[Below are three of the papers given at this MHI panel, all in unedited form: Cooney, Jaffe, and Kliman. Do not quote without permission of the author.]
“The Enigma of The Enigma”
The aim of this brief talk is to provide the beginning of a critique of David Harvey’s theory of crisis. But I have to start by saying how humbly I approach this task. Like many people, I am greatly indebted to David Harvey. In many ways Harvey was my first access into the world of Marx. His clear, articulate language, his passion for his subject material, and his patient dedication to pedagogy were a big influence on me, compelling me to dig deeper and deeper into the world of Marx and Marxism. The criticism I offer here is made with the deepest and most sincere respect for his work.
My critique is of three intertwined aspects of Harvey’s work: his rejection of Marx’s theory of the Tendency of the Rate of Profit to Fall (TRPF), his theory of “overaccumulation,” and his use of this “overaccumulation” as a framework for his geographical analysis.
Much of 20th century Marxism is defined by its defeats, both theoretical and political. As much as we have to learn from our elders, we also must remember that they have their origin in a certain time and place and that their approach to Marx is informed by this origin. For Harvey, the time is the 1970’s and the place is the western academy. It is a time and place where Marxists were facing certain theoretical challenges that they were unable to respond to, forcing them to revise or reject key aspects of Marx’s value theory. They were also faced with the need to distance themselves politically from the horrors of Soviet Marxism and Maoism. This led to several distinctive characteristics of what I call here “the 70’s Marxist.”
Aspect 1: Anti-orthodoxy
Disillusionment with the USSR, Maoism, and the like provided space for a critique of so-called “orthodox Marxism,” allowing for a reappraisal of Marx himself, not filtered through the politics of the Soviet state. This combined with a trend of academic Marxism, tracing itself back to figures like Paul Sweezy, who worked to establish more space for Marxian ideas in the academy by developing a non-sectarian Marxist tradition which often borrowed language and tools of neo-classical economics. On the positive side, this has led to some great scholarship and debates on many topics, from dialectics to value theory to the labor process, revealing the great depth and richness of Marx’s analysis, and freeing Marx from the stodgy determinism of the Iron Curtain. On the other hand, there has been too great, and often too superficial, a rush to distance oneself from this so-called “orthodoxy,” often confusing this “orthodoxy” with Marx himself (throwing out the Marx-baby with the orthodox bath water).
Most problematic was the attempt by some to continue the Marxist project without Marx’s value theory, dismissing value as an unnecessary category useful only for “orthodox dogmatists.” (Indeed, the charge of “orthodoxy” is too often used as a substitute for a real argument.) For Harvey, this takes an unusual form. In his 1981 Limits to Capital and his online course on Capital, he seems comfortable with Marx’s value theory. But in his writings on crisis and geography from Condition of Postmodernity to Enigma of Capital, he makes no use of value as a category. The word value doesn’t even occur in the index of many of these books. This gives the impression that he is advancing a crisis theory that is not based in a theory of value. This is reinforced by his frequent use of the same language as the Monopoly School of thought (“price-fixing markets,” “surplus capital absorption,” “overaccumulation,” etc.), a school which advances a surplus-capital theory of crisis that does not require value as a category.
Aspect 2: theoretical retreat
As 70’s Marxists wrestled with their identity in the post-Stalin era, they also had to fend off the theoretical assault of the Sraffians, the transformation problem, and the Okishio Theorem, critiques which they could not find answers to. Those who didn’t abandon Marx altogether often resorted to vague reformulations of the Marxist project which attempted to skirt criticism by taking focus away from the specifics of the critique and focusing on more general Marx-ishness. For the purpose of this essay, what is most important is the Okishio Theorem, which argued that Marx’s theory of the Tendency of the Rate of Profit to Fall (TRPF) was invalid. Okishio argued that it was impossible for labor-saving innovations to make the rate of profit fall as Marx had argued it would. The inability of Marxists to find a way to refute the Okishio Theorem led many to abandon Marx’s theory of crisis, and to try to find some way to prove the inevitability of crisis using other aspects of Marx’s analysis of Capital. It was a time for vague work-arounds and soft answers. For Harvey it meant taking focus away from the rate of profit and instead focusing on the growth of capital itself, searching for a multitude of different barriers that could check this growth.
But since these 70’s debates, since Harvey’s Limits to Capital, there has been a rising tide of theorists who have come to question the theoretical assumptions behind the Okishio Theorem and the transformation problem, arguing that Marx’s value theory is consistent and complete, not in need of full-scale revisions. The presence of these new challenges, these new defenses of value theory, demand that we reinvestigate the theories of the past, theories that were forged in an era of theoretical defeat.
As the 70’s Marxists lived through the 80’s and 90’s, they also wrestled with the seemingly infallible permanence of capitalism. Theories often tended to downplay the inevitability of crisis and highlight capitalism’s adaptive strategies. Harvey’s crisis theory is almost wholly focused on the way in which crisis is displaced and avoided rather than on why it erupts.
