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The General Theory ch. 24
keynes and deleuze, keynes and marx, the long shadow of Ricardo, two traditional reactions to the two endings of "Neon Genesis Evangelion"
Hi all! Thanks for coming with! This is the last chapter in the book and the last installment in our series! Thank you and goodnight!
What’s Actually In The Chapter
So far, Keynes has basically been elucidating how to understand the dynamics of an economic system considered more or less in isolation from the whole rest of society. Isolation is frustrating for some folks. Economics is a means for understanding markets, which are a means for understanding The Economy, which is a means of surviving a capitalist society. This isolation is, however, a way of getting to clarity on what parts of the economy are inward facing: those that are really just about the economy (namely money, interest and - unfortunately- employment). Today, in the last chapter (!!!), Keynes is ruminating on What The Fact That Employment Is An Inward Facing Part Of The Economy Means For Culture and Politics.
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A lot of folks understand that “The Economy” is what drives most directed human effort nowadays. Even projects to meet basic needs like domestic water use are thrown into the same field - The Economy - as massive bottling concerns. Setting everything up viz a viz The Economy this way also has the secondary effect that the vast majority of folks’ cultural experiences are now given color by the often-bizarro logics that crop up out of the habits of people participating in markets, rather than people participating in world-making for its own sake. On the one hand, the often bizarro logic of markets can make the world extremely confusing: things aren’t always what they say they are. But the fact of a logic, however bizarro, also, makes getting the organization of the economy right seem like One Weird Trick for changing the world as a whole: change the economy, change the world.
Economics has thus become sort of like education itself in some ways. There are always spirited political delegations showing up claiming that they have figured out how things really ought to be. Or worse: they claim to have figured out how things AcTuAlLy ReAlLy ArE. These folks then try to mount an opposition to an ill-formed mass of habits of reading situations, such as using nominal dollar accounting to measure value, and then the whole thing falls flat half the time.
On the right, the political economists who claim to know essentially consist of folks asserting that, no, actually, there is no “economy” and no emergent dynamics and all power should devolve to small businesses and heads of household, because they are Responsible and know how to have Skin In The Game. On this view, the main problem in the economy is that people other than oneself are lazy or don’t know their place.
In the center, there are always people claiming to know that what the economy is doing now is good enough. As long as we don’t make any sudden moves at all — even ones unambiguously for the better — we might avoid scaring The Economy. When the economy is very scared it will start acting out: that could mean a recession or worse. If we scare The Economy off, things will be very bad, so it’s best we don’t change anything and let it be itself: Laissez-faire is probably best translated as “let it be.” On this view, the main problem in the economy is that people come along and try to use it to accomplish their own ends, whether private, or worse, public. Their own public ends, whatever that means, now that’s a problem.
On the left, there are always people claiming that what the economy is doing now couldn’t possibly be seen as good, or good enough. Not just “is not” but “could not be.” Thus, unless we radically change who is responsible for “what the economy is doing now,” we are collectively morally responsible for every bad thing that happens. Specifically every bad thing, simply because every bad thing can, somewhere in the causal chain, be traced back to The Economy. In the main variant of this view, the major problem in The Economy is that the bizarro logic of “production for profit and not for use” prevents everyone from using their presumed natural abilities to do things in a way that would — without producing any irresolvable conflicts — sync up everyone’s wants and needs and abilities and communities, whether at the level of use of money or ownership of the means of production.
Each of these groups marshals one form or another of social-scientific theory and brings out results to show why the things that it would like to do are correct. It’s not really a great form of discourse, but it’s what we have right now.
Okay, but what about Keynes?
As far as what’s actually in the chapter, well, Keynes talks about how, as a consequence of how we understand the economic system to work, we ought to do a lot more public investment and leveling out of incomes and wealth in order to run the economy faster and better, so we can stop worrying about economic problems and get back to more interesting questions like “How does the nucleus of the atom work?”, “Is this end rhyme too obvious?” or “Was this anime any good?”.
