Decoding capitalism

Issue: 129

Joseph Choonara

A review of David Harvey, The Enigma of Capital (Profile, 2010), £14.99

David Harvey ranks today among the world’s most renowned Marxist theoreticians. His fame is thoroughly deserved. Few red professors have his gift for presenting sophisticated ideas with such clarity or his commitment to exploring the central questions of the moment. In recent years he has been most strongly associated with a growing interest in Marxist political economy, notably through his talks on Capital, which are available free online and now in book form.1

In these talks, Harvey combines a thorough and serious engagement with Capital, first demonstrated in his classic 1982 work, The Limits to Capital,2 with a refreshing willingness to treat Karl Marx as a human being, capable of digressions, mistakes and the odd off-day.3 Where Marx’s writings are incomplete and unfinished, and this includes the second and third volumes of Capital, it is not enough simply to repeat passages as revered scripture. It is necessary to extend Marx’s method to seek to complete his account of capitalism, while always bearing in mind that the novelties capitalism throws up as it evolves necessitate the “perpetual recasting of the conceptual apparatus”.4

The Enigma of Capital is therefore a work we should take very seriously indeed.5 The winner of the 2010 Isaac and Tamara Deutscher Memorial Prize, it represents Harvey’s most sustained attempt to grapple with the current economic crisis. In addition, it highlights his commitment to translate his theoretical perspectives into political answers to Lenin’s question, “What is to be done?”6 As Harvey recently demonstrated at a series of hundreds-strong meetings in London and Athens, this involves reviving once unfashionable terms such as “revolution” and “communism”.7

Exploring the crisis

Enigma opens with a 40-page account of the current crisis, written in a narrative style, charting the mutation of the subprime housing crisis in the US into a full-blown global recession. At this level there are strong parallels between Harvey’s account and that of writers associated with this journal.8

He charts the growth of finance over recent decades, seeing this as reflecting shifts and problems in the wider system, rather than as an autonomous process. Financialisation develops out of the increasingly global nature of capitalism, which requires the formation of a global financial system to support flows of capital; wage repression, which necessitates growing consumer credit to maintain demand; and a shift from investment in production towards investment in “asset values” that can be driven up in price for speculative gain.9 Harvey writes, “Less and less of the surplus capital has been absorbed in production (in spite of everything that has happened in China) because global profit margins began to fall after a brief revival in the 1980s”.10 The creation of a series of asset price bubbles helped to keep the economy driving forwards, so it was no coincidence that the collapse of these bubbles led to the stalling of the system, both through the freezing of credit markets and the collapse of global trade.

Harvey then moves from his narrative account of the crisis to a theory of capitalist crises in general. He first presented a sophisticated and extremely influential account of crisis in Limits, and it is worth considering this, both in order to compare it with that in Enigma and because the latter book is far more popular in form, leaving the theoretical underpinnings largely unelaborated.

In Limits crisis theory is presented in three stages. The “first cut” theory is derived mainly from Marx’s writings on the “law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall” and the “counteracting tendencies” in the third volume of Capital.11 Abstracting from complexities such as interest rates or land rent, this first cut theory, Harvey suggests, involves “periodic crises” that may be intensified and deepened by “secular decline”.12

Many political economists prior to Marx had pointed out an apparent long-term tendency for profit rates to fall. Marx sought to explain this fall as a consequence of the “rising organic composition of capital”. Capitalists, spurred by competition, tend to accumulate capital in the form of “dead labour”—machinery, equipment, greater quantities of raw materials, etc—at the expense of employing and exploiting more “living labour” (wage workers). Because it is only living labour that creates new value for the capitalists, this drive to accumulate dead labour can only undermine profitability in the long run. Harvey is at pains to point out in Limits that Marx also elaborated a series of counteracting tendencies that offset the tendency for profit rates to fall. By far the most important is the potential cheapening of dead labour, which can lower the value of investment, thus driving up profit rates.

