How Benjamin Kunkel Went From Novelist to Marxist Public Intellectual

Benjamin Kunkel, photographed by Christopher Anderson/Magnum Photos/New York Magazine. Photo: Christopher Anderson/Magnum Photos

One day in late January, the novelist, n+1 editor, and now self-taught Marxist political economist Benjamin Kunkel left Buenos Aires and flew to Rio. He’d been living in Argentina more on than off since the recession hit, an enviably high-minded take-the-money-and-run expat in the frothy wake of his novel Indecision, and his travel schedule was like a con man’s, always shifting. In Rio, he met the leftist playwright Wallace Shawn and his girlfriend of 40 years, the short-story goddess Deborah Eisenberg, who were staging a one-night-only performance of Shawn’s The Designated Mourner for the benefit of Glenn Greenwald, the national-security-state crusader and Edward Snowden accomplice, who lives there. Not to benefit; for the benefit of. Greenwald couldn’t feel comfortable coming to New York to see the play, which describes the death of liberal culture at the hands of reactionary forces, so they took the entire Public Theater production to him—“A show of solidarity,” Shawn says. Kunkel calls it “a stunt.” But he says it lovingly, admiringly. “Maybe everything the left does is.”

From Rio, it was back to Buenos Aires, but only briefly. Kunkel is from Colorado and had been following the Denver Broncos’ march through the playoffs quite closely, which is one reason why he’s here in New York on Super Bowl Sunday, six weeks before the publication of his second book and first in nine years, a collection of rigorous and unapologetically Marxist essays called Utopia or Bust.

Indecision, his comic coming-of-age-in-late-capitalism debut, was published in 2005—a best seller optioned for the movies, and possibly the last in a series of literary-fiction debuts that doubled as genuine celebrity rollouts. Think of Zadie Smith and Dave Eggers and Jonathan Safran Foer and Kunkel, whose book was reviewed on the cover of the Times Book Review by Jay McInerney and in the paper itself in the voice of Holden Caulfield, a gesture so strange it seemed it had to mean something. None of these people have had unconflicted careers as novelists: Smith reversing course with each book and issuing a number of self-loathing self-assessments along the way, Foer retreating to vegetarianism as a major subject, Eggers making declarations of independence from the publishing machine so insistent he might as well be sea-steading.

As for Kunkel: “To the disappointment of friends who would prefer to read my fiction—as well as of my literary agent, who would prefer to sell it,” he opens the introduction to Utopia, “I seem to have become a Marxist public intellectual.” It’s a bit of a red-herring proclamation, since Kunkel’s been a Marxist since at least Deep Springs, the single-sex cowboys-and-classics California ranch college, and a bit of a joke, since he’s been some kind of public intellectual since at least the 2004 launch of n+1, a radical literary platform for a crew of young intellectuals in self-exile from the academy. “When people called us public intellectuals, we’d sort of joke, What is the size of this public?

But he does see Utopia or Bust as a statement of new purpose. While “auto-marooned” in Buenos Aires, Kunkel has written poetry “best shielded from the light of day”; part of a novel, “a sad work”; and a play about a world infested with flies and a couple trying to fumigate their apartment, “which sounds like the worst French existentialist play of all time,” he says, laughing. More important, he’s found a sort of political determination down there. “I guess I felt like this novel will be equally good or bad whenever, whereas we seem to be in a moment where things are more up for grabs intellectually and politically.” In an airy two-bedroom apartment with 14-foot ceilings on the eastern edge of the city, he’s spent the past few years giving himself an autodidact’s crash course on the unsustainability of global capitalism, not to offer any “original contribution” to “Marxish thought,” as he writes in the book, but to build a sort of intellectual-historical scaffolding for his own sometimes-dreamy dissident feelings. And, presumably, for those younger readers on the American left, which has ballooned over the past five years into something without a very clear shape. That is, to play the role of tutor, as a former precocious success; and scholar, as a former anti-academic; and man of consequence, as a lifelong man of letters who seems secretly to have feared turning into a dilettante. The cover of Utopia or Bust shows a container ship half-sunk in placid Caribbean-green water, surrounded by canoes filled with rowers who could be circling like sharks or the charter members of a cargo cult. The dedication page reads, “For/who can use it.”

