Return to Keynes?

Antonio Negri

Paris, 20th February 2009. Translation by Arianna Bove

John Maynard Keynes was a gentleman, that is, a honest bourgeois, not a petit-bourgeois like Proudhon, or an ideologue, but an easy man, and when political economy was still concerned with the political ordering of market and society every classical economist knew this. Keynes thought that knowledge functioned factually and that - in the culture of pragmatism - a teleological dispositif needed to be brought into the analysis of series of phenomena and their assemblage, that by organising the order of facts one could cautiously and efficiently construct the order of reason. In his case, this dispositif consisted in securing the reproduction of the capitalist system.

In Keynes' times economic science was not that horrid little mathematical device that all variants of financial adventurism and derivations of rent now have at their disposal. Now we know what happens when this mathematisation ends up in the hands of dodgers' individualism... This is not to say that mathematics has nothing to do with economics or other disciplines, quite the opposite: it can be useful and productive for political economy but at a completely different level, one instance is where neo-Keynsianism resulted from the encounter between socialist planners in the Soviet Union (or the liberal planners of the New Deal) and the mathematicians of market rationalisation as invented by Leon Walras. But for Keynes and his contemporaries the relationship between reason and reality was still entirely political: capital still sought clarity for itself.

Keynes entered the scene of economic science and the political field of the critique of political economy at the end of World War One, as a member of the British delegation at the Conference of Versailles. Shocked by the stupidity of the politicians who wanted to crush Germany with further impoverishment, he stated: 'Vengeance, I dare predict, will not limp' (1). In 1919, witness to the folly of Úlites who, engaged in reshaping the post-war order in fear of the powerful appeal of Red October, tried to apply the methods of classical imperialism inside Europe, Keynes already warned against 'that final civil war between the forces of Reaction and the despairing convulsions of Revolution, before which the horrors of the late German war will fade into nothing, and which will destroy, whoever is victor, the civilization and the progress of our generation' (2). He realised that the Russian revolution had completely changed the political economy of capitalism, the market was definitively broken, and that 'one divided into two' (as a Communist leader would later say)(3). The fact that capitalist development was traversed and prefigured by class struggle and its movements had to be acknowledged, and Keynes definitely expressed a first sign of this realisation when he wrote: 'Lenin is said to have declared that the best way to destroy the Capitalist System was to debauch the currency. [...] Lenin was certainly right. There is no subtler, no surer means of overturning the existing basis of society' (4). So he scientifically tackled this political problem: how to use currency and finance to defeat communism. On Keynes' trail this became the main question of political economy for the whole of the 20th century.

Keynes believed in the virtues of finance; he even had an equivocal relationship with the Stock Exchange until he got kicked in the teeth (as often happens even to the most adept ... I disagree with his biographer Harrod, who claimed that Keynes had financial speculation in his heart!)(5). From Keynes' realistic point of view, the virtue of finance was that it was the beating heart of capitalism. Keynes subverted the old moralist conceptions that, from the Middle Ages to Hilferding, had downplayed and disqualified the hegemony of money in the production of wealth and the reproduction of social order. Against them, Keynes claimed that financial markets functioned as wealth multipliers. Can this theoretical assumption still be valid in a period of economic crisis? 'Of course it can', he asserted from his position in the middle of the crisis that started in the 1920s and assumed gigantic proportions by the end of the same decade. The State will have to intervene in society and reorganise it productively: 'Thus it is to our best advantage to reduce the rate of interest to that point relatively to the schedule of the marginal efficiency of capital at which there is full employment' (6). This is how the entire therapeutic cookbook of Keynsianism emerged out of the crisis that kept affecting development. In building a new model of equilibrium whilst being pragmatic and keeping the continuous lack of equilibrium in mind, Keynes proposed to determine a persisting imbalance of State initiative through deficit spending. However, this deficit created new margins for effective demand and aided the development of capitalist dynamics whilst accepting the severe rigidity at base in the workers' wages. This was the way class struggle got reabsorbed into the system of capital.

