After the GFC house of cards collapsed many went looking in the wreckage for the faulty card that caused the crisis, but few questioned the whole structure and its inherent flimsiness. Even Alan Greenspan seemed shocked that the system had a flaw, but it was, as ever, up to Marxists to point out that the flaw was built into the system to start with.
Benjamin Kunkel’s latest book Utopia or Bust offers a short introduction to Marxist thinking via essays on a handful of Marxist thinkers. Many of the essays have appeared in the London Review of Books, so readers of that illustrious rag will find them familiar, but there’s no harm in slapping them together in a nice looking little volume, with an introduction that puts them into the context of recent financial crisis.
It would be good for even critics of Marxism to be better familiar with it. If that is a somewhat odd statement, Marxism does suffer from dismissal due to ignorance. It is perfectly fine to disagree with Marxism; it may be that Marx only refers to capitalism of the day and that he is not such a great seer. After-all, many of his predictions were off the mark. And it may be that current permutations of capitalism are so far removed from what Marx envisaged that his theories can only be applied in crude fashion. This might neglect the development of Marxist thought (via the writers Kunkel profiles), and there is only so much here about Marx as opposed to Marxist thinkers working today. One may even disagree with these more recent thinkers, but it is good to know about them.
I suspect most disagree with Marxism because they conflate it with communism or Stalinism or Fidel Castro or simply atheism. Or they are wary of the utopian visions of Marxists. And Kunkel, like French theologian Jacques Ellul, separates the questions Marxism poses to capitalism from the answers some Marxists propose. Of David Harvey he suggests that he is hazy on what would replace a collapsed capitalism. It is true that it is easier to analyse the past than predict the future. But then maybe the utopian vision of Marxism is unable to be extricated from its analysis. This would perhaps be the view of those who also think that the utopian vision automatically distorts into the horrors of Stalinist Russia when put into practice. But whatever your view of the merits of Marxism, you could have a worse guide than this.
Kunkel is something of a wonder – he writes about a topic that can be dry at best and impenetrable at the extreme in accessible and even delicious style. He describes postmodernism as a “fidgety sitter” and there are plenty of other equally clever phrases sprinkled throughout.