Where exactly between reform and revolution does Adam Tooze fall? A somewhat ridiculous way to pose the question, no doubt, but one that might nag the reader of Crashed. Tooze’s exceptional history of the aftermath of 2008 combines a certain respect for technocratic crisis-management with a withering review of its narrow-minded hubris that, for Europeans especially, has been nothing but a grinding disaster. In a book that is mostly about the great men of the world economy, he makes frequent note of the disastrous social consequences that barely seem to enter into their calculations. Their failure to see the whole picture, to see the inescapably political dimensions of the decisions they want to render as hard economic matters, results in things like the choking misery of American mortgage-holders, Greek pensioners, and twenty-somethings across the globe. I was struck by a recent interview in which Tooze noted that the United States and France had similar, somewhat-better responses to the 2008 financial crisis due to their similar degrees of “elite closure”—that is, elites who come from the same tight circles and share common dogmas. The uneasy—and unanswered—question is, well, is that a good or a bad thing?
The answer suggested in Crashed is “both,” and Tooze takes up the matter more directly in a characteristically stimulating review of Geoff Mann’s new book on Keynes. Mann, according to Tooze, reframes Keynes as a radical reformer, an occasional Bolshevik sympathizer who was nevertheless “steeped in the Burkean critique of the French Revolution, which insisted that, however compelling the case for it, revolution must ultimately lead to disaster.” Keynes’ merit is that, as opposed to “old” liberals, he was a political-economic thinker who makes economic management follow from, rather than drive, political needs:
One way of putting the Keynesian question is how much political intervention in the economy is necessary to build a platform of prosperity stable enough to support democratic politics. The answer lies in what Mann calls ‘Machiavellian’ tactics, in which the boundaries of the political are treated as malleable. The art of modern government does not consist in drawing up everlasting constitutions that permanently demarcate the line between the political and the unpolitical, but in continuously defining and redefining what does and does not need to be governed.
Tooze goes on to elaborate Keynesianism (or Mann’s view of Keynesianism) as a “situational and practical awareness,” a flexible philosophy of recalibration that risks “abandoning oneself to flux without any long-term goal”—as neoliberals claim was the problem with the economic governance of the 1970s. Mann pairs Keynes with Hegel as two thinkers shaped by the rise of capitalism and the trauma of revolution, thinkers whose political thought “is impelled by an apprehension of the deep tensions within modernity, a highly dynamic socio-economic system that perpetually produces poverty and crises that it cannot overcome but which it contains by means of political ordering and reordering.” The result is a kind of permanent impasse, a “radical reformism that refuses the possibility of genuine revolution.” Tooze finds this compelling because recent history has shown that we need technocrats rushing into the breach to solve crises, people who are able to engage in “reasoned arbitration over the proper boundaries of the political” insulated from the “passions of mass democracy.”
But the moment Tooze seems to come out in favor of liberal technocracy, he shifts back to his other foot, on which the very same is responsible for our grim present. Mann and Keynes run into the problem of “the varieties of technocratic reason,” that is to say, the reality that the relationship of Keynesian macroeconomics to democracy was a historic accident. Keynes himself realized that his theory was (in his words) “more easily adapted to the conditions of a totalitarian state.” For Tooze, China is world history’s greatest Keynesian experiment, one which rests on a political compromise of “accept and support the regime in exchange for growth and social transformation.” Technocratic Keynesianism is, then, fraught with dangers: it can deliver the kind of blinkered judgment that produced the European sovereign debt crisis, it can be articulated to political authoritarianism, and, perhaps most ominous of all, it rests on an ultimately delusional commitment to perpetual growth which looks more and more certain to be bringing about humanity’s end.
It seems to me that that the radical-Keynesian perspective evades crucial problems of power by putting the people—the supposed subject of democracy—in the clichéd box of “passion” and dangerous insurrection in much the same way the neoliberal technocrats do. While Tooze is perhaps our most brilliant critic of neoliberal technocrats, he doesn’t always highlight the deeper reasons why they get things so wrong. We can blame the economics they’re taught, their insular smugness, their lack of interest in or knowledge of history, their unwillingness to think politically, all of which might be right. But one reason these things might be the case is the effective absence of democracy, the lack of any meaningful form of popular accountability that they enjoy. They are already insulated to engage in “reasoned arbitration over the proper boundaries of the political,” but those boundaries have been drawn so rigidly and in a configuration so opposed to the general well-being precisely because of the accumulated class power of the economic interests to which they are most responsive. As Tooze well recognizes, Keynesian radical-reformism places an arguably irresponsible degree of faith in the technocrats to be far-seeing, benevolent guardians. What about the awful lot of the time when they aren’t?
Though the technocratic perspective takes no particular interest in popular agency, perhaps a charitable reading would be to say that Keynesian managerialism accepts mounting activism or social upheaval as healthy and necessary to achieving a rebalancing at the top, to force the managers to respond. It’s possible that such would bring about a balance of economic management and democratic agency that citizens in Western societies would again find acceptable. But I would suggest that this is—especially in the present moment—unjustifiably optimistic about who the economic managers are and who they really answer to. The fact that during the Keynesian era, they saw fit to require capital’s tolerance of a social-democratic compromise put a democratic sheen on their role of managing the long-term interests of the ruling classes. It was, in the end, a relatively short period in which the popular masses in Europe and the United States found this compromise acceptable before they once again were demanding that their participation be rendered more substantial. Keynesianism was a kindler, gentler Stalinism that had the unfortunate dimension of letting capitalist economic power live to assert itself once again, which it promptly did once popular demands—both political and economic—grew unacceptable. I’m not sure the dark period that followed is one the people will soon forget.
Tooze doesn’t say much about Mann’s vision of what “a radical politics of the environment might involve beyond the Keynesianism of climate-change management, carbon pricing and solar subsidies.” This is perhaps all the more reason that a democratic revolution of some sort is the essential precondition of facing the climate apocalypse. It must be in the United States, which, “declining hegemon” though it is, is the only plausible vehicle in the present geopolitical order for socialism and (then) a radical climate response. The latter simply will not happen without a radical breaking of the power mammoth global economic interests wield over our decisionmaking, a break much easier to envision in states that have undergone a dramatic—if not to say insurrectionary—political transformation. Though Tooze seems to limit his vision of revolution to Bolshevik-style insurrection, he still hints that it may be necessary: “As the world melts before our eyes, what does Keynesian managerialism have to offer our children and grandchildren? Don’t we need a revolution?” All of the options on the table seem to be versions of radical-reformism faced with likely disaster; the devil remains in the details. But one option we can be relatively sure will fail is one that continues to follow the Keynesian habit of sidelining the people.