The way Keynes phrases it is more poetical than I can do justice to here I think, so I’m just going to do some Tallying Up. This is substantially the end of this whole Keynes project. It’s been super fun and I’m really proud of the words here. Thank you all for supporting this project. Analyzing Keynes from the tail end of America’s lost decade through today has been a wild ride. The world and I have really changed more than I could have imagined.
Why I Think Keynes and Deleuze Are Interoperable
I am going to talk my personal mental book here for a second. I want to explain “why” I focus in on the things I have within the General Theory. But also I’m not going to cite anything in a serious way right now because I am very lazy.
I am a Fan of both enlightenment and the enlightenment. I think light is cool as hell. There is nothing better than drinking unlimited coffee and trying to figure out what’s going on, in the broadest possible sense. I think the political ideals of The Enlightenment are broadly good. Everyone deserves dignity and a living because we transparently have enough things to provide that; we’re just not well-enough organized to yet. I also think feudalism is stupid, and have a real problem treating as “valid” the distinctions given by birth or merely assigned by authority alone. The tricky part is figuring out how to set the system up so that the enlightenment can survive and thrive by making things better for everyone.
I got into Marx because he seemed like an enlightenment thinker who also took the fact that — oh shit, living in The Economy fucking Sucks for a lot of people. The Economy does weird confusing stuff that its soi-disant fans and explainers have a really hard time accounting for — seriously. But the thing is, there are later enlightenment thinkers than Marx as well. Some are Marxo but also some who are not Marxians. I don’t want to try to present an exhaustive list of who I would place there, but two later enlightenment thinkers I find particularly useful are, in historical order, John Maynard Keynes and Gilles Deleuze.
Both were major public figures in their time and context:
Keynes had a hand in most of the important government decisions of the mid-20th century;
Deleuze wrote bestsellers and lectured to mobbed auditoriums.
Both Keynes and Deleuzehad “methodologies” more than “theories”: they were like mapmakers who looked for recurring patterns and explained their recurrence and sources, rather than total descriptions of the dynamics of the space of possibilia for, respectively, economy and metaphysic. Both of them get bad raps because their followers had a really hard time communicating the full majesty of the methodologies, as well as why all the different parts are necessary, in the sense of implying one another. This led to a kind of botched uptake in American economics (for Keynes) and American letters (for Deleuze), which was not helped by the confused intrusions of a long-running red scare on scholarly processes.
This led to proponents who put forward far flimsier assertions than are really justified on an honest reading of the text. These flimsy assertions were then easily shot down by the political opponents of the policy recommendations the flimsier asserters were used to making. This happened within both economics and philosophy departments here. The philosophy backlash pushed Deleuze studies towards comparative literature, where students often lacked mathematical and scientific background. In economics the backlash sidelined study of Keynes into a handful of historical “Post-Keynesian” departments (Rutgers, East Tennessee, UMKC, etc) with minimal funding, influence, or ability to command public attention.
Perhaps two concrete examples from both would help.
From the Deleuze point of view, Mill’s definition of matter as virtual stimulation - “the permanent possibility of sensation” - makes perfect sense. The material objects referred to in a sentence are those sensations such that in the conversationally relevant ordering of possible worlds, the subjects of the sentence are having the stimulus in some possible world of every neighborhood of the possible world centered by the sentence. Mill’s matter is the core of Deleuze’s analysis of film: the objects in the frame are those you could be experiencing. But there was a time not so long ago where phrasing this as Deleuze was laughed out of American philosophy departments, as the style at the time required one to credit JK Lewis.
From the Keynes point of view, it is obvious that “Money matters.”. Money is the name we give to unusually permanently liquid goods, such as cash or bank deposits. Liquidity is the manner in which markets deal with uncertainty. Dealing with uncertainty matters. But Milton Fredman for one would often brag that he both proved money mattered and that he didn’t know what money is!