Aspect 3: do it my own way
It seems almost every book on Marx written in the last 40 years must have as a subtitle, “a reinterpretation,” “a reformulation,” or “a critical appraisal.” Academic careers were made based on the uniqueness of one’s reinterpretation. Putting a distance between oneself and Marx certainly makes one more palatable to the academy. But I suspect that the larger factor in this is the nature of academic careers in general which tend to foster individualism and originality in theories. Harvey puts a lot of effort into tying his theoretical contributions into Marx’s framework. He also sees his work, especially in Limits, as completing aspects of Marx’s project: integrating different models of accumulation that Marx left separate, extending the theory of primitive accumulation, etc. But sometimes one can lose track of where Marx leaves off and where Harvey picks up. If indeed Harvey’s crisis theory was formed in part as a retreat from the Okishio Theorem, then this demands that we pay extra close attention to this sometimes fuzzy line between Marx and Harvey, and ask whether or not Harvey’s extensions and reformulations of Marx are always warranted. Let’s get into it…..
[Thinking back to my first encounters with Harvey’s writing, reading The Condition of Postmodernity as an undergrad, I remember the excitement that his geographical project had on me. In a college environment of identity politics and postmodernism, where culture was used to explain politics, where “meta-narratives” were akin to totalitarianism, David Harvey’s ability to provide a fresh materialist analysis to culture was a breath of fresh air. By focusing on the way capitalist accumulation constructs its own version of space and time, his writing was able to pierce through the fragmentation and nihilism of the dominant postmodern narrative, and provide a materialist framework with which to understand the lived experience of capitalism in all of its diversity and complexity.]
Often as an undergrad, I had been told that Marxist analysis was reductive, that it predicted a uniform lived experience, that it proscribed a politics that ignored differences between people, rejecting many forms of struggle to focus narrowly on workplace struggles. Harvey showed that it was possible to theorize a great diversity of experiences of capitalism as well as a great diversity of struggles against capitalism, within a Marxist framework.
This is the real strength of his project. It represents some of the best aspects of the 70’s Marxist, showing that Marxism is an open, developing body of theory, capable of theorizing the continuing evolution of capitalism in all of its complexity and diversity.
But the 70’s Marxist too often threw out the Marx-baby with the orthodox-bath-water. Often times this was the best that could be done at the time, as theoretical defenses of key aspects of Marx’s value theory had not been developed yet. [More on this below.] The best thing that could be done was to side-step these criticisms of Marx, developing alternative approaches. Harvey’s work-around is this theory of over-accumulation.
What is missing in his theory?
For Harvey, capitalists are in a constant state of anxiety because they must turn their money into more money. They must constantly find new avenues for profitable investment. But the amount of value that needs to be valorized keeps increasing, and so their task gets harder and harder. Eventually this growth reaches limits. It begins not just to accumulate, but to overaccumulate. The attempts of capitalists to overcome these limits is what particularly interests Harvey. Investments in fixed capital, public works, infrastructure, etc… The entire construction of physical space and the organization of time are bound up in this attempt to deal with the overaccumulation of capital.
“The Marxist argument is, then, that the tendency toward overaccumulation can never be eliminated under capitalism. It is a never-ending and eternal problem for any capitalist mode of production. The only question, therefore is how the overaccumulation tendency can be expressed, contained, absorbed or managed in ways that do not threaten the capitalist social order.” (The Condition of Postmodernity, p.181)
Too Much Explained
This becomes a very powerful tool for Harvey, as it allows him to explain all of space and time, more or less, through the problem of overaccumulation, or as he says in Enigma, the problem of surplus. But the problem is that his theory explains too much. Like his theory of Accumulation by Dispossession, the categories are extended too wide; too much is explained; it’s too easy.
How can the boom in investment that accompanies the start of an accumulation cycle and the stagnation of investment that happens at the end of an accumulation cycle both be the result of over-accumulation? I would think that at the start of a new boom the growth in investment is a result of a healthy profit rate, not some surplus absorption problem. There is no problem absorbing the surplus if profit rates are healthy. We need some other theory that can explain the movement of this profit rate so we know why we get an overaccumulation problem at some times and not others.
A theory of overaccumulation, by itself, is a mono-directional theory. Overaccumulation cannot explain overaccumulation. It seems to describe a chronic state of affairs: there is just always too much capital because there is always too much capital. In contrast, for Marx, overaccumulation is a specific symptom of the falling rate of profit. It exists at a specific point in the accumulation cycle, before a crisis. Marx’s theory of the TRPF, like all of his economic laws, contains tendencies and counter-tendencies which make for cyclical patterns.
Now Harvey’s Limits does contain a description of an accumulation cycle, but in order to do so, he needs something besides just the idea of overaccumulation. He must show some limit to capitalist accumulation that creates the problem of surplus. In Limits, 1981, he endorses the theory that high-wages cause the overaccumulation problem, though the argument seems to come out of nowhere and have no relation to any of the previous discussion of crisis in the book. In Enigma, it is low wages that caused the current crisis.
This is not a contradiction for Harvey, but he endorses the idea that any potential limit could cause a crisis at any time. The particular limit we encounter is contingent. What it will be depends largely upon politics for Harvey.
