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BOOK REVIEW: "Utopia or Bust" by Benjamin Kunkel

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BOOK REVIEW: Utopia or Bust: A Guide to the Present Crisis by Benjamin Kunkel  (Verso) 2014

Between Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century landing in the number one slot this week on Amazon and a recent poll showing that Russian Bolshevik revolutionary Vladimir Lenin’s popularity is at an all-time, post-USSR high in his native land, I’d say that late capitalism’s Gordon Gekko-styled greedmongering is heading towards the ash heap of history. Even Pope Francis chimed in today on Twitter, writing: “Inequality is the root of social evil.”

But perhaps that is simply a utopian notion?

Among those who agree with Piketty and the Pope is Marxist writer and novelist Benjamin Kunkel who offers a collection of thoughtful essays in his new collection Utopia or Bust.

As Kunkel explains in the introduction, his purpose in cobbling this short volume to get those interested intellectuals “oriented” towards addresses the problem of capitalism bent of social polarization, the hollowing out of democracy and ecological ruin.

How to achieve this? As Kunkel explains there would have to be “public ownership of important economic and financial institutions, by real as well as formal democratic capacities, and by social equality.”

This, Kunkel says, will eventually lead to a “renewal of culture” on a number of levels.

But the multitude of inequalities facing the American worker – working more than European or Japanese counterparts, and a minimum wage that kept a full-time worker at the poverty line as recently as 1980, but no keeps them at 40-percent below that level – must be addressed before the crisis worsens. And it is getting worse, despite denials from right-wing think tanks and policy makers.

“Since the 1970s – and especially since 1991 – perhaps the greatest challenge for Marxism has been to keep alive the belief in the possibility of a superior future society.” This belief has had plenty of disastrous misfires over the past century with unfortunate results including gulags and oppression. But in the socialist utopia of the future, inequality will end and art and science and cooperation will endure. I know what you're thinking: "It'll never work." Well, don't tell that to Mr. Kunkel.

Among the left-wing thinkers that Kunkel notes includes Boris Groys, David Graeber, Frederic Jameson and “the world’s most dangerous philosopher” Slavoj Žižek, who strikes this reader as the most compelling thinker noted here.

Regarding Žižek, whose straightforward program is “the replacement of capitalism by communism,” Kunkel writes that the Slovenian Marxist scoffs at the idea that capitalism can effectively address global welfare and justice and that a “direct social exchange of activities” would better serve humanity. But would this vague notion actually work?

And regarding the aforementioned, Leningrad-born Boris Groys, well, he’s an interesting case in a chapter called “Aesthetics of Utopia,” where he advocates “art functioning as political propaganda” while also offering a book called The Total Art of Stalinism which Kunkel says “unsettles” rather than convinces.

Writes Kunkel: “Groys’s vision of communism as the kingdom of philosophy is not only utopian; it is also nostalgic for Stalin’s Soviet Union, which ‘understood itself literally as a state governed by philosophy alone.’”

While Marxists never really went away after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, they have most definitely been in the closet since neoliberalism took hold of the world economy. But with rampant income inequality becoming more of a problem in our culture, more unapologetic Marxists – like Kunkel – are coming out of the closet.

Now, is Utopia or Bust the book I would recommend to someone wanting to learn more about these issues? Perhaps. But it’s not required reading. Instead, Utopia or Bust is the latest in a growing stack of tomes that are highlighting and critiquing neoliberalism and 21st century capitalism and the crisis that continues to unfold.

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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