TIRED AND SLIGHTLY TOASTED after a long and draining dinner party, Virginia Woolf nevertheless kept a promise to her diary, recording her impression of the evening while it was still fresh. Fellow novelist Elizabeth Bowen arrived very late — “rayed like a zebra, silent and stuttering” — leaving Woolf the lone woman at a table ringed with notoriously self-assured men. This, combined with her fatigue, may explain why her account of their conversation was curt and occasionally cruel. T. S. Eliot, she wrote, was “like a great toad with jeweled eyes.” Her nephew, poet Julian Bell, was “trivial: like dogs in their lusts.” Even John Maynard Keynes, for whom she held an enduring affection, she portrayed on this occasion as bloviating and hypocritical. After mocking Christian rituals, Keynes, perhaps lightly lubricated himself, reminisced at length about a chapel ceremony held in his honor at King’s College. Woolf’s question — “Did this society, this coming together move [you?]” — is the elocutionary equivalent of an exasperated eye-roll. [1]

The dinner was held explicitly to discuss Eliot’s After Strange Gods: A Primer of Modern Heresy (1934), which collected a series of lectures given the previous year at University of Virginia. Keynes, at the time among Britain’s most prominent public intellectuals, was preparing for his own trip to the United States, during which he would reassert himself as an “economic heretic” and preview his work-in-progress, The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money (1936). Eliot had recently conceded that they were living “in the age of the economist” when even poets were “compelled to think about economics,” so it was, perhaps, inevitable that the discussion would turn after dinner to what Woolf called “the economic question.” “This worst of all,” she wrote, “and founded on a silly mistake of old Mr. Ricardo’s which Maynard given time will put right. And then there will be no more economic stress, and then — ?”

It is hard to know how to read this lacuna in Woolf’s account. Is her faith that Keynes could eliminate “economic stress” sincere or sarcastic? Is she reflecting Keynes’s own ambivalence about utopian prognostications? In either case, her impression that Keynes was working on an audacious political economy designed to save the world from audacious political economy perfectly encapsulates a central paradox of Keynesianism, as elucidated by Geoff Mann’s In The Long Run We Are All Dead: Keynesianism, Political Economy and Revolution (2017). Keynes expected The General Theory to radically remake his profession, though not in the ways Mann demonstrates it has. In Mann’s account, Keynesianism ultimately helped sever economists from their own rich tradition of heretical political philosophy and reduced them to platitudinous apologists for plutocracy.

Keynes hoped to dispel principles long accepted as gospel. He also hoped public policymakers, with his help, might eventually end economic insecurity, at least in “the western world.” The manic ambition of The General Theory mirrored the unexamined hypocrisy Woolf observed in Keynes’s attitude toward religion. In his effort to discredit the dangerous utopian promises of David Ricardo, Keynes labored toward his own utopian ends. He promised to solve “the economic problem” he defined as “want and poverty and the economic struggle between classes and nations.” [2] After “reducing the economic problem, which now absorbs our moral and material energies, to a position of secondary importance” he foresaw a future when “the arena of the heart and head will be occupied, or reoccupied, by our real problems.” He was seeking the economics at the end of economics.

Keynes argues that classical (and neoclassical) economic principles depend on a set of invalid assumptions about aggregate demand and employment equilibrium, assumptions that Ricardo adopted precisely because they yielded an ideologically coherent and politically palatable doctrine. [3] “The classical theory represents the way in which we should like our economy to behave,” not the “economy in which we happen to live.” A few months before he dined with Woolf, Keynes wrote that Ricardo was “a disaster to the progress of economics” who “constrained the subject for a full hundred years in an artificial groove.” It was Ricardo who most directly inspired the infamous lines near the end of The General Theory: “The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else.” 

Keynes believed that by correcting Ricardo’s “silly mistake,” he would reverse a century of regression in economic thought. But his projections about what his profession might make of this paradigm shift were neither precise nor consistently optimistic. At the end of The Applied Theory of Money (1930), he anticipates a “new phase of economic science” distinguished by its “effective contact with the real world,” but acknowledges that this new economic theory will lack many of the convenient claims — to consistency, to elegance, to precision — which make classical doctrine persuasive. The General Theory would assure the profession a sustainable future, but discourage economists from trying to rule the world with their ideas. Instead they would, like engineers, analyze and manage existing infrastructure, or, like architects, design specialized markets in which profit was subordinate to other motives. Their technocratic competence would be proportional to their anonymity. He said, “If economists could manage to get themselves thought of as humble, competent people, on a level with dentists, that would be splendid!” This, as much as any technical detail of The General Theory, was a hard sell to a profession historically ruled by shameless self-promoters — Keynes not least among them.

