There were a number of reasons to be skeptical when I arrived at a very expensive bar in Fort Greene to talk with Benjamin Kunkel about Utopia or Bust, his new collection of introductory essays about contemporary leftist theorists, ranging from the literary critic Fredric Jameson to the anthropologist and prominent Occupy personality David Graeber. The most obvious reason to be skeptical was that we were meeting at a very expensive bar in Fort Greene to talk about Marxism. “An important part of Marxism is blaming others,” Kunkel said—explaining that this bar was the suggestion of a friend. “At least, in good proletarian fashion, we’re just eating French fries.”
Previously in this series: Discussing the labor of sex work with Melissa Gira Grant.
Other reasons to be skeptical might be the choice of the word “Utopia.” Utopian thinking is supposed to be dangerous, except when it’s useless, and Marxist theory has a rather paradoxical (or maybe dialectical) reputation for being both. I’m not too worried about violent Marxist purges anytime in the foreseeable American future, but usefulness strikes me as a valid concern. Usefulness is on its Kunkel’s mind, too; he dedicates the book “to who can use it.” I found it thrilling a couple of years ago to march in Occupy Wall Street demonstrations and chant “We are unstoppable/ Another world is possible,” but frustrating that we didn’t seem to have much to say after that.
Kunkel’s book itself went a long way towards winning me over. “The time is past,” he writes in an incisive takedown of Slavoj Žižek, “for the left to content itself with the blank proposition that another world is possible.” This is a book with results on its mind. Kunkel—known as one of the founders of n+1 and as the author of the novel Indecision—is a gifted, clear, and eager explicator of extremely complex theories, whose prose is often at its most infectiously energizing and disarmingly giddy when it is at its wonkiest (“Doesn’t Brenner’s position acquire a more hopeful cast if you consider its unstated implications regarding consumer demand?”).
When considered in tandem with concrete suggestions that have been proposed, by among others, J.A. Myerson, whose recent Rolling Stone piece “Five Economic Reforms Millenials Should Be Fighting For” caused a lot of delightful panic in Fox News hosts and which Kunkel discusses below, Utopia or Bust’s usefulness begins to emerge. Kunkel provides an introduction to theorists who now look much more relevant, and who can now be used to formulate policy. (Myerson’s call for “Guaranteed Work For Everybody,” for instance, can be paired with Kunkel’s chapter on “Full Employment.”)
The words “Utopia” and “Marxism” still don’t sit right with me, since specific policies don’t seem to be helped by these labels. But maybe I’m wrong. The other day, as I was re-reading Kunkel’s book on the subway, a panhandler to whom I was giving money looked at the book and said: “Utopia or Bust? I feel that.”
You dedicate the book to who can use it. How do you hope they’ll use it?
I hope in terms of thinking as specifically as possible about what we mean when we say we want a different society or another world or a society that’s for one hundred percent of its inhabitants. Occupy didn’t end up being able to formulate any demands, and I’m not saying that it should have, but ultimately a left politics needs to have both a strategy and a program. This book doesn’t contain anything like a program, but it might help in thinking about why we need one and what one might be.
In a certain way, this book, not even officially published yet, already in a happy sort of way feels slightly antiquated in that the sense that there’s been all this noise—to me joyful noise—about Jesse Myerson’s recipe for intermediate changes in Rolling Stone.
Would you sign on to that program?
I don’t remember it off the top of my head, but I think so, yes. I should probably reread it, but yes. The nature of the current age is that you sign things saying I have read and agreed to everything.
Several times you say that the next crisis is the one that will lead to some kind of Marxist intervention. Do you worry about that being infinitely delayed?
That I’m not too worried about. There’s no strict definition of a crisis, and clearly some people feel that the crisis has passed. But the crisis that began in 2008 has not passed in Europe. In a sense it seems to be deepening in what they call emerging markets. Unemployment remains tremendously high here. It looks like there might be a permanent generational aspect to the crisis. So I’m certainly not worried about capitalism just making everybody so happy that they’re not interested in books like this one anymore.
Are you worried about band-aid solutions like the bank bailout?
It seems like plenty of people who are not on the left, just sane people, have worried that our solution to the last acute crisis may make the next one worse. Banks that were too big to fail are now much bigger. People like Elizabeth Warren are worried about this; you don’t have to be a Marxist to be worried about it. The income gains since 2008 have gone, not just to the one percent, but mainly to the point one percent. The last thing I’m worried about is capitalism just invalidating the left ferment of recent years by creating a smooth-running, prosperous neoliberal Utopia.
These thinkers are a generation or two older than you. You’re a little bit older, I’m a little bit older, than many people involved in these movements. Where do you see yourself in terms of age?
Mostly as older than I look. I’ve been struck listening to David Harvey, who has said that the left skipped a generation. It’s not that there’s nobody in between sixty-five and thirty-five, but it’s thinner. I’ve had more time to read than people who are twenty-five, so I hope it’s useful.