Motion for Harvey is a political, contingent phenomenon. Again: “The only question, therefore is how the overaccumulation tendency can be expressed, contained, absorbed or managed in ways that do not threaten the capitalist social order” (The Condition of Postmodernity, p.181). So the only question is how actors, mostly states and combinations of capitalists, contain, absorb and manage this overaccumulation. This leads to a theory of crisis that leans heavily on the politics of the ruling class. This is especially strong in “A Brief History of Neoliberalism,” in which Harvey considers neo-liberalism to be a “class project” of “wage repression” and robbery. Talking about class in this way certainly sounds Marxist at first. But would Marx really ascribe 30 years of economic history to a political theory of the ruling class? How much agency can we allow for politics before we lose track of the whole point of value theory?
Value is what organizes our productive activity so that politics doesn’t have to. Value is what we don’t think about. Politics describes the messy business of people trying to exert control over the law of value and failing. What is most interesting about politics is not the successes of certain political ideologies, but the failures of people to escape the logic of capital.
Andrew Kliman’s recent book on the crisis, The Failure of Capitalist Production, makes an interesting point about the use of neoliberal ideology as an explanation for the economic phenomena of the period: Most of the key institutional and economic features of neoliberalism pre-date the ascendancy of neoliberals into political office. This suggests that perhaps neoliberalism was a class project to justify what capitalism was already doing!
If capital is overaccumulating due to a shortage of profitable investment, we need some theory of the growth of capital relative to investment opportunities, or, I should say, relative to profitable investment opportunities.
Historically, theories of overaccumulation are associated with the underconsumption school of thought, which argues that low wages create a situation of not enough consumer demand, which means product can’t be sold, capital overaccumulates, etc. Harvey seems to endorse this thesis in Enigma, even though he critiques the theory earlier on in Enigma and many of his earlier works. (This, I must confess, I find confusing.) His critique I agree with: capital has the ability to generate its own demand through the expansion of capital goods (see Kliman’s new book).
If Harvey rejects the underconsumption argument, then what is the cause of overaccumulation? At his worst, Harvey sometimes seems to suggest that overaccumulation is its own cause and effect. The mere fact that capitalism must constantly grow is used to suggest that this growth will hit a limit at some point. This aspect of his theory seems to have become more blatant since the current crisis. It emerges quite strongly at times in Enigma and in recent speaking engagements. I think it is mostly a result of trying to communicate his ideas to lay audiences. But it has the danger of evoking an “anti-growth” aesthetic similar to the “small is beautiful” politics of primitivists, anarcho-libertarians, apolitical environmentalists and hippies. It borders on vulgar populism. And it has no theoretical meat: he must provide a reason why capitalism can’t expand forever.
Now, Harvey does have a better answer to the question. He often argues that there are multiple limits to capitalist production. This, for him, means that the specific limit operating at any particular place and time is contingent. Many of the limits Harvey talks about have to do with the temporal barriers to production generated by the complex overlapping of different turnover times, transportation, and the use of the credit system to overcome these limits, which generates its own speculative impulses.
This idea of a plurality of limits can seem attractive at first. It definitely gets anti-orthodoxy points due its ability to embrace many different interpretations of crisis. But I worry that it ignores the mechanism by which capital overcomes its limits: profit. Profit reapportions investment to areas with high return, and takes investment out of unprofitable areas. Now, of course this is not always successful for every individual capitalist. Of course there is a lot of unevenness due to all of the factors that Harvey discusses. But it is no good to just stress the limits and ignore the elephant in the room: the profit rate.
It turns out that capitalism is remarkably good at overcoming barriers. The “little-limits” Harvey discusses are good for describing much of the unevenness and violence of capitalist production. But these “little limits” are not adequate to describing a real crisis of the system.
Perhaps it would be useful to be more specific about some of these limits. Harvey lists several in Enigma, devoting pages to elaborating them. What does not emerge from this discussion is any reason why these limits would lead to a large-scale crisis of capitalism. Most of the limits in Enigma are limits to the circulation of capital, not the production of value. This immediately differentiates Harvey from Marx, who argued that the falling rate of profit was a phenomenon of capitalist production, though its manifestations could be seen in circulation.
1. money capital scarcities – which call forth credit (state-finance nexus)
The need for money to lubricate exchange calls for a credit and state-finance nexus to regulate this credit system. Credit can have is own logic which can lead to speculative bubbles. But this is surface froth compared to the speculative bubbles that attach themselves to capitalism in the lead up to a crisis. (There is an attempt in Enigma to embed the concept of speculation deeper into the logic of capitalism. Harvey wants to call all investment speculative, conflating risk and speculation. This is another problematic extension of categories. No time to develop this here.) The fact remains that a credit bubble is not a bubble unless there isn’t enough money to pay back those loans. If money is flowing into speculation rather than production, then this implies there is a problem with the profit rate. If Harvey wants to develop his explanation for the particular character of the state-finance nexus, his argument would be strengthened by an analysis of the profit rate.
2. labor problems – profit squeeze
Harvey does throw some support behind the profit-squeeze theory of crisis to explain the crisis of the 70’s. This is a problematic move on his part and I was surprised to read it. It seems strange to embrace a profit-squeeze theory for the 70’s and an underconsumption theory for the current crisis. Are high wages good or bad for capitalism? It seems that both only matter when the profit rate is falling.