I. This is the way the world ends.

In April 1934, Woolf found her famous interlocutors acknowledging the Faustian bargain of modernity. Each enjoyed international celebrity inconceivable to previous generations of poets and economists, but they also acknowledged that the ever-increasing speed, variety, and accessibility of modern media put them in danger, as Eliot said, of “surviving their popularity.” Both described the curse of witnessing their own historical irrelevance with the same appropriately antiquated term: desuetude. Woolf found them, in other words, contemplating ends. Motivated by simultaneous midlife crises, Eliot and Keynes considered not only the legacy of their own works, but also the fragile future of their chosen fields, and a fragility yet more existential, an End upon which they had been fixated with mutually reinforcing urgency for the past two decades: the end of civilization.

Relying heavily on a dog-eared copy of Keynes’s Economic Consequences of the Peace (1919), Eliot had managed Lloyds Bank’s exposure to the economic volatility of postwar Europe. As he cataloged the devastation of the Great War with the detachment of an auditor but the ear of a lyricist, it was Keynes’s bitter forecast from “the dead season of our fortunes” which echoed the maddening mantra he would make modernism’s darkest nursery rhyme, “The Hollow Men” (1925). In the no less apocalyptic After Strange Gods, the buzzard king of the interbellum WASPs warned that liberalism itself was becoming “the dry tree [that] should be put to the axe.” He prescribed heaping doses of guilt, shame, and self-doubt, a trinity of resources Eliot believed, perhaps naïvely, Christianity made perpetually renewable. [4]

Keynes thought After Strange Gods “brought up again one of the primal questions,” but was unwilling to use macroeconomic and geopolitical insecurity as an excuse for Victorian nostalgia or born-again Anglicanism. Woolf records his joke at Eliot’s expense: “[I] would be inclined not to demolish Christianity if it were proved that without it morality is impossible.” But even the proud heretic admitted, after reading Eliot’s lectures, “I begin to see that our generation […] owed a great deal to our fathers’ religion […] We had the best of both worlds. We destroyed Christianity and yet had its benefits.”

But “dogmatic theology” was “a very cheap escape from the problem,” Keynes told Eliot. Neither would admit to there being any clear distinction between Protestant piety and the fealty of “slaves of some defunct economist.” The feelings and behaviors historically associated with religion were, in 1934, as likely to be evoked by economic evangelists as ecclesiastics. Eliot credits Keynes with precociously recognizing that “communism is a religion.” “Capitalism too is at the same time a religion,” Keynes said as early as 1925. [5] He worried that if economists continued to pose as both priests and scientists they would have to concede, as Eliot did, that “science is a vague term covering various ‘sciences,’ one of which, by the way, is theology.” Keynes observed in “the ordinary man” a “growing unwillingness to accord to economists that measure of respect which he gives to other groups of scientists.” If economics remained in Ricardo’s “artificial groove,” he feared it would only be remembered as a curious cult or amusing accident of intellectual history, like phrenology or alchemy. [6]

Mann draws the title and conceit of In The Long Run We Are All Dead from a famous passage in A Tract on Monetary Reform (1923). “This long run,” Keynes writes, referring to his neoclassical colleagues’ faith in the inevitable return to equilibrium, “is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead. Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us that when the storm is long past the ocean is flat again.” Mann is not interested in what Keynes calls the “moral of this discussion,” the concept of “Keynesian stimulus,” as it is commonly called: how central banks can correct short-term instabilities by adjusting reserve requirements or printing cash. Rather, for Mann, the quote foreshadows what he sees as the central, overlooked tenets of Keynes’s mature thought, the trifold ends of his General Theory: 1.) that the purpose of economics must be more than the “useless task” of forecasting an eventual, potentially post-apocalyptic return to equilibrium, 2.) that inherent and irreparable flaws in capitalism — particularly, its propensity to produce “poverty in the midst of plenty” — ensure that civilization remains on a perpetual path toward “tempestuous seasons” characterized by crisis and possible collapse, and 3.) that nothing necessarily survives the “storm” of capitalist self-destruction or Marxist revolution. Anticipating a rapid and violent unraveling of civil society under communism, Keynes labels it “catastrophism,” but he is no more optimistic about the free market, pointing out that its only enduring economic equilibrium is extinction.

