Geoff Mann is the author of Disassembly Required: A Field Guide to Actually Existing Capitalism, which acts as a primer on economics 101 and speaks to those people who are not comfortable with the status quo, confused about the state of things and trying to imagine a different system.
Aaron Leonard recently corresponded with Professor Mann via email to examine the book and dig deeper into some of the popular explanations it offers. This is an edited version of their original conversation.
Who are you hoping to reach with this book?
Disassembly Required is ultimately aimed at anyone who wants to understand how modern capitalism actually works, and in particular at those who suspect it is not the best we can do. I wrote it with two particular groups of people in mind.
The first is senior high school students and undergraduate students (or non-students of that age), who feel like all things to do with finance or economics are extremely technical and/or mathematical, and who are therefore scared off by crucial discussions in modern politics and political economy.
The second [is] people who are intelligent [and] critical, but still feel the same as those undergraduate students with respect to things “economic.” [They are] certain that capitalism is not all it’s cracked up to be, but unfamiliar with its recent history, how it works and what all the fancy economic terms and acronyms mean, and therefore uncertain of where and what to critique.
The book is meant to give [these] people some detailed knowledge of the way modern capitalism is organized and the reasoning behind it to help them formulate the questions they want to and should feel confident asking and to show them other alternatives that become visible with this knowledge.
Why did you choose to write this book?
I wrote Disassembly Required because I do not believe a book like this is out there. There are lots of “introductions” to capitalism, and lots of “economic 101s,” but I am not familiar with a book that tries to understand why capitalism works the way it does, what real constraints it imposes on us, both “economically” and politically, and what opportunities it offers to those of us interested in building something better.
I would also like to think that even those who are not suspicious of capitalism will nonetheless learn a lot from the book. It goes over much of the internal mechanisms of the modern economy, the everyday operations that make the economy and economic policy tick and it offers novel but practically useful interpretations of some very influential theorists.
It really is meant to be a field guide to the way modern capitalism functions and how it got that way. If Disassembly Required can get people to the point where they can read the Financial Times and think critically about the information they get there, then I will consider it a success.
You introduce us to John Maynard Keynes, who seems to have had a strong motivation to save capitalism.
There is his famous statement in The Economic Consequences of the Peace in which he condemns the onerousness of Versailles Treaty on Germany and its potential consequences, “Nothing can then delay for long that final civil war between the forces of Reaction and the despairing convulsions of Revolution…” Meanwhile you have people like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan who seem to have made it their life’s work to stave off Keynes.
How did capitalism get from one point to the other in the short span of 60 years?
This is one of those questions that it would probably require both of us to write books to answer! Still, there are a couple of things, both of which might be considered “counterintuitive,” that I want to emphasize.
When we ask ourselves a question like “how did capitalism get from one point to the other in the short span of 60 years?,” we are perhaps inadvertently assuming a couple of things that are not necessarily true.
First, we are suggesting that in the world of capitalist governance, things are really qualitatively different now than they were in 1953 (or 1943). We are also hinting that there is no obvious common sense way in which the transition, presumably a really big one, can be explained. There is something like a “How could this possibly have happened? It makes no sense” feeling to it. Both suggestions might be accurate, but they are taken for granted so often that I would say the case for both the difference, and its apparent inexplicability, still have to be made.
Keynes was not trying to save capitalism, and what we call neoliberalism is not a reaction against Keynes or Keynesianism, but a product of it . If I am right, then Thatcher, Reagan, Mulroney and the rest were a quite logical outcome of Keynes and Keynesianism. Whatever they knew of him and it, they were literally impossible without Keynes.
Keynes published The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money in 1936. But he and many others had been arguing loudly for what we now call “Keynesian” policies since not long after Versailles. The policies we call “Keynesian” are all what you might call “logical” reactions to falling profits, unemployment and social unrest, and many — though by no means most — “orthodox” economists advocated them at the time.
This, not some leftward turn on the part of government or business, is the reason they are back today. As with our present crisis, the call for the state had little relation to the poverty or injustices visited upon the masses.
Elites’ goals in the 1920s and 1930s were the same as today: to prop up spending to save themselves and to ensure the legitimacy of the existing order. Keynes main concern was the latter: legitimacy.
But while it might be capitalism that everyone else thought needed saving, for Keynes capitalism was only one part of something much more worthy of saving: civilization. “Civilization,” he said in 1938, is “a thin and precarious crust, erected by the personality and will of a very few, and only maintained by rules and conventions skillfully put across and guilefully preserved.”
Keynes talked about capitalism, and especially “individualistic” capitalism. [In] General Theory, there is not only very little of what now goes by the name “Keynesian,” but a vision of the future that is in many ways not really all that capitalist. It is definitely not socialist or communist or anarchist. But it is a world beyond rent, beyond what he called the “love of money,” beyond scarcity. That doesn’t sound like capitalism to me!
With this in mind — the emphasis on legitimacy to protect the social order — then in contrast to the standard story that the Thatcher-Reagan posse was a reaction against Keynes, the neoliberalism they designed was only possible because of the most Keynes-ish thing Keynesianism did: it made the state and the existing order super legitimate in the eyes of the people.
