Bloomsbury Bolsheviki and other topics

Long-time followers of this blog know that I’ve been promising, for several years, a piece on Smith and a piece on Keynes. I’m happy to say that they are finally out in successive issues of the New York Review of Books. The editors there were extremely generous with space, allowing me, across two consecutive issues and some 13,000 words, to write what has become a two-part article about these two economists.

Looking over my notes, I see that my first note to myself about the piece I had hoped to write was in February 2020. So it’s taken me a really long time! But it was time well spent. Not only did I love digging into these two thinkers, but I’ve come up, finally, with the next book project. I’ll have more to say about that later, but the basic idea is to re-read all the great economists as political thinkers, to understand the modern economy as the equivalent of what the polis was in ancient Greece or the church was in medieval Europe: the primary space of our collective being.

Here is the Smith piece:

It’s no accident that Adam Smith was the first great economist as well as our most acute psychologist of the enlarged form of “fellow feeling” that went, in the eighteenth century, by the name of sympathy. Once upon a time, economics and sympathy were one and the same. Yet something got lost on the way to the market. Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776) opens with pleasant stories of workers cooperating in a pin factory and quick-witted boys scrambling over steam engines, inventing labor-saving devices for pistons and boilers, so they can leave the machines unattended and rush off to play with their mates. It closes with scenes of stunted and stupefied laborers, colonial slavers, premonitions of violent revolt from indigenous peoples dispossessed of their lands, and a monstrous and modern form of sovereignty called the East India Company. Sympathy is nowhere to be found; profit occludes all.

If one terminus of commercial society was the blinding of the self to the other, a second was the engulfment of the self by the other. An isolate on a desert island, Smith observes, thinks clearly about the contribution of material goods to his enjoyment and ease. Lacking the mirror of society, in which a bauble is reflected back to us as a useful good, the castaway is less likely to forsake the convenience of a toothpick or a nail clipper for the prize of wealth. Only in society do riches take on value and become an object of our labors—not because they bring us greater material satisfaction but because “they more effectually gratify that love of distinction so natural to man.”

That pendulum swing, between the pathologies of insufficient and excessive feeling for the other, haunts modern economics. Too little feeling gives rise to dispossession. Too much feeling warps the self’s relationship to material goods. Smith and John Maynard Keynes are the great theorists of this dynamic. Karl Marx, W.E.B. Du Bois, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Thorstein Veblen wrote about it, too. But Smith and Keynes are unique. Conscious of the pathologies of sympathy, they still retain the ideal of the market as a sphere of sociability. That lends their work a special poignancy today, when we are again asking the question that once agitated so many: What is the purpose of the economy, and to what extent does it reflect our social selves?

And here is the Keynes piece:

Much of Keynes’s economics, like Smith’s, is a sustained exercise in empathy-building, attempting to create on paper the solidarity that has failed to materialize in practice. But where Smith thought there were forms of self-interested, profit-driven action that would gradually orient the self to the other, Keynes could not take that orientation for granted. In “modern conditions,” he wrote, the individualism of the Smithian economy was at best no longer applicable and at worst a “mortal disease.” A path that works for me when I take it alone may work against me if everyone takes it, too. The modern economy is littered with examples of this, yet knowledge of the social dimension of economic action—that we do not choose alone, that our actions have effects on others—has not yet penetrated our decisions in the market. The task of the economist is to create the social knowledge of the other that Smith hoped would arise from the act of seeking profit for oneself.

In politics, Walter Benjamin wrote, “it is not private thinking but…the art of thinking in other people’s heads that is decisive.” The power of Keynes’s economics is that it assigns that art of public thinking not to the statesman or citizen but to the economist and to ordinary economic actors. This was increasingly true of Keynes’s work throughout the 1920s and 1930s, culminating in the climactic passages in The General Theory where he addresses the relationship between saving and spending, investment and enterprise.

Last, if you’re still up for more writing, I did a lovely interview with the New Book Network, which can be found here. Some highlights:

Q: Which deceased writer would you most like to meet and why?

A: None of them. With one exception, every writer whom I respect and admire that I’ve met has been a letdown. On the page, they’re curious and captivating. In person, they’re awkward, I’m awkward. It’s draining. I only want to know them through their writing.

Q: Is there a book you read as a student that had a particularly profound impact on your trajectory as a scholar?

A: Whenever people answer this question, they talk about the books that had a positive impact on them, that they’ve internalized and made their own. I find that answer suspicious.

The books that had the greatest impact are those we loved as students—and have spent our lives trying to get away from. At some point, we came to think that these books are in error and that we were in error for loving them. There’s something discomfiting, morally discomfiting, about our being so besotted with those books; it seems like a deficiency of character. We try to get as far away from them as we can. It’s like a relationship you had when you were younger that you’d like to think you’ve outgrown. But, of course, we haven’t outgrown those books because we spend our lives running away from them, working through our attraction to them.

For me, that book is, hands down,…

Q: What is your favorite book or essay to assign to students and why?

A: I love texts that are challenging enough to require interpretive footwork but not so abstruse that I do all that footwork for the students. I used to love teaching Marx’s Capital, but it requires so much advance layering on my part, that the energy of collective discovery, where students and I figure out the text together, is lost. If students aren’t involved in the collective work of interpretation, it’s not the classroom experience I want them to have.

Here are some books where that doesn’t happen.

Thanks for reading, and hope everyone is doing well and is healthy.

One Comment

  1. jonnybutter December 1, 2022 at 2:38 pm | #

    Your pieces, and now I see one by Tobi Haslett too…I have not subscribed to NYRB in a long time, but I guess I have to now! Glad to hear we get another book. Best to all

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