Malcolm's Reviews > The Enigma of Capital: and the Crises of Capitalism

The Enigma of Capital by David Harvey
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Jul 23, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: marxism-and-the-left, political-economy

Every now and then I read something that helps make sense of the really big picture; this is one of those books – and it is simply superb. For at least the last 25 years or so I have been involved in work with friends and comrades (I use the word broadly) on ways to make sense of the post-Really-Existing-Communist world of finance capital, and in doing so have tried to keep up with developments on the left and in the broad social movements. Our early, and unsuccessful, efforts centred on ideas of ways to integrate the struggles around race, gender and class as well as related social antagonisms and identities – but in reality that was little more than a souped up version of what used to be called ‘tripod’ theory (race/gender/class as the society’s shaping antagonisms) where we added a bit of dialectical and historical materialism to get beyond much of the voluntarism and idealism of tripod theory. Not surprisingly, we didn’t get far and the initial moves just happened to begin to come to fruition with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Chinese attack on protestors in Tiananmen Square, and the growing hegemony of neo-liberalism – the organisational base of this work collapsed. Since then, there has been enormous developments in the theory, practice and shape of the left – but little that has effectively rethought what it is that we are dealing with (although Marta Harnecker’s Rebuilding the Left is one of the better attempts).

This book is a profound and essential retheorising and reanalysis of the contemporary world of finance capital that challenges and extends Marx’s and Marxist analyses of our socio-political-economic world in essential ways. The analysis of the current crisis of capitalism is lucid and clear, the outline of capital’s development and operation – both industrial and financial is demanding but about as sharp and transparent as that obscure world can be, and the spatialisation of capital and capital flows in itself an essential addition to contemporary understandings of global capitalism (as would be expected from a geographer).

Important as these are, the real strengths of the book lie elsewhere. The first is Harvey’s model of the co-evolution of capitalist development based in the dialectical interaction of seven ‘activity spheres’: the production of new technological and organisational forms; social relations; institutional and administrative arrangements; production and labour processes; relations to nature; the reproduction of daily life and the species; and mental conceptions of the world. This is a sophisticated critique of the crude attribution to Marx of a base-superstructure model (thanks Joe Stalin), and a rejection of the primacy of any sphere while also accepting the basic truth of a materialist mode of analysis. Each of these seven spheres interacts (dialectically) to shape and make the modern world, but that interaction varies across space. The corollary of this model is that transformative action against capitalism must be co-revolutionary attending to all of these spheres, but that the ‘way in’ – the dominant contradiction of the moment – is likely to be different in different places. This co-revolutionary politics centres on several key points: development is not the same as growth; developments in each sphere will require a sophisticated grasp of the operational form and character of each other sphere (that is, we need some ‘grand theory’); we need to be aware of and confront feedbacks and impacts from the global economy; and we need some common objectives.

In the contemporary world, Harvey sees two broad groups of activists marginalised by the politics of capital: the discontented and alienated – including intellectuals, cultural workers and others whose material interests may lead them to ally with those in power but whose cultural and political outlooks lead them to see the current path of capitalist development as at best a dead end and at worst a catastrophe meaning that they reject that alliance – and the deprived and dispossessed, those whose experience of the conditions of work and life deprive and dispossess them of control over their labour, material, cultural and natural relations of existence. In a shift from the old Leninist model of the role of intellectuals to teach the deprived and dispossessed (to teach the workers) Harvey sees our role as trying to make sense of the underpinning conditions of deprivation and dispossession and to work with the deprived and dispossessed to make sure those explanations have meaning and are effective contributions to struggle (the terms, shape and structure of this relationship need further work).

Having built this model, Harvey finds our existing organisational forms inadequate but sees great potential emerging from the interwoven action of 1) NGOs (at best, ameliorative), 2) anarchist, autonomist and grassroots movements, 3) ‘traditional’ (his word) left parties and the labour movement, 4) social movements that are not necessarily philosophically based but are pragmatic responses to and resistance of displacement and dispossession, and 5) identity-based emancipatory movements (race, gender, class, youth, children, religious minorities and the like). It is at this stage that I find Marta Harnecker’s excellent (Bolivarian/Chavezesque) book Rebuilding the Left so helpful, with its pragmatic and challenging ‘what-do-we-do-now?’ approach, and find the inclusive approach to the left of magazines like Red Pepper so useful and inspiring. In some ways what Harvey has done here (and don’t get me wrong, there are flaws, but with one exception they are minor and I wouldn’t a good lefty if I didn’t find something to niggle about – but the relations between the discontented and alienated and the deprived and dispossessed needs much more work) has provided these new developments (of the kind Red Pepper and Harnecker represent) with a update of Capital for our times. Right at the end he reminds us, in the words of Shakespeare “The fault … is not in the stars, but in ourselves that we are underlings”. This is not neo-liberal self-blame for failure, but a reminder that no-one else is going to change the world for the better if we don’t.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
June 1, 2011 – Finished Reading
July 23, 2011 – Shelved
October 23, 2011 – Shelved as: marxism-and-the-left
January 6, 2012 – Shelved as: political-economy

Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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message 1: by Ted (new) - added it

Ted Malcolm, a question. Does the author address at all what I believe to be the newest and most profound issue affecting "economics" in general from this point: that of the critical need (if it isn't already too late) of addressing the rapacious consumerism fostered by capitalism, which is trashing the planet and likely (in my opinion, via global warming) to bring down much of the civilized world over the next several decades?

Malcolm Hi Ted - yes, in the sense that that rapacious consumption is linked to and a by-product of the dominance of finance capital with its emphasis on continual consumption, renewal/upgrading the the latest edition/style of the stuff we (already) own and the trade in services. That is to say, although he does not draw out the consumption/global warming link explicitly it is central to the analysis. There is lots more in his lectures on Capital at

message 3: by Ted (new) - added it

Ted Thanks for the info!

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