Hoping that an economics which treated the messiness and carnality of human behavior as part of its analysis would be freed from persistent false analogies with both physics and metaphysics, Keynes reconstituted political economy as a dynamic, creative response to the constantly evolving cataclysms of capitalism. “Civilization is a thin and precarious crust,” he wrote in the posthumously published “My Early Beliefs” (1938). Mann calls this “the fundamental Keynesian proposition in a phrase.”

The Keynesian economist is a Sisyphean hero who must constantly and fastidiously restore this crust, which is always already flaking away. Capitalism, the lemon of an economic system upon which civil society nonetheless depends, runs on “the personality and the will of a very few, and [is] only maintained by rules and conventions skillfully put across and guilefully preserved.”

By asserting these revised tenets, Mann reconciles many disparate figures — Paul Krugman, Hyman Minsky, Joan Robinson, Paul Samuelson, both J. K. Galbraiths — who identify themselves as Keynesians, but disagree frequently and vehemently with each other. Mann also insistently “outs” contemporary economists (notably, Thomas Piketty) who are Keynesian by his definition, whether they admit it or not. He traces the lineage of Keynesianism backward, not only through Thomas Robert Malthus and G. E. Moore, whose influence Keynes acknowledged, but also Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Thomas Hobbes, and, most unexpectedly, the Jacobin revolutionary, Maximilien Robespierre. Remarkable as this genealogy is, Mann’s account is more provocative for what it implies, and sometimes outright asserts, about contemporary economics and the precarious civilization it promises to preserve. Keynes offered crucial justifications for elevating and expanding the roles economic experts play in statecraft. In return, he expected them to abandon their most specious claims to positivism and their providential faith in laissez-faire. His successors welched on their end of this bargain, to put it mildly.

Via the neoclassical synthesis which followed closely on Keynes’s death in 1946, the discipline of economics integrated select innovations from The General Theory into the existing models preferred by policymakers and pedagogues. The neoliberal consensus, which emerged from the University of Chicago, various political think tanks, and presidential cabinets during the latter decades of the 20th century, appropriates Keynesian principles when they are convenient, to protect the holy Macguffin of macroeconomic growth. Both the neoclassical synthesis and the neoliberal consensus are spectacular perversions of Keynes’s thought. They condition economists to argue, without irony, in their roles as professors, private consultants, and high-ranking public employees, that they have special expertise in setting economic policy, but also that the most reasonable economic policy is no economic policy. Mainstream economists acknowledge their inability to predict the effects of economic policy in order to emphasize that when the economic policies they endorse have adverse economic consequences, nobody is to blame. But they still contend that in moments of economic crisis, only economists possess the special expertise to fix a failing economy. This is the Ponzi scheme of contemporary economics. Whether or not Keynes imagined it this way, the primary project of the political economy he birthed has not been eliminating economic insecurity or euthanizing plutocracy, but rather fine-tuning economic policy so it maximizes upward redistribution of wealth and downward redistribution of risk without inciting revolution.

“The same essential problem obsesses all Keynesians,” Mann writes, “the political sustainability of modern (‘bourgeois’) privilege.” The job of the contemporary economist is to preserve “poverty in the midst of plenty,” but not transgress the tipping point past which too many people will “understand themselves as having nothing left to lose” and embrace the Hobbesian state of nature, however brutish. According to Mann, Keynes promised what Robespierre called “revolution without revolution,” gradual progress by expert governance toward equitable economy, thus precluding the need for proletarian coup d’état. Keynesians have thus far effectively forestalled violent revolution, but have largely abandoned the egalitarian half of Keynes’s promise.

