[28 July 2014]
There seems to a be a rash of utopian thinking these days, from the overly optimistic Singularity adherents under Rabbi Ray Kurzweil, to the economists who, in the collection In 100 Years, forecast mostly positive outcomes to the stresses placed on humanity and Earth by years of industrialization and consumption and Astra Taylor’s The People’s Platform.” And then…
to this mix arrives Utopia or Bust, by Benjamin Kunkel, which is only a book about utopia if you believe Marxism, in its purest and most evolved form, is a utopian answer to the ills of capitalism. But Kunkel isn’t really so much after utopia it seems, as much as he is at conveying his personal exposition on Marxist thought, little of which lands or resonates with this reviewer in its current form. What I mean by that is that I’m not sure who Kunkel is selling to. To stalwart Marxist intellectuals, this is a fine set of essays about what they may have missed when they were attempting to salvage their 401K accounts. But with so many flavors of Marxism, the target audience remains vague. On the other hand, Utopia or Bust is certainly not a book aimed at converting anyone, because deep intellectual essays about Marist thought don’t have the emotional snap, crackle and pop required of today’s 30-second attention spans.
That said, it appears that Kunkel fervently wants his readers to consider viable alternatives to capitalism, with an aim toward ownership of production by workers, and the integration of sustainability. He wants to market Marxism, but his references to writers obscure beyond his circles, don’t help his cause. I’m not a Marxist, not to say I’m dismissive to those who are, but I’m not steeped in the ideology’s past or current writers. I did learn about them looking up writers like Zizek, Greaber, Jameson and Groys — interesting thinkers all, but I didn’t find myself swayed in anyway by them or by the analytical tapestry Kunkel employs to expose them.
The subtitle of the book, “A Guide to the Current Crisis” is no more apt than the title’s reference to utopia. Part of the problem is that this is a book of essays from The London Review of Books, n+1 and New Statesman. To write a “guide” Kunkel needed to do more than collect a series of essays. Though Kunkel applies his consistently critical eye to society, seeking to analyze it through the lens of Marxist perspectives, examining the systematic issues underlying the long-tail of the 2008 recession, he never consolidates his advice into any kind of actionable steps, or even concise points, that could be used as a coalescing manifesto. He never offers a Marxist recipe for resolving the crisis. He never lands anywhere. Kunkel admits that the left has been reluctant to offer solid solutions that recognize just how deeply entrenched the world is in markets, in the ideas of profit and loss and utility.
The book meanders through some pretty heady modern philosophy or anti-philosophy, if you ascribe to Groys (and really, who doesn’t) that makes you think, but I’m reminded by my work as an information technology analyst involved in creating pins for an internal conference. On those pins it said “So What” with the circle and line through it meaning “no So What’s”. We didn’t want readers to pick up a piece of our research, read it, and then ask, “So what?” Kunkel, I’m afraid, needs a pin.
The problem with Kunkel and others seeking alternative futures that lead to a utopian mean is that they begin from old assumptions, as though Karl Marx and Adam Smith were as inviolable as atoms or DNA. There’s nothing immutable about any of our economic systems, all of them are products of human invention, subject to the same forces that shift tastes in popular music or literature. Though admittedly, with higher stakes, deeper integration, and more resistance to change because unlike popular culture, shifting from Britney to Beyonce doesn’t devalue money or create new populations of haves and have-nots (at least beyond the celebrity funded possy).
Kunkel is no populist, though I think he wants to be. He walks a fine line between radical upheaval of capitalism and more gradual approaches, but you have to read critically to tease out any answers. The general population of Kim Kardashian watcher and Lady Gaga fans aren’t going to pick this book up, let alone use it as a road map, any more than will the followers to Blake Shelton or Beyonce. I use popular culture examples because in today’s society, Kunkle’s arguments need to feed into a cultural voice that can be heard before it can be acknowledged and legitimized, and this kind of writing isn’t going to get him or his movement any buzz.
To Kunkel’s credit, Utopia or Bust doesn’t offer inflammatory rhetoric, but rather thoughtful prose, with well reasoned exposition unlikely to ignite the ire of the far right because they probably aren’t going to pick it up either. For people trying to reconnect to their inner Marxist, however, this is a fine way to discover what current Marxist thinkers are thinking.
I will leave you with this lengthy quote near the end, the only place where Kunkel steps out of his Marxist thought space to attempt a connection to popular culture:
It seems that Nekrasov felt Groys had betrayed artists like himself by defining them before the public as “conceptualists” in his 1979 essays “Moscow Romantic conceptualism.” More evident is that in New York or Moscow today it’s much harder for the art critic to inspire fretting for fear: a difficulty that may account for both the forth of outrageousness and the undertow of emptiness in Groy’s work. Reading him, I sometimes thought of an exchange between the comedian Will Ferrell and his costar in the Hollywood male figure-skating film, Blades of Glory (2007), a mostly boring comedy occasionally startled into wit at its own and its viewer’s expense. When Ferrell’s character insists on choreographing a pairs routine to “My Hump,” the anatomically puzzling hit song about “lady humps” by the Black Eyed Peas, his partner complains that he has no idea what the song means. “No one knows what it means,” Ferrell replies. “But it’s provocative.
And that is how I feel about this book with one exception. I don’t know what means, but Kunkel is such a thoughtful writer that he has written the provocation right out of his prose. And so I do ask, “so what?”