X-ray vision

Issue: 147

Camilla Royle

David Harvey, Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism (Profile Books, 2014), £9.99


David Harvey’s latest book Seventeen Contradictions is an attempt, in the wake of the financial crisis, to follow Karl Marx’s method to understand the inner workings of capital today. To this end he borrows Terry Eagleton’s analogy of taking an x-ray of the present situation in order to see the potential within it for future change.

Harvey uses the notion of a contradiction to capture something of the nature of capital. There are two ways to think about contradiction. In Aristotle’s logic, saying that two statements are contradictory means that they oppose each other completely: logically the statements “All blackbirds are black” and “All blackbirds are white” cannot both be true. In contrast, capital’s contradictions involve opposing forces or tendencies being present in the same process. Marx’s assertion that commodities simultaneously embody both a use value and an exchange value is such a contradiction and is the first of the 17 that Harvey identifies in this book.

There are many other ways in which capital is contradictory: technology, rather than easing the burden of long working hours, just seems to encourage more unemployment; capital requires private property ownership but can’t function without the intervention of the state; the ideal of individual freedom ends up meaning domination and repression for most of society.

As capitalists attempt to solve each of these contradictions they tend rather to create more. For example, Harvey explains that capitalism in 18th century Britain found itself in crisis as there was not enough land available to grow both fuel (charcoal) and food. This situation led to new advances in mining fossil fuels, leaving the land free for agriculture, but this raised new problems such as climate change later on. As Harvey points out, “contradictions have the nasty habit of not being resolved but merely moved around” (p4).

Harvey argues that such contradictions are inherent in capital—it cannot exist without them. The book’s reviewer in the Financial Times adds that “such contradictions are what provide an impetus for the forces of progress to overcome capitalism”. However, Harvey himself makes it clear that he does not see contradictions as necessarily destructive. Rather than contributing to capital’s inevitable downfall they can often fuel its dynamism and ability to regenerate and stabilise itself.

Harvey makes a point of distinguishing between capital and capitalism. The focus of his book is on the former—the ­processes of value formation and circulation through the economy rather than other aspects of capitalism such as women’s oppression, racism or geopolitical violence. He admits that there is a clear relationship between, say, the construction of racial differences and capital accumulation, but he sees capital as having its own internal dynamic. Capital is the engine of the system—the rest of the vehicle is important but is not what’s under the x-ray here.

This approach is likely to raise the eyebrows of some of Harvey’s critics, particularly among some feminist thinkers who have in the past accused him of neglecting the importance of gender differences. However, the method of taking one aspect of a wider system in isolation in order to study it is consistent with the method of abstraction sometimes seen as an aspect of Marx’s method. Of course, non-Marxist thinkers also study aspects of the capitalist system in isolation—most mainstream writers on economics are not expected also to deal with racism. The difference is that Marxists have to try to understand one aspect of an interconnected system while still keeping in mind that there are wider forces involved.

In terms of the content of his findings, Harvey draws on a wide range of influences including Neil Smith’s ideas on nature, the concept of the production of space associated with Henri Lefebvre and Karl Polanyi’s ideas on freedom. Some of these thinkers will be familiar to Marxist readers, others less so. For example, he draws attention to the early 20th century heterodox economist Silvio Gesell’s proposal that money should become unusable after a period of time if it isn’t spent. This would mean that currency would retain its character as a means to exchange things but it would no longer be possible for someone to store and accumulate it. Money would lose some of the power it is able to exert over people.

But at its core this is a book about Marx. Harvey points out that, despite arguing that “the point is to change it”, Marx himself spent much of his time in the British Library trying to understand how capital works. This is true enough. But if Marx’s critique of political economy can’t be reduced to the project of “changing it” neither can it be understood outside this project. Unfortunately, Harvey’s suggestions about how we might go about changing it are amongst the weakest aspects of his book. He says that understanding capital cannot tell us “exactly what to do” (p294). This is a reasonable enough claim: we cannot move straight from an analysis of the financial crisis to a formula for strategy. However, developing a coherent strategy for overcoming capitalism remains a crucial but profoundly difficult task for socialists. Harvey ends up presenting a set of 17 goals that a society might aspire to: an end to inequality; better uses for technology; and more attention to our impact on the rest of the environment. But he offers very little in terms of ideas of how to get from here to there.

It is also simply untrue that Marxists have, as Harvey claims, tended to counterpose the fact that the commodification of labour power is the central contradiction of capitalism, to “demands for cheaper and more effective housing, education, health care and social services” (p68). This claim seems particularly ill-judged given that housing, education, health and social services are exactly the areas on which many left wing activists have focused their attention in recent years. Socialists do not dismiss these struggles. In fact many are centrally involved in them. However, capitalism is based, at its core, on the exploitation of wage labour. This is why workers have the strategic power to break it.

Despite these criticisms, Seventeen Contradictions is an incredibly useful reference point for anyone wanting to unpick the contradictions inherent in the capitalist system. It is a continuation of a career-long project of understanding Marx’s method and, like Limits to Capital and the Companion to Marx’s Capital volumes it is a book that repays careful reading. What is more, it is also a very accessible read that all readers of this journal should try to engage with.