II. Forget the deep sea swell and the profit and loss.

Keynes’s maritime metaphor for economic equilibrium — “when the storm is long past the ocean is flat again” — is one of many in the history of economic thought that draws upon the hydrologic cycle. The figurative fluidity of economy is so foundational for those who study it, that the aptness of the analogy is rarely interrogated. We take for granted that capital flows, pools, streams, freezes, circulates, stagnates, and trickles down. It is converted to currency, which can either float or bloat. Economists’ rhetorical “liquidity preference” descends not only from mercantilism, but also the scientific revolution. As early as 1752, David Hume described what would come to be known as equilibrium (from the same root as aquatic) by direct analogy with hydrodynamics, a field favored by his naturalist idols. Philip Mirowski diagnoses the contagion of “physics envy” in neoclassical economics, but Hume’s enduring hydrologic conceit reveals that economists’ aspirations for empirical elegance have always been motivated by lust for Newtonian prestige.

The neoclassical economists who made sure Ricardo “was accepted by the city, by statesmen and by the academic world,” as Keynes put it, shared with other Victorian quacks a talent for persuasive scientism. Haunted by specters of revolution in 19th-century Europe, the secular priests of bourgeois capital made an urgent effort to carve out safe spaces for themselves in the academy. Disinterestedness and mathematical rigor were centerpieces of a symbolically “depoliticized” economics which made its practitioners less likely targets of revolutionary animus. This survivalist embrace of scientism transformed a discipline which had been populated by partisan polemicists into one supposedly dominated by positivists and empiricists. During the “age of the economist,” the profession positioned itself as the preferred source for public policy consulting by claiming to be the most science-y of social sciences. As the symbiotic relationship between economics departments and government institutions formalized, economists increasingly enjoyed a rare combination of professional prestige, political power, and personal profit. However sincere economists may have been in their initial appropriation of the scientific ethos, it persists in much contemporary economic discourse as nothing more than an affectation preserving access and influence. Pseudo-scientific economists are paid to give partisan agendas the disguise of data and determinism.

Mann, like Keynes before him, brings evidence and eloquence to the above critique, based on “the ridiculous epistemological and pseudoscientific bases of modern economics,” “its self-consciously apolitical posturing,” and “undeserved privilege.” But though he contends it is “undeniably all absolutely true,” he also observes that it has been pursued ad nauseam with little discernible effect by a legion of heterodox economists since Keynes. Most importantly, Mann complains that “attacking the science of economics […] is a substitute, and not a very good one, for attacking its politics.” Those who chastise economists for doing bad science implicitly concede that there is (or could be) good economic science, thereby accepting the prioritization of unexamined economic rationales by corporations and governments. Mann states, “[T]here is no modern ‘economics’ that is not always also political economy.” Yet, the cruel poetry of neoclassical polemic is that its proselytizers, even as they argue that any account of human activity that is not premised on crass self-interest is naïve, claim to be disinterested scientists serving the public good. Mann starkly shows that Keynes saw through this charade. However, like many Keynesians since, Keynes himself performed and permitted pseudo-scientific and positivist postures he knew to be absurd because it was “disciplinary treason” not to, and was thus often complicit with those he wished to admonish.

Keynes promised “the day is not far off when the economic problem will take the back seat where it belongs.” More than eight decades later, economic problems, economic struggles, and economists remain so firmly entrenched, it is hard for many of us to even imagine what they would take a back seat to. [7] Mann questions whether his discipline can ever mature beyond the “too easy, too useless” task of forecasting an eventual return to equilibrium which Keynes mocked in 1923. If we accept Keynes’s assertion that economics spent most of the 19th century in a pointless “artificial groove” and also “[t]he sad, unspeakably sad, fact about modern economics,” as Deirdre McCloskey puts it, “that much of what it claims to have accomplished since 1945 is a boys’ game in a sandbox,” we find ourselves looking at nearly two centuries during which economics has wasted larger proportions of our money, talent, and attention with each passing generation. One is tempted, as one approaches the end of Mann’s book, to wonder whether the “Queen of the Social Sciences” is a dry cellar, a cactus land, a paralyzed force, a headpiece filled with straw. What part of the record of economics should persuade us economists aren’t altogether expendable? [8] What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow, out of this stony rubbish?

