A Generation of Intellectuals Shaped by 2008 Crash Rescues Marx From History’s Dustbin
For those too young to remember the Cold War but old enough to be trapped by the Great Recession, Marxism holds new appeal
Eight years ago Jay McInerney, poster boy for a certain kind of glossy 1980s literary chic, anointed Benjamin Kunkel as the voice of a new generation. Writing on the front page of the New York Times Book Review, he hailed Kunkel’s first novel, Indecision, for making “the whole flailing, postadolescent, prelife crisis feel fresh and funny again.” He wasn’t alone; many critics were impressed by Kunkel’s evocation of a privileged young man’s passivity and ennui. They were less sure of what to make of his narrator’s culminating conversion to radical politics in South America. “Explaining socialism to the postironic, ambivalent, hopeful, generous twentysomethings of 2005, I suppose, is what sequels are for,” Michael Agger wrote in Slate.
Next March, Kunkel will release his second book, Utopia or Bust. Though not a sequel to Indecision, it will in fact seek to explain, or at least explore, what socialism means now through a series of essays on contemporary leftist thinkers like Fredric Jameson and David Harvey. After the success of Indecision—a spot on the best-seller list, translations into a dozen languages, a Hollywood option—Kunkel didn’t milk his newfound literary stardom in the manner of, say, Jay McInerney. Instead, after falling into a deep depression, he followed the example of his own narrator, moving to Buenos Aires and immersing himself in anticapitalist political theory. In a draft of the introduction to his new book, he writes, “To the disappointment of friends who would prefer to read my fiction—as well as of my literary agent, who would prefer to sell it—I seem to have become a Marxist public intellectual.”
In a strange way, though, Kunkel hasn’t entirely escaped the zeitgeist business. His new book is emerging at a moment of newly fervent interest in Marx among young writers, activists, and scholars, who have begun, the wake of the financial crisis, to identify capitalism as a problem rather than an inevitability.
It’s too simple to say that Marxism is back, because it never truly went away. In the United States after the fall of the Berlin Wall, though, it was largely confined to university English departments, becoming the stuff of abstruse, inward-looking and jargon-choked cultural critique. Then came the economic crash, Occupy Wall Street, and the ongoing disaster of austerity in Europe. “Around the time of Occupy in particular, a lot of different kinds of lefties, working at mainstream or literary publications, sort of found each other, started talking to each other, and found out who was most interested in class politics,” says Sarah Leonard, the 25-year-old associate editor of Dissent, the social-democratic journal founded almost 60 years ago by Irving Howe. “We have essentially found an old politics that makes sense now.”
In the United States, of course, Marxism remains an intellectual current rather than a mass movement. Certainly, millennials are famously progressive; a much-discussed 2011 Pew poll found that 49 percent of people between 18 and 29 had a favorable view of socialism, while only 46 percent felt positively about capitalism. It’s hard to say exactly what this means—it’s not as if young people are sending Das Kapital racing up the best-seller lists or reconstituting communist cells. Still, it’s been decades since so many young thinkers have been so engaged in imagining a social order not governed by the imperatives of the market.
The reason why is obvious enough. “Now everything is falling apart,” says Doug Henwood, publisher of the Left Business Observer and mentor to several among the new Marxist thinkers. “Not even the most energetic apologists can say things are going well. The basic premises of American life, about upward mobility and all that, it all seems like a cruel joke now.”
Meanwhile, the end of the Cold War has freed people—especially those too young to remember it—to revisit Marxist ideas without worrying that they’re justifying existing repressive regimes. The Soviet Union always hovered over American intellectual life in the 20th century, especially those sectors of it dominated by Jewish City College graduates like Howe and his ideological counterweight Irving Kristol. There were those who condemned it but held fast to socialist ideals—a position epitomized by Dissent—and those, like Kristol, who came to see such ideals as inescapably entwined with tyranny, becoming neoconservatives. Now that communism is a marginal force in the world, these arguments feel very far away. “I suppose that what’s on our mind is not ’89,” says Leonard. “Our crisis is of a different nature. It’s a capitalist crisis, and we have a useful set of analytic tools.”