Harvey suggests that this can take the form of a gradual depreciation, with the resulting shift in values constantly disturbing the capitalist economy, or it can take the much more violent form of crisis:

The gentle imagery of “depreciation” gives way to the more dramatic and violent imagery of “destruction” when it comes to describing the devaluations that occur in the course of crises. At the moment of crisis, all of the contradictions inherent in the capitalist mode of production are expressed in the form of violent paroxysms which impose “momentary and forcible solutions” and “for a time restore the disturbed equilibrium” (Capital, volume 3, p249).13

Already, at the time he wrote Limits, Harvey was sceptical about the law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, although he does accept that it was central to Marx’s account.14 In Enigma, although he does not engage with these questions with anything like the same degree of rigour, he is much more definite: “It is hard to make Marx’s theory of the falling rate of profit work when innovation is as much capital or means of production saving…as it is labour saving”.15 While Harvey believes that the rate of profit has in fact fallen during the post-war period, he rejects Marx’s explanation. But there is no need to go down this road. Harvey seems to accept the writings of theorists such as Nobou Okishio, who sought to prove that investment will always take place in such a way as to raise profitability, provided the standard of living of workers remains fixed.16 But this is based on a static equilibrium model of capitalism. Once the system is conceived as a temporal one, with investments by particular capitalists happening at one point in time, production and sale subsequently, Okishio’s “proof” vanishes into thin air.17

There are good theoretical reasons to believe that capitalists would operate in such a way as to raise the organic composition of capital. “Capital saving” investments are certainly possible, but this is not the end of the story. Insomuch as they liberate additional surplus value, they create the potential for further investment. Even when capitalists have made all the capital saving investments available to them, there will be opportunities for additional labour saving ones, provided they can amass the surplus value required. Once one capitalist makes such an investment, raising the productivity of their labourers and undercutting rivals through price competition, there will be a powerful pressure on other capitalists to replicate the investment.18 Despite such arguments, Harvey has long argued that it is necessary to replace Marx’s law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall with something more general:

Marx, in his anxiety to straighten out the political economists, is lured into an erroneous specification of what should have been a synthetic model of the contradictions of capitalism. More specifically, by taking over the problem of the inevitability of a falling rate of profit from the political economists of the time and treating it as a question, Marx diverts from the logic of his own argument to such a degree that what should have been a tangential proposition appears fundamental while the fundamental proposition gets interred in a mass of tangential argument.19

In Harvey’s view the imperative to innovate and accumulate instead leads to a “surplus of capital relative to the opportunities to employ that capital. Such a state of overproduction of capital is called the ‘overaccumulation of capital’.”20 It is this account, and with it an associated “disposal of surplus problem”, that Harvey carries over into Enigma.

But if the problem capitalism faces is the disposal of surplus, this can imply either of two possible theoretical frameworks. The first is that held by authors such as Paul Sweezy, Paul Baran and John Bellamy Foster associated with the US-based periodical Monthly Review. This is that monopolies are able to manipulate prices such that they receive “surplus profits” (a rather vague term) that they struggle to dispose of. This is not, as far as I can tell, Harvey’s position.21 The second version is to see overaccumulation as the generation of a mass of profit (which may in absolute terms be vast, even if the rate of profit is low) under conditions where there are few profitable outlets. In this version Marx’s law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall can strengthen the analysis, provided it is argued theoretically and empirically guided.22 This would explain why, in conditions of low profitability, money flows to geographical locations where capitalists expect, rightly or wrongly, that they can make a healthy profit (Harvey discusses the enormous over-capacity in China23) and into assets where they can make short-term paper profits without generating new value.

Is this a fundamentalist position? It has certainly been subjected to a sustained attack along those lines for several decades (Okishio’s critique was published in 1961). But if, for Marx, capital is essentially value set in motion to expand, and if the system is based on capital, then any factor that undermines this process from within seems worthy of special status. In fact, in Enigma Harvey seems to slip into some rather sweeping claims of his own about capital’s expansion, for instance, his insistence that capitalism requires a 3 percent rate of compound GDP growth.24 But this point is never subjected to any serious investigation, nor is the relationship between GDP growth, profitability and rates of accumulation explored. This is unfortunate given how frequently the concept is deployed.25

Whatever one makes of all this, Harvey is correct to argue that crisis cannot be simply reduced to a single factor, whether “profit rates” or the “disposal of surplus”. There are two ways in which he seeks to broaden the theory of crisis.

