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Enigma of CapitalCutting Marx’s cloth to make a different suit

The Enigma of Capital is a book with a purpose that, however, leaves key questions hanging in the air, says Gerry Gold

David Harvey is a renowned geographer and an influential man. He is Distinguished Professor at the City University of New York, director of of its Center for Place, Culture and Politics, and author of numerous books. Harvey’s been an anthropologist and, according to the CV attached to The Enigma of Capital, and the Crises of Capitalism, he is “the world's most cited academic geographer”.

He has also been teaching his course on Karl Marx's Capital for nearly 40 years, sometimes two or three times a year, and has consequently acquired a deep and detailed knowledge of the work. His 13-part series of video lectures on the first volume of that most famous of books has been downloaded more than 250,000 times since 2008.

Harvey has reached a status approaching intellectual stardom greatly enhanced by the eruption of the global financial and economic crisis in 2007. His new book has a purpose, which is clearly set out in the title of the last chapter “What is to be Done? And Who is Going to Do It?” and amplified in the text:

“The political unification of diverse struggles within the labour movement and among those whose cultural as well as political-economic assets have been dispossessed appears to be crucial for any movement to change the course of human history. The dream would be a grand alliance of all the deprived and the dispossessed everywhere. The aim would be to control the organisation, production and distribution of the surplus product for the long-term benefit of all.”

A few pages later Harvey leaves us in no doubt about the tasks ahead, drawing critically important conclusions from his broad-ranging review:

“There is no way that an anti-capitalist social order can be constructed without seizing state power, radically transforming it and reworking the constitutional and institutional framework that currently supports private property, the market system and endless capital accumulation.”

And he gives a sharp rebuke to the many extreme localists who inhabit the outer fringes of the movement against globalisation:

“Inter-state competition and geoeconomic and geopolitical struggles over everything from trade and money to questions of hegemony are also either far too significant to be left to local social movements or cast aside as too big to contemplate. How the architecture of the state-finance nexus is to be reworked, along with the pressing question of the common measure of value given by money, cannot be ignored in the quest to construct alternatives to capitalist political economy. To ignore the state and the dynamics of the inter-state system is therefore a ridiculous idea for any anti-capitalist revolutionary movement to accept.”

There is much more in the book that we can learn from since there’s a great deal of descriptive, if impressionistic detail about the appearance of the aspects of the crisis around the world, informed by many contemporary sources. Harvey draws authority from many historical figures in the world of political economy in his analysis of the causes of the present crisis.

There's positive and negative in Harvey's ambivalent, long-standing relationship with Marx. On the plus side is the dogged determination to continuously find new sides to Marx's work, studying it with successive groups of students from many different disciplines, bringing their insights drawn from exposure to new experiences and knowledge.

And no-one could accuse Harvey of dogmatic insistence on a “correct” reading of Capital, or an insistence on remaining “true” to the content of a 150-year old publication. Marx  himself delayed publication for many years as he reworked his material in the light of new developments in the contradictory evolution of the already crisis-ridden system. He would have been doing the same today, feverishly consulting the vast array of official statistics, reports, and theoretical interpretations available through the revolutionising medium of 21st century communications technologies.

Harvey is a deliberate anti-dogmatist, taking issue, for example, with “workerists” who insist on the factory-based proletarian struggle as the basis for opposition to capitalism. Instead he presents a broad overview of the global movements that could comprise a unified opposition.

But, on the negative side, Harvey risks throwing the baby out with the bathwater. In the second of his 13 lectures, for example, he distances himself from Marx's fundamental materialist premise that the economic structure of society, the mode of production, determines the character of and is the foundation of social, political and intellectual life generally. Marx’s approach helps us to understand the nature of the capitalist state. But this, says Harvey, was “an inspired idea that ultimately fails”.

In his efforts to negate Marx, Harvey has adopted a method which has the appearance of scientific completeness, but is deceptively selective, and it is dialectical but only in so far as it suits his purpose. Harvey uses selected extracts of Marx against Marx himself, offering his own conceptual framework as a superior tool of analysis.