Again, a reference to Morishima and some math nobody understands…In Enigma and Limits Harvey makes reference to disproportionality theories of crisis, mostly to refer to some complex algebra of Michio Morishima that claims to prove that it is impossible for capitalism to achieve balanced investment between wage-goods and capital-goods. I have no way of responding to this as it involves math which is over my head. Harvey doesn’t take the time to explain either. I don’t know if his math is that savvy either.
4. natural limits…which he doesn’t actually see as limits
Harvey goes into a long discussion of ecological limits to capital and seems to conclude that ecology is so much a product of human labor that we can’t really see nature as having any limit to capitalist growth. I would go further and suggest that the environmental crisis and their ensuing destruction are good for capital because they destroy capital.
5. unbalanced technological and organizational changes/viable technology
In Enigma he calls it unbalanced technological and organizational changes, which probably sounds really vague to most readers. In Limits he calls it the inability of capitalist competition to achieve “viable technology.” This concept is a direct descendant of the TRPF. It comes from Harvey trying to put Marx’s argument about profit rates into an equilibrium framework. Marx argued that labor saving technology causes prices to fall and with them long term profit rates. Harvey argues that we should theorize a mix of technologies that achieves a stable profit rate, a viable technology. He then argues that capitalist competition drives the economy away from a viable technology. My response is that if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, it must be the TRPF.
6. lack of effective demand
In many of Harvey’s works, he devotes a little time to explaining why lack of effective demand is not an adequate explanation for crisis. His reason is the same reason I would give: that the growth of the demand for capital-goods can sop up any shortage of demand for wage-goods. What he leaves out is this: this growth of demand for capital-goods only solves the problem when there is a healthy profit rate. When the profit rate is low, there is a demand problem for all sorts of goods. Curiously, despite his previous arguments, Harvey embraces the underconsumption argument in Enigma.
7. turn-over time
The complexity of fixed capital formations is a recurring fascination for Harvey. Some of his best geographical insights come from this. The relation to crisis is this: the growth of investment in fixed capital and the built environment ties up capital for a long period of time. Capital loses its mobility. This makes fixed capital likely to be devalued by newer, more efficient investments in other places. Hmmmmmmmm…. Interesting that this is one of the key arguments made for why savings in constant capital are not adequate to forestall the fall in the rate of profit!
Why Harvey rejects the TRPF
In Enigma, Harvey rejects TRPF because it has countervailing influences. Echoing Sweezy, he says that savings in constant capital and rising rates of exploitation make the rate of profit indeterminate. We might find a counter argument to this in Harvey’s own words: “The parallel incentive for individual capitalists to seek economies in employment of constant capital is, by contrast, much weaker. The actual processes regulating technological change under capitalism are indeed systematically biased towards variable-capital as opposed to constant-capital saving. The anarchic nature of inter-capitalist competition prevents a rational application of technological change–‘rational’ that is, from the standpoint of sustaining accumulation through a stabilization of the value composition of capital.” (Limits, p. 183)
I think there is more to the argument than this, but for now it’s probably adequate to dismiss Harvey’s undeveloped Enigma critique with this more developed Limits argument. In Limits it is not counter-tendencies that are Harvey’s beef. His beef is obscured by a rather confusing tangle of arguments that seem designed to avoid the Okishio Theorem.
I have a rather detailed critique I have made of Harvey’s take on the TRPF in Limits, but here I will summarize:
Harvey’s chapter (it’s actually a sub-chapter) on the TRPF could be the poster child for the 70’s Marxist. It starts with a hint that there is something wrong with Marx’s theory, though it is very hard from the chapter to find out what this is. It begins with a very thorough, detailed description of all of the different possible criticisms of the theory, all of the counter-tendencies that might raise the profit rate, etc. One by one, Harvey dismisses these critiques, arguing that they are not adequate to forestall a fall in the profit rate. Then comes this very interesting sentence:
“Van Parijs (1980), for his part, uses a proof of Okishio’s (1961) to show that capitalists, under competition, will choose techniques which necessarily reduce the unit values of all commodities (including labor power), and increase the transitional rate of profit to themselves as well as the social rate of profit, no matter what happens to the value composition, provided only that the physical standard of living labor remains constant.” (p. 185)
Now, nowhere does Harvey actually explain what this means or how this argument is proven. We are, I guess, just supposed to take the word of Van Parijs that we should take the word of Okishio. For a reader new to Marx, as I was when I first read Limits, this paragraph produces a good deal of head-scratching. We have just read pages of elaborate details about the TRPF that turn out to be dead ends (failed critiques, counter-tendencies, etc.). Now we are finally given a definitive statement that the TRPF is wrong, and David Harvey, the Marxist pedagogue, does not offer to give his readers any explanation.