The first is to see the potential for capital’s circuit to break down, even if only momentarily, at any point where a “blockage” arises.26 If capitalists cannot harness the money they require to invest, or if the labour power, equipment or raw materials are not available, the circuit will be interrupted. Similarly, crisis can erupt if goods cannot find a market with sufficient effective demand either from other capitalists or workers. The possibility of crisis is ever-present. Harvey also adds various “natural” limits to capital—ecological destruction or shortages of oil, for example—though, as he points out, the environment and its limits are rarely “natural” in some “pure and pristine” manner.27 This is all true, and indeed Marx sets out a much more general theory of potential breakdown prior to looking at the specific mechanisms involved.28 But this cannot substitute for an analysis of the concrete processes driving the system into crisis, as it sometimes seems to in Enigma.

In going beyond the formal possibility of breakdown, the second way that Harvey seeks to broaden his account of crisis is far more fruitful. This involves integrating additional features of capitalism through what he calls in Limits his “second” and “third” cut theories of crisis. The “second cut” involves something Marx never fully achieved in his drafts for the third volume of Capital—the integration of his account of production with that of credit and finance. Consequently, Harvey’s attempt to do this is one of the highlights of Limits.29 Here finance is seen as a force driving capital beyond its limits, coordinating different aspects of the capitalist cycle through the movement of interest rates, and causing it to erupt into speculative bouts and frenzied monetary or stockmarket crises. Wholly new forms of crisis now become possible, and our understanding of existing ones is dramatically reshaped. One suggestive possibility is that problems developing in a particular sphere of a capitalist economy may be displaced into another, delaying the onset of crisis, only for it to resurface in a new form. One such example might be the way that the prolonged period of fraught accumulation faced by capitalism in recent decades, rather than leading directly to crisis, helped create an increasingly bloated and unhealthy financial system, which is where, in 2007-8, crisis ultimately erupted. As Harvey writes in Enigma:

The problem of falling profits and devaluations due to lack of effective demand can be staved off for a while through the machinations of the credit system. In the short term, credit works to smooth out many minor problems, but over the long term it tends to accumulate the contradictions and the tensions. It spreads the risk at the same time as it accumulates them… When one limit is overcome accumulation often hits up against another somewhere else… The crisis tendencies are not resolved but merely moved around.30

One of Harvey’s claims is that categories such as credit, which Marx developed very late in the manuscripts for Capital, need to be deployed from the outset to understand the system’s concrete development.31 This also applies to categories that barely feature in Capital such as the state.32 And, as Harvey stresses in Enigma, the “state-finance nexus”, the arrangement of central banks, treasuries and monetary systems in particular nations, is crucial to grasping the unfolding crisis.33 Indeed, the emergence of the sovereign debt crisis in Europe, which developed largely after the book was written, reinforces his argument.34

Geography matters

The “third cut” theory of crisis adds another dimension—the development of capital in space. Harvey’s concern with the geography of capitalism is one of his ongoing contributions to Marxist theory.35 This provides Enigma with two of its most thought-provoking chapters, “The Geography of it all” and “Creative Destruction on the Land”. Capital, for Harvey, always evolves in space and time, creating as it does so distinctive geographies. Capital clusters together to avoid the frictional costs of transportation, and is embodied in landscapes through urbanisation and the development of communication networks. This process is both uneven and never-ending, abhorring any equilibrium. Because the logic of accumulation is to seek profit wherever it is to be found, capitalist development means the periodic ripping up and reorganisation of the geography of capitalism, and potential shifts in its foci:

The geographical landscape is…shaped by perpetual tension between the economies of centralisation, on the one hand, and the potentially higher profits to be had from decentralisation and dispersal on the other. How that tension works out depends on the barriers posed to spatial movement, the intensity of agglomeration economies and divisions of labour.36

