By Jonny Jones
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The Enigma of Capital

This article is over 14 years, 2 months old
David Harvey, Verso, £14.99
Issue 347

The Marxist geographer and social theorist David Harvey has become something of a sensation on the left in recent years. The onset of the economic crisis has led to a renewed interest in Marx’s ideas and Harvey has been the focal point of this re-engagement for many radicalising young intellectuals.

He is the world’s most cited geographer in academic texts. His online lectures on Marx’s Capital have received over a million hits and were recently transformed into a very well received book (Books, Socialist Review, April 2010). Hot on the heels of that comes The Enigma of Capital. An ambitious book in its scale and scope, The Enigma of Capital is essentially an attempt to distill a life’s work into a rigorous yet readable work. On that front it certainly succeeds.

The book begins with a dissection of the current crisis, which Harvey sees as stemming from the phenomenal build-up of debt that occurred in places such as the US throughout the 1990s. For Harvey, this was a response to the fall in profit rates after the long boom: capitalists sought to restore profitability by attacking labour’s share of wealth, meaning consumption could only be maintained by credit.

Harvey goes on to build up an analysis of why crises occur under capitalism, before moving on to look at how capitalism evolves through time. He finishes with a chapter that paraphrases Lenin: What is to be Done? And Who is Going to Do It?

There are many strengths to Harvey’s analysis. His attempt to integrate a spatial dimension into capitalism (derived from his 1982 classic Limits to Capital) and his discussion of the limits imposed upon capital accumulation by the environment are illuminating and valuable.

But in many ways this is a deeply frustrating book. His analysis of crisis effectively relegates Marx’s law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall to a minor role, “rendered more than a little moot” by countervailing tendencies.

His discussion of how we can transform society is even more alarming. While he correctly identifies the movement against capitalism as arising from within it, he fudges questions of political organisation. Harvey is too often pulled to idealist and utopian conceptions of social transformation. These have more in common with Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s conception of the “multitude” than with Marx’s stress on the centrality of class.

Reading The Enigma of Capital, I could not help but be struck by the similarities in its structure and subject matter to Chris Harman’s last book, Zombie Capitalism. While Harvey’s book is both interesting and accessible to activists, I would suggest that Harman’s book be borne in mind as a corrective to its many shortcomings.

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