Keynes' proposal was wholly progressivist. He fully recognised it when, in the negotiations leading to the establishment of the Bretton Woods system of international monetary relations, he faced the opposition of the conservative representatives of Washington who were not willing to allow the currency of reference to forget a real standard, as this standard was the dollar that functioned as a means to organise labour and its international division based on the accumulation of gold in the US Central Bank. For them, deficit spending - which each capitalist and national government could have advanced so as to progressively contain the movements of its national working class who sought to change society and break the capitalist yoke - needed to be controlled by a capitalist centre, the Komintern of Wall Street. Farewell to the illusion of bancor, Keynes' great invention, an ideal currency based on free exchange that could have given way to the establishment of different equilibria that referred to the desires of populations and the intensity of the struggle of the organised working class ...

Keynes was a serious capitalist: he knew that with reaction and revolution on the one hand, and an established socialist power on the other, there was no third way of defending capitalist interests, only a more advanced political synthesis. Deriding the 'hegemony of real production', Keynes believed that when confronted with production - production intended here as 'civil society' - finance could become the mediation of opposite class interests, the construction of a new model of capitalism. Against Bolshevism Keynes refuted the slogan 'power to the workers' and its corollary legitimisation 'he who will not work shall not eat' (7). He also realised that socialism and communism went beyond the prospects of constructing a new order of labour and these primitive watchwords and banal political objectives. According to Keynes, communism could represent the totality of abstract labour extracted from the totality of workers in society, every citizen, and hence all socialised human beings. Accepting these paradoxical exclamations, we could now say that communism is the form of the 'biopolitical', intending by 'biopolitical' the fact that not only society but also life has been put to the work of commodity production and that not only social relations, but the relationship between minds and bodies has been made productive. With great foresight, Keynes seems to have understood the advent of what we now call 'the communism of capital'.

Keynes wished to contain class struggle within the rules of a society where the exploitation of labour was directed not simply towards the production of profit but also towards progress in the satisfaction of needs. We can understand how strong was his hatred for the rentier! Keynes thought that anyone willing to save the capitalist system must hope for the 'euthanasia of the rentier', and he saw this as a morally legitimate and politically urgent task, because the rentier is anarchic, selfish, and exploits the possession of land and estates, metropolitan spaces, as well as the labour that surrounds them and keeps valorising them. The rentier spends nothing in the game, he earns without working and wins without fighting. This squalid exploiter has to be eliminated. And here he reached the highest point of the capitalist intelligence that went through the 20th century trying to understand its enemy in class struggle.

Allow me a smile at this point: Keynes looks like a subversive genius, especially in view of the centrality of rent to the post-industrial system of organisation of contemporary capital! But today no political leader or economic thinker has the courage to attack rent ... All we see are moralistic sweeps against the obvious thieves and corruptors of banking credit systems, but who is attacking the habitual and surreptitious thieves, the rentiers who are worse than the usurers? Who will ever bring into the frame the sacred, both real and symbolic, foundation of every form of property? Keynes tried, to no avail, but at least he tried ...

The attack on rent was certainly the highlight of Keynes' political discourse but also the point where the illusory character of his reasoning becomes manifest. In fact, as he developed his progressivist discourse aimed at salvaging capitalism, Keynes too often forgot the preconditions on which it rested. Two preconditions were insuperable and, in his view, beyond doubt: one was that colonial power, as an accomplished fact and a tendency, had finally consolidated; the other was that the form assumed by the organisation of class relations in trade unions and the social welfare infrastructure in Europe was definitive. The difficulty of presenting Keynesianism as the dominant theory of development between the second half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century derives from the massive transformations of labour, class composition, and the geopolitical dimensions of class struggle. From this perspective, from the turn of the century, Keynes is no more than an event, an intellectual flash of intuition of the 20th century, at the end point of the long crisis of western capitalism. His response to the Soviet revolution was adequate and representative of the hegemonic urge to bring class struggle under the control and development of capital, but no more than that. It failed to account for the global extension of class struggle, the end of colonialism, and, above all, the exhaustion of the ability of capital to transform modes of exploitation and accumulation here in the first world. Look at what happened after Keynes: the revolution advanced through the underdeveloped world preventing capital from governing with the instruments of classical colonialism; dependency gave way to interdependency; capital won by globalising and unifying itself, but at the same time it also lost, because the old order was certainly destroyed and building a new one is a hard task. Keynes went wrong on this, that is why it is impossible to recuperate him today.

