Utopia or Bust: A Guide to the Present Crisis [NOOK Book]


After the financial crash and the great recession, the media rediscovered Karl Marx, socialist theory, and the very idea that capitalism can be questioned.

But in spite of the publicity, the main paths of contemporary critical thought have gone unexplored
outside of the academy. Benjamin Kunkel’s Utopia or Bust leads readers – whether politically committed or ...
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Utopia or Bust: A Guide to the Present Crisis

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After the financial crash and the great recession, the media rediscovered Karl Marx, socialist theory, and the very idea that capitalism can be questioned.

But in spite of the publicity, the main paths of contemporary critical thought have gone unexplored
outside of the academy. Benjamin Kunkel’s Utopia or Bust leads readers – whether politically committed or simply curious – through the most important critical theory today. Written with the wit and verve of Kunkel’s best-selling novel, Indecision, this introduction to contemporary Leftist thinkers engages with the revolutionary philosophy of Slavoj Žižek, the economic analyses of David Graeber and David Harvey, and the cultural diagnoses of Fredric Jameson.

Discussing the ongoing crisis of capitalism in light of ideas of full employment, debt forgiveness, and “fictitious capital,” Utopia or Bust is a tour through the world of Marxist thought and an examination of the basis of Western society today.

From the Trade Paperback edition.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Novelist turned public-intellectual Kunkel (Indecision) ventures into the realm of political non-fiction, voicing his dissatisfactions and hopes for the Left in the United States. Recounting his personal intellectual journey from vaguely leftist malcontent to explicitly Marxist thinker, Kunkel laments a lack of coherent critique of the present. In response, he tackles some of the left's most complex scholarship. From Boris Groys to Slavoj Zizek, Kunkel translates tricky questions of economics, culture, and politics into easy-to-understand prose that distil the problems not only with American capitalism, but capitalism in general: the tendency to shift social wealth away from the masses and towards the rich, and to run itself into crisis. While aiming to develop a critique of later-day America to clear the way for a second book dedicated to the question of a truly just society, this book is not without its concrete suggestions. Where the relatively recent obsession with inflation represents the interests of only the financial sector, Kunkel proposes a redefinition of "full employment" that would have significant political implications. Rather than being understood as an acceptable rate of unemployment, he argues for a definition that includes jobs for all who want them, a living wage, a productive role for government, and the understanding that not all inflation is destructive. All told, this book demonstrates Kunkel's command both of the written word and some of our most pressing problems, as well as their possible solutions. (Mar.)
From the Publisher
“Benjamin Kunkel has pursued a lonely and taxing crash course in Marxist thought, the results of which, set forth here, are nimble, clear, and brave. He dedicates the book to anyone who can use it, which I’ll take a step further: it’s for anyone who cares about historical necessity,
the crisis of capitalism, and our fate.” Rachel Kushner, author of The Flamethrowers

"Playful and unfailingly lucid...the book is one of the most enjoyable pieces of Marxist criticism in many years." The Nation

“It’s wonderful to see Benjamin Kunkel turn his considerable talents from the business of novelwriting to these political essays—models of the genre, with plenty to offer to both newcomers to and veterans of radical thought.” Doug Henwood, Left Business Observer

"From Boris Groys to Slavoj Zizek, Kunkel translates tricky questions of economics, culture, and politics into easy-to-understand prose that distil the problems not only with American capitalism, but capitalism in general" Publishers Weekly

“Benjamin Kunkel, aside from having mastered the voice of bemused neuroticism in Indecision, has one of the most interesting minds around.” The Millions

“Those looking for alternatives, explanations, and a critical map of where Leftist thought stands in our current neoliberal age will find Utopia or Bust a must-read.” Mike Konczal, finance commentator and Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute

The Barnes & Noble Review

Recently I was on the phone with an old friend who resides on the West Coast. Shawn asked me what I thought of Spike Lee's remarks on the gentrification of Brooklyn. While he was in Clinton Hill at the Pratt Institute, the filmmaker voiced his denunciation of the phenomenon during a segment of a public conversation that later went viral on the Internet. (For context: In 2005, I moved to Clinton Hill, one of the neighborhoods that Lee called out. And if you haven't met me, it may help to know that I'm among those who benefited from the legacy of Dr. King.) In essence, I said something just this side of flip like, "Well, considered in the context of capitalism in general, is it shocking that an influx of private capital trying to secure for itself the highest return on its investment should show scant regard for those who stand before new wells of profit?"

