Image: Unsplash
Image: Unsplash

A review of ‘Keynes: Economist Philosopher Statesman’ by Robert Skidelsky

John Maynard Keynes was perhaps the dominant figure of 20th century economics, serenely ensconced in the eye of a raging storm of upheaval in the field which he almost single-handedly stirred up and which remains active to this day. Moreover, Keynes embodied the ideal of the refined English intellectual, marrying sparkling academic success at a host of elite institutions with an impeccable record of service in government. Even to this day, his thought remains the bedrock of macroeconomics. When the 2008 financial crisis struck, Keynes’ remedies were the set of tools which most policymakers fell upon in a desperate attempt to prod their laggard economies to life. A life of such import deserves a chronicler of consummate skill, capable of delving into details without losing sight of the broader historical setting of which Keynes was but one of many dazzling luminaries. Luckily, he has found one in Robert Skidelsky, Emeritus Professor of Political Economy at the University of Warwick. This biography is exceptionally well-written: exhaustively researched though not at all exhausting to read.

It must be said that Skidelsky is sublime when traversing the many ridges and grooves of Keynes’ thought.

“When examining these passages, one has the sense of an expert archaeologist leading us through a maze of catacombs, entirely in his element having spent years traversing their every nook and cranny”

When examining these passages, one has the sense of an expert archaeologist leading us through a maze of catacombs, entirely in his element having spent years traversing their every nook and cranny. In his preface, Skidelsky contends that he considers himself primarily a historian with economic expertise. In a work like this, such a distinction has three major benefits. Firstly, because Skidelsky manages to place economics in its rightful place at the nexus of the arts and the sciences. Similarly, Skidelsky is particularly attuned to Keynes’ contributions outside of economics, as a thinker more generally, highlighting fascinating pieces which may have gone unnoticed in a more specialised work, such as a fascinating undergraduate essay on Burke. The most beneficial reason, though, is that we are graced with astonishingly incisive remarks about the monumental decades that formed the backdrop of such a tumultuous life. Thus in a biography of an economist we have judgements such as: ‘T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound were the authentic voices of the 1920s’.

What was especially admirable about Keynes was his ability to combine virtuosic mastery of theory with a decided practical bent. The annals of history are honeycombed with examples of great thinkers who have been left utterly adrift after descending from their ivory towers – Adam Smith’s absence of mind was legendary. By contrast, Keynes proved adept at almost every task he took up, from pig farming to drafting budgets. The man’s administrative capabilities are especially worth noting – he fit into the Treasury like a foot to a ballet slipper. Thus he could provide both a vision and a plan; he could both glimpse the Holy Land and draw up a map to get there.

Still, Keynes was not infallible. Throughout his life, he betrayed a marked strain of intellectual arrogance which, however justified, contributed to a decidedly supercilious manner. Invariably he reacted to those that failed to live up to his exacting standards with derision. Often his tongue ran quicker than his mind, and the pages of this book are littered with examples of his acid wit. Much of Keynes’ approach to life was undergirded by his conviction that academics were the authors of progress. This is perfectly encapsulated by his missive (perhaps the only thing he and Hayek ever agreed upon) that all policymakers and politicians are really acting at the behest of some ‘academic scribbler’ of days gone past. The issue is that this statement ignores the obvious corollary. If they are indeed in thrall to the ideas of one thinker, or a particular group of them, then there are thousands upon thousands of thinkers whom they are at the same time entirely ignoring. The key point is that the pure scholar, with no foothold in the realms of policy or politics, has absolutely no impact on whether their ideas will be implemented short of raw persuasive power.

In terms of prose, perhaps the only issue is that occasionally one stumbles upon a rather cumbersome sentence or inelegant phrase; progression along the smooth stone path becomes interrupted by scatterings of gravel. But these are luckily few and far between. Profound statements and incisive summations pepper the pages. I fail to comprehend why so many biographers opt for the cleaving of their work into separate compartments with different headings – Skidelsky, alas, is no exception. The result is that one is left with the feeling that this is not so much a single flowing work as a set of loosely connected essays cobbled together. In a similar vein, it also seems to suffer from a curious garbling of tones. A useful display of this is that Skidelsky frequently refers to Keynes as both ‘Maynard’ and ‘Keynes’, often on the very same page. The general rule is that ‘Keynes’ is the thinker, while ‘Maynard’ is the man. Still, the inability to settle on one method of reference shows that Skidelsky in his own mind has separated the admittedly greatly multifaceted man into separate beings. Ineluctably, then, that is how Keynes appears on the page.

While not at all lacking in admiration for his subject (this is the condensed version of a full 3 volume work after all) Skidelsky sometimes appears perhaps somewhat lacking in sympathy for the emotional turmoils that raged within.

“It may be that this serenity was simply the nature of the man, but one has to wonder about the potential chasms of despair or swamps of self-loathing that may have been prominent in his journey through life”

It may be that this serenity was simply the nature of the man, but one has to wonder about the potential chasms of despair or swamps of self-loathing that may have been prominent in his journey through life. After all, here was a man who was for much of his adult life exclusively homosexual at a time when such inclinations could wreck the most glittering of careers and lead to isolation, penury, or worse. Here was a man whose primary group of friends, the Bloomsbury group of artists and publicists, continually saw fit to ridicule his manner and his aesthetic judgement – or more specifically his lack thereof – and later to castigate his wife for being uncouth and unrefined, despite the fact they received substantial support, particularly of a financial variety, from Keynes over the decades. To be given more of a sense of Keynes as a flesh and blood human with all our attendant frailties, would have been welcome.

So, in the end, what to make of the man? In perhaps his most incisive summation, Skidelsky proclaims that while many economists to have followed after Keynes have been anti-Keynesian, none have been pro-Keynesian. Yet it is always worth remembering that the vast majority of Keynes’ influence on the world, even in his chosen realm of economic policy, has been exerted only after his death. In his own lifetime, he was all too often marginalised, isolated, and ignored. Even Roosevelt, whose New Deal was noted for its marked Keynesian elements, saw the man himself as an obscure mystic, whose constant bombardment of advice on how to run his administration was not looked upon with especial fondness. Thus, though implicitly, this work is a useful meditation on the limits of intellectuals in their ability to shape the direction of society. Shaping posterity is one thing; the present is quite another matter.


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