And in doing so, it showed that the interests of the state and its citizens were the same as the interests of business and corporations. The so-called Keynesian era seemed to prove that was good for profits was good for everyone. By the late 1960s, this was liberal common sense.
Keynesian political economy produced a historically unprecedented capitalist state-civil society relationship that is the essential ‘solidaristic’ social foundation without which the neoliberal ‘counter-revolution’ would have had no political legitimacy.
The truly “Keynesian” dimensions of the Fordist-Keynesian era — less “social safety net,” and more low long-term interest rates, capital controls and an income distribution protected by long-term contracts –seemed to make the state and civil society partners in the “general interest.”
The political implications of something like the Volcker shock of the late 1970s would have been unthinkable without the persistence of Keynesian ideological foundations. Without the political achievements of Keynesianism, neoliberalism would be political suicide. So when the posse forcefully imposed neoliberalism in the late 1970s, they did so in a context in which that could seem like a popularly legitimate response, something unthinkable in the 1930s.
You write that some of the more “terrifyingly disastrous experiments in ‘planning,’ and non-market-based modes of social organization” happened under people like Stalin and Mao. I understand you write this to open up a conversation about planning, yet it seems there is defensiveness here.
Leaving aside the debate on socialism in the Soviet Union and China under Mao, isn’t capitalism a terrifyingly disastrous experiment? One that needs to be superseded by something else, even if we don’t yet know what it is?
If we look back a thousand years from now isn’t it going to seem breathtakingly insane that humanity — humanity as a whole, not the relatively small section that lives comfortably under capitalism — attempted to exist in societies operating at the whim of blind market forces that were, at their core, driven by the compulsion to accumulate for the sake of accumulation?
Excellent point, and with only the smallest of qualifications, I really hope that Disassembly Required does not suggest that I think otherwise. You are right that I mean that of the range of attempts at planning, some of the more “terrifyingly disastrous” are those undertaken by self-styled socialists or communists. All I am really trying to say is that being anti-capitalist does not mean advocating Stalinist five year plans or Great Leaps Forward.
As I say immediately after the line above: “there seems to be very good reason to believe that even a well-meaning ‘coordinator’ of economic life is doomed to fail.”
What I really want to caution against is the idea that our options are either “planning” or “capitalism.’ “Planning” might be part of whatever we can build out of this mess, but it might not be too.
Maybe, part of the defensiveness comes from the fact that I am not so sure I would describe capitalism as an “experiment,” at least in the same way as a the Cultural Revolution. And that, it seems to me, is one thing capitalism has going for it.
The historical development of capitalism has not been a process of intention or purposeful coordination, at least not in the centuries in which it coalesced into a political economy that made sense. It is a far more patchwork thing, historically and geographically. That is certainly part of what has given it such staying power.
The hubris and arrogance of the faux-communist omniscience was as much a cause of its failure as anything. We cannot continue on the capitalist road we are on, but we must avoid at all costs the temptation to try to design some single perfect “scientific” answer to our predicament and “implement” it, as if we know the answers. Whatever we need, our answers will have much better chances of holding up if they develop in a rather haphazard, flexible way.
What do you think the best hope for the future is?
Thoughts of the future make me waver somewhat erratically between a kind of all-consuming pessimism and a kind of wishful but not entirely unreasonable hopefulness. I am not sure if this volatility is the “right” call at present, but I am sure it is a logical one.
I have a great deal of faith in the young people I spend my time around, both as a teacher and as a parent and coach. My main optimism lies in the hope that we can get them in charge as soon as possible, and dethrone the self-absorbed terror that now stands as “leadership.”
I would say that my best attempt to deal with [this] question is in chapter seven. I want to point out a couple of features I think are relevant for any kind of political action or strategizing for a better future.
First, we have to be honest with ourselves about the extent of capitalism’s power. This is going to be a long fight and the terrain will change a lot along the way. There is no way we can even imagine what something like “victory” will look like right now. Capitalism is an overwhelming and deeply embedded reality that cannot be overcome by mere acts of imagination or the search for some magical escape route.
Second, I cannot imagine that there is one answer to the question, that there is a or the “best hope” for us. What is necessary is surely a multiplicity of efforts on a multiplicity of fronts, in many places and at all scales.
We shouldn’t worry very much right now about whether anti-capitalism A in place X is perfectly compatible with anti-capitalism B in place Y. We should go for it, with movements and ideas large and small, and worry about the overall “global” logic later. This will demand experimentation and a willingness to accept both the inevitability of failure and the obligation to support creative efforts.
The keys to the future are yet to be forged, and none of us can lay any claim to a certainty of what will work, and what won’t. Those who think they have the answers before we can even know what the questions are will be little help. We, those who know that what we have is not acceptable and that we must do much better by our communities, must back each other up. It is our one unconditional obligation to the future.
Geoff Mann lives with his partner and sons in Vancouver BC. He teaches political economy and economic geography at Simon Fraser University, where he directs the Centre for Global Political Economy. His book Our Daily Bread: Wages, Workers and the Political Economy of the American West (UNC, 2007) won the Paul Sweezy Prize from the American Sociological Association and the Michael S. Harrington Award from the American Political Science Association, and his writing on capitalism has appeared in New Left Review and Historical Materialism, among other journals. His current research concerns the politics of macroeconomic policy, and he is presently completing a book on the many lives of Keynesianism.