To cater to the new receptivity to left-wing thought, the radical publishing house Verso—which is co-publishing Kunkel’s new book—recently started issuing a series called Pocket Communism, short, elegantly designed volumes created with addled millennial attention spans in mind. Among them are Alain Badiou’s The Communist Hypothesis and Bruno Bosteel’s The Actuality of Communism. They’re being sold beyond the ordinary outlets—at art galleries, for example. Even when these neo-communists aren’t orthodox Marxists—Badiou is something of a Maoist—Marx necessarily looms large in their work. “People are no longer afraid to go back to the texts themselves and use words that were once taboo,” says Sebastian Budgen, a Verso senior editor. “There’s a mentally emancipatory effect of no longer having to justify using Marx.”
Nowhere is this more true than at Jacobin, the socialist magazine founded by 24-year-old Bhaskar Sunkara, which is co-publishing Utopia or Bust with Verso. A uniquely entrepreneurial Marxist, Sunkara was still an undergraduate when he used part of his student loan to publish the first issue of Jacobin in 2011. He now has about 5,000 subscribers, a small number in the grand scheme of things but an impressive one for a leftist journal, comparable to the reach of Dissent. It’s a readership that is disproportionately young, says Sunkara, and one that’s often new to left-wing publishing. “I think that a lot of our readership aren’t people who are choosing Jacobin over Dissent or The Monthly Review,” he says. “They’re more either disillusioned liberals or young people who weren’t that politicized.”
For its part, Dissent, which is edited by Michael Kazin, has been reinvigorated by young staffers like Leonard. Until recently, it had grown dour, known for its doleful struggle against the irresponsibility of other radicals. In 2002, for example, its former co-editor Michael Walzer criticized the progressive response to 9/11 in an essay titled “Can There Be a Decent Left?” Bemoaning the tendency of left intellectuals to “live in America like internal aliens, refusing to identify with their fellow citizens, regarding any hint of patriotic feeling as politically incorrect,” he seemed to be rehashing an ancient argument between the anti-communist left and the ‘60s counterculture.
These days, though, with the magazine’s four full-time staffers all in their twenties, it feels far livelier and more contemporary—at times, it’s even cheeky. Consider, for example, “Cockblocked by Redistribution,” a piece in the fall issue by Katie J.M. Baker, about the failure of a well-known pickup artist to score in Denmark. As Baker explains, Daryush Valizadeh, known as Roosh, is the author of a series of priapic travel guides with names like Bang Ukraine and Bang Brazil. (In the latter, he instructs his acolytes that “poor favela chicks are very easy, but quality is a serious problem.”) In Scandinavia, however, poor Roosh found that things were not very easy at all, prompting him to produce an angry denunciation of that country’s women titled Don’t Bang Denmark. Danish women, Roosh lamented, exhibit a maddening lack of desperation, “because the government will take care of her and her cats, whether she is successful at dating or not.”
Baker—until recently a staff writer at the women’s website Jezebel, part of the Gawker network—analyzed Roosh’s predicament in light of Nancy Holmstrom’s 1984 essay “A Marxist Theory of Women’s Nature,” discussing the way material conditions create the vulnerabilities that pickup artists exploit. When the sort of smart, au courant young women who work at Jezebel start casually dropping references to Marxist philosophers, something has shifted in the intellectual environment.
Meanwhile n+1, the journal Kunkel cofounded in 2004, has morphed from a hipster downtown cultural-literary publication feted by The New York Times Magazine to a far more explicitly political one. In the most recent issue, there’s a long essay by Dayna Tortorici arguing for the renewed relevance of the 1970s feminist “Wages for Housework” campaign: “Young people in the West who have spent their formative years in the workforce as freelancers, part-timers, adjuncts, unwaged workers, and interns are beginning to feel … that they’re not compensated for the work that they do. … Under these circumstances, the longstanding critique of the exploitation of mothers, wives, grandmothers is felt with new force, among a much younger and much wider population of women and men, with children and without.”
Naturally, some of those who lived through the first iteration of these arguments—and the subsequent cultural disillusionment with left-wing radicalism—will find all this irritating, if not infuriating. There are, after all, good reasons that Marxist political economy fell out of fashion. And it’s true some of the leftmost communist revivalists are disturbingly blithe about the past; at times one senses a self-satisfied avant-garde delight in making outrageous pronouncements. In The Communist Horizon, part of Verso’s Pocket Communism series, the newly fashionable academic Jodi Dean, a professor of Political Science at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, airily dismisses the “circumscribed imaginary” in which “communism as Stalinism is linked to authoritarianism, prison camps, and the inadmissibility of criticism,” as if such links are a neoliberal fabrication.
