Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism, by David Harvey

Chris Knight extols a persuasively argued work from a Marxist thinker on tensions in the system

May 22, 2014

Drawing on his previous commentaries on Karl Marx’s Capital, David Harvey’s latest book is a brave attempt to translate that monumental work into the simplified language of the 21st century. It is beautifully written, persuasively argued and – in these dismal times – refreshingly optimistic about the socialist future awaiting us all.

The author begins by drawing “a clear distinction between capitalism and capital”. “This book”, Harvey explains, “focuses on capital and not on capitalism.” More accurately, the topic is the hidden engine that drives capitalism, not the rickety vehicle as it trundles along bumpy roads. Harvey is not only interested in finding out how the engine works and why it sometimes fails. “I also want to show”, he adds, “why this economic engine should be replaced and with what”. No shortage of ambition, then.

Although it might seem forced, I can see why this distinction is necessary. To write a short book – or indeed to do any kind of science – you have to simplify, abstracting away from reality in all its complexity. “How does the engine work” is, I suppose, a different question from “Where are we going?” or “Will we ever arrive?”

Focusing simply on the engine, Harvey’s 17 contradictions are exclusively internal ones – tensions intrinsic to the hidden mechanisms driving the circulation and accumulation of capital. It’s a convenient strategy that allows him to set aside such “external” factors as, say, changing gender relations, epidemics or warfare. But I couldn’t quite understand the basis on which some topics were excluded and others discussed at length.

Harvey’s 16th contradiction – entitled “Capital’s Relation to Nature” – includes the looming prospect of catastrophic climate change. It’s an excellent, scientifically well-informed chapter and one of the highlights of the book. Harvey claims it as an “internal” contradiction on the basis that capital is a working and evolving ecological system embracing both nature and capital. I agree with that. But in accepting that point, aren’t we including the bumpy road as part of the engine? If climate change counts as “internal”, what justification is there for excluding race and gender? Harvey explains: “I exclude them because although they are omnipresent within capitalism they are not specific to…capitalism”. Well, no, but then neither is environmental degradation. The consequences might be more terrifying today, but humans have been triggering extinctions since the beginning of farming and probably before. Mammoths once roamed across Europe…

My other criticism is that while Marx wrote quite a lot about revolution, Harvey goes strangely silent on the topic. As a result, the book’s final pages remind me of going to the wishing well and asking for 17 nice things that ought to happen – solidarity everywhere, no alienating work, everyone creative and fulfilled. It’s an inspiring list. But it does little to help us think about how to get there or if it would really work. Marxists need to do more if we are to sound convincing.

“Every emancipation”, wrote Marx himself, “is a restoration of the human world and of human relationships to man himself.” He saw our communist future as in some sense a return to something that did work and that in fact constituted our human essence, long before class society came into being. That dialectical notion is inexplicably absent from Harvey’s Marxism, leaving his vision of the future worryingly unconnected with our present and past.

Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism

By David Harvey
Profile, 336pp, £14.99
ISBN 9781781251607
Published 3 April 2014

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