His desire to understand these patterns led Harvey to devote a large section of Limits to attempts to understand Marx’s theory of land rent, and he continues to insist that as in “the case of interest and credit, rent has to be brought forward into the forefront of the analysis, rather than being treated as a derivative category of distribution as happens in Marxist as well as in conventional economic theories”.37 Harvey charts the spread of the current crisis from a localised glitch in the US subprime mortgage market to a global cataclysm through this uneven space. But the space is not just the terrain of capital; it is also constituted by a system of rival states. As in his earlier works, he sets out a vision of imperialism as constituted by the intersection between two logics—that of capitalism and a “logic of power” driven by “territorial imperatives and political interests”.38

Of course, this is simply to pose the problem in a formal sense. The test is whether theory can grasp the concrete ways that these “two logics” work together, dialectically and in tension with each other, in the course of the development of capitalism. Much of Harvey’s work is devoted to just such an effort—notably The New Imperialism, A Brief History of Neoliberalism and now Enigma. He is aware of the enormous difficulties of his endeavour: “The reason that it is so difficult to integrate the making of geography into any general theory of capital accumulation…is that this process is not only deeply contradictory but also full of contingencies, accidents and confusions”.39

Generally, Harvey’s attempts are impressive, and all of his flair as a story teller is on display in these chapters. However, issues with Harvey’s account of accumulation resurface in his attempt to weave the two logics together. He tends to emphasise “push” factors spurring the spread of capital—in particular the need for a “spatial fix” to solve the “surplus capital disposal problem”. At times this can make capitalist globalisation and imperialism seem like a conscious attempt by the ruling class to stave off crises of overaccumulation.40 This credits our rulers with too great an understanding of their system. I would prefer to emphasise the “pull factors”, which at times Harvey also stresses, such as the search for greater potential profits, the need to establish control over territories, resources and markets to bolster the economic fortunes of particular states and so on.

Theorising social change

One of Harvey’s most ambitious goals in Enigma is his quest to develop a wider theory of social evolution. Here he manages to be both incredibly incisive and, at times, infuriating. He constructs what seems to me a peculiarly schematic model of social development involving:

Seven distinctive “activity spheres” within the evolutionary trajectory of capitalism: 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”. No one sphere dominates even as none of them are independent of the others. But nor is any one of them determined even collectively by all of the others”.41

Seven is certainly an evocative number. (Seven hills of Rome, seven wonders of the ancient world, seven sleepers of Ephesus, seven deadly sins, seven days of creation, seven seals in the Revelations…) But why seven? Why not eight spheres or 80 or 800? Why are the organisational forms of capitalism part of the same sphere as the technologies? Are they not also worthy of the kind of autonomy that separates institutional relations from social relations? Harvey claims to derive his list, at least in part, from a footnote to chapter 15 of the first volume of Capital. This is certainly a fascinating chapter, detailing the wider social, economic and political implications of the development of machinery. But I think Harvey gives too much weight to the footnote. According to Marx:

A critical history of technology would show how little any of the inventions of the 18th century are the work of a single individual. Hitherto there is no such book. Darwin has interested us in the history of Nature’s Technology, ie, in the formation of the organs of plants and animals, which organs serve as instruments of production for sustaining life. Does not the history of the productive organs of man, of organs that are the material basis of all social organisation, deserve equal attention? And would not such a history be easier to compile, since, as Vico says, human history differs from natural history in this, that we have made the former, but not the latter? Technology discloses man’s mode of dealing with Nature, the process of production by which he sustains his life, and thereby also lays bare the mode of formation of his social relations, and of the mental conceptions that flow from them. Every history of religion, even, that fails to take account of this material basis, is uncritical. It is, in reality, much easier to discover by analysis the earthly core of the misty creations of religion, than, conversely, it is, to develop from the actual relations of life the corresponding celestialised forms of those relations. The latter method is the only materialistic, and therefore the only scientific one. The weak points in the abstract materialism of natural science, a materialism that excludes history and its process, are at once evident from the abstract and ideological conceptions of its spokesmen, whenever they venture beyond the bounds of their own speciality.42

