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Marx-ish: Why a New Generation of Political Thinkers Is Taking Up the Communist Philosopher

Kind of.
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(Photo: Arcady/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Arcady/Shutterstock)

“To the disappointment of my friends ... I seem to have become a Marxist public intellectual,” begins the introduction of the novelist (and erstwhile Marxist public intellectual) Benjamin Kunkel’s new book, Utopia or Bust: A Guide to the Present Crisis. The short collection of essays introduces readers to a clutch of writers, economists, and philosophers who are pioneering what Kunkel sees as the next generation of Marxism, a rejuvenated wave of political thought focused on providing an alternative to the ideology of neoliberalism and the “going capitalist crisis,” which, to Kunkel’s eyes as well as those of a number of other observers, is a visible failure that will only fail harder in the future.

“Most of my youth went by during the end of history,” Kunkel continues, referencing Francis Fukuyama’s 1990s formulation that Western liberal democracy constituted a final step toward a peaceful, level world without conflict (spoiler: It didn’t). That end of history, Kunkel writes, “has itself now come to an end.” He structures his depiction of this post-non-apocalyptic purgatory around two decisive events: 9/11 and the financial crisis. The former knocked Western hegemony off the seemingly inexorable victory that Fukuyama prophesied while the latter underlined the global economy’s ballooning inequality, prompting new social movements like Occupy and disenfranchising the young generation, of which Kunkel is both a leader and a chronicler (see his gently mocking portrayal in New York magazine for a depiction of that role). “It will probably be decisive that capitalism has forfeited the allegiance of many people who are today under thirty,” he writes.

While unemployment remains in the double digits, corporations sit on trillions of dollars in cash, Kunkel explains. This run-up in both capital and labor is the “present crisis” of the book’s title—the problem is that while capitalism creates an ongoing expansion of the two, the world is increasingly unable to turn the capital factors and labor into profit at the same rate that it used to, like a factory with a broken-down assembly line. Income from capital is reproducing faster than income from profit, breeding inequality. So what should be done to solve this problem?

Marxish dumps Marx’s difficult teleology in which socialism inevitably triumphs over capitalism, or "capitalist production begets, with the inexorability of a law of Nature, its own negation."

Kunkel’s book doesn’t quite propose answers; his next volume will, he promises. “The essays attempt no original contribution to Marxist, or what you might call Marxish, thought,” he writes. “They simply offer basic introductions” on the way to the “minimum utopian program” that society needs to implement in the face of rampant, exploitative capitalism.

THE "MARXISH" COINAGE IS a good way of referring to this next-generation critical political thought being put into practice by the left, a kind of functional Marxism. Marxish dumps Marx’s difficult teleology in which socialism inevitably triumphs over capitalism, or “capitalist production begets, with the inexorability of a law of Nature, its own negation.” Instead, thinkers like Kunkel and his subjects are using Marxism as a tool to deconstruct and mitigate the destructive effects of capitalism as we see them occurring in the world today.

The Marxish milieu has come to the fore lately in a collection of journals and magazines widely regarded as the forefront of contemporary intellectual writing in the United States. The thrice-yearly journal n+1, of which Kunkel is a co-founder, provided space for Marxish criticism, produced a broadsheet during the heyday of Occupy, and has served as an incubator for books about the financial crisis, office environments, and hipsters. The magazine also produces posters emblazoned with the suitably tongue-in-cheek-or-is-it slogan “Utopia in our time.”

If n+1 isn’t expressly political, Jacobin magazine (Kunkel is a contributing editor) and The New Inquiry, a Web-based journal, make it more explicit. Jacobin is “a leading voice of the American left, offering socialist perspectives on politics, economics, and culture.” Lately, it has made an impact with popular essays like Miya Tokumitsu’s “In the Name of Love,” taking down uncompensated labor made socially prestigious. The New Inquiry aims its critical barbs at pop culture, exploring the the political and economic subtexts of books, films, and television—see Bijan Stephen’s riff on rap and economics, “Capital Flows.”

Verso Books, which also co-published Utopia or Bust, is a branch of New Left Review, an influential political magazine launched in 1960. Along with Dissent, an older magazine founded in 1954 by a group of intellectuals including Norman Mailer and Meyer Schapiro that has been picking up steam lately by featuring younger writers, it represents the heritage of an older generation of leftist publishing projects. Together, these platforms offer not only a way to communicate these refreshed ideas to the wider world, but, perhaps more importantly, they give the new political generation a chance to connect with each other, to debate and solidify their ideas in public.


IF KUNKEL AND HIS cohort represent the rising tide of Marxish thought, they already have their conversation-starter. Thomas Piketty is a French economist whose recent book Capital in the Twenty-First Century is making headlines in mainstream media, selling out across the country, and making its author a household name all while openly name-checking Marx with its title. Piketty’s main argument—that capital is profitably reproducing faster than labor, thus rampantly increasing inequality—dovetails with Kunkel’s concerns and backs up the claim that inequality has pushed disenfranchised youth to consider Marxism anew. But Piketty isn’t necessarily Marxist, or even Marxish. Rather than a manifesto for change, his book has become a shibboleth that different political groups interpret in ways that reinforce their own ideologies.

Piketty hasn’t really read Marx, he told The New Republic, which argues that he has. The Financial Times argues that Piketty’s data is bad, but the consensus remains that the trend Piketty defines holds true. Other say that Piketty is at heart a capitalist. Conservatives deem this sudden popularity a “new Marxism,” or perhaps a “decaf Marxism,” a wolf dressed in the clothing of a milquetoast French academic.

It’s telling that though many debate who Piketty is, there are few quibbles over his thesis of inequality—the vital issue that’s behind a wide swath of political activity from Occupy to the Tea Party. What’s left to argue over is if inequality is fundamentally good or bad for society. If we conclude that widening the economic divide between rich and poor is not helping anyone, then why not try out Kunkel’s Marxish argument that neoliberalism has failed to become a final answer and we have to find a provisional alternative to outright capitalism? In the midst of our ongoing crisis, it’s not like we have much to lose.