Review – Carter, “The Price of Peace”

Zachary Carter, “The Price of Peace: Money, Democracy, and the Life of John Maynard Keynes” (2020) (read by Robert Petkoff) – I’ll admit: I’m behind on reviews. I listened to this a little while ago. And all I want to type is the name “KEYNES!” to the same cadence as the word “SHOTS!” in that one tens song where they just shout the word “SHOTS!” a lot. Admittedly, if one major economist of the twentieth century could be said to have engaged in “party rocking” it would probably be John Maynard Keynes. As journalist Zach Carter, author of this highly-regarded new book on the man and his ideas tells us, Keynes was a social butterfly who hung out with people thought of as cool, in his day, and got laid a lot with men and married one of the great ballerinas of his time. But, still, you all probably expect more content from me, and I hate to let people down.

Among other interesting innovations, Carter eschews the standard biography format. You don’t get a long section about Keynes’s childhood or education, or other bits of “setup” like you see in a lot of big, whang-dang-doodle biogs. Instead, we start with Keynes “folding his long legs” into a friend’s motorcycle’s sidecar and toodling off for London, leaving placid academic Cambridge for the hurly burly of WWI London. Someone needed to manage the empire’s economic situation in it’s time of need, and that would be a six foot seven queer math major, our Maynard. Also, the last third or so of the book takes place after Keynes died, in 1946 (at a relatively young 62). It discusses the future of Keynes’s ideas, their ascendancy, their modification — Carter would insist their corruption — their fall, their possible resurrection.

This is a rich and very well-written work aimed towards an educated general audience (I think of it as the NPR/Twitter demographic). We get into the ins and outs of Keynes’s career, which took him to the Versailles Conference, attempts to work at the Exchequer and manage the Depression, further work during the war, the Bretton Woods conference which laid the groundwork for the postwar global economic order, his personal life, encounters with figures as diverse as Virginia Woolf and Winston Churchill, on and on. Keynes had a really interesting life, on top of whatever else can be said about him. It’s hard to imagine contemporary big time academics matching it… if nothing else, they’re expected to work a lot harder at much dumber tasks than Keynes or academics of his generation (and Keynes was a hard worker) were…

Insofar as there’s a takeaway point beyond “this guy had a cool life,” it’s one I actually agree with, and which has been a minor hobby horse of mine for some time, even if I disagree with some of the valuations Carter has put on the point. Keynes, Carter argues, updated liberalism for the twentieth century. This is relevant in large part because Keynes’s opponents, led by Friedrich von Hayek (a contemporary of Keynes, whose attacks against his work Keynes treated with a patronizing — and often hilarious — encouragement, real “A for effort, Freddie” stuff), have tried to seize the mantle of “classical liberalism” against anything that smacked of Keynes. Anything that expands “government” can’t be liberalism because (insert what’s often a misreading of Mill, Locke, Adam Smith, whoever here), the “classical liberal” argument goes. This was always a stupid argument. In many respects, it reflects the Marx-envy of free market fanatics. They always wanted a Marx for their side, and have enlisted a roll call of figures, each less fitting or just more pathetic than the last — Smith, von Mises, von Hayek, Ayn Rand — to be that figure. But there just isn’t a prophet figure like that for them, and there isn’t a central set of canonical texts like there is in Marxism (you’d figure they’d appreciate that, “free thinkers” that they’re supposed to be!).

In fact, the closest to a Marx figure in liberalism is… John Maynard Keynes! This gets to the dumber, more relevant part of why the idea that “classical liberalism” really exists in a different ideological formation than postwar liberalism was always a sham. The point of liberalism was never small government or big government. It was always about eliding the basic, elemental conflict between redistributing power down the social scale towards the people who make society work, or keeping it where it is/retrenching it in the hands of ever smaller and more arbitrary elites. Law, markets, education, culture, numerous mixes and combinations of these and other things, liberals have proposed all of these as alternate axes and bases of politics than the basic struggle for power. Keynes, and his equivalents in liberal politics such as Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Lyndon Baines Johnson, thought that you could elide the power struggle through, basically, beating socialism at its own mass-appeal game. Keynes saw that the productive capacities of capitalism could make a decent life for everyone, and thought that fiscal policy could guarantee that life, thereby defusing social conflict and finally short-circuiting the struggle for power.

