Review: David Harvey on capitalism’s crisis

March 7, 2011

From the Jan.-Feb. 2011 issue of News & Letters:

Review: David Harvey on capitalism’s crisis

The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capital by David Harvey (Oxford University Press, 2010).

The British geographer and social critic David Harvey, author of the influential The Limits to Capital (1982), has undertaken an admirable and timely task: a serious analysis of the ongoing economic crisis of world capitalism that began in 2008. The product of Harvey’s effort, The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism, is a sophisticated treatise on aspects of Marx’s criticism of capitalism aimed at a general audience.

I say “aspects” because Harvey states quite plainly in the book’s first sentence that his concern is “capital flow.” This means that despite the book’s title, he does not directly treat the true enigma of capital, which Marx called the “fetishism of the commodity and its secret.” Harvey’s focus is instead on the problem of surplus capital–the enormous challenge the capitalist class faces in finding profitable fields of investment for its accumulated capital.

Harvey takes up in depth a number of the crucial elements of today’s global capitalist economy, including the relationship between the state and capital, which he calls the “state-finance nexus,” the environmental impact of the reproduction of capital, and–importantly for Harvey’s discipline of geography (in his words, the “neglected orphan of social theory”)–the process of capital’s construction, destruction and reconstruction of urban spaces such as cities and slums.

In addition to these economic, or material aspects, of life under capitalism, Harvey has an interesting discussion in his chapter “Capital Evolves” of its important non-material, or subjective aspects, which he calls “activity spheres.” He identifies seven separate spheres, including “the reproduction of daily life and the species” and “‘mental conceptions of the world'” (he places this latter phrase in quotes). This is an important discussion that seeks to take up human existence in a non-deterministic manner, but because Harvey does not consider Marx a philosopher, he deals with these philosophical concepts within the limiting boundaries of sociology.

Harvey expresses other ambivalences toward Marx, including skepticism toward Marx’s theory of the falling rate of profit, and incredibly, fails to include Marx’s Capital in his “Sources and Further Reading” list at the end of the book. Furthermore, because Harvey is so intensely focused on the problem of surplus capital, he neglects what Marx considered to be the far more important “surplus” problem of capitalism, that of “surplus population”–the masses of people totally unnecessary for the purpose of the accumulation of capital.

Because Harvey is focused on “capital flow” (the circulation of capital), this problem of surplus population, resulting from Marx’s “General Law of Capitalist Accumulation” (accumulation of wealth at one pole and unemployment at the other), is ignored almost completely. The attention on circulation of capital, which, following Marx, Harvey compares to the circulation of the blood through the body, comes at the expense of attention to the “cell-form” of capital, the commodity, which, as mentioned above, is capital in its ultimate enigmatic form.

Despite these reservations, Harvey’s book is to be welcomed as the initiation of a serious Marxist discussion of an economic crisis to which no end is yet in sight.

–Kevin Michaels

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