Zombie Keynes in the 21st Century

Darryl Campbell explains why John Maynard Keynes would have loved the hook-up culture, BLDGBLOG, and Lady Gaga.

John Maynard Keynes — economist, philosopher, and member of the Bloomsbury Group — came back from the dead on September 14, 2008, the day that Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy. Over the course of the next week, the rest of the investment banking world collapsed, the stock market lost a tenth of its value, and suddenly, free-market economics seemed radically out of touch. From DC to Beijing, Keynes was back in a big way, and publications both online (The Huffington Post, Salon, Bloomberg) and in print (The New York Times, the New York Review of Books) were doing their best to make him a household name. As Paul Krugman put it, we were in a “Keynesian moment.”

But there was much more to Keynes than monetary policy. And since we’re officially in a Golden Age of Keynes, it seems perfectly appropriate to ask: how else might John Maynard Keynes have been perfectly at home in 2010?


I. Hooking Up

The “hook-up culture” has raised plenty of alarm bells in the media, from The Boston Globe’s pop neuroscience (which reports that women’s’ brain chemistry makes them more susceptible to post-hook-up depression), to the cultural conservatism of Psychology Today (which argues that hook-ups threaten traditional marriage). Maybe we’re not on the brink of Chilean-style public orgies, but the world of interpersonal relationships is undergoing a minor revolution all the same.

Keynes would have fit right in. He was part of the Bloomsbury group, which, as his biographer Robert Skidelsky put it, was a “sexual merry-go-round,” in which “bourgeois sexual conventions were damned as prime examples of cant.” The statistically obsessed Keynes actually kept running logs of his sexual partners from 1901 to 1915, listing his partners by initials (DG for Duncan Grant, his on-again, off-again paramour) or by general description (“16-year-old,” “Jew boy”). In 1925, he married the ballerina Lydia Lopokova, but kept a lover until 1927.

In other words, nothing about Keynes’s terrible twenties (he was born in 1883) would raise many eyebrows in post-Lehman Brothers America. In fact, he could have easily explained his sexuality on Facebook: “It’s complicated.”

II. Ambiguous Sexual Identity

As a freshman in college, Keynes fell in love with a classmate named Arthur Hobhouse, and over the next seventeen years Keynes had a series of male lovers and no small amount of casual sex with other men. He wrote love letters, some sappy (“Despite your treasonable thoughts, I very much want to see you again… Anyhow get well, keep honest, and — if possible — like me. If you never come to love, yet I shall have your sympathy.”), some rather pathetic (“Dearest Duncan, I came deeply needing some open sign of affection, and although I felt you had affection for me underneath, you seemed sodden and had none to give away to me.”); he referred to one of his lovers as a “frivolous young butterfly.”

Yet no one ever called him homosexual, and neither did Keynes identify as such. At best, he called his sexual encounters “Higher Sodomy,” which conflated sexuality with a definite air of classism; as his Bloomsbury colleague Lytton Strachey observed, Keynes et al. were only doing “what all of Us — the terribly intelligent, the unhappy, the artistic, the divided, the overwhelmed — most intimately worship, and most passionately, most vainly, love.” And Bertrand Russell, one of Keynes’s classmates at Cambridge, flatly denied that any “homosexual relations” took place, even though there were plenty of Cantabrigians who slept with each other, many of whom Russell knew.

Strip away the intellectual pretenses, and Keynes becomes an MSM — a man who has sex with men, but who does not openly identify as gay or bisexual (see also the “down-low” culture among African-American men). Keynes did not really lead a double life — his friends and family generally supported his sexual proclivities. But he continued to flirt with young men well into his sixties, even though, strictly speaking, he had remained monogamous with Lydia since 1927.

Keynes’s (relatively) hypocrisy-free lifestyle seems moderate when compared to those of Idaho senator Larry Craig, “Tickle Me” Eric Massa, and anti-gay activist George Rekers. But like his economic theories, his lifestyle choices seem perfectly at home in the twenty-first century.

