by Paul Buhle
David Harvey, A Companion to Marx's Capital. London: Verso, 2010, 343pp, $19.95 pbk.
David Harvey, The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. 267pp, $24.95.
(Swans - January 2, 2012) A recent, informal survey of the influence of Marxism in the US academic world, relative to a decade or two ago, reveals a largely melancholy picture -- but with an unanticipated, recent uptick. Self-avowed Marxists, as a group, have grown steadily older without being replaced in later generations. In many fields from history to literature and philosophy, to name only a few, today's graduate students in many places may hardly know the references to argue one way or another, although it goes without saying that clever disproofs of Marxist ideas continue to be rewarded with grants, appointments, and so forth. Still, the news is not all bad. There is more to be known in the category of the hopeful or at least curious, new study-classes in Capital and a handful of other classic texts, bigger student attendance at socialistic conferences, and vastly more public interest in the woes of capitalism's victims, including our collective selves.
Geography and ecology, epicenters of crises going worse, would be natural areas for advanced thinkers of various generations to look backward toward Marx. Accounting seems to offer a special and unexpected radical niche of sorts among those economists who observe the phenomenon of financialization (with resulting meltdowns) as a natural effect of monopoly capitalism. And then we have one more unanticipated factor of intellectual history: so many of the avowed and renowned academic Marxists are émigrés, short-term or permanent, from the UK. Notoriously backward relative to continental Europe through the twentieth century for its intellectuals' inability or unwillingness to grapple with the difficult ideas that the French, Germans, and Italians loved to toss around, Britishers are nonetheless way ahead of their American cousins (but perhaps they have made up some ground on the continentals as well). None quite so impresses as David Harvey.
Whoever has heard Harvey speak (including his extended lectures on YouTube), and that would include a very large number of students, teachers, and a smaller outlying public in quite a few North American cities (not to mention other spots on the globe) expects a lot from his books. One of the most articulate and least dogmatic-sounding Marxists around, Harvey has made himself known on various topics, some of them highly technical, struggling with considerable success to make them understandable and what is more, making Marxist approaches to them credible.
If there is a more difficult, contested, and for the disinclined radical, duller subject in the history of Marxist interpretation than the complications of reading Capital, the alternative escapes me. Start with the proposition that Karl Marx wanted to cover a vast area of history as well as economics, social and ecological transformation, class conflict and potential resolution -- and you begin to get the idea. That Marx abandoned his intended history of class struggle (much to the dismay of we latter-day historians) demonstrates the effects of human exhaustion as well as the infinite difficulty of such a history. He never even got to finish the second and third volumes of the economic critique. What remains is, nevertheless, a conceptual whopper that many have sought to explain in simple terms, more of them to defend, generation after generation, with growing frustration or uncertainty after the Second World War brought recovery from the Great Depression. American consumerism, the original globalization of demand (what Americans had, the world's middle classes rushed to get), kicked in to sustain the system, prompting a generation of ex-radicals gone centerward or further to declare the class struggle dead, and the real future problem of the working class as one of excess leisure.
The old underlying Marxist premise of absolute and inevitable economic breakdown and working-class revolution, in particular, ceased to persuade. But the systematic study of capitalism's mysteries has remained fascinating, to say the least. One major tendency has been to move away from some of the theoretical nuts and bolts of Capital (perhaps Big Bill Haywood of the Wobblies put it best and earliest: "I never read Marx's Capital but I have the marks of capital all over me!") in order to encase the modern crisis of the system within something nearer a radical Keynesianism. In this scheme, the phenomenon of overproduction and underconsumption, an excess of unproductive capital, dogs the profit system, rather than the famous (or infamous) Falling Rate of Profit, itself based in the steady displacement of human labor by mechanical labor. Profits averages have indeed tended to fall, offset at least for the short run by military-industrial spending, technological innovation, and the sheer volume of sales/profits. In the recent period, of course, higher profits have been concentrated in speculative loans of one kind or another, a brilliant innovation that nearly brought the system to its knees, and may return the world's economy to crisis at any moment. The sages of the theoretical substitution for old Marxist basics, savants gathered in this country for a long time mainly around Monthly Review magazine, have been so persuasive in their analysis of "financialization" that we may rightly be tempted to suggest that Capital has become essentially a historical document.
