Symposium Introduction

Theology, meet economics, the materialist version. What follows in the forthcoming symposium on David Harvey’s latest Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism is a major intervention on the long overdue engagement between theology and materialist thought. Sure, it is true that materialism has found a theological voice as of late, generating much discussion over the prospects of political theology for generating anti-capitalist activity amidst growing global concerns about debt, wealth disparity, privatization of natural resources, and exploitation of nature. But here we get a close look at capital by an erudite reader of Marx who is not primarily a critical theorist, a social scientist, or a scholar of religion, but rather a geographer who takes up the real challenge of materialist thought by abstracting the problems of capitalism from those of capital, those contradictory workings within the inner logic of capital itself that, as we come to find out, do not actually work, at least not for the majority of human beings.

But do not be fooled. Harvey is all too aware of the skill of capital (again, not capitalism) to adjust, to shape itself to the conditions of the world. It has proven itself to be flexible when challenged, resilient when tested. The crisis and threat, the malaise and catatrasophe, that capitalism has brought with it is matched only by the wealth, profit, and expansion of the power of the economy over human life. To counter this, the purveyors of anti-capitalist struggle are not in need of better rhetoric, new ideas, or slicker digital or virtual strategies, but rather a clearer understanding of the nitty-gritty aspects of the beast of capital itself. Hence this book, the goal of which is to understand capital, namely to look for and unravel its contradictions.

And so, Harvey looks for contradictions—and finds a few. Seventeen of them! What counts as a contradiction? Contradictions are those uncanny, dialectical instances “when two seemingly opposed forces are simultaneously present within a particular situation, an entity or an event.” (1) Perhaps there is nothing more banal than contradiction, since much of the human experience is the struggle to resolve, address, or otherwise live in spite of its alienating effects on our natural freedom and hope. But the only way to get at the internal contradictions is to look at their external manifestations within human experience. These the symptomal irruptions show themselves only to distract us from the causal truth that conceals itself in plain sight; we cannot mistake these manifestations (the ‘goings-on’ that we all see, know, and talk about) for the essence of what is going on underneath. Harvey insists that only through this kind of ‘capitalo-centric’ study can anti-capital thought truly emerge. He is not optimistic however; he soberly follows Marx in arguing that capitalism will not fold on its own; the contradictions of capital are not digging its own grave. The contradictions of capital are in fact dangerous, not to capitalism, but to those who participate in it, which includes just about everybody.

Our panelists are conflicted about Harvey’s contradictions. Ken Surin insists, given Harvey’s grim prognosis of global economic prospects (vast income inequality, dips in development, and slow growth) that only the repetition of failed struggles will bring “the end of capitalism.” This is not resignation, but rather is the sober recognition that in today’s context of crisis and catastrophe, the choice is simple: “socialism or barbarism!” However, Alex Dubilet worries that the methodological decision to bracket ‘capitalism’ from capital might be more politically involved—and problematic—than Harvey suggests. What is lost in such an abstraction is precisely what Harvey thinks he gains: a way forward for an alternative politics that are embedded in material realities of people who suffer from the dehumanizing effects of capital’s contradictions. Both Manning and Dubilet find danger in excluding questions of race and gender from a critical theorization of capital’s inner logic, even if there is much to be gained practically from the flexibility that ensues. And yet, we are of course squarely within a Marxian imaginary, and so there is hardly ever a want for dialectics: contradictions abide, even in the revolutionary force of humanism. It may come down to the force of social relations, rather than political arguments, Manning insists, and even this is dubious. Dan Rhodes, however, is more hopeful—literally. It is hope, namely Christian hope, that allows Rhodes to substantialize Harvey’s revolutionary humanism as instantiation of ‘the rule of Christ’ in history. It is Christianity that provides the form of life most well suited to anti-capital resistance, a theo-logic of political economy that disenchants capital in micro-political forms and ways. There are no big, ambitious agendas here—just faithful presence in a world where revolutionary fervor has rarely changed a thing. But before you rush to the understandable judgement that Harvey has little to do with religion (much less the christian one), read Justin K.H. Tse. Tse argues that what makes Harvey’s perspective on capital work is that he recognizes that capital’s inner logic is structured like a theology. While Harvey associates his own humanism with the secular, the critical dismantling of capital he proposes is indeed a counter-gospel, one that promotes the political way of being which is reflected in a theological idea that is so absurd and radical that it might just be true: in Jesus Christ, God has shown Godsself to be human. This materialization of the divine into history sets forth a particular economy, one that promises to counter capital by shifting how human beings think about their ontological ‘grounding’—a constitutive metanoia. What is revolution if not that?