The book, a sort of primer on six contemporary radical thinkers, is the first of two. (“But for a lot of important ideas all we have is the primer,” Kunkel says. “Nobody reads what sociobiologists write in their journals. We just read the New York Times, which tells us that evolution explains everything. It tells us that every day.”) The second volume, also from Verso, is the more important one to Kunkel, and the more forward-looking—a manifesto for a political program he calls “commonism,” which he has hinted at in London Review of Books essays and n+1 editorials and outlined in some detail in a lecture last summer at PS1, delivered endearingly in jeans and T-shirt, with eyes so receded and dark it looked like he hadn’t slept in a month. “When I was a kid, people would be like, oh, what’s the matter?” he says. “And I’d be like, nothing! I think doleful is just what happens to my face at rest.”

Today, he also has a cold, and is feeding himself lozenges and oil of oregano over glasses of clear tequila: “I have great belief in tequila,” he says. “No hangover.” We’re sitting at the bar of a dingy, garden-level Spanish restaurant he says is the only place in the neighborhood of his Union Square–ish pied-à-terre here in New York he can still stand, just a few hours before kickoff. Kunkel is from a small mountain community called Eagle—which was once a cow town and is now a commuter village to Vail, in what Kunkel calls the “empty quarter” of Colorado—and identifies pretty strongly with the place. (“I haven’t hung out with [Jonathan] Franzen that much, but he’s a frighteningly perceptive person, and he seemed to identify with me in some way as a fellow Midwestern. I’m like, I’m not a Midwestern. I’m a Westerner. I hate the Midwest. It’s flat and lame!”) He is also, though still known most widely as a bright young novelist, actually four years older than the Broncos’ decrepit-heroic 37-year-old quarterback, Peyton Manning, playing now with the Broncos after a long career with the Colts. “This Argentine friend kept calling him el jubilado, the retiree,” Kunkel says when I mention their ages. “But writers can get better. Especially poets.”

At the bar, he talks sometimes out of the side of his mouth, with a tendency to toggle around in his seat like a joystick when a little nervous. He is reverent about politics, but there are very few other things on which he doesn’t have an endearingly ambivalent or self-deprecating aside to offer. Take football. “I find when a game ends, certainly when the season ends, there’s a good emptiness or a bad emptiness, but either way you’re like, What the fuck was that about?” he says. “Why did I identify so profoundly with something that does not concern me in any way? Like, in this case, I always hated Manning, because the Broncos existed for many years at the upper level of mediocrity and they would get into the playoffs and the Colts would kill them. Now I’m like, Peyton Manning!” He smiles. “It would be like nationalism if there were free agency among nations. ‘Oh, that guy was a Serb, but now he’s French.’ But I was thinking today about what I would want to happen: I hope the Broncos win, and then I hope football is banned next year. I’ll have my Sundays back, and we won’t be involved in this barbaric practice.”

Almost by the time we get in front of a television, at a comrade’s apartment in Greenpoint, it’s clear the Broncos will not win, or even come close. A fumbled first snap above Manning’s head was recovered for a safety, we’re told as we shuffle up the stairs, and even before we’ve reached the landing the conversation has turned away from the game to just how bad the stairwell smells, whether someone might have died on the first floor, and whether that might be part of the landlord’s conspiracy to drive them all out of the building and raise rents. “Are you interested in these questions of political economy?” the host asks as I sit down in the shallow living room, at one end of an audience of leftists with an uncomfortably parallax view of the flat-screen, where Richard Sherman’s Seahawks are absolutely decimating Benjamin Kunkel’s Broncos. “I always feel so bad for the losers,” one of them says.

The other guests are mostly younger, and mostly associated with a younger and more stridently Marxist magazine called Jacobin (a partner with Verso in the publication of Kunkel’s essays). When n+1 appeared ten years ago this fall, it was in a vacuum of dissent, just a couple of years since the collapse of a whole string of Gen-X magazines that were the closest the neoliberal ’90s got to an intellectual counterculture: The Baffler, Hermenaut, Lingua Franca. “It had been this pipe dream on the order of, ‘So we’ll move upstate and found a commune,’ ” Kunkel says, remembering “our first very ugly issue. We wanted it to be like revolutionary red and it ended up being, like, Harvard crimson and I was like, Fuck. That’s the most telling production error that ever occurred. It looked like some in-house Harvard magazine and very ugly. Kind of heroically ugly.” He remembers catching a glimpse of the issue through the window of St. Mark’s Bookshop with Mark Greif, one of the other co-founders (along with Keith ­Gessen, Marco Roth, and, depending on how you count, Chad Harbach and Allison Lorentzen). “It was like looking into the ward of newborns or something. It’s like, ‘That’s our baby! It’s very ugly, but it’s ours.’ ”

