This new book is a dynamic re-working of Marx in an attempt to analyse the changing face of globe capitalism and the last seven years of economic crisis, and to provide a framework for a political alternative.
Taking Marx’s conception of the dialectic, that is the internal dynamic that drives change, Harvey examines what he sees as the seventeen key contradictions of capitalism; dividing them into foundational contradictions, moving contradictions, and dangerous contradictions.
Teeming with an eagerness to embrace and examine all things human, we see sophisticated and nuanced applications of the Marxist method to current developments in technology and its corresponding impact on work, finance, the household, the natural world – in short, on all aspects of modern human life.
However the tendency to make sweeping claims while neglecting to provide empirical evidence for them is a major weakness of the book. In this respect large sections are more reminiscent of an anti-capitalist manifesto than an “incisive account of what is happening around us”.
The impact of the autonomist Occupy movements on the American radical left is apparent in Harvey’s framing but also in his conclusions, for example his argument that instead of smashing the state, “the people” could instead create their own currency which would “nullify” the state’s power.
“The people” is a term used frequently in the book, and Harvey seems at pains to distinguish himself from the traditional left, obsessed as he believes them to be with “the figure of the factory worker as the bearer of class consciousness.”
In fact he argues that the central political project of anti-capitalist movements needs to move away from one that looks to workers and the workplace; this is a bizarre claim given the lack of focus on workplace organisation in all the recent anti-capitalist movements.
Harvey believes that the Marxist preoccupation with workers is due to a misplaced belief that the contradiction between capital and labour is the primary contradiction of capitalism from which all others derive.
His ominous vision of automated technology replacing the vast majority of human labour means that Harvey barely recognises the working class as a force, let alone a powerful force for change, and appears to point instead to some form of grassroots community organising.
The incapacity to see workers as the agent of change is the most tragic failure of this work. Among the books strengths are its stresses on unity and constructive debate among anti-capitalists; a keenness to reach out to and engage with all those who want to build a better society, from NGOs to revolutionary socialists; and perhaps most importantly its emphasis on the urgency of the need to promote a political alternative to capitalism.
Harvey provides valuable insights for Marxists into the contemporary world – raising new ideas around alienation, the realisation of surplus value, and the increasing importance of fictitious capital and the rentier class.
He also issues stark warnings of the dangers that lie in wait for capitalism as a result of its own internal contradictions, with a particular eye to the environmental destruction and alienation it creates.
This timely work is full of key insights and outside-the-box analysis which opens new avenues of thought for all revolutionaries. These avenues must be taken up and explored by those of us who see workers as the agent of change.
Seventeen Contradictions of Capitalism by David Harvey, 14.99
Available from Bookmarks bookshop, 1 Bloomsbury Street, London WC1B 3QE, 020 7637 1848.
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