Book review: Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism

  • Sankar Ray, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Aug 31, 2014 15:59 IST

The history of capitalism is, for David Harvey, “an intensely racialised and gendered history”. The social relations of domination, appropriation and exploitation” — identification marks of capitalism — are “racialised, ethnicised, gendered and targeted at culturally, religiously affiliated or supposedly biologically inferior beings”.

This lends a fresh insight to the process of alienation, redefined in Marx’s The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 (EPM). Harvey has devoted almost four decades of his life to explaining Das Kapital. After The Enigma of Capital, published four years ago, his Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism adds to his two-volume A Companion to Marx’s Capital (2010, 2013).

Anthropologist and geographer at the City University of New York, Harvey’s theme is capital, not capitalism and his objective is “to isolate and analyse the internal contradictions of capital”. He looks at capitalism as “a social formation” in which “processes of capital circulation and accumulation are hegemonic and dominant in providing and shaping the material, social and intellectual bases for social life”. Capital is to be treated as an independent variable which is functionally related to capitalism, a dependent variable.

The author formulates that the capitalist system is enmeshed in not one, but several contradictions. He breaks them up into three: the seven ‘foundational’, seven ‘moving’, and three ‘dangerous’ categories. The ‘foundational’ category is about use value and exchange value, the social value of labour and its monetary representation, private property and the capitalist state, private appropriation and common wealth, capital and labour, capital as a process and the contradictory unity of production and realisation.

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The ‘moving’ category is to do with technology, work and human disposability, the division of labour, monopoly and competition, uneven geographical developments and production of space, income and wealth disparities, social reproduction and freedom and domination.

The ‘dangerous’ category is about endless compound growth, the capital-nature relationship and the revolt of human nature linked to universal alienation. The subheads under the foundational category are all inseparably interlinked and are structural, without which the system becomes dysfunctional. The moving contradictions are evolutionary and discreet. And the dangerous three are the real face of the progressive degradation of capitalism in ‘squandering the real wealth of human possibilities in the name of perpetual augmentation of monetary wealth and the satiation of narrow economic class interests.”

Contradictions, Harvey asserts, are not always bad. Yet, once they “erupt into a crisis of capital”, they cause “moments of creative destruction” as contradictions possess “a nasty habit of not being resolved but merely moved around.” Expanding the concept of contradictions, Harvey goes beyond Marx. His analyses are a more formidable defence of Marx as an economist for the 21st century. Marx, he argues was “a revolutionary humanist and not a teleological determinant”.

This is diametrically opposite to the vulgarisation of Marx by Louis Allthusser, who ridiculed Marxist humanism as vacuous and politically misleading. Small wonder that the French Marxist discovered a theoretical construct of the Stalin era. Harvey rightly rejected Althusser’s inference that Marx’s EPM was an “epistemological rupture”. The author is somewhat beholden to the Hungarian socialist economic historian and anthropologist Karl Polanyi and his brilliant The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time (1944).

Land, labour and money are no commodities for Polanyi who stated that “The commodity description of labour, land and money is entirely fictitious”. This is in contrast with capital’s memory bank comprising inter alia land registers, contracts and legal judgments, each of which is commodified without any fixed limit.

Harvey’s critique of Amartya Sen is sound. He doesn’t believe in freedom which “does not in some way have to deal in the dark arts of domination”. The unity of freedom and domination is, he states, “a contradictory unity”. Sen perceives freedom “as one that creates ‘substantive opportunities’ and reposes faith in market forces”.

Markets, administrations, political parties, NGOs, the media etc, Sen believes, can “contribute to the process of development precisely through these effects on enhancing and sustaining individual freedoms”. Harvey believes Sen’s Development of Freedom is an “exemplary work”, but disapproves of the Nobel laureate’s silence on the “tense dialectical relations between freedom and domination, the power of private persons to appropriate social wealth, the contradictions of use value and exchange, of private property and state”.

Marx is on Harvey’s side on this issue. Nonetheless, Harvey has some holes in his Marxian temper. He supports Frantz Fanon’s assertion on ‘necessary violence’. This is in conflict with Engels’ caution that nothing is absolute in violence. His statement that Marx wanted to change the world without the necessity of understanding it is a misjudgment of the thesis: “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”

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