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17 Contradictions and the End of Capitalism
by David Harvey
The Indian king asked the inventor of chess what he wanted as a prize. He answered rice — just the amount given by doubling a single grain on each square of a chessboard. The king agreed readily until discovering that by the 41st square all the rice in the world would not be enough.
The anecdote illustrates what may just be the most fatal among the 17 contradictions that Professor David Harvey discusses in his stimulating new book on capitalism and the world we might build beyond it.
Harvey is probably the foremost populariser of Marx’s masterpiece Capital. Millions have watched his YouTube lectures and he has produced many well-thumbed works on capitalism.
Instead of compound growth, which as the king discovered eventually consumes everything, the evidence mounts daily that we need to be moving towards a zero-growth economy to prevent the despoliation of our planet.
But, as Harvey explains, it is an impossibility for capital. “Without expansion there can be no capital. A zero-growth capitalist economy is a logical and exclusionary contradiction. It simply cannot exist.”
In an economic system that depends on a fiat currency that has expanded in line with the growth of debt-based finance, “growth” increasingly means the creation of fictitious digital money which inflates a range of unstable asset bubbles that expand and then burst.
In his examination of the contradiction between capital and nature, Harvey does not see a fatal contradiction, despite the steady destruction of the planet’s natural environments by capitalism. Instead, it is the inadvertent empowering of the owners of land and natural resources — essentially the rentier class — that puts capital in jeopardy.
As capital expands into the remaining areas where labour has not been fully integrated and the last wildernesses not yet fully exploited, the ground is laid for a struggle to control resources and extract rent from the productive economy.
Not only does this situation confront capital with a barrier to expansion, it is also a form of exploitation that steals what is left of the workers’ subsistence.
And this is a point that Harvey convincingly hammers home. “21st-century capitalism seems to be busy weaving a net of constraints in which the rentiers, the merchants, the communications moguls and above all the financiers ruthlessly squeeze the lifeblood out of productive industrial capital, to say nothing of the workers employed.”
The most recent technological revolution has quickly created giant digital companies that suck rent from lesser capitalists who now must sell their wares in the digital marketplace. Apple and Amazon both take a massive fee from sales through their shopfront, a classic case of monopoly rent, while others like Facebook rely on millions of unpaid “producers” whose “content” they sell to third parties.
Capital increasingly turns to “accumulation by dispossession” — Harvey’s useful term — which describes anything from Ponzi banking schemes to imperial plunder.
Not only is capital facing an increasing squeeze from the rentiers but the sources of unintegrated super-cheap labour are gradually drying up, even as the world population expands. This may sound counterintuitive given that recent decades have seen an unprecedented expansion of the global labour force.
Yet this expansion, according to Harvey, is a one-off that will taper off as Asia is industrialised and countries such as China quickly move into the same demographic trend of ageing populations and shrinking workforces as Europe and Japan. This leaves only Africa as a potential source of new flows of labour into the globalised economy. Only immigration and intensified exploitation can buck the trend.
Another long-term contradiction is the declining proportion of productive labour — labour that produces surplus value — as a result of automation, leading to a falling rate of profit.
As industry goes the way of agriculture, increasing numbers of workers are involved in what Robert Reich calls “symbolic labour,” which to a large extent is labour that is required not for the social reproduction of the population —like education, house-building and food production — but for the reproduction and circulation of capital. Such sectors include marketing, security and sales — the kind of jobs that capitalism requires but whose disappearance could allow for more fulfilling and human-centred use of our time and efforts.
All of this perhaps ought to lead to the inevitable conclusion that the system is on its last legs and in the years to come we will have to create something to replace it.
However Harvey cannot comfort us with the certainty that one or more of his contradictions will prove capitalism’s end. Even the impossibility of eternal compound growth on a finite planet is not necessarily fatal to the system.
He quickly dismisses the idea that capital can transition to “immaterial” growth via the digital economy — growth that doesn’t use up the planet’s resources.
Perhaps there may be a way the system can harness green economics but in its current form this is still a carbon-based economy that requires built-in obsolescence and conspicuous consumption as its very lifeblood.
Looking to the alternatives, Harvey argues against the idea of a technical collapse caused by contradiction between productive forces and social relations. This idea may have been prevalent in the days of the Second International, but surely only the most schematic of Marxists would suggest that a collapse could arise absent a mass political movement to bring it about.
He further suggests that “the traditional communist movement was in perpetual danger of unwittingly replicating the fetishisms and fictions” by itself pursuing a materialist and barren culture of technology.
The vanguard Leninist model proved excellent for revolution against an array of enemies but ended up producing not freedom but domination, he says. Such a politics also fails to “capture the spiritual and subjective imagination” of millions in revolt against capitalism, perhaps here hinting at communism’s failed war on religion, which globally has reoccupied the space vacated by socialism.
In an interesting chapter exploring the modern relevance of Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth in the post-colonial order, he foresees a universal humanist revolt against capitalist alienation — human beings do not want to live in a giant shopping centre connected by motorways.
Which brings me to what appears to be the biggest omission from Harvey’s highly readable and thought-provoking work. There is hardly a mention — and certainly no systematic analysis — of imperialism.
An unsatisfactory chapter on un-even development fails to mention the pioneering works of Trotsky, Lenin and Austrian Marxist economist Hilferding in the early years of the 20th century on combined and uneven development, which, alongside Gramsci’s work on hegemony, were arguably the most important additions to Marx’s original theoretical achievement in the last century.
Harvey, a geographer by training before coming to Marx, sits in the belly of the beast, as it were, in his New York faculty. I found at times that his riffing on the “diverse” nature of uneven development failed to paint clearly the actual world order of globalised corporate capitalism.
In his defence we could turn to his 2003 book The New Imperialism, which analysed US global power just as George Bush sent troops into Iraq.)
Post-Iraq, most critics agree that the US empire is in decline and its grip on the planet is loosening as new powers — prominently China — threaten its hegemony, while popular resistance to oligarchic capitalism explodes from Caracas to Cairo and Athens to Bangkok.
In his conclusion Harvey advocates revolutionary humanism, as opposed to an arid and technocratic materialism that stymied 20th century socialism, and hopes for a kind of universal revolt against capitalism’s invasion of every bit of open space and every corner of our conscious life.
His final epilogue is a wish list for communism based on the provision of essentials to all, elimination of speculative money, rescuing of common land and knowledge, the reduction of unnecessary divisions of labour and freeing up of labour time, and a world of equality and diversity — but there is no roadmap.
It’s been a difficult road since Marx first saw in the proletarian revolt of 1848 the seeds of a new society.
Perhaps, given the relatively brief life of capitalism, we should be patient and prepare for the next wave of post-capitalism to burst out of the system’s increasingly obvious contradictions. Harvey’s work helps light the way.
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