Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism

David Harvey

(Hachette India; 337 pages; Rs 699)

A General Reader’s Digest/ Annotated Excerpts

After Thomas Piketty, it is the turn of David Harvey, currently a professor of anthropology and geography at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, to mount a scathing critique of capital in our age. Both authors are brilliant, each in his own way. The former is no Marxist (he himself has since declared, in the face of accusations in the right wing press that he is a Marxist in disguise, that he has not even read Marx’s Capital) but he irrefutably lays bare the “inegalitarian spiral” inherent in capitalism, and the threat it poses to the system, without actually trying to explain the underlying ultimate causes. The latter, who has been taking classes on Marx’s “Capital” for more than 40 years, is one of the most authoritative Marxist scholars living today and author of several books on capital, capitalism and imperialism (including a two-volume “Companion” to Marx’s magnum opus). He goes deep beneath the surface, and carefully dissects the many contradictions of capital, including the most explosive ones. We carried a review of Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” in our last issue; here we bring you annotated excerpts from Harvey’s latest book.

Let us begin at the beginning.


The Crisis of Capitalism This Time Around

“Crises are essential to the reproduction of capitalism. It is in the course of crises that the instabilities of capitalism are confronted, reshaped and re-engineered to create a new version of what capitalism is about. …

“What is astonishing [today compared to major crises in the past] is the paucity of new thinking or policies. The world is broadly polarised between a continuation (as in Europe and the United States) if not a deepening of neoliberal, supply-side and monetarist remedies that emphasise austerity as the proper medicine to cure our ills; and the revival of some version, usually watered down, of a Keynesian demand-side and debt-financed expansion (as in China) that ignores Keynes’s emphasis upon the redistribution of income to the lower classes as one of its key components. No matter which policy is being followed, the result is to favour the billionaires club that now constitutes an increasingly powerful plutocracy both within countries and (like Rupert Murdoch) upon the world stage. Everywhere, the rich are getting richer by the minute. The top 100 billionaires in the world (from China, Russia, India, Mexico and Indonesia as well as from the traditional centres of wealth in North America and Europe) added $240 billion to their coffers in 2012 alone (enough, calculates Oxfam, to end world poverty overnight). By contrast, the well-being of the masses at best stagnates or more likely undergoes an accelerating if not catastrophic (as in Greece and Spain) degradation.…
“The hopeful focus these days is on a ‘knowledge-based’ capitalism (with biomedical and genetic engineering and artificial intelligence at the forefront). But innovation is always a double-edged sword. The 1980s, after all, gave us deindustrialisation through automation such that the likes of General Motors (which employed well-paid unionised labour in the 1960s) have now been supplanted by the likes of Walmart (with its vast non-unionised low-wage labour force) as the largest private employers in the United States. If the current burst of innovation points in any direction at all, it is towards decreasing employment opportunities for labour and the increasing significance of rents extracted from intellectual property rights for capital. But if everyone tries to live off rents and nobody invests in making anything, then plainly capitalism is headed towards a crisis of an entirely different sort. …
“World crises have always been, as Marx once put it, ‘the real concentration and forcible adjustment of all the contradictions of bourgeois economy’. Unravelling those contradictions should reveal a great deal about the economic problems that so ail us. Surely that is worth a serious try.”
It is, really. And to this exercise the author devotes the best part of his work. He first initiates the reader, in “Introduction”, to a Marxist understanding of “Contradiction”. He contends that while some of the contradictions have made capitalism flexible and resilient, they also contain the seeds of systemic catastrophe. Many of the contradictions are more or less manageable, but some are dangerous: for example, the stress on endless compound growth and the drive for accumulating capital beyond the means of investing it. Next he discusses the seventeen important contradictions in as many chapters grouped into three categories -- Foundational, Moving, and Dangerous types. Then in the last two chapters he talks of “the likely outcomes and possible political consequences” flowing from this Marxist analysis. It is well-nigh impossible to ‘summarise’ the 17 chapters on contradictions; what we can do in the available space is to just name those contradictions and give the reader an overall idea of the senior Professor’s insights into the hidden workings of what István Mészáros has called the capital system, followed by the author’s seventeen-point proposals for “anti-capitalist political praxis” (see “Epilogue” below).