In general, though, the young critics who are engaging with Marx are not so glib. Dissent excoriated The Communist Horizon, and before it was even published, Jacobin took on Dean’s talk of the same name. Sunkara addressed Dean’s contemptuous description of liberals: “[S]he suggests we single out those who ‘think any evocation of communism should come with qualifications, apologies, condemnations of past excess.’ … [W]hat she presents as a good way to identify liberals, is actually a good test of sanity. Here’s a general rule: make no argument in New York that you wouldn’t make in Warsaw.”
These are not, then, apologists for authoritarianism. Rather, they insist that the terrible regimes of the 20th century do not obviate Marx’s essential insights, and that, with the U.S.S.R. gone, it should be possible to apply those insights without a lot of anti-Stalinist throat-clearing.
After all, if the Soviet example casts a pall on Marxism, it’s hardly an advertisement for unbridled capitalism, either. n+1 cofounder Keith Gessen left the Soviet Union as a child, and it was returning there in 1995 at age 20 that pushed him leftward. “I very much went over there as a kind of young liberal who believed that Russia was transitioning, with a lot of problems, to a liberal capitalist state and that was the right way for it to go,” he says. “What I saw there was that property relations were actually based on violence, that the so-called energies of the Russian people that were being liberated after communism were energies to cheat one another and lie to one another and kill one another.”
Back then, one could at least look to the United States to see capitalism triumphant. That, clearly, is no longer the case. After the financial crisis, “you didn’t need to be Karl Marx to see that people were getting kicked out of their homes,” says Gessen. And privileged young people—particularly the kind of who are inclined to read and write essays about political theory—haven’t just been spectators to immiseration. Graduating with student debt loads that make them feel like indentured servants, they’ve had a far harder time than their predecessors finding decent jobs in academia, publishing, or even that old standby law and are thus denied the bourgeois emollients that have helped past generations of college radicals reconcile themselves to the status quo.
If there were a Republican president, they might see hope in electing a Democrat. But Barack Obama already won, and it didn’t help. “If you win something and you are disappointed with the results, in a way that’s more politicizing than just losing and losing and losing over again,” says Sunkara.
So, they’re hungry for a theory that offers a thoroughgoing critique of the system, not just a way to ameliorate its excesses. “[F]or at least a generation now, not only the broad public but many radical themselves have felt uncertain that the left possessed a basic analysis of contemporary capitalism, let alone a program for its replacement,” Kunkel writes in the introduction to Utopia or Bust. Reaching back into the canon, he and others have found, at least, the former.
As for the latter? In the absence of a clear programmatic goal, never mind a party or organization, the new Marxism has a certain weightlessness. No one seems to have even a wisp of an answer to the perennial question: What is to be done? That very openness, though, gives new energy to the work of young thinkers and writers who feel themselves on yet another hinge of history. For intellectuals, this has always been a consolation of crisis: It frees one from the sort of existential lassitude Kunkel described in Indecision, making ideas feel urgent and important.
Kunkel himself is trying to formulate a vision of what might come next in a book he plans to publish after Utopia or Bust. “It’s meant to be a sketch—not a blueprint—of a post-capitalist future,” he told me by Skype from his apartment in Buenos Aires. “What it tries to do is to describe capitalism as something that, as it grew, added one feature after another. And therefore it’s easier to imagine disassembling. If we can picture how it was put together, it’s easier for us to imagine how it might be taken apart.”
This is a significantly more ambitious goal than that of writing another well-received novel. It might seem grandiose, but it also suggests a cultural optimism that’s otherwise in short supply these days. “It was easy to feel in the nineties that everyone knew what was going to happen,” says Kunkel. “Many people thought it already has happened, and now we just wait for McDonalds franchises and liberalized capital markets to spread across the globe.” Now, looking at the Marxist resurgence among young people, he says, “It’s very exciting to me. In a strange way, it also makes me want to live a long time, knock on wood, because I’d like to see what’s going to happen.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that the Bhaskar Sunkara of Jacobin was writing about Jodi Dean’s talk, “The Communist Horizon,” rather than her book of the same name; and that the journal n+1 was founded in 2004, not 2005.
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