Utopia or Bust – a review

Utopia or Bust by Benjamin Kunkel – http://www.versobooks.com/books/1567-utopia-or-bust

(I feel I deserve so much credit for not naming this post “intersectional or bust”)

I really wanted to like this book more than I did. I like the idea of it, introducing often intimidating theorists but without speaking down to the reader.
There are some high points – I loved the inevitability of the chapter on Zizek, which seemed like it was there on anyone but the author’s wishes. I also enjoyed the critique of Zizek, and I don’t think there is enough of that sort of thing in “popular” leftism.

The other chapters were good, clearly argued and gave good introductions to key ideas. The underlying argument of the potential for reform to co-exist in the process of revolution is one I’m very sympathetic to, and it was well made.

Enough praise then. In the introduction Kunkel attempts throws a bone to us pesky feminists, by flagging that he will not be dealing with the issue of gender in society, along with big questions of the environment or technology. He also doesn’t deal with race or the idea of the state/nation, but doesn’t flag that up. When this caveat is followed by celebration of Marxism’s comprehensiveness, it’s hard to read that certain issues (class and the questions of traditional economics) are viewed as more important than others.

Throughout the book, without setting out to count, I think there are three mentions of women in total. One is the author’s past flatmate, another is Carmen Reinhert, who gets a not for a study she did, and the last is Anne Applebaum who is quoted as an example of a the establishment talking down to marxists. One of the strengths of the book is it’s breadth of reading, this is a bit ridiculous. In a book that’s meant to be about generating ideas and thought about what our shared future post-capitalism might look like, it feels very white and male.

It is not simply that diversity should be included, though a book that seeks to take part in forming progressive discussion shouldn’t avoid diversity. It is simply untenable to believe that race, gender, nationality, sexuality, (dis)ability and other factors aren’t massively implicated in the construction of modern capitalism. American capitalism is built on racism (http://www.theatlantic.com/features/archive/2014/05/the-case-for-reparations/361631/), and the occasional references by Kunkel to the role women played as a reserve workforce simply does not go anywhere near far enough in explaining how differentiated genders structure capitalism, in particular structuring the ability for holders of capital and holders of power to exploit others.

In closing the book, Kunkel quotes Frederick Jameson -“the way in which one isolated cause or issue , one specific form of injustice, cannot be fulfilled or corrected without eventually drawing the entire web of interrelated social levels together into a totality, which then demands the intervention of a politics of social transformation”. I wish he would pay more heed to this, and would engage in work that doesn’t seek to find the answers in solely economic/class based analyse, and appreciates instead the complexity of the system we live in, and the necessary complexity of any future world.