I’m a socialist and a Marxist. I believe that the history of humanity is the history of class struggle (some other stuff, too), and I want the working class to win, and I work towards that in my way. So it’s with that in mind when I say that the Keynesian vision is a tempting one… but maybe not as tempting as some would make out. Maybe it’s just the fighter in me, but I have noticed the political deactivation that the Keynesian future promises. We’ll all have so much leisure and time for art (Keynes was a great art lover, and envisioned everyone doing community theater, which is cute) we’ll just let the experts carry on with things! I don’t like that. Carter makes clear that Keynes saw most form of political agitation — from the October Revolution to his friend, writer Lytton Strachey, handing him a letter protesting Keynes’s involvement in WWI and stalking out of a dinner date — as essentially tragic, to say nothing of low-class. I will never believe that political struggle will ever stop, as long as we’re recognizably human (zap me up into the post-human energy hive mind, if it comes to that!), and wouldn’t want it to. “It’s all in the game,” as a beloved figure of early twenty-first century fiction put it.

Carter also makes clear that Keynes’s ideas never had a golden age. There was never a point where governments used countercyclical fiscal policy via investment in public goods to create a stable economic system for the benefit of a broad public. There was never enough money put into the New Deal or the Great Society for it to do that. The massive amounts of money poured into WWII sparked the recovery from the Depression and proved Keynes’s point about deficit spending. But that out terrible ideas into the heads of the politicians around, and we can call that “military Keynesianism.” Pour money into the military and boost employment and public purchasing power that way! No empowering the working class (even by accident, by giving them more leisure time by, say, cutting work time), less vulnerable to red-baiting (the American Keynesians were mercilessly hounded by McCarthyites until nerds like Paul Samuelson promised they’d be apolitical good boys), lots of shiny guns. This was a parody of what Keynes, a man who hated war, had in mind. But with its cowed working class, crucial role for (similarly cowed, but in a different way) experts, and attempt to evade, rather than crush, entrenched powers of wealth and bigotry, it was a parody as faithful to the spirit of the original as anything Weird Al ever produced.

Keynes supposedly “came back” in 2008 after the financial crisis but we all, Carter included, knew what that meant in that soppy cardboard political context- giveaways for the rich. The world might have, sort of, gotten one of Keynes’s basic points — “the market isn’t self-regulating any more than ‘nature’ is, stupid!” — but the political power to do something useful about that observation wasn’t there. It’s not just a matter of Keynes’s old enemies, the Austrian school types who insist on the self-regulation of markets, having seized much of the intellectual high ground. It’s that Keynesianism was always ambivalent about the forces — including a real, fighting left — that made it possible to even get a sham version of it like military Keynesianism going in the first place.

Basically, if you want to get what Keynes promised, you need to fight for what Marx wanted, and if you’re doing that, why not just take the whole fucking pie? Especially when you know, now, given the history (they should have known in the twentieth century, too- they were powerful but often foolish, where we’re all too wise and weak), that the right will wait as long as they have to to take the power back if you don’t break the base of their power, no matter what concessions you make to their little fee-fees? I think Carter would answer “so you don’t get mass atrocities ala Stalin,” more or less, and also a more robust idea of freedom and possibility than obtained in places like the USSR, even post-Stalin. I hear that, though it’s not like followers of Keynes-era liberalism, like LBJ or Richard “we are all Keynesians now” Nixon were strangers to mass death… well, that’s not the “real” Keynesianism, but the military mutation, Carter might say in an unguarded moment (he strikes me as much too slick to write something so gormless if he had time to think)… but then what’s the “real” socialism, etc etc.

Anyway! This was a pretty good book. Sometimes it rubbed me the wrong way in terms of petting expertise-driven liberalism and pooh-poohing radical politics, but I guess I’m sensitive. “The price of peace” is an interesting title, especially given how so many, especially but not exclusively on the right, think “paying for peace” equals appeasement equals Nazis equals bad. It could very well be even if leftists wanted to pay “the price of peace” (and it looks like we are more willing to play these games, and basically have been since the seventies or earlier), the right may very well not let us. Who’s to say? Along with whatever else it is, this book, like the tv show “Mad Men,” is also an elegy for a lost moment of mid-century ambition and cool, warts and all (Keynes had plenty, including that non-obsessive, partial, but nasty strain of upper class British antisemitism). Just how lost is it? I tend to think deeply lost, but who does that stop? *

Review – Carter, “The Price of Peace”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s