Reviewed by Derek Wall
David Harvey is, apparently, very popular at present. I arrived thirty minutes early to his public lecture at the LSE, in April, where he was discussing his latest book Seventeen Contradictions of Capitalism, only to be turned away because the lecture theatre was full. When lectures on Marxist economics are full to capacity and overflowing, something very positive must be occurring. David Harvey is increasingly ‘the’ commentator on Marx’s Capital, an academic who engages with activists, and communicates with clarity. In A Companion to Marx’s Capital, Volume 2, Harvey has provided a guide to Marx’s second volume of Capital. Volume II is famously dull and difficult, but on the whole Harvey has done a good job of making it accessible.
Capital, Volume I, the only book of Capital completed and published by Marx to his general satisfaction, is a much more accessible volume and has been discussed by Harvey as well, in A Companion to Marx’s Capital, Volume 1. Both books are based on David Harvey’s lectures on Capital. Professor Harvey has been teaching courses on Capital for many years and has had many of his lectures filmed. Both volumes are essentially edited versions of these lectures that can be watched for free at http://davidharvey.org/reading-capital/. However, his lectures have been transformed from notes into cogent and attractive prose.
David Harvey is not aiming to produce a definitive guide to Capital, Volume II, he intends instead to make it accessible to readers and to encourage us to read with care. So if you are looking for the last word on Marx’s economics or philosophy, you will be looking in the wrong place. However what Harvey does well is to make Marx’s often challenging work easier to understand, bridging the gap between Marxism as an academic discipline and Marxism as an active form of class struggle politics.
There are number of reasons why Capital Volume II is difficult. Like much of Marx’s output, it was reconstructed by Engels from notes. This does not always make for effective prose. Of the volumes of Capital, two is the most abstract and dry. Marx focuses on production in volume one and crisis, to simplify a little, in volume three; volume two deals, by contrast, with circulation. The process of circulation whereby money is used by the capitalist to buy constant and fixed capital, which is used to produce commodities, which are then sold, to produce more money, which is used to buy more capital, to produce more commodities, is discussed in exhaustive and often exhausting detail over hundreds of pages by Marx.
Unlike volume I, the directly political content is understated. Marx, as Harvey reminds us, wrote at a number of different levels of abstraction. Class struggle is not emphasised as clearly in volume I as in volume II. Marx seeks to establish that the circulation of capital may not proceed smoothly. It is possible that the commodities produced will not be bought, so their value may not be realized. Disproportion between different economic departments may also lead to potential crisis. Marx originally planned to write many volumes of work: his study of capital extends to theories of surplus value, but was to include further volumes on the state, international trade, etc. Here he writes in often highly abstract terms, for example on the potential for circulation to be interrupted with catastrophic results for the process of capital accumulation.
There are some extremely interesting insights in volume II, but they taking some digging out. There are also pages of calculations that don’t make for interesting reading. On the whole, David Harvey makes an excellent companion for those of us who seek to journey through volume II. I think some critics would disagree with Harvey’s interpretations, or seek more detail. I think such criticism is misplaced for a number of reasons. First, this is a gentle guide, not a book aimed at defending a would-be definitive interpretation of Marx’s economics. Second, Harvey is convincing in claiming that Marx works at a number of levels of abstraction, and these levels interact dynamically. There are rarely static reasons for crisis, and Marx’s conception of crisis is not reducible to one fixed point, such as under-consumption or disproportionality. I agree with Harvey that to take one point as the reason for crisis would provide a misleading and simplistic view of what Marx set out to achieve.
There are criticisms that can be made. Harvey can be slightly repetitive. Anecdotes told in his other recent books reappear here. However, given that this is a codification of a set of lectures, recorded on film, I don’t think this is problematic. Harvey is first and foremost, in his work on Capital, a teacher, helping us to learn cooperatively. The text is clear, engaging and enjoyable. Another criticism is that he strays from volume II to the rather more racy volume three. Harvey is explicit in stating that he feels Marx should have discussed both finance and crisis more extensively in volume II.
In fact, much of Harvey’s Companion deals with volume III quite explicitly. On balance, I would rather he had left volume III, this too demands book-length treatment. I think Harvey was tempted to discuss three, because frankly it’s a more interesting read than two. Also Marx’s point is that the breakdown of circulation can be prevented, in the short run, by credit. Financial credit allows business to borrow and overcome short term problems of realization. However, as Harvey notes, rather than removing crisis, credit displaces crisis. Thus discussion of credit gave Marx room to discuss crisis and finance in some detail. Harvey shows how Marx’s insights are still relevant in terms of the 2008-9 financial crisis.