The reason is easy to explain: the Keynesian New Deal was the outcome of an institutional configuration based on three essential prerequisites: a nation state capable of independently developing national economic policies; the ability to measure profits and wages inside a relation of redistribution that is democratically accepted; and industrial relations that allow for a dialectics between the interests of the enterprise and the movements and demands of the working class that can be agreed upon in a legal framework. None of these prerequisites exists in the present circumstances of political economy. The existence of the nation state is in crisis because of the processes of internationalisation of production and financial globalisation, which are the grounds for a definition of a supranational imperial power. Furthermore, the dynamics of productivity increasingly tend to depend on immaterial production and the involvement of human and cognitive faculties that are hard to measure by traditional criteria, therefore social productivity makes it impossible to ground the regulation of wages on the relationship between productivity and wages. The crisis of the trade unions is, from this perspective, exemplary - albeit not definitive - of the development of contemporary capitalism. And so when we come to the crisis of contractual relations, all the subjects of Keynesian agreements are absent. Moreover, the only thing capitalist interests share is the pursuit of short-term profit first, and the radical exploitation of the chances to enjoying rent from land, estate and services second. All of this makes it practically impossible to formulate progressive reforms.

As a result, there is no room for any institutional policy of reform in contemporary capitalism. The structural instability of capitalism is definitive, no New Deal is possible. If we really wanted to make the effort of resurrecting Keynes, we would direct his deficit spending - his idea of socialisation of investments - towards the institutions of basic income and towards policies that anticipate new forms of development and organise the fiscal structure of the State in relation to the global productivity of the system, i.e. the productive power of all citizens. By doing so we would probably move beyond the measures and anthropological requirements of a capitalist society, especially well beyond the ideologies of individualism (of property and patrimony) and the political consequences of its development. Basic income is more than a wage, it is the recognition of the exploitation that affects not only workers but everyone who is available to capitalist organisation in society. Fighting for a basic income and recognising this reality already signals a move beyond the image of capitalist ownership. One has divided into two: whilst Keynes incessantly worked to close this division and redirect all social struggles to the One in a Hobbesian way, today sees the opening of this division and of struggles. A season of class struggle is probably flourishing. Keynes loved dance (he married a dancer), not flowers (he was allergic to them).

Paris, 20th February 2009

Translator's notes

(1) Translator's note (TN): See J. M. Keynes (1919), 'If we take the view that for at least a generation to come Germany cannot be trusted with even a modicum of prosperity, that while all our recent Allies are angels of light, all our recent enemies, Germans, Austrians, Hungarians, and the rest, are children of the devil, that year by year Germany must be kept impoverished and her children starved and crippled, and that she must be ringed round by enemies; then we shall reject all the proposals of this chapter.... But if this view of nations and of their relation to one another is adopted... heaven help us all. If we aim deliberately at the impoverishment of Central Europe, vengeance, I dare predict, will not limp', in The Economic Consequences of Peace, [].
(2) TN: J. M. Keynes, ibid.
(3) TN: M. Zedong (1957), -- this is a universal phenomenon, and this is dialectics.' in 'A Dialectical Approach to Inner Party Unity', speech delivered at the Moscow Meeting of Representatives of the Communist and Workers' Parties [], also recently discussed by S. Zizek, 'Mao Zedong: the Marxist Lord of Misrule' [] and A. Badiou 'One Divides into Two' [].
(4) TN: J. M. Keynes Ibid.
(5) TN: R. F. Harrod, The Life of John Maynard Keynes, MacMillan, London, 1951.
(6) TN: J. M. Keynes (1936), The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, Palgrave MacMillan, London, 1960, Chapter 24
(7) TN: The saying 'Qui non laborat, non manducet', originally appeared in The Bible, 2 Thessalonians, Chapter 3, and notably recurred in Jeremy Bentham's (1797) Writings on the Poor Laws as the 'No work - No Eat Principle', Clarendon Press, Oxford, 2001, p. 207. In other languages it appears as 'No mill, no meal' (en), 'Il faut travailler, qui veut manger' (fr), 'Wer nicht arbeitet, soll auch nicht essen' (ge), 'Chi non lavora non mangia' (it), 'El que no trabaja, no come' (sp).

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