This spectral appearance of Okishio becomes a turning point in the text. Okishio seems to be haunting the text like some sort of repressed idea. Harvey doesn’t want to directly confront Okishio. Instead he develops a very complicated and obtuse sidetrack about turnover time, credit, and constant capital that attempts to rescue what it can of Marx’s crisis theory. In the end Harvey concludes: “individual capitalists, acting in their own self-interest under the social relations of capitalist production and exchange, generate a technological mix that threatens further accumulation, destroys the potentiality for balanced growth and puts the reproduction of the capitalist class as a whole in jeopardy.” (p.188)
This appears to be nothing more than a vague restatement of the TRPF. The only difference is that Harvey puts the question in the language of equilibrium states. It is hard to see how recasting the same theory in vaguer language really rescues it from Okishio. If Harvey had just left things here, his work would probably not have been that note-worthy. But, Harvey doesn’t just leave things here. He uses this vague defense of Marx as a springboard for his own theoretical riffing: in the next chapter the camera has panned away from the discussed of the limits to profitability and zoomed in on the issue of the rising surplus. Here the language of overaccumulation begins.
The confusing thing, and it is still confusing to me, is how exactly Harvey’s theory of overaccumulation is supposed to relate to his vague conclusion about capitalist competition creating destabilizing technological mixes. Though Harvey talks a great deal about multiple limits, this is the only real limit in the text which seems like it could be the basis for a theory of overaccumulation. Yet nowhere else in subsequent writings of his on crisis in there any discussion of this destabilizing technological mix….
This strange, ghostly encounter with the repressed spectre of Okishio provides us with a template for the 70’s Marxist:
1. Sraffian critiques of Marx are side-stepped in an attempt to save Marx by being vague.
2. This vagueness becomes a platform for erecting original reformulations.
3. The reformulation takes on a life of its own, and the relation to the original debate is forgotten.
4. The reformulation is conflated or confused with Marx’s crisis theory.
In order to question these theories, we have to interrogate each of these:
4. We must separate Marx’s own theory from those of the “Marxits,” “Marxian,” “Marxoid,” etc.
3. We must acknowledge and understand the original debates that gave rise to these reformulations.
2. We must interrogate reformulations and challenge them to be clear, not evasive.
1. We must challenge Marxists to deal directly with the charges of inconsistency that have been leveled against Marx in the academy.
“Some Limits of Harvey’s ‘accumulation by dispossession’”
In this short presentation, I’m going to lay out the benefits and drawbacks of Harvey’s concept of “accumulation by dispossession.” While Harvey gives it fullest expression in The New Imperialism, it is present in much the same manner towards the end of The Enigma of Capital, and if I am not mistaken, it is a very important concept and is the rubric through which Harvey analyzes the relationship between what he calls the logic of politics or territory and the logic of capital.
The imperialist practices of the United States cannot be understood without reference to the function they serve to open new avenues for profitable investment of accumulated capital, while an economic analysis that ignores the new spatial and cultural arrangements ushered in by the political violence that promotes it is one-sided or reductive. So the two must be understood in tandem. Now, I want to be clear: Harvey does an excellent job linking the geographical with the economic, and for this he is to be commended. But the linkages he draws are far more complex and varied than the single conceptual device he uses. And I wish to develop this thought more fully in what follows. Namely, the valuable sensitivity which Harvey’s best uniquely develops is unfortunately limited by a serious lack of conceptual clarity. In developing this thought, I’ve divided the presentation into three sections. The first explores Harvey’s forced inheritance of “accumulation by dispossession” as a substitute for Marx’s “primitive accumulation,” the second highlights the imprecision and overly-broad range of the concept, and the third suggests, by way of conclusion, that these errors push Harvey to what are, by my lights, problematic political conclusions. So much by way of introduction.
Section one: Urspruengliche Akkumulation or Accumulation by Dispossession
Since, according to Harvey, “A general re-evaluation of the continuous role of and persistence of the predatory practices of ‘primitive’ or ‘original’ accumulation within the long historical geography of capital accumulation is…very much in order,” he proposes to “substitute these terms by the concept of ‘accumulation by dispossession’ (p. 144). Now, to be clear, I do not wish to argue that either ongoing or more original developments of capital are anything short of horrific; far from it. I also do not deny the structural parallels between accumulation centuries ago and the accumulation of today–for instance, in both dispossessions are prominent, but it is precisely here that Harvey’s usage departs from Marx’s. This is the case because what Marx labeled Urspruenglich or “original” is different from the accumulation of already existent capital. Original accumulation is how capital gathered its head of steam and emerged out of or alongside other forms of social reproduction. At the beginning of chapter 26 of Capital, Marx says, “The whole movement, therefore, seems to turn in a vicious circle, out of which we can only get by supposing a primitive accumulation (previous accumulation of Adam Smith) preceding capitalistic accumulation; an accumulation not the result of the capitalistic mode of production, but its starting point.” And while for Marx primitive accumulation is “nothing else than the historical process of divorcing the producer from the means of production,” the process itself “appears as primitive, because it forms the prehistoric stage of capital and of the mode of production corresponding with it.”