Harvey will disappoint readers seeking ‘the crisis of capitalism’ as described by Marx. Harvey argues, I think convincingly, that there is no single reason for crisis in Marx’s work. Of course, all crisis stems from the contradiction between use values and exchange values. But actual crisis is shifted in form.
In 2008-9, credit allowed firms to re-boot profits by investing in complex financial instruments. It also allowed consumers whose incomes were static to continue to consume, thus allowing firms to realise profits. As we know, ultimately the complexity of financial instruments, property bubbles and mushrooming debt create financial crisis. Of course, my woefully simplistic account simply illustrates the multiple forms of crisis, as discussed in Harvey’s account of Marx’s work. Clearly for Marx, credit functioned to bridge possible gaps in the circuit of circulation, credit is functional to capitalism, but opens up the potential for new problems. Harvey repeats that crisis in capitalism is not so much ‘solved’ as moved around.
So as with other recent books written by Harvey, those who seek a precise one line answer to the question of crisis will be disappointed. I guess those of us interested in Marx’s precise philosophy will also be disappointed. The great debate on the extent to which Marx was informed more by Hegel or Spinoza will not be settled here. Harvey consistently rejects the idea of a deterministic Marx or a positivist Marx. There is no pre-determined end result, so in this sense Marx was not a Hegelian. Yet implicit in Harvey’s account is the use of Hegel by Marx. There may not be a ‘dialectic’ in the singular, but a dialectical approach is clear. Harvey observes that Marx uses strategies from Hegel and Spinoza. In an interesting passage he notes the ecological shape of Marx’s thought, ‘Its structure is ecosystemic, comprising relations within what Gramsci and Lefebvre call an “ensemble” or Deleuze an “assemblage” of moments’ (19). That sounds more like Spinoza to me! However there is no detailed account of Marx’s philosophical basis here, but of course this is not a book on philosophy so we should not complain!
Harvey is clear that Marx uses tools from a range of thinkers including philosophers, but bends them to his own purposes. Harvey also notes the hugely ambitious nature of Marx’s project, three volumes on production, circulation and crisis, as the starting-point of a project that would have taken a team of writers decades to write.
Harvey also reminds us that Marx made a very close study of Adam Smith and other classical economists, on occasions it is not clear whether we have Marx’s own ideas or his understanding of others. This is yet another challenge that makes volume II a difficult text to engage with. I found re-reading Adam Smith made it easier to re-read Capital.
Harvey has provided an effective guide to volume II, but why read volume II if it is so dull and supposedly lacking in immediate political content? It is clear that while demanding and dry, volume II is vital. Along with ecological factors, the class struggle, production and political aspects, we must understand the contradictions inherent in the circulation of capital. Marx’s text strips out other potential contradictions in this volume to focus on the variety of reasons why the process of circulation may be interrupted. Capitalism is inherently unstable and dynamic, and part of such instability and dynamism is derived from the fragile process of circulation. Circulation is still a vital issue if we are to understand capitalism today; however, as Harvey shows, this does not exhaust Marx’s critique.
Harvey provides the common English love of marmalade, a preserve made with bitter oranges, as an example of how the circulation process can shape a variety of material effects.
The conserve and jam manufacturers typically ran out of fresh fruit and fruit pulp by around December. Somebody saw all these inedible oranges dropping off the trees in Spain in January and February (where they liked the orange blossoms but did not want the trees being raided for edible fruit). Using the bitter oranges from Spain provided a marvellous way to keep fixed capital fully employed (a Volume II problem) all around the year. So problems in the turnover time of fixed capital played a critical role in promoting bitter marmalade for breakfast. Heavy on sugar and Vitamin C, this cultural habit of eating bitter marmalade became deeply engrained, and has lasted to this day. (391)
Harvey notes that volume II also has a surprising amount to say about the shape of a future communist society, an area where Marx was generally reluctant to comment.
Interestingly, the concept of socialism and communism do come up in Volume II more explicitly than elsewhere in Capital. It seems Marx had in mind some mix of associated workers controlling their own production processes and levels of reward, and embedded in a broader-based form of social organization capable of displacing the disruptive powers of money capital circulation with a rationally specified and coordinated pattern of flows of non-commodified goods (use-values) within an international division of labor. The abolition of a society based on exchange-value is central in all of Marx’s anticapitalist formulations. The corollary is that a society based on equality and justice and dedicated to human emancipation can never be constructed in a world where money is a form of social power appropriable by private persons, and where the monetary coordination of exchange in commodity markets is the primary social relation through which daily life is reproduced. (392)
As Marx suggested, ‘There is no royal road to science, and only those who do not dread the fatiguing climb of its steep paths have a chance of gaining its luminous summits’. Volume II is a steep part of the climb, but Harvey provides rope, harness and some advice on proceeding – he even gives us entertainment on the way.
2 May 2014