III. Architecture Blogs

Keynes was the sole academic in an artists’ collective, and counted painters, authors, and art critics among his close friends. “The ancient world knew that the public needed circuses as well as bread,” wrote Keynes in 1936, and he encouraged the British government to fund theater groups, symphony orchestras, and dance troupes. His arts boosterism gained enough attention that in April of 1942 Keynes was appointed the chairman of Britain’s Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA).

But most of all, Keynes thought that the state should support architecture. One year after he became the chairman of CEMA, he wrote, “The lack of buildings is disastrous… we do have to equip, almost from the beginning, the material frame for the arts of civilisation and delight.” And, later: “I plead for a certain moderation from our controllers and a few crumbs of mortar…We look forward to the time when the theatre and the concert-hall and the gallery will be a living element in everyone’s upbringing.”

So to get in that properly Keynesian mood, not only should you be reading your Krugman and your Financial Times, you should also be browsing sites like BLDGBLOG, eVolo, and A Daily Dose of Architecture.

IV. The I-Banking Lifestyle

By the time he was 30, Keynes made the modern equivalent of $200,000 a year, half of which came from investments; when he was 50, he made closer to $750,000 a year. He also got screwed by the markets once in a while. In 1920, he lost about $1 million (in today’s dollars) on a bad currency speculation. And two stock market crashes destroyed his net worth: it dropped by about $1.5 million in the 1929 crash, and by $13 million in the 1938 crash.

cezanneSuch a personal balance sheet might be familiar to the modern investment banker. But Keynes’s spending would be even more so, from his generous patronage of the arts to his multiple residences, which included a country estate and a London pied-à-terre.

Keynes also had similar tastes to the current I-banking crowd when it came to art: he bought paintings not just by his Bloomsbury friends, but also by the masters: Picasso, Delacroix, Gauguin, and, according to his friends, “the worst picture Cézanne ever painted.” In one whirlwind weekend of picture-buying, he spent nearly $800,000 in today’s dollars — which, while it might not rival the $106.5 million paid for a Picasso earlier this year, is still impressive.

V. Lady Gaga

I’ll admit, it is a stretch to suggest that, were Keynes alive today, he’d have The Fame Monster on his iPod. But let’s review the evidence: Keynes loved theater and dance, belonged to artistic groups (Bloomsbury, CEMA, various Cambridge clubs), and even hung out with part-time performance artists (“Bloomsberries” Virginia Woolf and Duncan Grant perpetrated the 1910 Dreadnought hoax, for instance). He also believed that “the permanent problem of the human race” was not how to solve its material desires, but how people ought “to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for [them].” In other words, like John Adams, he studied economics so that others could study art, music, and other beautiful things. In other words, he was ultimately an aesthete.

But more than that, he seems like a kindred spirit for Lady Gaga. After all, Keynes was “anxious above all to avoid stating a conventional opinion,” according to one of his students, and saw himself as nothing short of an intellectual, cultural, and sexual revolutionary. Once his career took off, he adopted an entirely new persona, to the point that he changed his wardrobe (though he insisted on wearing handmade socks and silk underwear) and even tried to modulate his voice — although he did both of those things in order to look more normal, not less so. He was a global superstar and part of a cultural aristocracy, and had the ego to match. All things that could describe Lady Gaga. It’s probably farfetched to imagine someone as “establishment” as Keynes ever straying into the orbit of a pop music superstar, but still — doesn’t Keynes seem equally at home in 2010 as he was in 1936?

Darryl Campbell is the managing editor at The Bygone Bureau. He once got called an "elitist young author" by John Stossel, which he considers one of his top-ten lifetime accomplishments so far. Others include writing for The Christian Science Monitor and the Chronicle of Higher Education, paying off his car loan a year early, and getting a Twitter account. Send him an email.