"Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism,” by David Harvey, 2014
Every contradiction doesn’t end in crisis or a final crisis, but the more contradictions an economic system has, the more chances for failure, just as a sick man with 3 or 17 diseases is in trouble. Harvey here wants to concentrate on economic issues, but that still leaves much room for elaboration. He names 3 different levels of contradiction that capital is subject to – 7 foundational; 7 that move around and 3 that are dangerous and perhaps fatal. If this seems unnecessarily complicated and perhaps unfocused, Harvey’s response would be that society is far more complicated now than it was in the past, so lets not ‘dumb it down.’ Radicals cannot win through simplicity, he argues.
For instance, the prime contradiction that many Marxists focus on – between capital and labor – he includes as one among 7 ‘foundational’ ones. What is subsequently missing from his analysis is the role the working class plays in withdrawing its labor as a form of fundamental power, or as the source of all use values. (In addition, his idea of the working class is limited to factory workers…) Nearly every person works most of their life, so ‘labor’ becomes central to anyone’s life experience. However, as Harvey points out, debt, money, technology, markets, private property, the state, the division of labor, nature, growth, alienation and uneven geographic development all play roles. Labor (and nature) produce surplus value, and can be considered as the ‘foundation’ of ANY profits. But capitalists also gouge the working class when they go home from work through mortgages, fees, taxes, interest, apartment rents, monopoly prices and other methods of accrual in the circulation of capital. These subtleties are Harvey’s main contribution.
Harvey calls himself a ‘revolutionary humanist’ while citing Marx frequently, so he is essentially attempting to separate himself from any identification with ‘socialism’ as a term, perhaps due to its past associations. He advocates an ‘anti-capitalist’ movement at present and scatters suggestions throughout the book about how to resist.
This book is especially useful to any autodidact for a broad analysis of capital. It is not written in a congested academic style, so is somewhat easy to read. I am not going to list every contradiction, but I am going to indicate some of Harvey’s better (or worse) insights:
- Money will have to be gradually eliminated in a post-capitalist society, which will happen as more and more values are socialized and exchange becomes based on sharing or potlach. He suggests a quasi-monetary form of money that ‘disappears’ after a certain time… as numbers in a bank account for instance.
- Money is now created out of thin air by the central banks, as a form of fictitious capital, which shows the central role of the state in the present maintenance of capital. This is part of its two main roles under capital, the other being the application of force.
- ‘Intellectual property’ is at present key to capital’s attempt to privatize everything, including DNA, seeds, human and animal life, ideas etc.
- Neither full centralization nor decentralization will be optimal for a post-capitalist society. Certain functions will have to lean to one or the other. Under capital, sometimes decentralization allows centralized control.
- Harvey thinks that if you could remove the control of money from the state, then its monopoly over violence would also be weakened or ended. This idea suggests a peaceful transition to post-capitalism.
- Illegal activities – drugs, slavery, guns & sex trafficking, tax evasion, theft, usury, corruption, fraud and price fixing, Ponzi schemes or market manipulation – are all integral to the functioning of capital, yet are not included in official statistics or theory. “Dispossession” is at the heart of capital, no matter its method.
- “Between equal rights, force decides.” - Marx.
- Workers self-management, communes, nationalization, co-operatives ultimately fail because they are still embedded in the web of capital’s contradictions.
- Capital must circulate or die – which is why the present speed of circulation has increased, especially given its technological and world-wide reach. “Fast fashion,” tech ‘upgrades,’ commodity fetishes, planned obsolescence and disposability are all essential to capital. Excessive amounts of ‘fixed’ capital (buildings, highways, ports, stadiums) threaten this circulation, which is why they have to be destroyed or replaced frequently.
- Harvey spends a lot of time on the need for local workers to be paid ‘well’ so they can buy goods. Credit has been a substitute for many years. However, he ignores the imperial project, which markets itself to a world-wide middle class instead.
- Technological innovation is part of the ‘creative destruction’ implicit in capital – though different classes are subject to the two sides of this equation. Robotization - and computers are really robots - is a weapon in the class struggle, increasing the pace of labor and unemployment. Robots and tech improvements will never increase overall employment under capital - only the reverse.
- Harvey does not believe that military conflicts arise out of capital’s contradictions. (!) He does not explain why wars happen.
- ‘Competition’ is the central liberal economic myth about capital. Monopoly / oligopoly is foundational to actual capital.
- De-centralized, ‘local’ focus and tactics by anti-capitalists have left the ‘macro level almost bare of oppositional powers.’ The essential organizational and political weakness of the U.S. Left is here revealed.
- Capital creates its own environment and space and over-accumulation funds the perpetual re-organization of production of environments. Harvey points out that capital moves its failings around so as not to make them obvious. Can you say Detroit and Sheffield? The urban ‘spectacle’ is its replacement.
- Advanced capital in general will support multiculturalism as long as it does not threaten labor control and basic class inequality.
- Living off non-productive capital (financialization) will ultimately lead to a severe crisis of the system.
- Education and free time beyond a certain level for the masses of people threatens capital. “The ‘human capital’ theory … is certainly one of the weirdest widely accepted economic ideas that could be imagined.”
- Everyday life is being monetized as household labor is being replaced by market-based transactions.
- One of capital’s greatest tricks is to get people to create content on the internet for free, then monetize their work. Funny stuff, folks…
- “Compound growth” is impossible under capital. Harvey sees this as key to capital’s ultimate crisis, although he thinks no crisis is inevitable and that human action is key. Capital can postpone this crisis with ‘disaster capitalism,’ wars or depressions and further privatization of the public and personal spheres.
- ‘Conscience laundering’ is another name for the application of charity, or the personal effect of the ‘charity-industrial’ complex, ala Bill Gates and company.
- Harvey vacillates over whether nature is in such straights as to be a threat to capital. He seems to be very vague on the effects of global warming.
- Harvey thinks that human alienation from capital will ultimately prod people to revolt and perhaps overthrow this system. This alienation is increasing across the globe, especially among younger people.
Again, another long list, but my purpose here is not so much to write some elegant summation, but to provide specifics that can be used in debates on the Left about the future of capital.
Other books by Harvey reviewed below: “Rebel Cities” and “The Enigma of Capital.” There are many other reviews on books about capitalism. Use search box, upper left.
And for those of you who like to watch: Harvey talking about this book on YouTube:
And I bought it at Mayday Books!
January 22, 2017