Universal Man: The Seven Lives of John Maynard Keynes Paperback – 8 Oct 2015
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‘Succinct, lively and well-written biography … Done with great panache, in a volume that will introduce Keynes and his strange world to a new generation of readers’ Evening Standard
‘An amusing, elegant and provocative writer … great fun. By focusing on Keynes as a private man and public figure rather than an academic economist, it is possible to see him as the last and greatest flowering of Edwardian Liberalism’ Dominic Sandbrook, Sunday Times
‘Daringly but sensibly, this renowned biographer, Davenport-Hines, has studied Keynes from seven points of view – not one of them as an economist … a rewarding and fascinating book’ Daily Mail
‘A treat… We read endlessly about Keynes the economist. But he was so much more and this unputdownable book explores the man’ Independent
‘Treating Keynes’s lives as interesting and valuable for their own sake gives them extra vividness … With a keen eye for telling detail and social connections, Davenport-Hines brilliantly conveys what one might call the peripheral atmospherics of Keynes’s existence … Done with grace and insight’ Robert Skidelsky, Observer
‘This thoughtful biography does justice both to Keynes’s idiosyncrasies and to his influence … with wit and grace, as well as a good deal of scholarly digging … incisive and thoughtful … The book conveys its own vision of this wholly extraordinary and undeniably idiosyncratic figure with persuasive artistry and conviction’ Financial Times
‘[A] first-class book, which I cannot praise highly enough … This admirable book does Keynes justice’ Literary Review
‘Worthy of its brilliant subject, ‘Universal Man’ manages to expound Keynes’s ideas while shining with his own optimistic spirit. Lively, funny, original, and beautifully written’ A. N. Wilson
‘Davenport-Hines heroically styles [Keynes] in this affectionate and occasionally delicious general biography …refreshingly unsanctimonious’ TLS
‘A rich story, brilliantly told’, Paul Johnson, The Spectator, Books of the Year
About the Author
Richard Davenport-Hines won the Wolfson Prize for History for his first book, ‘Dudley Docker’. He is an adviser to the ‘Oxford Dictionary of National Biography’ and has also written biographies of W.H. Auden and Marcel Proust. His most recent book, ‘An English Affair’ was published in 2013. A Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and the Royal Society of Literature, he reviews for the ‘Guardian’, ‘Spectator’ and ‘Literary Review’.
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It's true RDH was writing against the background of monumental studies of Keynes by economists (e.g., Moggridge, Sir Roy Harrod, and Skidelsky) and at times he shows good historical feel e.g., writing about the Bloomsbury group or Keynes's work as an envoy in the USA, … but the portrait isn't rounded. As well as being a polymath leading a fascinating life, Keynes was a very great economist … who wrote wonderfully. For my taste RDH's portrait fails because e.g., it doesn't flesh out Keynes' arguments during the Great Depression (see “Essays in Persuasion”), it doesn't showcase his superb writing style, it understates the sublety of his thinking about investing (chapter 12 of “The General Theory” is not mentioned!), it understates his work on probability and monetary theory, it mis-hits when referring to (Keynes' questionable arguments about) the "Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren" (a 1930 essay). The book isn't chronological, and deals with a huge tapestry, but I was disappointed not to hear more about e.g., Frank Ramsey, Sir Dennis Robertson, Wittgenstein and Sir Isaac Newton. I was surprised by the brevity of comments about Lydia Lopokova.
As an alternative: try Milo Keynes' excellent edited “Essays on John Maynard Keynes”. Published 1975 it's not dated badly and gives the more rounded view I prefer.