“Part One: The Foundational Contradictions

“The first seven contradictions are foundational because capital simply could not function without them. Furthermore, they all hang together in such a way as to make it impossible to substantially modify, let alone abolish, any one of them without seriously modifying or abolishing the others.” [Italics in the original, here and later on. The seven foundational contradictions are named below.]
“1 Use Value and Exchange Value
2 The Social Value of Labour and Its Representation by Money
3 Private Property and the Capitalist State
4 Private Appropriation and Common Wealth
5 Capital and Labour
6 Capital as Process or Thing?
7 The Contradictory Unity of Production and Realisation

“Part Two: The Moving Contradictions

“The foundational contradictions of capital do not stand in isolation from each other. They interlock in a variety of ways to provide a basic architecture for capital accumulation.
“In the case of moving contradictions,” it is necessary to understand “its evolutionary trajectory,” where change takes place in “decades rather than years…. To capture the sense of movement is politically vital, for the instability and the movement provide political opportunities at the same time as they pose critical problems…. Many a political movement has failed because it sought to appeal to ideas and ambitions that were well past their sell-by date.” What is necessary, therefore, is “to write the poetry of our own future against the background of the rapidly evolving contradictions of capital’s present.”
[The seven contradictions in this category are:]
“8 Technology, Work and Human Disposability
9 Divisions of Labour
10 Monopoly and Competition: Centralisation and Decentralisation
11 Uneven Geographical Developments and the Production of Space
12 Disparities of Income and Wealth
13 Social Reproduction
14 Freedom and Domination

“Part Three: The Dangerous Contradictions

“I believe, as did Marx, that the future is already largely present in the world around us and that political innovation (like technological innovation) is a matter of putting existing but hitherto isolated and separated political possibilities together in a different way. Uneven geographical developments cannot but generate ‘spaces of hope’ and heterotopic situations where new modes of cooperation [the allusion seems to be movements like the Occupy Movement] might flourish, at least for a while, before they get reabsorbed into the dominant practices of capital. New technologies (like the internet) open up new spaces of potential freedom from domination that can advance the cause of democratic governance. Initiatives in the field of social reproduction can produce new political subjects desirous of revolutionising and humanising social relations [those covering gender, race, religion, caste etc.] more generally and cultivating a more aesthetically satisfying and sensitive approach to our metabolic relation to nature. To point to all these possibilities is not to say they will all bear fruit, but it does suggest that any anti-capitalist politics has to be assiduous in hunting through the contradictions and ferreting out its own path towards the construction of an alternative universe using the resources and ideas already to hand.
“This then brings us to the dangerous, if not potentially fatal, contradictions. … Marx’s position, and I broadly follow him in this (against certain currents in the Marxist/communist tradition, as well as against the grain of the views his many critics typically attribute to him), is that capital can probably continue to function indefinitely but in a manner that will provoke progressive degradation on the land and mass impoverishment, dramatically increasing social class inequality, along with dehumanisation of most of humanity, which will be held down by an increasingly repressive and autocratic denial of the potential for individual human flourishing (in other words, an intensification of the totalitarian police-state surveillance and militarised control system and the totalitarian democracy we are now largely experiencing).
“The resultant unbearable denial of the free development of human creative capacities and powers amounts to throwing away the cornucopia of possibilities that capital had bequeathed us and squandering the real wealth of human possibilities in the name of perpetual augmentation of monetary wealth and the satiation of narrow economic class interests. Faced with such a prospect, the only sensible politics is to seek to transcend capital and the restraints of an increasingly autocratic and oligarchical structure of capitalist class power and to rebuild the economy’s imaginative possibilities into a new and far more egalitarian and democratic configuration.”
Continuing in this vein, Harvey observes,
“Certain contradictions are, however, more dangerous both to capital and to humanity than others. These vary from place to place and from time to time. …The three contradictions I focus on here [in Part Three] are most dangerous in the immediate present, not only for the ability of the economic engine of capitalism to continue to function but also for the reproduction of human life under even minimally reasonable conditions. One of them, but just one of them, [the reference is to Contradiction 16, or Capital’s Relation to Nature] is potentially fatal. But it will turn out so only if a revolutionary movement arises to change the evolutionary path that the endless accumulation of capital dictates.
“15 Endless Compound Growth
16 Capital’s Relation to Nature
17 The Revolt of Human Nature: Universal Alienation”

The author discusses these contradictions – connecting, as he does throughout the book, basic Marxist formulations with recent events – and arrives at the “Conclusion”:

“Prospects for a Happy but Contested Future: The Promise of Revolutionary Humanism”

The title itself clearly conveys what the chapter is all about. The two most categorical statements we come across here are:
“There is, I believe, a crying need to articulate a secular revolutionary humanism that can ally with those religious-based humanisms (most clearly articulated in both Protestant and Catholic versions of the theology of liberation as well as in cognate movements within Hindu, Islamic, Jewish and indigenous religious cultures) to counter alienation in its many forms and to radically change the world from its capitalist ways.”
The broad, general statement is complemented by a more definitive and optimistic assertion:
“the violent and unpredictable eruptions that are occurring all around the world on an episodic basis (from Turkey and Egypt to Brazil and Sweden in 2013 alone) look more and more like the prior tremors for a coming earthquake that will make the post-colonial revolutionary struggles of the 1960s look like child’s play. If there is an end to capital, then this is surely from where it will come and its immediate consequences are unlikely to prove happy for anyone.”
The “Conclusion” is followed by an “Epilogue”, where we can see the full implication of the author’s initial declaration -- “The mode of approach I have adopted is somewhat unconventional in that it follows Marx’s method but not necessarily his prescriptions”. The Epilogue is worth quoting almost in full:

“Ideas for Political Praxis

“What does this X-ray into the contradictions of capital tell us about anti-capitalist political praxis? …
Here are some mandates – derived from the seventeen contradictions – to frame and hopefully animate political praxis. We should strive for a world in which:
“1. The direct provision of adequate use values for all (housing, education, food security etc.) takes precedence over their provision through a profit-maximising market system that concentrates exchange values in a few private hands and allocates goods on the basis of ability to pay.
“2. A means of exchange is created that facilitates the circulation of goods and services but limits or excludes the capacity of private individuals to accumulate money as a form of social power.
“3. The opposition between private property and state power is displaced as far as possible by common rights regimes – with particular emphasis upon human knowledge and the land as the most crucial commons we have – the creation, management and protection of which lie in the hands of popular assemblies and associations.
“4. The appropriation of social power by private persons is not only inhibited by economic and social barriers but becomes universally frowned upon as a pathological deviancy.
“5. The class opposition between capital and labour is dissolved into associated producers freely deciding on what, how and when they will produce in collaboration with other associations regarding the fulfilment of common social needs.
“6. Daily life is slowed down – locomotion shall be leisurely and slow – to maximise time for free activities conducted in a stable and well-maintained environment protected from dramatic episodes of creative destruction.
“7. Associated populations assess and communicate their mutual social needs to each other to furnish the basis for their production decisions (in the short run, realisation considerations dominate production decisions).
“8. New technologies and organisational forms are created that lighten the load of all forms of social labour, dissolve unnecessary distinctions in technical divisions of labour, liberate time for free individual and collective activities, and diminish the ecological footprint of human activities.
“9. Technical divisions of labour are reduced through the use of automation, robotisation and artificial intelligence. Those residual technical divisions of labour deemed essential are dissociated from social divisions of labour as far as possible. administrative, leadership and policing functions should be rotated among individuals within the population at large. We are liberated from the rule of experts.
“10. Monopoly and centralised power over the use of the means of production is vested in popular associations through which the decentralised competitive capacities of individuals and social groups are mobilised to produce differentiations in technical, social, cultural and lifestyle innovations.
“11. The greatest possible diversification exists in ways of living and being, of social relations and relations to nature, and of cultural habits and beliefs within territorial associations, communes and collectives. Free and uninhibited but orderly geographical movement of individuals within territories and between communes is guaranteed. Representatives of the associations regularly come together to assess, plan and undertake common tasks and deal with common problems at different scales: bioregional, continental and global.
“12. All inequalities in material provision are abolished other than those entailed in the principle of from each according to his, her or their capacities and to each according to his, her, or their needs.
“13. The distinction between necessary labour done for distant others and work undertaken in the reproduction of self, household and commune is gradually erased such that social labour becomes embedded in household and communal work and household and communal work becomes the primary form of unalienated and non-monetised social labour.
“14. Everyone should have equal entitlements to education, health care, housing, food security, basic goods and open access to transportation to ensure the material basis for freedom from want and for freedom of action and movement.
“15. The economy converges on zero growth (though with room for uneven geographical developments) in a world in which the greatest possible development of both individual and collective human capacities and powers and the perpetual search for novelty prevail as social norms to displace the mania for perpetual compound growth.
“16. The appropriation and production of natural forces for human needs should proceed apace but with the maximum regard for the protection of ecosystems, maximum attention paid to the recycling of nutrients, energy and physical matter to the sites from whence they came, and an overwhelming sense of re-enchantment with the beauty of the natural world, of which we are a part and to which we can and do contribute through our works.
“17. Unalienated human beings and unalienated creative personas emerge armed with a new and confident sense of self and collective being. Born out of the experience of freely contracted intimate social relations and empathy for different modes of living and producing, a world will emerge where everyone is considered equally worthy of dignity and respect, even as conflict rages over the appropriate definition of the good life. This social world will continuously evolve through permanent and ongoing revolutions in human capacities and powers. The perpetual search for novelty continues.
“None of these mandates, it goes without saying, transcends or supersedes the importance of waging war against all other forms of discrimination, oppression and violent repression within capitalism as a whole. By the same token, none of these other struggles should transcend or supersede that against capital and its contradictions. Alliances of interests are clearly needed.”
How does one rate these propositions? Thought-provoking, aren’t they? This is what Professor Harvey himself wrote in the “Prologue”:
“These consequences may not seem, at first blush, to be likely, let alone practicable or politically palatable. But it is vital that alternatives be broached, however foreign they may seem, and, if necessary, seized upon if conditions so dictate.”
These are the words the latest work of David Harvey ends with. Surely it is a book to go for, isn’t it?