At Public Books, James Livingston, a professor of history at Rutgers University, reviews three very different books that nonetheless all speculate on what might come after capitalism as we know it today: the novel The Mandibles: A Family, 2029–2047 by Lionel Shriver; The End of Alchemy: Money, Banking, and the Future of the Global Economy by Mervyn King, former governor of the Bank of England; and Yanis Varoufakis’s And the Weak Suffer What They Must?: Europe’s Crisis and America’s Economic Future. Livingston writes that each book’s image of our possible future looks curiously like our past—more specifically, like the nineteenth century. Livingston argues that this retrospective view, however, is not so much a sign of historical astuteness, but rather of a failure of imagination. Here’s an excerpt from the review:
I have said that Keynes is the “old mole” who burrows beneath the belabored arguments of Shriver and King—like Hamlet’s dead father, he haunts their thinking. He comes to life in Varoufakis’s strange book, And the Weak Suffer What They Must?, as if Hamlet had been able to address the ghost directly, to say something like: “I know what is to be done, take my revenge now, but I just don’t know how to do it, because I live in a time when this debt to you has become irredeemable except by recourse to ancient savagery—the Orestian cycle I want to escape. Tell me, father, what would you do?”
I admit that Varoufakis borrows more from Thucydides than Shakespeare in making his case against the EU, but the Oedipal sources and connotations of his accounting are no less poignant. The miracle at the heart of this book is his accidental discovery, in Keynes’s library (by now a museum in King’s College, Cambridge), of a copy of The History of the Peloponnesian War in ancient Greek, where the young Maynard had marked the passage that informed his polemics of the 1920s, and that, these days, inspire Yanis’s arguments against austerity. The Athenians have conquered Melos, and, instead of offering a diplomatic compromise or concession, they reiterate the common sense of antiquity: “the strong actually do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.”
Keynes knew that this posture, updated at Versailles for the purpose of punishing the Germans, would lead directly to disaster, but he didn’t advertise his alternative as morally superior. Neither does Varoufakis in arguing against austerity as now enforced by the Germans. For both men it was, and is, a practical question, a matter of consequences, not a moral problem.
The uncanny premise of Varoufakis’s book is that the actual beginnings and the possible endings of Western civilization—or rather, Europe—have narrowed down to Attica, this place now called Greece, where the EU has foundered on the shoals of economic crisis and the question of debt forgiveness. But the author is reversing every available narrative vector. He claims, rightly I think, that only recovery in Europe can salvage what is left of America’s leading role in the world economy, and that austerity for everyone under German auspices cancels any chance of recovery. In making this claim, he’s channeling not only the Keynes of 1944, at Bretton Woods, but also the planners at the US State Department who devised the Marshall Plan in 1948.
The palpable sense of an ending determines the form and the content of all three books. They are, accordingly, exhausting, even debilitating, because they reach backward, always farther backward, for answers to questions about the future. I threw one off my fifth-floor balcony into the poison ivy that covers the roof of the building behind me, hoping to never see it again. It was an empty gesture.
Image: A policeman during riots in Athens, 2010. Via Public Books.