For good Marxist reasons, these early developments, wherever they occurred, are different from the strategies necessary for capital’s further accumulation once it has become a global system. While both are instances of harm, the expropriation of the agricultural population from the land Marx describes in chapter 27 of Capital is not the same as the contemporary capitalist state’s seizure of lands. The former overcame feudal arrangements and thereby served, in a limited sense, a progressive role, and the latter are perpetuating a world in which ever larger segments of the population cannot be oriented towards the realization of their most human possibilities for free creative expression. There is a great difference in the transition of surviving members of rural communities to towns when, in one instance it is the transition to Lancashire, and in the other to the Pearl River Delta of today. Thus, both from the standpoint of the subject or group experiencing the harm, and from the standpoint of structural analysis, today’s dispossessions are experientially and structurally different from dispossessions earlier in capital’s history. This is the case and indeed, must be so, for it would be a serious error to think we can tell the same story for both the genesis and mature articulations of any system while retaining a historical sensitivity. A story that papers over these differences with imprecise use of terms may capture one salient feature common to both, but leaves much to be desired. Specifically, if all Harvey means by “accumulation by dispossession” is “original accumulation” in the sense Marx meant it, then he is either consistent with Marx and his contemporary analysis fails to pick out what he intends, or, and this is in fact the case, he is papering over a break with Marx in his more historically specific account.
But I don’t mean to criticize Harvey solely for succumbing to the fashion of “updating” Marx’s thought with his own. A more serious problem is the theoretical shortcomings of Harvey’s articulations to add up to either a unified or coherent analysis. So:
Section two: “Accumulation by Dispossession” is an unstable concept.
Harvey’s descriptions of accumulation by dispossession are entirely too far-ranging to constitute a useful category. While he does provide a few definitions, first a functional one as Capital’s releasing “a set of assets at very low costs,” so as to solve over-accumulation (p. 149), and second, a normative one as “the necessary cost of making a successful breakthrough into capitalist development” (154), how these processes are concretely manifested varies wildly. If you’ll bear with me, I’ll just list some of Harvey’s recurrent examples of such dispossession from The New Imperialism: fraud, violence, Ponzi schemes, robbery, the slave trade, commodification of labor power and land, colonial or neocolonial appropriations of resources, usury, national debt, monetization of exchange and trade, privatization of social housing, telecommunications, transportation, and water, the rollback or reduction of welfare systems, state pensions, and national health-care, the de-valuation of existing capital assets, credit squeezes, IMF/World Bank imposed rules and regulations, commodification of education, and finally patenting, licensing, and bio-piracy.
Even if all of these techniques of accumulation are arguably dispossessive, I do not see that anything more is gained by labeling them so other than a thin veneer of explanatory power. Instead of “accumulation by dispossession,” we might have instead said “how capital reproduces itself” and been done with it. Incidentally, the breadth of the category now shows how far Harvey has departed from the original meaning of original accumulation. But while showing that a concept is broad, even unwieldy, can reveal the limits of its analytic power, it is not the same as saying it is wrong. To say that it is wrong requires demonstrating internal inconsistency.
And that’s what I’ll try to do now. Perhaps superficially, an easy inconsistency is to be found when at one time the “cutting edge” of accumulation by dispossessions is described as hedge-funds’ speculative raiding, and then, just ten pages later, the same “cutting edge” is used in a subject heading to modify the privatization of public goods. Less superficially, Harvey wants to be taken seriously when describing “an inner dialectic of capitalism forcing it to seek solutions external to it,” by which he means to refer to “the idea that capitalism must perpetually have something outside of itself in order to stabilize itself” (p140-41). The extraction by capital of what is purportedly outside itself is, of course, his accumulation by dispossession. But this is internally inconsistent and is so on Harvey’s own account. In recognizing that it is capital itself that constitutes the “other” that it feeds off of (the proletarian masses are even named as a product of this process), accumulation by dispossession is interpreted as both the process of extracting value from previously uncommodified resources, and the creation of disadvantaged groupings internal to the system. I do not mean that both don’t happen, in fact, they certainly do, but Harvey describes this production as a production of the outside.
In insisting that what is accumulated in contemporary accumulation is outside capital itself, Harvey’s dispossession cannot recognize that capital also functions as an ensemble of relations, and reproduces itself not in relation to some other, but via further entrenchments of an already articulated logic. Since “accumulation by dispossession” is, as we have seen, just as broad a category as “how capital works,” then by showing that, for Harvey capital 1) requires an “other” and 2) produces this “other,” I hope to have shown there is a serious flaw in the position. Rather than accept Harvey’s attempt at a post-modern articulation of an “other” produced by capital, we can instead say that his understanding is flawed precisely where he conflates original with contemporary accumulations. In the former, the “other” upon which capital feeds makes sense, whereas for the latter, this is decreasingly the case.
In part because of this flawed analysis, Harvey comes to some retrograde political conclusions. So, finally, and by way of conclusion,
Section three: Political implications.
To put it simply, Harvey thinks that capital can work: accumulation by dispossession, when accomplished productively, can solve the problems of over-accumulation. If we just spend on the right kind of developmental projects, capital can achieve its necessary rates of profit and accumulations won’t dispossess in horrible ways. In short, capital can be made to work.