These all too easy victories should have spelt the doom of Keynes and Deleuze. But the World Spirit is not so predictable as the American academy. Instead each spontaneously cropped back up in disciplines where each thinker had made real advancements that were discovered to be useful: Keynes (The Philosopher Of Liquidity) in Finance, and Deleuze (The Philosopher Of The Virtual) in Tech. So the parts of their theories that get fleshed out relatively seriously are the parts that are most relevant to the subdomain they were fleshed out in.
Keynes is useful for finance, because his work can offer a better way to make practical macro judgement calls, which are a resource that can be made to be worth money. Deleuze is useful for tech, because he develops a (semi-mystical) language for talking about the use of emergent dynamical systems as alterable social-scientific metaphors. This is very fun when it clicks, and “exclusive and difficult but fun once it clicks” is something that tech folks love!
But these resurgences upset the narratives created by the all to easy victories. Had not Samuelson left Keynes in the past? American academic narrative space is usually very simplified. These two weird multidimensional thinkers.
Deleuze, who cares about freedom above all else, gets jammed into “accelerationism” because some folks find the style of his translated writings fun, and want to riff on it. This eventually becomes right-wing, because all purely aesthetic movements do, eventually.
Keynes, who spent his whole time trying to make it so more folks could live how his Bloomsbury friends did with their champagne and casually failing magazines and lovable conniving schemes, winds up being most useful to traders trying to snipe each other back and forth betting over whether a number goes up or down.
Everyone also got very upset about something called “postmodernism” for a while. But so far as I can tell, the jury is still out on what exactly that all was about. Deleuze is often grouped in with The Postmodernists, especially as a respondent to Foucault and Lacan. But though the projects are related and they were all frenemies, they remain distinct.
I think both Keynes and Deleuze are thinkers who take seriously the anti-foundationalist “next step” in the enlightenment project that parallels in a broad sense the “next steps” taken in, say, physics by general relativity and quantum mechanics. I think it is strange that they have not been recognized as such yet, but they also had florid and complex lives that are not quite so far in the rear view yet.
What makes it important that they are natural allies, is that Deleuze offers some really handy ways to think through some of the more dynamical-system like implications of Keynesian economics, without introducing the parochialisms of Arrow or Samuelson. Keynes provides a rigorous way to really pose the problem at the economy at multiple levels of emergence, and across a range of assemblages. Frankly, Deleuze’s ideas about assemblages are really statements of the problem, rather than solutions. I think they recursively strengthen and locate one another.
How I Personally Reconcile Keynes and Marx
Another question that has been lurking all throughout this substack is how to ultimately reconcile Keynes and Marx. If we want to reconcile them, and reconcile them seriously, we should look to pivot around a node that both thinkers share a Very Important Relation to.
That thinker in this case — I would argue — is David Ricardo.
Marx presents his work as a negation of Ricardo. I read it — and especially the mathematical approach — as a sublation of Ricardo which specifically accepts his description of the economy as “true”. Marx’s advance comes in using Hegel to argue that the implications that Ricardo draws from his “correct” description of the working of the economy are philosophically flawed.
Even in Ricardo’s time, there were Ricardian Socialists. There is, however, no way to see beyond Ricardo in Marx: the fact that Ricardo is Flawed by not being Hegelian enough asks us to take as read that we will be following the implications of a dialectical engagement with Hegelian dynamics for…our….future….economic….designs…..which is suspicious at best and boneheaded at worst. Usually people resolve this tension by saying “well, the economy will do what we tell it to” in one tone of voice or another.
Keynes also presents his work as a negation of Ricardo. I read it — and especially the methodological approach — as a negation of Ricardo which specifically rejects his description of the economy. Keynes' narrowest goal is to see beyond Ricardo! The program is to find a “path from the present to Ricardo” — a way to make the dynamics of Ricardian long-run models actually bind, in the limit of solving all of the problems of underutilization Keynes identifies. But getting from the present to Ricardo requires going far beyond the existing institutional arrangements (that was also why Ricardo decided to get into politics after all) — and, pointedly — the existing moral justifications for capitalism’s working. To actually get to Ricardo though, you also have to use the state to do a ton of stuff, contra to the permanent demand of “Laissez-faire.” Keynes’ goal was to chart a path for the beginning of an actual economic science based on observing the economy and working to meliorate its constant problems but we have not always stayed on this crooked and narrow path. At the base of this path is a rejection of the idea that there exists an ultimate and final Fix for the economy out there. What there is, for Keynes at least, is a target destination of abundance for all.