The first chapter is a brief introductory summary, painting Keynes as an altruist throughout his life. The second deals with his education at Eton and Cambridge, child prodigy in the former, brilliant Apostle in the latter, where he met Strachey and Woolf. Cambridge lay the foundation for many of his abiding ideas about the good life, the cultured and civilised society. The third chapter sketches his rise as a government official and his growing influence as a young tyro, particularly his role during and directly after WW1. It sketches his life as a civil servant who had the ear of those in power. Keynes was also a great joiner or leader of committees and clubs and societies; he was a journalist, broadcaster, lecturer, he had fingers in many pies, and this, his more public role, is dealt with in the fourth chapter. The fifth chapter - 'Lover' - has attracted more prurient interest, mainly because it outlines the numerous gay affairs he had as a young man - notably with Strachey, Grant and Garnett within the Bloomsbury Group - and with many others from all walks of life, He had a healthy, unashamed appetite for causal sex as well as for more sustained gay relationships, at a time when it was illegal. Yet he surprised all his friends when in middle age he fell in love with the ballerina Lydia Lopokova: their marriage was genuine, long lasting and loving - Davenport Hines acknowledges Lydia's care for her husband in his later years (he had a heart condition) which probably prolonged his life considerably. The sixth chapter deals with his active role in promoting the arts: he helped found the Arts Council; he was instrumental in creating the Arts Theatre in Cambridge (a portrait of him and Lydia can be seen in the theatre today); he took every opportunity to promote 'civilised values' through arts institutions and broadcasting and in his writings. The final chapter moves us back to politics and economics, giving us a sense of the life-sapping negotiations he led with the Americans after the war that formed the Bretton Woods agreement, so crucial to Britain's survival at a time when we were almost bankrupted as a nation. These overlapping shifts of emphasis build up a picture of a remarkable man, one of the most influential of his age.
This is a popularising, introductory biography, It's not intended to be a cradle-to-grave account, and it would be wrong to criticise it for not covering the ground exhaustively. If you want that, go to Robert Skidelsky's work. I came to it as a result of doing a short course on the Bloomsbury Group, and it was adequate for my needs. Despite containing a lot of material beyond my interests, I skipped nothing because Davenport-Hines never loses sight of the needs of his general reader.
Davenport-Hines endeavours to do justice to each of these seven aspects of the intuitive genius who was Maynard Keynes, and mostly succeeds. The biographer writes lucidly and with wisdom. Throughout, K shines as 'a disciplined logician with a capacity for glee who persuaded people, seduced them, subverted old ideas, installed new ones ... He was England's paramount example of the scholar as man of action.'
K was an urbane Edwardian, at home everywhere because of the confident breadth of his intellect, and because he was sure that his patrician optimism - the enduring product of Eton, King's College Cambridge, and the elite Apostles and Bloomsbury groups - was good for the world.
Davenport-Hines is an unashamed admirer of the late Victorian creation of a committed, 'socially elastic' and impartial 'governing order that was one of the glories of history ... [which] represented the acme of civilised organisation', ie the British civil service (!). The writer conveys something of the mystique of this broadly uncorrupt and long-termist cadre when he adds that 'One could feel pride in being governed by such men.' K was very much one of these clubbable 'ins', no matter how much he appeared at times to be an outsider.
No anachronistic apologies here for gender bias or paternalism, though there is (insufficient) acknowledgement that these high administrators 'disdained entrepreneurship', and 'spread timidity, low productivity and economic failure.'
Indeed, the whole of K's economics can be seen as providing the intellectual justification for empowering the emerging class of high-minded technocrats 'as a new brand of world leader' - leading to the post-war belief (ridiculed decades later in the penetrating satire of 'Yes, Minister'), that the 'man from the ministry' knows best, and he (or occasionally, she) will correct the social and economic imbalances brought about by short-sighted, selfish businessmen and politicians.
Under K's brilliantly argued and relentless assault - starting with his disarmingly penetrative 'Economic Consequences of the Peace', and culminating in his revolutionary 'General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money' - the swash-buckling Victorian age of more or less unrestrained free markets came to an end, and was replaced by the more compassionate, albeit bureaucrat-dominated, era of the managed economy (both at home and internationally) ... which turned out to be perfectly fitted both for war and for the 'Butskellite' socialism of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.
The new Keynesian orthodoxy was that in times of unemployment, government investment in infrastructure should remedy underinvestment and increase domestic demand. Meanwhile, free trade must be maintained, but within a framework of permanent regulations and controlled exchange rates. While this placed great power in the hands of the emerging new world order of international institutions, K also inveighed against the habitual secrecy of policy-makers and had a 'touching optimism' that these elite technocratic globalisers (a breed of far-sighted sages, not unlike himself) could correct wild swings in economic activity.
An iconclast from the age of 40 (when he rejected 'classical', pure free trade economics), K fought against persistent illusions, such as the belief that Britain was a trading nation which exported manufactured goods to pay for food and raw material imports: in fact, between 1822 and the 1930s the national trade account had been in deficit every single year. Banking, shipping and earnings from foreign investment ('invisible earnings') accounted for the overall favourable balance of payments.