David Harvey has a somewhat different approach and it comes through, not as an insistence upon this or any other version as the authentic one, but as a "reading" to encourage the reader to undergo his or her own experience in absorbing the original text. As Harvey says, he has been giving study classes of some sort in Capital for forty years, and long ago, back to his pre-emigration years in the UK, I suspect he came to the conclusion that he repeats in A Companion to Marx's Capital. Marx did not live long enough to grasp how capitalism managed to the multiple crises of his own time. Capital expansion, as Rosa Luxemburg saw in some ways (but did not see the logic spelled out in Marx, because it was not actually spelled out), would postpone crises for a long time if not indefinitely, as the earth and its inhabitants were exploited, degraded, and used up, at an ever-accelerating pace.
We might call this a common sense or rather, Marxist common sense, approach. It would be impossible to recite what Harvey does with the different chapters and subsections to explore and explain them for today's readers, and problematic even to take up the many small points where he raised questions about Marx's interpretations. Suffice it to say that the lucidity of the presentation is unprecedented. He is not attempting mainly to refute critics of Marx (a most common project in this type of volume) nor offer some brilliant stroke of fresh interpretation. If he notes issues here and there -- to take one example, Marx's "romantic" valorization of work as noble rather than mostly drudgery -- he backs off soon enough to say this is only his skepticism, not to insist on anything. Harvey's use of the Grundrisse and other texts to probe Marx's intent is not new, but it is highly useful.
And this brings us to The Enigma of Capital. The "enigma," or rather, multiple enigmas, became perhaps during the recent recession as unenigmatic as they are likely to become, short of a wholesale global breakdown. Capital had conquered all, but not itself! Most readers of this journal will not be surprised to hear that the hegemony so firmly held by the U.S. outside of the East Bloc and China, seemingly reinforced by the events of 1989-90, has slipped away with astonishing suddenness. The balance has been tipping away from the American Empire since the new century began, and it may well be that the cost of maintaining a military threat, occupation and armaments, against the rest of the world, has simply been too high.
There are other ways to see this, of course, and as he notes in this volume, Marxists are not alone in the wide field of commentators proposing alternative sources of contradiction with the system. Liberal (non-socialist) economists have for decades been making the case for a more successful welfare-state economy, and their appeals have grown strident in recent years. They urgently wish to save a kindler, gentler capitalism, and as Democrats, promise at every election to enact it somehow. In Europe more than in the U.S., the more conservative notion of a dangerous "profit squeeze" between labor costs and profits was long popular, at least until the West stopped producing and social benefits as a key segment of real wages began to be cut drastically. In the new century, the contradictions have certainly not been disappeared, but on both of these points, seem to have been externalized, on a global scale. As Harvey points out, the societies LEAST integrated in the world financial system -- China, India, Brazil, and so on -- have been the least overwhelmed by the spreading crises that struck consumer-heavy Western economies and remain ominously with them. For that matter, Third World societies dependent on remittances of emigrant workers (think Mexico, Central America, large parts of the Caribbean) have also been drawn into the aftershock, and see no early exit. For Harvey, reasoning in quasi-Marxist terms, the credit system essentially put off the threat of underconsumption or "realization" of profits.
Lest we doubt this is a consistently Marxist view, Harvey comes brilliantly back to Marx again and again to make his points. He offers us many avenues of insight, such as that other favorite zone of his interests, geography. He opines that if he were to construct an ideal city fresh for steady adaptation, he would start his thinking in Chapter 15 of Capital because Marx poses the relations of technology and society so keenly. He has made this case elsewhere, of course, in its own right.
Harvey comes to the conclusion that if (in the slogans of the anti-globalization movement of the 1990s) "another world is possible," then perhaps "another communism is possible," however difficult it is to use the "C" word credibly. This is, of course, a thought close to the hearts of most of the readers of Socialism and Democracy. I suspect he is being a bit jocular, but not too much. The revival of the discussion about Marx and about socialism or communism owes so much to him, at this moment, that we can take him at his word.
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About the Author
Paul Buhle retired from college teaching to produce radical comics fulltime. His latest include Studs Terkel's Working, A Graphic Adaptation [reviewed in these pages], The Beats, A People's History of the American Empire (aka an adaptation of Howard Zinn's classic) and a pictorial biography of his childhood hero, The Art of Harvey Kurtzman. His last production (2011) is Yiddishkeit: Jewish Vernacular & the New Land, edited with Harvey Pekar, and reviewed in these pages. (back)