Reviewed By Lyle Jeremy Rubin
Benjamin Kunkel. Utopia or Bust: A Guide to the Present Crisis. London: Verso, 2014. 160 pp.
Benjamin Kunkel appeared in the news not too long ago. During the carnage in Gaza, the novelist-turned-“Marxist public intellectual” lay down on Second Avenue, adjacent to the Israeli consulate in Manhattan. Kunkel was one of two-dozen protesters, all of whom were awarded an afternoon in jail for their pluck. The scene could serve as the first act in a sequel to the writer’s debut novel, Indecision (2005), whose twentysomething protagonist, Dwight Wilmerding, gropes about life aimlessly before meeting a Belgian beauty on an eye-opening jaunt to the Ecuadorian Amazon. At her urging, and amid the wreckage of Latin American neoliberal “reform,” the antihero finally arrives at a decision, rejecting a life of apathetic self-indulgence and swearing an oath to democratic socialism. It’s at this juncture that the tale ends, and it’s hard not to see Kunkel’s public dissent in light of his protagonist’s imagined trajectory. Now, with the publication of Kunkel’s collection of political essays, Utopia or Bust: A Guide to the Present Crisis (2014), the link between life and art grows ever more intriguing.
The entanglement of the personal and the authorial renders Utopia or Bust a fun and pressing read. The book’s physical form is more reminiscent of a best-selling novel than a primer on leftist theory, and the interplay between Kunkel the public intellectual and Kunkel the real-life Dwight Wilmerding materializes as early as the cover. The reader is greeted by a tableau of a sinking cargo ship and a handful of peopled lifeboats bursting forth in fluorescent yellows, oranges, and pinks. But thanks to its flat, Bauhaus-inspired design, the fate of these lifeboats is ambiguous. Are these fluorescent “utopias” staying afloat or plummeting with their ship? Are we already drowning, or are we surviving a catastrophe together, requiring each of us to do our part in the paddling? Like Wilmerding, we are forced to choose between these two visions, between conforming to the reeling status quo or to abandoning and transcending it on collectivist terms.
As we follow Kunkel through engagements with a conspicuously white, male Marxian pantheon—a group that includes David Harvey, Frederic Jameson, and Slavoj Žižek—we become aware that leftist intellectualism is, in fact, all about making choices. Indecision is rarely tolerated. Each of Utopia’s essays poses questions we must answer: whether the cultural tendencies of late capitalism allow for avenues of self-reflection and genuine emancipation; whether increased socialization is compatible with security and prosperity; and whether state violence or financialization of the economy is the great culprit of our age.
Kunkel’s discursive craft reveals itself in a half-humorous story about meeting two Nepali security guards in Dubai ordered to guard high-stakes real estate. The punch line is that they self-identify as Maoists. When explaining why neoliberal powerbrokers tend not to acknowledge the existence of neoliberalism, Kunkel compares them to dogs not knowing their names so as to better evade their masters. Later on, in an acrobatic juxtaposition of Jameson’s Late Marxism (1990) and Jonathan Franzen’s novel, The Corrections (2001), Kunkel argues that “naming the system” no longer seems to have any real bite. Kunkel concedes, “With the brazenness of yuppiedom . . . all s