You might say I was in a mood, for the temper of my remark was certainly midwifed by the book I was reading at the time: Benjamin Kunkel's Utopia or Bust — a fascinating primer on contemporary Marxism and a clutch of left-wing thinkers such as David Harvey, Fredric Jameson, Robert Brenner, David Graeber, Slavoj Žižek, and others. Still with me? Good — I promise it's worth it.

Doubtless, there are those who are allergic to any mention of the M-word. "The U.S.," Kunkel writes, "remains a society in which Marxism can be advocated only a little more respectably than pederasty, and lately accusations of socialism erupt from the Republican Party more frequently than since McCarthy's heyday." Allowing for such a climate, Kunkel, one of the founding editors of n+1 and the author of the novel Indecision, reckons up front that his topic will disappoint some who'd rather read his fiction and that the probable market for a collection of essays drawn from the London Review of Books, n+1, and the New Statesman is small.

But who knows what the spirit of the times may require? I'll wager that if you've stuck around thus far, then you think or suspect that life under our current capitalist dispensation is neither natural, nor morally neutral, nor immutable. If you're concerned by the reports of ecological damage that have followed in the wake of capital or if you've caught the scent of a depressed culture that can more readily conceive of the apocalypse than life under a gentler economic system, Utopia or Bust may serve you well as a means of thinking through some of the most pressing economic issues we face, such as unemployment and underemployment; wage stagnation; individual and national debt.

In the introduction to Utopia or Bust, its author briefly writes about the period of depression that shadowed his burst of success. "Why should it have felt desolate? I'd always wanted to write novels and was now in a good position to go on doing just that. Part of the trouble seems to have been that your own fulfillment is no one else's, and therefore not even quite your own." I applaud Kunkel for turning his attention from literary matters to civic commitments — not because the one is better than the other but because an appreciation of both things are signs of a flexible mind attuned to both the stirrings of the imagination and the ethical imperative to push for a better world. In a cultural moment defined by inequity, any contribution to raising our collective economic literacy is commendable. I'm grateful for the information that Kunkel conveys based on his extensive readings of material, some of which — like Boris Gorys, perhaps — I doubt I'll ever touch. Conversely, I'm happy to say that he makes a number of books I might never have prioritized, such as Robert Brenner's The Economics of Global Turbulence and David Graeber's Debt: The First 5,000 Years, seem more approachable.

Kunkel is sharp essayist. His style is patient, direct, and periodically witty. In a footnote of his essay on David Harvey he writes, "In his 1865 lecture on 'Value, Price and Profit,' Marx illustrated luxury consumption as money 'wasted on flunkeys, horses, cats and so forth.' It is some measure of progress that the general population can now afford to keep cats." Whether Kunkel is dissecting why capitalist economies are prone to recurring crises involving asset bubbles or elegantly contending for the value of the thinkers like Frederic Jameson the impression he leaves is that of a sensible man making sensible arguments, rather than a firebrand indulging in exhibitionism.

Lest anyone think that a more equitable world isn't possible, I direct one to consider the enormous strides this country has taken in correcting historical policies of disenfranchisement. Some forms of change are predicated on the practical needs of necessary dreams. And Utopia or Bust is an invitation to dream such dreams, even while it maps the economic contours of our all-too-real present.

Christopher Byrd is a writer who lives in New York. His reviews have appeared in publications such as The New York Times Book Review, The American Prospect, The Believer, The Guardian, The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, and The Wilson Quarterly.

Reviewer: Christopher Byrd

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781781683286
  • Publisher: Verso Books
  • Publication date: 3/11/2014
  • Series: Jacobin
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 160
  • Sales rank: 1,072,815
  • File size: 2 MB

Meet the Author

Benjamin Kunkel is the bestselling author of Indecision and a co-founder of n+1. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books.
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