RBE I Workshop: Mario Cedrini, "What Was Keynes Fighting For? A Maussian Perspective of Keynes's Economic Diplomacy"

A Historical Perspective

Collegio Carlo Alberto, Moncalieri (Torino, Italy)
April 16, 2010

Dipartimento SEMeQ, Università del Piemonte Orientale “Amedeo Avogadro” – Alessandria, Novara, Vercelli

What Was Keynes Fighting For? A Maussian Perspective of Keynes's Economic Diplomacy


What was Keynes fighting for? The last volume of Skidelsky’s (2000) biography of John Maynard Keynes has raised a wide debate on the real aims of Keynes’s economic diplomacy in the years of World War II (see in particular Skidelsky 2001, Boughton 2002, De Long 2002, Moggridge 2002, Pressnell 2003, Vines 2003, Turnell and Harcourt 2004, Newton 2006). Skidelsky’s book, John Maynard Keynes. Fighting for Britain 1937-1946, deals mostly with wartime and the negotiations of the Bretton Woods agreement and of the American Loan to a financially exhausted Britain at the end of the war. It discusses “Keynes’s part in Britain’s struggle for survival”, his fight “to preserve Britain as a Great Power against the United States” (Skidelsky 2000, p. xv) and their determination to use financial strength as a means of compelling a weak Britain to dismantle the Empire and take part in the desired free-trade post-war world. The story, in Skidelsky’s (2001, p. xiii) own words, of “Keynes’s patriotism”, of his defence of Britain’s “national interests”, Fighting for Britain sees Keynes as “the Last of the Romans” (De Cecco 1977, p. 18), who attempts to “construct an international economic environment which would help Britain to adjust to a lesser role” (ib., p. 23). A life spent trying to revive London’s pre-war international leadership, Keynes the “history-taker” (ib.) of the years of World War II becomes, in Boughton’s radical interpretation, the “defender of the Empire” (2002, p. 12), his presumed “resistance to multilateralism” being “grounded in the need to preserve Britain’s special status through its central role in the Empire and its bilateral relationship with the United States” (ib.).

The “Fighting for Britain” view is not undisputed. The “good, coherent narrative” (Newton 2000, p. 190) of Keynes’s economic diplomacy offered by Roy Harrod (1951) in his biography of the Cambridge economist is endorsed by scholars who emphasize Keynes’s success in creating a consensus on the need of a new international order, embodying the results of the revolutionary analysis of the General Theory. This line of thought insists on the similarities between White’s and Keynes’s reform plans for the postwar world (Gardner 1980; Ikenberry 1993; De Long 2002) or drives attention on Keynes’s efforts to come to an agreement “even when the sacrifice involved his own proposals” (Williamson 1983, p. 542). Keynes the “British” economist of the “Fighting for Britain” approach is thus replaced by Keynes the “American” economist (Ferrari Bravo 2002) of what could be named the “Fighting despite Britain” view, which sees Keynes fighting for a new enlightened order despite Britain’s difficulties to play a major role in it. Not unexpectedly, a relevant marker distinguishing the two views is the interpretation of Keynes’s role in the American loan negotiations. Whilst the “Fighting for Britain” view regards Keynes’s request for a generous American grant to Britain in 1945 as his drastic attempt to save his country from financial dependence on the U.S., the “Fighting despite Britain” view sees the final result of the negotiations as the tribute Keynes’s political naïveté should necessarily pay to “the greater power of the United States” (De Long 2002, p. 160), rather than a symbol of “American malevolence” (ib.), or even come to describe it, enthusiastically, as “the capstone of the great constructive effort on which [Keynes] embarked in 1941 to create a world-wide multilateral financial system” (Clarke 1982, p. 6).

The rediscovery of Keynes’s international economics in the times of the financial crisis clearly indicates that the “Fighting despite Britain” is right to consider the establishment of a “sounder political economy between all nations” (CW 25, p. 43) as the real target of Keynes’s theoretical contributions and practical diplomacy. Still, as the supporters of the “Fighting for Britain” approach point out, Keynes’s disappointment with both the final settlement of Bretton Woods and the American Loan can scarcely be undervalued (see Newton 2000). This paper aims to foster an alternative explanation of Keynes’s diplomacy. After revisiting Keynes’s proposals for the 1945 Loan negotiations to the light of his whole work as an international economist committed to the cause of global multilateralism, we suggest rethinking Keynes’s fighting for Britain as a constituent part, not a minor but a major one, of his fighting for the whole world, and the true telltale sign of the defeat of his overall reform project. The novelty of our approach is in the use of insights from the anthropology and sociology of gift-giving as a means of counteracting the traditional tendency to downsize the theoretical relevance of Keynes’s call for an American gift, rather than an American loan, to Britain. A “fighting through Britain” view of Keynes’s diplomacy is thus proposed, which sees Keynes’s heretic request for an American gift to Britain as his last attempt to cope with the dilemmas engendered by the interdependence and complexity which characterize international economic relations, and an unequivocal symbol of his preference for an international order using discipline as a means of promoting freedom and national policy space.

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