and they like to talk about each other—and the pieces are in place for the articles declaring the rebirth of Marxism that have become a minor genre in the last year. Like a puffer fish temporarily ballooning to vastly larger sizes, the Marxist revival can seem more imposing than it is. For a certain type of reader, however, it’s easy to forget the illusion when there are so many withering tweets to skim.
As an example of the puffer fish inflating itself, Shenk refers to a Jacobin editorial in 2011 that blasted the Obama administration for seeking to roll back the New Deal and Great Society, a claim he felt was “clear to almost nobody anywhere.” Hmm. Now I am beginning to understand why The Nation would put down the red carpet for him. Melissa Harris-Perry could not have been more scornful of such puffer fish impudence.
Turning to the books under review, Shenk dismisses Saval’s work as breaking little new intellectual ground. Since I only know Saval’s analysis from an excerpt in “Harpers”, I will defer commenting on whether it does or doesn’t.
Shenk is more generous to Kunkel’s “Utopia or Bust”, a book that he describes as “playful and unfailingly lucid”. When one hand giveth, the other taketh away, however:
Precisely because of its clarity, however, Utopia or Bust reveals some of the more peculiar aspects of a group that can seem more inclined to recite Marx than to rethink Marxism, or move beyond it.
Shenk regards Kunkel’s reference to a “near unchallenged global capitalism” as a “fixation”, something I suppose that’s akin to a neurotic obsession. Since Shenk regards “investments gushing in from China today” as an exception to global capitalism, I suppose I’ll have to count myself among the neurotically obsessed.
As I stated earlier, I have not yet read Piketty’s book so I am no position to weigh his Shenk’s critique. That being said, I do have to wonder about his characterization:
Though not a Marxist, Piketty is firmly of the left. A supporter of France’s Socialist Party, he has said that he “dream[s] of a rational and peaceful overcoming of capitalism.”
I am not sure what I am going to make of Piketty’s book but the notion that France’s SP will play any role in the “peaceful overcoming of capitalism” strikes me as absurd, and almost equally absurd is Shenk’s taking this claim seriously. Hadn’t he read the NY Times article dated April 11th on the party’s new leader?
On Tuesday, Mr. Valls offered the most detailed summary yet of how the government intends to meet its promise to enact $69 billion in spending cuts by 2017. He called for $26 billion in cuts to the central government bureaucracy, $13.8 billion to the national health care system and $13.8 billion to local governments — an element at which many legislators on the right booed loudly, having just won control of a number of local governments. He did not specify how the remaining $15.4 billion in cuts would be made.
One hopes that there was an equivalent of Jacobin in France raising hell about the country’s version of Obama no matter Shenk’s credulous take on the Socialist Party.
Finally, after a tsunami of words, Shenk gets to his real point in the concluding sentences:
Reflexive grasping at the language of the past, vividly displayed in the Marxist resurgence, brings a sense of order to what would seem like chaos. But a more promising alternative might be on the way. Marxism is one kind of socialism, but history suggests a much richer set of possibilities, along with some grounds for hope. So does a work like Capital in the Twenty-First Century—a sign that another lost tradition, the postcapitalist visions in abeyance since the 1970s, could be poised for a return; or, even better, that we might put aside old pieties and chart our own path.
Call me grasping reflexively at the language of the past, but history does not suggest a much richer set of possibilities to me. Instead I see a deepening of class conflict with the eventual renaissance of Marxism and the revolutionary socialist movement. I have been committed to that project for 47 years now and see nothing to change my mind at this point. With a nod to Piketty’s book, one that rejects socialism in favor of neo-Keynesian half-measures (I don’t have to read it to know that this is his outlook), Shenk makes clear why he is so fed up with those who live in the past. In my view, you have to live in the past to some degree if you want to live in the future. Capitalism, or whatever word you want to use, is destroying the planet no matter what The Nation and its hired guns would have you believe.