Distinctions That Define and Divide   /   Summer 2021   /    Book Reviews

The Man Who Saved Capitalism from Itself

Tracing the lost legacy of Keynesian liberalism.

Charlie Tyson

Portrait of John Maynard Keynes, c. 1908, by Gwen Raverat (1885–1957); National Portrait Gallery, London; Pictures Now/Alamy Stock Photo.

“Well, God has arrived. I met him on the 5:15 train,” John Maynard Keynes wrote to his wife in 1929, wryly noting the return of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein to Cambridge after a sixteen-year hiatus. Observers would later describe Keynes himself in similar terms—but without the irony. The British economist Lionel Robbins detected in Keynes a certain “unearthly quality” that he could describe only as genius. Recalling the 1944 Bretton Woods Conference, at which Keynes helped forge the postwar international monetary order, Robbins wrote, “The Americans sat entranced as the God-like visitor sang and the golden light played around.”

John Maynard Keynes (1883–1946) wore his genius lightly. So lightly, indeed, that he is sometimes mistaken for a dilettante. Whereas his rival deity Wittgenstein, brilliant and arrogant, lived like a divinely inspired madman—wild eyed, hawk-like, domineering, casting off academia to pursue menial labor as a hospital porter—good-natured Keynes reconciled deep originality with every measure of conventional success: fame, money, public duties, a beautiful wife.

In studying Keynes, we watch radical ideas emerge filtered through a conservative sensibility. His work in economics is rightly called revolutionary. He broke with the classical economists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by arguing that humanity’s overriding economic problem was not scarcity but mismanagement. He imagined a new, enlarged role for the state as an active investor.

Yet his sense of life was streaked with conventionality. True, he was a freethinking, pacifist bisexual who, with the rest of the Bloomsbury Group, worshiped at the altar of art. In other respects, however, he appears to us, unlike Wittgenstein, as a characteristic man of his time: very middle class, very English. He sympathized with the British Empire and nursed a vague distaste for the proletariat, making exceptions for the occasional tryst with a stable boy or elevator operator (all recorded in his sexual diary). An admirer of Edmund Burke, he feared social instability and upheaval.

That his Burkean attitudes led him to push left-wing reforms—to repudiate austerity and call for harnessing the power of the state to transfer wealth from the rich to the poor—might seem perplexing. In fact, this apparent contradiction points to certain enduring confusions in our political categories. A keen (though not infallible) observer of ascendant authoritarianism in Europe, Keynes was prescient in seeing that in complex and wealthy modern societies, stability may well matter more to the left than to the right. His risk-averse radicalism resonates in our era, when the political left is concerned with guaranteeing stability (food, housing, health care, steady jobs, protection from environmental dangers), whereas the right has become the party of disruption and insurrection.

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