As Harvey writes elsewhere, when it comes to relating the different spheres of activity mentioned in the italicised passage, “Though his language is suggestive, Marx leaves the question open, which is unfortunate since it leaves lots of space for all manner of interpretations”.43 But Marx does provide plenty of material in other works from which an account of social change can be derived.44 And the challenge Marx makes immediately after the italicised passage of the footnote is to see mental conceptions of the world, in this case religion, as arising out of historically determined material conditions.

This requires that we view society as a structured totality of dialectically interrelated elements, but this is not the same as seeing each element as occupying an equal and equivalent position. Harvey, by insisting on this, comes very close to poststructuralist accounts of society, even at one point embracing Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s concept of the “assemblage” as a method.45

This leads to all sorts of odd claims. For instance, Harvey argues that the Russian Revolution of 1917 was derailed because of the failure of Lenin (and later Stalin) to “engage politically across” each of the “seven spheres”. The Bolshevik Revolution “inevitably failed” because “a single-track programme in which the productive forces (technologies) were placed in the vanguard of change” led to “stasis, stagnant administrative and institutional arrangements, turned daily life into monotony, and froze the possibility to explore new social relations or mental conceptions. It paid no mind to the relation with nature, with disastrous consequences”.46 Harvey adds:

Lenin, of course, had no option but to strive to create communism on the basis of the configuration given by the preceding order… He plausibly argued that if the transition to socialism and then communism was to work it had to be initially on the basis of the most advanced technologies and organisational forms that capitalism had produced. But there was no conscious attempt, particularly after Stalin took over, to move towards the construction of truly socialist, let alone communist technologies and organisational forms.47

There are three problems with this kind of account. First, for a Marxist so acutely aware of the international, to ignore Lenin’s view that revolution in Russia was a prelude to a necessarily European-wide revolutionary process is strange. Lenin’s argument was not that aping Western style technological innovation would lead to socialism, but that the material means for socialism did not exist on the Russian terrain. Following Leon Trotsky, he argued that revolution had to be an international process in order to become permanent. Second, Harvey is guilty of a reductionism that sees all of the factors he describes as flowing from what he perceives to be the misguided political theory of the Bolsheviks. There is no attempt to trace the rise of the bureaucracy in the context of the civil war that followed the revolution, or to consider the degeneration of the workers’ democracy that had been, far more than technology, the basis for the cultural and political liberation that flowered in the early years. Third, he does not sufficiently or clearly distinguish between those forces that claimed to be attempting to establish socialism from the top-down (in this case Stalin) and the forces at the bottom of society seeking to bring about socialism from below through a process of self-emancipation (the workers who provided the motive force of the revolution).48

This means, more generally, that Harvey cannot distinguish between splits that reflect the sectarianism of sections of the left, and splits that reflect more substantive issues, such as that between Stalinism and Trotskyism.49 He lumps together such varied experiences as that of the “Bolivarian movement in Venezuela” and “the workers’ party in Brazil” (and even throws in “the Communist Party in China”), ignoring the explosions of popular struggle that gave the first of these its much more radical edge.50 While his call for a broad movement challenging capitalism is welcome, this does not mean disregarding important historical lessons, some of them very hard won.

Whatever the limitations and ambiguities, Harvey’s emphasis on strategy is both timely and extremely welcome. Few academics, even left academics, today are prepared to assume the role of public intellectuals, using their prestige to champion the oppressed and excluded. Fewer still are capable of descending from the ivory tower to address directly and clearly movements that challenge the logic of the system. Harvey’s embrace of militant struggle and the possibility of revolution make easier the task of all those on the left who wish to respond to the current crisis. And his is a full-blooded vision of revolution, involving the dispossession of the powerful, which he insists cannot be purely pacific.51 Towards the end of Enigma he writes, “Capitalism will never fall on its own. It will have to be pushed”.52 The more we debate the themes Harvey raises, the greater will be our clarity over the lessons thrown up by the past, and the more effective will be our efforts to ensure that in the struggles ahead we can push in the same direction at the same time.