Where followers of Marx and followers of Keynes clash, that clash often can be found on the territory of whether Ricardo was right or wrong – something which is essentially understood as a foundational assumption of the underlying thinker for either party – and not something that could plausibly be at stake in a policy debate. That’s a hard conclusion to actually practically get to though, so it is easier for Marxos to assume that Keynesians don’t care about the class struggle and for Keynesians to assume the Marxos aren’t interested enough in how the world currently works to make implementable suggestions for changes to achieve their goals. This doesn’t have to be this way but it is right now.
I think this is why Keynesians and Marxos have historically talked past one another, and then independently made discoveries already long-settled in the other camp at different times throughout the twentieth century. With Kalecki and Keynes, they basically sorted out the same thing at the same time even. However, looking at the situation this way, we might be able to see some commonalities that make the map clearer.
Keynes was definitely not a Marxist socialist. He may have been some kind of socialist — the history of the UK is full of fun goofy intentional-living type socialist economic thinkers — but it’s gotten quite difficult to tell what that word means these days.
But it’s true: what Keynes advocates for in this chapter is decidedly less radical than a Marxist-Leninist or Trotskyite programme. In a way, his argument throughout has been: “in order to make the limits of the Classical Surplus Approach world of Ricardo binding – and durably binding in the Long Term – you have to first do a ton of different things that completely violate Ricardo’s suggestions for economic management simply in order to get to Full Employment.” Maybe once you actually get to the world of Ricardo, then Marxism will work out as a kind of inverse picture of that Ricardianism, but at that point one has reached a “steady state” in the capital stock to such a point that the onrush of uncertainty must have already been decisively defeated.
Despite this, the program implied by the General Theory is recognizably fairly radical along a number of dimensions that seem reasonably important. Let’s think about this as a kind of eightfold path of noble actions to take with respect to the economy:
Ending the “Disciplinary Power of the Layoff” → basically, employers — those who own the means of the production — should be able to decide who works on their projects, but not to threaten workers’ livelihood and ability to make rent and buy food. When you get fired, you should have the resources to find something that you’re better at guaranteed, so you don’t have to waste the economy’s time figuring out how to be broke or doing something less useful. It’s just not worth it.
Making the economy “play until you win” for everyone → basically, the degree of shortfall from full employment and full capacity utilization sets the “difficulty level” for each firm out there in the market, and also for everyone out there looking to get a job. It might be that making it so that only the best of the best survive produces more “best of the bests,” but the social and cultural benefits from making it possible for anyone with a half-decent idea to do ok business at it for a while are absolutely immense (and in my opinion, much more fun than the austere regardability of efficiency). Imagine how much less boring it would be if startup costs for a business were like $15,000. We’d get so many more fun businesses.
Using the state as a publicly-directed swing producer or dealer for key goods → The state doesn’t own all the firms, but it owns enough of the means of production to take up labor slack when the capitalists are Fucking Up. It also probably ends up owning extra of the means of production in certain sectors that are way upstream, or politically sensitive (whether domestically as in the case of housing or internationally as in the case of semiconductors) in order to make sure all the incentives stay aligned and everyone stays coordinating.
Setting up an international payments system that is designed to end the mercantilist race to the bottom while providing the same specific benefits as successful mercantilist policy to all countries → this is a huge step forward in “development” thinking, because it produces agency for developing countries and makes sure they cannot lose the game. We explored how exactly this works in depth last month, with chapter 23. Maybe the internal politics in any particular country are all messed up, but the job of international organizations in a Keynesian schema is to create systems where good things can happen eventually on each domestic level without severely destabilizing anything else.
