Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Precis: Economic Possibilties for Our Grandchildren

In this precis, rather than focusing on the merits of Keynes' arguments, I will focus on the particular way he presents them. The form of his essay is interesting in two respects: (1) it exemplifies the practice of economics as an interpretative, rhetorical project; and (2) it is colored with the religious language of deliverance.

But before I examine the particulars of Keynes' essay, I think it will be useful to briefly consider the rhetoric of the Victorian cultural critic and poet, Matthew Arnold. While it might seem "random" to bring in a Victorian writer into my analysis, I argue that a comparison of Arnold's and Keynes' rhetoric brings to light the specific nature of Keynes' project, which aims for both a kind of material as well as spiritual salvation. Specifically, I argue that Keynes pursues an intellectual avant-gardism similar to that Arnold's.

While Arnold's intellectual avant-gardism centers around the notion of Culture, Keynes' focus is on Economics. Arnold, for instance, argues that in certain historical periods (such as in ancient Athens and Rome) there arises a modern demand for an "intellectual deliverance." What is common to these periods is a "vast material spectacle," that is, a prosperous and complex body of society, so to speak. This material condition in turn generates a demand for a corresponding cultural greatness. Indispensable to this end are the poets, writers, critics, and educators--the vanguards of Culture who bring about "perfection" by spreading "sweetness and light" to the uncultured society at large (the Barbarians, Philistines, and Populace).

From these considerations, we can specify the rhetorical features of intellectual avant-gardism. In particular, it usually consists of these three elements: (1) a thesis that our present historical period is somehow different than in ages past; (2) an argument that this difference generates a special historical demand, which if met will bring about material and/or spiritual prosperity; and (3) an insistence that only a certain group of people (the "vanguard"), of which usually the author is a part, can bring society to meet this demand.

Keynes essays follows this line of rhetoric. Indeed, it seems as if we could replace Arnold's "intellectual deliverance" with Keynes' "economic bliss"; "Culture" with "Economics"; and the "Poet" with the "Economist." But while Arnold seeks a spiritual salvation through literature, Keynes seeks an economic deliverance that is at once material and spiritual.

Keynes uses narration to explain the salient differences between the modern age and the past. His use of historical narrative is appropriate, for in the beginning of the essay he makes clear that what he aims to overturn is a "wildly mistaken interpretation of what is happening to us." The assumption here is that the practice of economics is an interpretative exercise. His essay is an attempt to delve "under the surface" and to discover the "true interpretation" of society's economic situation. Like the Arnoldian Poet, the Keynesian Economist strives to "see things how they really are."

Through historical narrative, Keynes concludes that the modern age stands out because of "the growth of capital has been on a scale which is far beyond a hundredfold of what any previous generation had known." From this modern development of capital accumulation and techno-scientific progress, Keynes argues that society has the means to solve the "economic problem." In other words, modern society has the resources and know-how to finally eliminate poverty. This possibility generates a modern demand to actualize this possibility. We therefore see that Keynes rhetoric already follows two of the three features of intellectual avant-gardism.

Interestingly enough, solving the "economic problem" not only provides the basic material comforts for all of society but it also leads to a kind of spiritual salvation whereby society can reach a "fuller perfection." In this "destination of economic bliss" there is a perfect freedom, the chains economic necessity having been removed. In a way, we rise above biological necessity and display our true human potential.

Finally, in line with the third aspect of intellectual avant-gardism, Keynes argues that the solving of the economic problem "should be a matter for specialists" (that is to say, economists). It is only the economist who can lead us to "our destiny" of material and spiritual abundance.

Because Keynes rhetoric displays the features of an intellectual avant-gardism there are several questions that come to mind. Is his economic project compatible with a democratic project? In what ways can his rhetoric by modified to resist co-option by authoritarian movements? How can we reconcile the need for experts in a democratic society that relies on common sense and political opinion?

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