1: and Harvey, 2010b.

2: Harvey, 2006a, henceforth Limits.

3: For instance, he writes in his guide to Capital that chapters 17 and 18 “do not pose any substantial issues”, consisting largely of repetition, and ignores “odd passages” in the preceding chapter that “echo 19th century thinking on environmental determinism and the domination of nature”-Harvey, 2010b, pp239-240.

4: Harvey, 2006a, p446.

5: Henceforth Enigma.

6: Harvey, 2010a, p227.

7: Harvey’s talk at King’s College London is available in video from and an MP3 of the talk is available from

8: See, for instance, Callinicos, 2010, pp20-94; Harman, 2009a; Harman, 2009b, pp277-304; Choonara, 2009a; Choonara, 2010.

9: Harvey, 2010a, p23.

10: Harvey, 2010a, p28.

11: Those unfamiliar with these concepts can consult Choonara, 2009b, or Harman, 2007.

12: Harvey, 2006a, p191.

13: Harvey, 2006a, p200.

14: Discussion with the author.

15: Harvey, 2010a, p94.

16: See Harvey, 2006a, pp185-188 and the references therein.

17: See Harman, 2007; Harman, 2009b, pp68-75; Kliman, 2007, pp113-136; Carchedi, 1991, pp139-141.

18: Harman, 2007; Choonara, 2009b, pp80-82.

19: Harvey, 2006a, p180.

20: Harvey, 2006a, p192.

21: See, for instance, Harvey, 2006a, p141, where he argues that Sweezy and Baran’s account means “abandoning the law of value-which, to their credit, Baran and Sweezy are fully prepared to do”. While Enigma is more complimentary, it treats their analysis of monopoly as pertinent only at a particular point in history-Harvey, 2010a, p113.

22: See, for instance, Harman, 2010; Kliman, 2010.

23: Harvey, 2010a, p222.

24: Harvey, 2010a, pp26-27.

25: See, for example, Harvey, 2010a, pp45, 50, 70, 86, 112.

26: Harvey, 2010a, pp116-118.

27: Harvey, 2010a, pp84-85.

28: Harvey mainly draws on Marx’s Grundrisse, but see also Marx, 1975, pp492-535.

29: Harvey, 2006a, pp324-329.

30: Harvey, 2010a, pp116-117.

31: Harvey, 2006a, pp187-188.

32: Harvey, 2009.

33: Harvey, 2010a, p54-57.

34: Harvey, 2010a, p222.

35: See Harvey, 2006a, pp373-445; Harvey, 2006b; Harvey, 2005a, pp94-101.

36: Harvey, 2010a, p165.

37: Harvey, 2010a, p183.

38: Harvey, 2010a, p204. See also Harvey, 2005a; Callinicos, 2009, pp71-73.

39: Harvey, 2010a, p214.

40: Here Harvey’s overaccumulationist theory is the flip side of Lenin’s underconsumptionist account of crisis in Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, where Lenin argues, “The need to export capital arises from the fact that in a few countries capitalism has become ‘overripe’ and…capital cannot find a field for ‘profitable’ investment”-cited in Callinicos, 2009, p47.

41: Harvey, 2010a, p123.

42: Marx, 1970, p352 (my italics).

43: Harvey, 2010b, p192.

44: See, for instance, Marx’s famous “preface” to his A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy-Marx, 1977.

45: Harvey, 2010a, p128. See Brennan, 2003, for an excellent critique of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s adoption of the same term and method in their work Empire.

46: Harvey, 2010a, p136.

47: Harvey, 2010a, p136.

48: Draper, 1966, is the classic statement of this position.

49: Harvey, 2010a, pp252-253.

50: Harvey, 2010a, p256.

51: Harvey, 2010a, p250.

52: Harvey, 2010a, p260.


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