Now, if the problem is not with short-sighted strategies suggested by the “territorial logic” of states, as Harvey sometimes thinks it, but rather, as I think, lies with capital as such, then the category “accumulation by dispossession” is not only inaccurately used relative to Marx (section 1), and simultaneously too broad to be analytically useful and internally problematic (section 2), but it is also deployed in such a way as to promote a straightforwardly social-democratic rather than radical politics. If Harvey were more honest about Marx’s meaning, he would not conflate contemporary reproduction of capitalist relations with the original founding moments of capitalism, and would be capable of recognize there is neither a pristine, uncorrupted “other,” nor any resources internal to capital’s logic, that are themselves unproblematic. Were this the case, Harvey would have a far more consistent, compelling economic position, and one would hope, more radical political analyses and prescriptions to accompany it.
“David Harvey and the 1970s Milieu”
Brendan Cooney’s essay, “That 70’s Show” [on the participants’ website of Network for the Circulation of Theoretical Struggles], stresses that he doesn’t think that the theoretical problems in David Harvey’s work are “enough to warrant a rejection of his geographical project, or his politics.” But the essay also stresses that “Harvey’s work is … marred by much of the theoretical baggage of his generation.” And when, in Part 1, it discusses what Brendan regards as general defects in Harvey’s first major theoretical work, Limits to Capital (1982), it discusses them in relationship to “the theoretical baggage of his generation.”
This focus on the intellectual climate in which Harvey’s work developed is reflected in the essay’s title. The title is not “David Harvey and Overaccumulation,” but “That 70’s Show: Starring David Harvey, Overaccumulation, and the Baggage of the 70’s.” Clearly, this is not an essay about one thinker only. It also explores what went wrong with a whole generation of Marxist and radical thought. This is an important issue today, because the legacy of the generation of the 1970s continues to exert a decisive influence on leftist thought today. Indeed, the people who constitute the generation of the 1970s continue to exert a decisive influence on leftist thought today.
I very much appreciate, and largely agree with, Brendan’s essay as a whole. But what I regard as its overriding achievement is the particular way in which it deals with the baggage of the 1970s. When it explores what went wrong with the generation of the 1970s, it does not focus on criticism of particular theoretical or philosophical conceptions or tenets that were then current. Much less does it focus on criticism of the particular theoretical or philosophical conceptions or tenets held by one individual thinker. Instead, it focuses on the practices and attitudes of the generation of the 1970s.
This shift of focus bears some resemblance to the shift that has occurred in the philosophy of science, away from questions of epistemology to questions of sociology—the constitution and practices of an entire scientific community. This shift began in a sense with Karl Popper’s stress on the dialectic of conjecture and refutation. In the early 1960s, it emerged full-blown with Thomas Kuhn’s work on the structure of scientific revolutions, which then became the central reference-point that informed the work of Imre Lakatos and several schools of sociology of science that followed.
I think Brendan’s essay points us in the exact direction in which critique of leftist thought needs to go–away from criticism of particular ideas, and toward the conditions that reproduce these ideas. The reproduction of the ideas is crucial, because we cannot explain what has gone wrong, or reverse what has gone wrong, without attending to this issue and instead remaining fixated on the criticism of particular ideas.
Here’s why. Anyone can screw up. But not everything produced by the generation of the 1970s was screwed up. And even those who screwed up the most did not screw everything up. There were many promising paths opened up that could have been followed, but that weren’t followed. For instance, there was the beginning of a return to Marx. So why was this path, and why were other promising paths, not pursued to the end? Why is the legacy of the 1970s generation instead predominately a legacy of unwanted and unnecessary baggage that we have to jettison?
We cannot account for this sad fact by criticizing the content of the dominant ideas that were produced. If we leave it at that, we beg the key questions: how and why did these ideas become dominant, even while better alternatives were available? What processes of intellectual production on the left have favored the dominance of inadequate ideas––or, to use an evolutionary term, what processes of intellectual production have selected for inadequate ideas, causing them to be reproduced over time but causing better ideas to die out?
Even more importantly, criticism of the content of inadequate ideas and development of ideas that are more adequate (or so we hope) are not enough if we want to reverse the processes that cause inadequate ideas to become dominant. If the processes of intellectual production on the left select for inadequate ideas, then no amount of criticism or development of more adequate ideas will give us a better outcome, when all is said and done. (This, unfortunately, is the story of my life.) It will still be the case that inadequate ideas are reproduced over time while better ideas die out.
Brendan’s essay identifies three pieces of the baggage of the 1970s that he finds to be present in Harvey’s Limits to Capital. The first is what he calls “ruthless nitpicking” at Marx. Brendan documents in detail an instance in which Harvey engages in the “strange ritual of castigation [of Marx] followed by forgiveness”––the suggestion that maybe Marx wasn’t actually guilty of all the things he has just been accused of ––and he says that the castigation/forgiveness ritual “repeats itself several times” in Harvey’s book. But again, Brendan’s goal is not to criticize a particular thinker, but to reveal the baggage of a whole generation, and so he asserts that Harvey was being one of the boys. “Making a big show of one’s critique of Marx … seems to be an obligatory gesture for admittance into the world of the ’70s Marxist. It conveys that one is ‘open-minded’, ‘non-dogmatic’, and well-versed in the bourgeois theoretical traditions of Marx’s critics. It makes one palatable to a wider audience, including academic departments, journals and ‘all the rest of it’ ….” This assertion accords well with my personal experience during the last three decades.