There is a certain generational embarrassment. I have not been much of an activist. I’ve signed plenty of petitions, gone to demonstrations, but I haven’t belonged to a movement, except briefly to Occupy. Partly because there wasn’t a movement or party to belong to. I can blame the world for that, but of course I have to blame myself for that, too. I could have gone out there and tried to create a movement or party. I don’t plan on doing that singlehandedly, but I hope that things like that happen going forward.
I think there needs to be a movement, and it might be a good idea to have a party. The United States makes it very difficult for parties other than the two that we already have, but it might make sense for there to be a party.
One thing that is underlying a lot of this is your relationship with fiction. Could you talk about that?
I’ve come to feel that writing this stuff, which has nothing to do with my fiction, really has helped my fiction, in that I’m not as worried about politics in my fiction. My first novel is quite explicitly political. Some of my short stories that have never seen the light of day are like that. Now I feel that anything that you write is going to be about late capitalism, so there’s no need to directly address that issue or that situation. I’m more content with writing fiction that is not on the surface political.
In some ways, the unity of politics and fiction, private life and public life, is precisely that they don’t seem to fit together. I don’t experience the problems of my intimate life as problems of the global movement of capital. Love life and family life have everything to do with social class, and yet I don’t experience my relationship with my parents or my romantic or sexual life as things that have to do with social class.
So you don’t think that capitalism has outstripped fiction?
If you’re telling the truth about life, you’re going to be telling the truth about capitalism. Capitalism has infiltrated how we communicate with each other, who it is that we date or marry, the anxieties that we feel about our health. Personal, private life is not separate from global capitalism. I’m not worried about capitalism outstripping our capacity to represent it. Even in the age of Balzac, fiction would have been a poor place to look for the laws of motion. Balzac was Marx’s favorite novelist, but Marx didn’t wonder why he needed to write this economic tract. It’s terrible 2014 etiquette to quote own’s tweet, but the other day I tweeted: “Enjoy your symptom.”
Is a book like this more useful than fiction?
I don’t know if fiction is any more useful than drinking wine or having non-reproductive sex, but I don’t care.
Can you talk about the link you make between Jameson’s style and Henry James’ style?
That has to do with a tremendous intellectual force and a tentative procedure. Somebody once said, very cruelly, about James that he would chew much more than he could bite off. I admire Jameson enormously, but you could say that about Jameson, because he has chewed everything. And of course he couldn’t bite off everything.
I think it was natural for Jameson during a certain political period to write in that way, when everything needed to be in a conditional mood and we could talk about ways we could or would ultimately think about things, and now I don’t think we need to talk about Marxism in such a conditional mood. I don’t think we need to talk about Utopia in as abstract a way as Jameson did, and he may not think that either. One really admirable thing about Jameson is that, while he’s always sort of thinking the same thing all the time, he’s also thinking something new. He’s gone back to Capital and has written a book on the first volume, so his own work is becoming more economic. A certain delicacy in address was not the way that Lenin spoke to the world, and not the way that politics proper needs to be done. That’s not to say that I don’t hope that super-sophisticated literary criticism is written forever, and for as long as possible by me, too.
You talk a lot about ecology, but you don’t devote a chapter to it.
That’s because I’m devoting a book that I’m writing to it. There was a time when this book might have been longer, and I thought about adding a new essay, but I decided that the book was long enough. You don’t want a handbook to be too long.
The next book, God willing, is a much more ecological and economic book.
My sentiments about peak oil are no longer as apocalyptic as they were. But I think it’s very naïve for people who write about energy to pretend that, because we can now frack these wells that have very swift depletion rates, this means that we’re not going to have much lower energy rates per capita sometime soon.
I don’t think we’re going to have increasing energy for everyone forever. This doesn’t mean that I think we should start scolding people in some Malthusian way for having too many children. People in wealthy countries need to think about how they’re going to consume less, or people in less wealthy countries need to think about how they’re going to forcibly make people in wealthy countries consume less.
In praising Fredric Jameson, you mention that he had “reserves of synthesizing energy that simply outstripped anyone else’s.” That struck me as a provocatively capitalist metaphor.
Blake said that energy is eternal delight. A lot of the things we identify as capitalist aren’t—a kind of dynamism, a kind of versatility of desire, energy, even creative destruction. I allude a couple times to the stationary state, an economy that no longer grows, and some people wonder whether that wouldn’t become tedious and boring. I think, by no means. No more than if you have a certain income, you have to spend it in the same way every year. No more than when we cease to grow physically in our late teens, we cease to be able to do interesting things with our bodies. I’m not worried about post-capitalist society being boring or less energetic. Maybe less exhausting. Maybe you’ll get better sleep.
I was talking more about the implicit competition. That Jameson is better than anyone else.
I consider myself a market socialist. Firms can go bankrupt, people can be fired. It doesn’t mean that the people who are fired suddenly become poor. Some of the existential risk disappears. But competition is a feature of human life. The competition among artists, among athletes, sexual competition, these things exist independently of capital. Writers are going to want to write better than other writers, thinkers are going to want to be more intelligent than other thinkers. Makers of craft beer are going to want to make better craft beer than other makers of craft beer.
The Olympics are going on right now, and I’m old enough to remember when they required that athletes not have gone pro to compete. It’s not as though everyone just loped towards the finish line.