As he said to a banker in 1924, 'I seek to improve the machinery of Society, not to overturn it.' He deplored the harmful aspects and inefficiences of capitalism, but was very far from having any sympathies with socialism and was not interested in what became the welfare state: 'individual initiative was to him humane: it enriched character ... the arts ... as well as enterprise' He realised, though he regretted, that a return to the Edwardian age was impossible: 'We used to think that private ambition and compound interest would between them carry us to paradise' - a typically succinct and witty appreciation of the need for change, in order to preserve the governing order.
However, it is not the big picture perspective in which this portrait shines - Davenport-Hines is consciously not trying to compete with Robert Skidelsky's intellectual, tour de force, three volume biography - but in bringing to life the human side of K. Alobgsise the policy-maker we see K's intimate and habitual inter-connections with the Bloomsbury group, in whose houses or arms he relaxed from the rigours of trying to persuade the world to adapt to new realities. Davenport-Hines gives us a convincing portrait of K the multiple-man - and the research and breadth of reference is masterly - though I would have liked more revealing anecdotes.
The long 'Lover' section can be tedious, with the recounting of so many homosexual trysts by 'the iron copulating machine' - which is how James Strachey described K to Rupert Brooke after seeing K's 'statistics of his sexual conquests between 1906 and 1915'. Davenport-Hines does not speculate why K should have compiled, and then shown to his gay friends, such a list. Nor does any but the briefest mention of love or its close relatives, tenderness and affection, enter into the tale of K's sex life with men. However, hints of strong emotional engagement are given in the reluctantly approving section on K's affair and marriage (in 1925) to the exotic, coquettish and ultimately reliable, Russian prima ballerina, Lydia Lopokova. Against the odds (and against the prejudices of Bloomsbury) the marriage was a success, as both parties submitted with good grace to the necessary degree of mutual happiness and toleration (and Lydia unselfishly gave all her attention to K). Though Davenport-Hines claims that 'marital contentment narrowed his outlook and temper', it is not clear what the author means by the narrowing of K's 'temper'.
The 'Connoisseur' section, supposedly about K's art collecting, is largely a too-detailed account of his social life, post-Bloomsbury.
In the final section, 'Envoy', Davenport-Hines describes how K battled for a new and benign capitalist world order which would be constrained by currency rules (policed by the IMF), with post-war reconstruction financed by the body which came to be known as the World Bank - the marriage of European liberal intellect with muscular American generosity. Of course, K did not create these bodies alone, and was very much the equal partner of US luminaries Harry Dexter White and Dean Acheson. Anglo-American mutual animosity and misapprehension went hand in hand with creativity, and it was very hard work, especially for a man with cardiac disease.
Frank Lee, a member of the UK Treasury delegation praised his 'matchless chief' in December 1944: 'occasionally he over-played his hand and occasionally wore himself out struggling for points which were not worth winning. But in general ... his industry was prodigious, his resilience and continual optimism were a constant wonder.'
The result was a resounding success: the Bretton Woods system devised largely by Keynes and White lasted through to the 1970s, when the Monetarism of Milton Friedman partially took over.
Simultaneously, in the final months of 1945, K rendered one final service, which was particular to the UK: he negotiated a huge loan from the USA, which replaced the wartime lend-lease arrangements. This was achieved despite a wide gulf between the allies: Britain was exhausted, broke and expected that the USA would waive its enormous debts; while the victorious USA saw no reason to subsidise the British Empire. With ministerial authority, K had already agreed the convertibility of sterling by the end of 1946 (later deferred to 1947). Against strong opposition in the USA and (for the opposite reasons) at home in the UK, K negotiated a loan of $3.8 billion (equivalent to $56 billion in 2014 values), at interest of 2 %, to start in 1951 (this debt was finally paid off in 2006!). In addition, about 85% of the lend-lease debt was cancelled. K thought that the deal was, on balance, a good one, and was dismayed by the rough ingratitude of most of his compatriots (who failed to realise how weak Britain was and that US hegemony was here to stay). Furthermore, without American money, the Atlee government's programme of industrial nationalisation and creation of the National Health Service would have been impossible.
K spent his last reserves of strength arguing vigorously (and successfully) in favour of the negotiations in the House of Lords and in the press, against a battery of imperialists, socialists and Daily Mail populists. He made one more trip to Washington, where he collapsed. He returned to Britain where died at home of a heart attack in April 1946, having selflessly sacrificed himself by overwork.