Seeing colonialism and authoritarianism as larger, more proximate, and more tractable problems than capitalism for strange-seeming but true technical reasons → the problem for Keynes, is ultimately “folks using the economy to terrorize over other folks.” He doesn’t assert that hierarchies or leadership are irrelevant or unimportant: the role of the entrepreneur as “one who decides to Do Something” is carved out in order to praise it in specific distinction from the rentier, or “one who Owns Something That Makes Money.”
Making certain public capital goods superabundant, so that folks can do stuff they want to do → this is like, investment in public spaces and hanging out and things like this. It’s easy to imagine all kinds of urbanist daydreams fitting snugly under this heading, at the same time as large-scale nature conservation and, say, public ownership of 100% renewable power. The idea is to make it so that organizations are almost “ideal” things, by virtue of having just so much equipment lying around.
Letting people still play economy for fun, even if they are safe and have enough to eat at the end of the day → Keynes is right to note that people do love playing economy and making money and being on the top of the leaderboard. He also acknowledges that the things that people do to get there can often be unacceptable, but in an economy where people can’t exercise power over one another, in the same way, it would be fine to let people run up the score against their friends. No harm no foul there, plus who doesn’t love a good game of rollercoaster tycoon.
Elimination of poverty by directing money at the bottom of the income distribution as a means of boosting demand, and thus consumption and investment → This is much closer to a technical explanation of how to reduce what is currently understood to be poverty with the tools that we currently have than the Marxian account of exploitation is. It is also much better than the account of poverty given by some economists (implicitly or explicitly): “some folks just ain’t worth nothin.” Keynes would see low-end wage increases and cash payments to poor folks as very good ways to achieve control over the macroeconomy. Disagreement is a mere unsupportable aesthetic preference which also happens to be tasteless.
The idea here is that this kind of economy would essentially destroy the last remnants of Feudalism. The achievement of “full employment” — or, say, the obliteration of the reserve army of labor in more floridly Marxian terms — effectively ends the bad part of the deal of the “double freedom” imposed on pre-capitalist peasants. This famous double freedom is most often explained as: “peasants became free from the limitations of being peasants, but also free from the benefits of being peasants.” We can read Keynes as looking to restore a version of the safety of benefits whose loss has been long lamented, without restoring serfdom.
Something to think about with Keynes is that the program is designed as a way to end the threats posed by the “natural” world of the kinds of emergent structures that a monetary production economy gives rise to without making everything Static, Boring and Permanent in the way that the economics of Ricardo drive towards.
Keynes is an enlightenment, open society, “new things will always be happening no matter what, and that’s great to see because otherwise I’d be bored as hell” kind of guy, at least in this book. The threat to this is, at the end of the day, nature: the accidental, un-meliorated, un-adjusted order of things. But that nature runs all throughout human society. There are myriad of places where things simply aren’t adjusted to one another because they haven’t needed to be yet.
Another thing that’s important about this, is that the goal is to create a flexible and resilient system with respect for the individual by essentially designing the state such that it’s possible – and eventually – easy for everyone to Win.
This is the mindset of someone who Doesn’t Want To Have To Bother Thinking About The Organization Of Production, so that they could think about partying or more delicate pursuits instead. It’s a world where “don’t worry about it, we figured out how to make it good times all over, as long as we all love and trust each other into the future and find exciting things to do” is the desired outlook to employment or financial worries. Everyone provides, everything provided, and organized based on what people think to organize — not based only on who owns what’s there now (though knowing how the existing system is organized will always be an advantage).
What the Marxian mindset often ends up pointing towards on the horizon is something like: “we will finally solve all of our problems by making all of the decisions correctly and executing on them, including all the ones that contradict the other ones, for the good of the Workers.
A Last Detour Through Evangelion
Maybe the easiest way to think about the difference between them is through two different ways to think about the ending of the show Neon Genesis Evangelion.