Mann began working on In The Long Run We’re All Dead during the 2007–’09 financial meltdown, when Keynes was predictably in vogue, as he always is during crises. His object was to demonstrate that Keynesian remedies, though they prevent chaos, also exacerbate capitalism’s inherent inefficiency and inequality. [9] After two centuries of sociopathic political economy, interrupted by fleeting periods of remorseful Keynesianism, the “precarious crust” of civilization is held together by an absurd adhesion of securitization, creative accounting, debt cycling, bureaucratic symbiosis, legal fictions, and magical thinking. If Keynesian countermeasures, habitually pressed into service only for as long as economic insecurity threatens social order, eventually do fail, many long-dormant fissures in the global economic system may turn suddenly, simultaneously volcanic. If peaceful “revolution without revolution” is not realized soon, the violent revolution long deferred may be.

Satirizing Keynes’s optimistic open letter from the Great Depression, “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren” (1930), Mann writes, “My greatest hope for my children is that their future will not turn out to be as disastrous as I fear.” His whimper at the end of the world is an admission that he doesn’t know whether there is anything in economics, including the system of democratic capitalism it takes for granted, worth saving. However, “despite my recognition that he helped save capitalism and liberalism, both of which I oppose,” Mann concedes that his book “is not the radical destruction of Keynes I planned it to be.” He admits that the process of writing it revealed “the reluctant, even repressed, Keynesian in myself.” Mann boils the essence of Keynesianism down to a deceptively simple question: is it worth risking civilization to make it better? “The radical kernel at the heart of Keynesianism” is the humble admission that “we simply do not know.” Faced with such uncertainty, we default to preserving the status quo. Or, as Eliot put it, in a poem which Keynes adored:

And you wait for a knock and the turning of a lock for you know
the hangman’s waiting for you.
And perhaps you’re alive
And perhaps you’re dead
Hoo ha ha
Hoo ha ha
HOO
HOO
HOO

¤

Matt Seybold is assistant professor of American Literature & Mark Twain Studies at Elmira College, editor of MarkTwainStudies.org, and co-editor of the forthcoming Routledge Companion to Literature & Economics.

¤

[1] Craufurd Goodwin wrote several excellent studies of the intersections between Keynes’s cultural affinities and his political economy, including a brief chronicle of this under-explored relationship, “Maynard and Virginia: A Personal and Professional Friendship” (2007).

[2] Eighty-five years to the day after Keynes penned these words, Donald Trump was elected on a tide of economic resentments, many bred of economic struggles similar to those of the 1930s. Although Mann’s book went to press before the 2016 election, it contains an awkwardly prescient indictment of establishment Democrats, “who claim to speak for ‘everyday people,’” but also display “a generalized distrust of the people” which makes one wonder whether “the point of participatory progressivism is usually to elicit a response consonant with what progressives want the grassroots to say.”

[3] For a more thorough explanations of Ricardo’s “silly mistake,” see Chapter Eight of Mann, Chapter Three of The General Theory, or Chapter 12 of Essays in Biography (1931).

[4] The intersection of Eliot’s aesthetic and religious conversions is explored by John Whittier-Ferguson in Mortality and Form in Late Modernist Literature (2014).

[5] The conflicted theological and technocratic imperatives of the discipline in the dark, Ricardian century Keynes mourns are delineated in Supritha Rajan’s A Tale of Two Capitalisms (2015).

[6] One of the curiosities of Keynes’s career is his fastidious collecting and historicizing of documents from Isaac Newton’s “elaboratory” at Cambridge. In the years before publishing Principia (1687), Newton performed, like “an unbridled addict,” alchemical experiments “wholly magical and wholly devoid of scientific value.” I expect Keynes fixated on this phase in Newton’s career because he feared he might also be stuck “with one foot in the Middle Ages and one foot treading a path for modern science.”

[7] In Undoing the Demos (2015), Wendy Brown explains how neoliberalism has made the economic rationales so dominant, many cannot even recognize valid alternatives. Economics has become synonymous with reason.

[8] Ironically, though Donald Trump is an outrageous personification of the unsustainable accumulation mechanism Piketty formalizes as r > g, he and his surrogates have been ham-handedly raising the same question, by diminishing the role of the Council of Economic Advisors, by dismissing CBO scores as “opinions,” and otherwise characterizing economic analysts as part of a conspiratorial “deep state.” These positions might be meritless, but the mistrust of economists on which they prey is not.

[9] Ben Bernanke, Timothy Geithner, and Henry Paulson famously relied on the rhetoric of Keynesian apocalypse to justify the Troubled Asset Relief Program, nationalizing AIG, insuring the Bear Stearns fire sale, and other extraordinary interventions during the 2008 meltdown.