And yet, to listen to the Super Bowl party­goers, n+1 became, genuinely, a lifeline to the intellectual left through the George W. Bush years. The people mock-consoling Kunkel for the Broncos’ defeat are not his friends, exactly, but admirers and supporters, something like n+1’s stepchildren and part of a growing radical-intellectual caste (you can only tell so much from a poll question, but millennials do proclaim more faith in socialism than in capitalism these days). They had taken note of some conservative comments that day by Broncos GM (and Kunkel boyhood hero) John Elway, and ribbed him about them; someone had looked up the former quarterback’s political-donation history, and then Tom Brady’s, and then Jerry Seinfeld’s. They discussed male-pattern baldness, the history of toupees in Hollywood, and the Mount Rushmore of bald Marxists, whether to fight against the use of communism as an epithet, how much the video game NBA Live 95 had meant to one of them at age 6 (6!), and how to supplement one’s income by scalping Knicks tickets (harder this year, since the team was awful again). They drank Bud Light Lime and calculated the per-person cost of two pizza pies to the cent. “Is Bruno Mars a person or a band?” asked somebody as halftime approached. “It’s the reverse Jethro Tull,” someone else answered, thinking that clarified things. It felt like college.

Commonism begins as a theory of history that seeks to explain the historical anomaly of sustained economic growth, which didn’t really exist before the Industrial Revolution and has recently shown signs of slowing down. Kunkel sees it as something more like an illusion: A zero-sum trade system suddenly gets a massive boost when we discover that we can extract energy from the Earth in the form of coal and then petroleum, and that we can use that cheap power to exploit whole populations elsewhere in the world (“Coal and colonies,” in the phrasing of historian Kenneth Pomeranz, whom Kunkel likes to cite). The analysis replaces the exploitation of labor with the exploitation of the planet as the pressing sin of capitalism and offers a perfect alarmist logic: Global warming and globalization become natural limits to growth, and the ever-­increasing financialization of our economy something like a panicked effort to engineer profits anyway. Back in the early years of industrialization, John Stuart Mill had come up with a term for an economy that flattened out after a brief boom. He called it a “stationary state.” Kunkel thinks we should reacquaint ourselves with the term. Actually, he thinks we already have, in constant panicked chatter about a darkening economic future, and not just among the ignorant, radical, or apocalyptic: “Larry Summers was talking secular stagnation—that’s like Fed-ese for the stationary state!”

What is maybe most striking about this spiel is that, as a leftist call to arms, it is not really a moral exhortation but a pragmatic one, even fatalistic. It’s part of an extended family of thought that could be called “disaster communism” and proceeds from some commonsense liberal intuitions about the relative health of the planet and stability of the economy—a sort of perfect-pitch radical appeal for a culture much surer that everything is going completely to shit than that the dollar in your pocket should be shared with anyone but the guy who earned it. Which does make you wonder: Is the growth of the radical left a cause for liberal hope or just a mark of accumulating despair?

Commonism’s platform has two main goals: a guaranteed annual income, like that recently proposed by Rolling Stone and up for referendum in Switzerland, and some common ownership of production to provide it, possibly through distributed shares in the S&P 500. But “something that I try to avoid—not because I don’t think it’s very important but because it’s so important and complicated—is political strategy,” says Kunkel. “I don’t know how we’re supposed to go about acquiring the power to do these things. I see my role as more of being one of the people suggesting what it is we should try and do.” His life as an activist has been “mostly as someone who attends demonstrations, for whatever that’s worth, which is not very much,” he says. “Temperamentally, activism never came easily to me. I’m a bookish, relatively shy person who grew up in a small town and who is from the middle of the country and is sort of inclined to be polite and to get along with people and also to work by himself.”

In Utopia, Kunkel calls the publication of Indecision, which tells the story of a ­liberal-arts grad at loose ends in New York who wakes up politically when he suddenly travels to Latin America, “the worst depressive episode of my adult life … I remember thinking of the poet Philip Larkin’s line about bursting ‘into fulfillment’s desolate attic.’ ” The book got nice reviews, perhaps too nice. “I probably felt both that Indecision was really quite a good comic first novel and that it was overpraised,” he says. “There was this brief moment when people who wrote blogs also cared about so-called literary fiction. Now it seems they’ve moved on.”