The original ending, which was the one Anno liked, and wanted, and which really was based on the really-existing material constraints of the show’s making (it had to be cheap as they ran out of money), lends itself to a broadly Keynesian reading of the whole show. Everyone figures out how to love and trust each other after a period of really struggling with what that would entail, and congratulations are justified, because this way, all the things that contradict the other things can be reconciled through Love rather than have to do battle.
However, this upset so many people so violently, that they mailed him death threats, and said that the drama of the show was so obviously leading up to something different, and that this was a ridiculous cop out for a show that they (the audience) had cathected so much emotional energy into. Obviously things were heading for a Grand Confrontation, and obviously that had to happen, and obviously the audience had to see it.
Let me just make the economic stakes of this goofy metaphor clear.
In Keynes, the point is to treat the economy like an excitable animal that keeps getting caught in nets. It wants to run around, you want it to run around, but it just keeps getting tangled up and hurting itself and freaking out. Where there are contradictions discovered — strikes, inflationary bottlenecks, political upset over a rising standard of living for people who “aren’t supposed to” have one — the Keynesian response is to untangle them and send the economy on its way.
In Marx, the point is to treat the economy as the site of contradiction, specifically in class relations — the distinction between owners of capital goods (the Means of Production) and non-owners of capital goods (to the extent that the latter constitutes a “class,” I usually find it easier to think “capital” “labor” and “other” when I want to use Marxs’ terminology in a strict manner).
This leads to a worldview where the contradictions need to be heightened, the two dialectical sides need to be Smashed Into Each Other to create Some Third Thing. It also tends to assume that the achievement of growth in a capitalist system is something which can be safely assumed, and which the system itself is constantly militating towards, such that opposition to that growth can never be “wasted” because at least it’s moving things in the right direction. So you smash all the contradictions into each other, and then end up with what you wind up with after. Theory says it will be better. Anyway, back to the metaphor.
Anno obliged — suddenly there was a bunch of money coming in — and made End of Evangelion, the only movie to try to address what it would be like if Kojevean “Real Stalinism” were ever to be tried. In it, everyone gets everything they want — even the things that contradict the other things — but they get the Business End of them in Confrontation. As a result, the contradictions all smash into each other, and annihilate the whole scene — the whole planet, really, as the scale of the narrative expands outwards — and everyone gets everything they want, at the expense of any of it existing. “Here,” Anno seems to be saying, “this is what it would look like if you ran the solution where all dialectical oppositions are directly sublated and crashed into each other in the material realm. Looks like shit and Tang, doesn’t it. You all wanted this, not me.”
And people went bananas for the movie. It gave them what they were looking for in the grand confrontation. I think this is something of an understandable but conservative result: given the choice between material tragedy and love, folks prefer the tragedy. Maybe they’ve been hurt too many times, maybe it just makes for a better story that way, maybe people just want to watch a fun giant robot show, I don’t know. I know that Anna Carabelli shares this tragic reading as well.
Keynes also takes great pains to point out that nothing in the parts of capitalism that we like require the parts that we don’t like — and that that specifically is what makes those parts so deplorable. It’s not really a question of the child from Omelas here. Not only are people being exploited, they don’t even have to be! Simple-minded libertarian arguments about how people have to be paid more than others might work in the extremes, Keynes allows, but for a normal person living a normal life, there’s no need to force them to compete to survive. We’ve advanced far enough to not need that anymore, but the challenge is in figuring out how to convince people of that while succeeding in the world-historically difficult task of successfully governing a modern nation-state. The problem of figuring out how to guide the macroeconomy is probably harder than the problem of figuring out how to justify the existing distribution of income and wealth, for good or for ill.
Keynes isn’t really trying to “hold back the revolution” — he’s just fighting Ricardo. The twentieth century does make it seem that some people who earnestly would like a revolution got Ricardo’s economic strategies tangled up in that desire though. Hopefully we can all find some path towards a better life together despite that.
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