With many years as a scientist specialising in geography and anthropology, Harvey's view of the subject matter is detached and objective. No bad thing. Throughout the book there's the feeling of seeing the world from a helicopter or a spotter plane, sometimes high up, sometimes swooping in to look more closely at the profusion of detail. Sometimes it would be good if he touched down and gave us a more powerful feeling of the unfolding global catastrophe.
Harvey says that his “way of thinking yields us seven distinctive 'activity spheres'”: technologies and organisational forms; social relations; institutional and administrative arrangements; production and labour processes; relations to nature; the reproduction of daily life and of the species; and “mental conceptions of the world”.   Each sphere evolves on its own account but always in dynamic interaction with the others. Capital itself is separate from these spheres, it seems:

“Capital cannot circulate or accumulate without touching upon each and all of these activity spheres in some way. When capital encounters barriers or limits within a sphere or between spheres, then ways have to be found to circumvent or transcend the difficulty. If the difficulties are serious, then here too we find a source of crises. A study of the co-evolution of activity spheres therefore provides a framework within which to think through the overall evolution and crisis-prone character of capitalist society. So how can this rather abstract framework for analysis be put to work in concrete ways?”

This formulation provides the basis for the evocative opener to Harvey’s preamble, where he says his book is “about capital flow” and adds:

“Capital is the lifeblood that flows through the body politic of all those societies we call capitalist, spreading out, sometimes as a trickle and other times as a flood, into every nook and cranny of the inhabited world.”

I’ve looked, but can’t find anything in Marx that supports this characterisation of “capital flow”. Harvey has searched high and low for Marx’s authority in support of the seven “activity spheres” that form his “framework of thought”, and he claims to find six of them lurking in one sentence in a much longer footnote to Marx’s chapter on machinery and modern industry. It’s a pretty thin basis for a different way of thinking.

But Harvey proceeds to use it to structure his thought and his book. He also uses it explicitly to “reconceptualise crisis formation” and to rewrite Marx. It's a sophisticated kind of anti-Marxist Marxism that eliminates any notion of causality. Harvey himself claims:

“Marx’s whole account of the rise of capitalism out of feudalism can in fact be reconstructed and read in terms of a co-evolutionary movement across and between the seven different activity spheres here identified.”

The analytical framework of seven activity spheres isn't unique to Harvey. It has been in use in management circles for many a long year, doing the rounds of the organisational development departments of global corporations and public sector organisations. Not a bad thing in itself, but the question is, is Harvey improving upon Marx’s dialectics? Does his framework lead to different conclusions? Does it help to formulate the organisational forms, policies and actions needed to effect the change from a worn-out bankrupt destructive capitalist system to one based on social ownership?  Not in this book at least.

So, to reiterate, What is to be done? According to Harvey it's alright to start anywhere and do anything as long as we don't leave things as they are. “The trick is to keep the political movement moving from one sphere of activity to another on mutually reinforcing ways.” Despite some radical sounding paragraphs that follow an inventory of the various oppositional social movements, Harvey offers no concrete solutions, no specific policy proposals. 

Harvey just hopes for a coalescence of the various movements he describes without any idea about how that might be brought about, except by the action of millions of individuals he optimistically describes as communists. His opposition to Marx’s life of struggle to build a political movement to lead revolutionary change is outrageously misinterpreted.

The last section of the book contains four paragraphs. The first makes an appeal to the authority of the Communist Manifesto, claiming that Marx and Engels averred that communists “have no political party”. But the truth is somewhat different. The Communist Manifesto says this:

“In what relation do the Communists stand to the proletarians as a whole? The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to the other working-class parties. They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole.”

But this was at a time when there were parties with apparently similar aims, according to the Manifesto:

“The immediate aim of the Communists is the same as that of all other proletarian parties: formation of the proletariat into a class, overthrow of the bourgeois supremacy, conquest of political power by the proletariat.”

So the Manifesto doesn’t leave Communists without a political party, it just didn’t propose another, separate one at that moment in history. The Manifesto was written by Marx and Engels in response to a request from the International Working Men’s Association and was part of a deliberate attempt to create a unified revolutionary leadership. Harvey fails to mention this.

Harvey certainly asks the big questions in his book and lectures, leaving concrete policies and action to the reader.

11 August 2010

David Harvey, The Enigma of Capital, And the Crises of Capitalism, Profile Books, London, 2010. 296pp., £14.99 hb, ISBN 9781846683084

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