“He got a little bit of the Strokes treatment,” Franzen says, by which he means, presumably, the kind of fawning that inevitably spawns backlash. “But it’s funny,” says Kunkel, “there was nobody in particular in the media I felt annoyed with, really, except for maybe Emily Gould, who is now a friend and the fiancée of one of my closest friends.” That closest friend is Gessen, engaged to the former Gawker editor who over the course of six months in the fall of 2006 and the winter of 2007 kept a sort of Kunkel beat, calling Indecision “last year’s hypedest literary debut,” Kunkel himself a “disputed book-hottie,” and complained about having to “waste so much time trying to determine whether to deem Kunkel ‘only hot compared to Foer brothers hot’ or ‘only if you have some kind of flip flop fetish hot.’ ” He had gotten a reputation as a cad about town, and did occasionally do things like respond to casual insults in the Observer with letters to the editor explaining that the writer may have been just a bit bitter that he’d declined to blurb her book. But this was the era of Gawker as bell-jar fishbowl, when snarkiness that soon seemed like provinciality sounded like knowingness, and Kunkel was, in a weird way, the unfortunate goldfish. If you could somehow trawl the Gchat logs of those years, he’d probably look like the most famous writer in the world, especially among the city’s snippy editorial assistants.

But Indecision “felt like kind of an experiment,” he says. “I hadn’t thought of myself as a comic writer, and I felt like by writing in this voice I could shed a bookish style.” Later he says, “I think a lot of people have an easier time sort of writing with their whole self than I do.”

He began seeing a psychoanalyst—“Yes, I have long wished to publicize that,” he jokes—“and one of the paradoxical results of analysis was that it led me to feel not that I wanted to leave analysis but that I wanted to leave New York,” he says. “And the prevalence of psychoanalysis in Buenos Aires is probably a bit of a myth. Sometimes you can get this impression of the South American upper classes: They’ve all got breast implants and a Lacanian shrink. I mean, in my neighborhood—far from plastic surgery, I’m the only person using moisturizer.”

“Argentina’s waves of economic trouble, its notorious squandering of potential, have made it an irresistible object lesson in how not to run a country,” he wrote in an essay on the country’s bicentennial. And yet even the failures, both the neoliberal and socialist ones, were encouraging in their way. “To live in Buenos Aires when I did seems to have slightly enlarged my sense of historical possibility,” he writes in the new book.

New York, by contrast, has “always seemed like a bit too much,” he tells me. “The primary thing I think is just time and space—it’s almost just a mathematical thing. There were too many people in New York and it required too much money and took too much time to do things that weren’t writing. When Occupy was going on, New York seemed pretty exciting—it gave me the idea that these ideas might do something. But once they shut down Occupy, we didn’t know what to do. ‘They’re not going to let us occupy public space, so what are we going to do?’ That’s one of the things the left needs to figure out. Once they’ve blocked one avenue, how do we go down another?”

Oh, right: Occupy. What was that? It was, yes, probably the biggest anti-capitalist movement this country has seen in two generations. It was also probably bigger than anyone on the left had any right to imagine at the outset. And yet, as just about everyone I talked to about Kunkel and n+1 and the shape of dissent in the Obama era reminded me, it was a movement built around anarchism, not socialism, a protest of politics as much as a political protest, and a much, much, much bigger deal than any more programmatically leftist response to the crisis and bailout. It wasn’t an accident, that is, that Occupy didn’t produce an agenda. It was a key, since people tend to express frustration much more fluidly than they collaborate. And since politics are often a way to feel superior as much as a way to engage or advance ideology.

“Given the nature of our political system, it’s really hard for dissent to be much more than symbolic,” Kunkel says. “The left, in any foreseeable future, is not going to come to power. But I often think of this great New Yorker article years ago by Michael Specter about peta. Everybody says, ‘Oh, they’re just these crazy people, and I don’t think we should be cruel to animals, but those people are insane, and they do these stupid stunts.’ It’s helpful to have some people you can write off as crazies while moving in their direction. And I’m now old enough to remember when the Cold War just seemed like a permanent geological feature of the world. And then it just vanished. Then people would talk about how Japan was going to be a wealthier economy than the United States in ten years. It would have seemed totally insane that there was going to be a black president and that gay people were going to get married,” he says. “The younger you are, the less likely you are to associate the left with the Soviet Union and the more likely you are to understand capitalism, especially in its American variant, as something that rewards people very unequally and very unjustly.

“But I’m a moody person,” he says. “Sometimes I read the paper and I think, What is the point of this? This is just, ‘Get out as early as you can and don’t have any kids yourself.’ And other times I think the nonviability of capitalism is becoming pretty clear to people. No doubt some really terrible things will happen before any fundamental change takes place. But I think that there’s a chance.” He pauses. “The depressing thing about the Super Bowl was that there was just no chance for the Broncos. What makes a good game is if there’s a chance. And I feel like there’s a chance.”

*This article appeared in the March 10, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.

Benjamin Kunkel, Novelist Turned Intellectual