The second piece of baggage that Brendan’s essay identifies is what he calls “Marxiness.” To understand what he is getting at, I think one needs to be familiar with Stephen Colbert’s sarcastic term, “truthiness”: “truth that comes from the gut, not books.” I think that Brendan applies this notion to a practice engaged in by Harvey and many others of the 1970s generation: the practice of declaring that Marx was wrong about something, but then declaring that he was nonetheless right in some allegedly broader sense. For instance, Harvey repeats the old allegation that Marx’s theory of the relationship between commodities’ values and prices is internally inconsistent, but then offers what Brendan calls a “vague work-around[ ],” namely that “Marx was striving for social insights rather than mathematical exactitude, and … from this standpoint, what Marx set out to do he did quite well.”
This particular bit of doubletalk has been the mantra of almost everyone of the 1970s generation who dealt with the value-price relationship––economists, philosophers, social scientists. But it is nonetheless doubletalk because, as Brendan notes, “a quantitative error at the heart of a theory can[not] be ignored just by averting our eyes and focusing on the qualitative side of the theory. If a theory doesn’t add up, if it is inconsistent, then it is a false theory no matter how well it describes the world.” I would deny that such a theory can actually describe the world well, but in other respects, I concur with Brendan. Indeed, the recognition that Marx’s theory can truly be reclaimed only if we have an interpretation of his theory that renders it consistent has been central to my own work.
The final piece of baggage that Brendan’s essay identifies is what he calls “my own way,” or “do-it-yourself[ ] Marxism.” “[M]any … individuals have limped along into the 21st century with their own personal Marxisms, tailored to their own peculiar reformulations of Marx.” In Harvey’s case, he “found Marx’s own theory of crisis lacking and so, borrowing heavily from the language of Paul Sweezy and the monopoly school, he set about constructing his own ‘improvement’ upon Marx.” This seems like a reasonable thing to do, but Brendan suggests that Harvey is too concerned with the distinctiveness and originality of his so-called improvement, and that this leads him to sacrifice logical rigor and the goal of a “consistent Marxist project.”
In a paper published in the British journal Capital and Class two years ago, entitled “The Disintegration of the Marxian School,” I identified several key internal factors that contributed to the disintegration of “Marxian economics.” One factor, which I called “every man his own Marxist,” is the same thing as Brendan’s “my own way.”
Some people strove to recast Marxian economics in a “respectable” form, and others strove to produce a novel theory or approach for individual careerist purposes. The result was indiscriminate proliferation of Marxian approaches. I argued that this process had several harmful effects. First, pursuit of individual distinctiveness made “Marxian economics” unable to develop common standards and criteria of justification, and it was unable to make progress without them. Second, the quest for respectability led to the creation of unnecessary theoretical difficulties. This is because the “translation” of Marx’s concepts and theories into potentially more acceptable ones generated theoretical difficulties that were not present in the original theory. Third, the drive to produce a distinctive theory or approach led to the perpetuation of unnecessary theoretical difficulties, because each individual had to justify his or her novel twist as a necessary and important contribution. The existence of supposedly unresolvable problems in the original theory made for a great justification, while efforts to resolve these problems were rebuffed, because they removed the grounds on which the individual theorist’s novel twist was justified.
My paper also pointed to a couple of other internal factors that contributed to the disintegration of Marxian economics–reliance upon the resources provided by academia and an instrumental approach to ideas that disparages the importance of grounding them in a solid theoretical foundation. But rather than discussing these factors at greater length, I want to turn to some positive proposals contained in my paper. I offered them as proposals to halt and reverse the disintegration of Marxian economics, but I think they might well be applicable outside of that field, too––applicable to the baggage of the 1970s generally.
First, cooperative behavior and attitudes, not uncooperative ones, need to be fostered and rewarded. People outside a particular disciple and outside academia can help out by thinking of themselves not only as consumers of its output, but as members of a community it serves who are entitled to demand that it operate in a socially responsible manner.
Second, efforts to solve theoretical problems, not efforts to create and perpetuate them, should be fostered and rewarded. Here again, people outside a particular disciple and outside academia can demand that it operate in a socially responsible manner.
Finally, but most importantly, Marxian scholarship needs to greatly reduce its dependence upon the resources of academia. Intellectual autonomous zones need to be created.
Academia has proved to be a dead-end for Marxism, at least Marxism that wishes to free itself from the baggage of the 1970s. Yet the renewal of Marxian theory is an especially urgent task at this moment of profound capitalist crisis. As Raya Dunayevskaya, the founder of Marxist-Humanism, put it, “Only live human beings can recreate the revolutionary dialectic forever anew. And these live human beings must do so in theory as well as in practice. It is not a question only of meeting the challenge from practice, but of being able to meet the challenge from the self-development of the Idea ….”
Sustained collaborative research and thinking are needed in order to respond effectively to the challenges we face today. But academia will not provide the resources needed to engage in the kind of sustained collaboration that we need, nor can it be accomplished by a few individuals doing such work mostly or wholly in their spare time. Thus, when we talk about what to do, I think that top priority needs to be given to creating intellectual autonomous zones and getting hold of the resources needed to maintain them.