Kenneth Surin


Prospects for Change amidst Contradiction

FOR SEVERAL DECADES NOW David Harvey has been a consistently illuminating expositor and analyst of the thought of Karl Marx in particular and the Marxist paradigm in general. I happen to share the seeming consensus that he ranks alongside his imposing contemporaries Balibar, Badiou, Wallerstein, Negri, and Jameson as one of the foremost interpreters and extenders of this paradigm, and Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism (henceforth SCEC) confirms this assessment, while also being in many ways a valuable conspectus of the positions Harvey has taken on several issues over the course of these decades. The scope of Harvey’s work has of course been extremely wide: Marxology, postmodernity, neoliberalism, globalization, social justice, economic development, imperialism, urbanization, spatial theory, Parisian history (to name the most obviously prominent). SCEC touches on nearly all of these, and can therefore be approached from many different theoretical angles and disciplinary perspectives. My aim in this relatively short essay is therefore unavoidably circumscribed—I’ll approach SCEC with a view to learning what it offers in the way of analysis and prognosis (which should not be confused with “mere” prediction) when dealing with capitalism’s prospects after the international financial crash of 2007–8 and the ensuing Great Recession whose impact continues to be registered throughout the world as I write this in January 2015.

SCEC rightly depicts crisis as the endemic and constitutive feature of capitalism:

Crises are essential to the reproduction of capitalism. It is in the course of crises that the instabilities of capitalism are confronted, reshaped and re-engineered to create a new version of what capitalism is about. Much gets torn down and laid waste to make way for the new. . . .What is so striking about crises is not so much the wholesale reconfiguration of physical landscapes, but dramatic changes in ways of thought and understanding, of institutions and dominant ideologies, of political allegiances and processes, of political subjectivities, of technologies and organizational forms, of social relations, of the cultural customs and tastes that inform daily life. Crises shake our mental conceptions of the world and of our place in it to the very core. And we, as restless participants and inhabitants of this new emerging world, have to adapt, through coercion or consent, to the new state of things, even as we, by virtue of what we do and how we think and behave, add our two cents’ worth to the messy qualities of this world. (ix–x)

Crises emerge in this account from contradictions that are intrinsic to the capitalist system of production and accumulation (this of course being a central tenet of Marxism). The contradictions inherent in capital are threefold according to Harvey: (i) there are seven “foundational contradictions” which are “constant features of capital in any place and time” (89); (ii) there are seven “moving contradictions” which are “unstable and constantly changing” (89); and (iii) there are also three “dangerous, if not potentially fatal, contradictions” (221).

Harvey gives the following account of the “foundational contradictions,” which merits quoting at length (the contradictions in question are rendered by me in italics):

The foundational contradictions of capital do not stand in isolation from each other. They interlock in a variety of ways to provide a basic architecture for capital accumulation. The contradiction between use value and exchange value (1) depends on the existence of money, which lies in a contradictory relation to value as social labour (2). Exchange value and its measure, money, presume a certain juridical relation between those engaging in exchange: hence the existence of private property rights vested in individuals and a legal or customary framework to protect those rights. This grounds a contradiction between individualised private property and the collectivity of the capitalist state (3). The state has a monopoly over the legitimate use of violence as well as over the issue of fiat money, the primary means of exchange. A profound connection exists between the perpetuity of the money form and the perpetuity of private property rights (both imply the other). Private Individuals can legally and freely appropriate the fruits of social labour (the common wealth) for themselves through exchange (4). This constitutes a monetary basis for the formation of capitalist class power. Bui capital can systematically reproduce itself only through the commodification of labour power, which solves the problem of how to produce the inequality of profit out of a market exchange system based on equality. This solution entails converting social labour—the labour we I do for others—into alienated social labour—the labour that is dedicated solely to the production and reproduction of capital. The result is a functional contradiction between capital and labour (5). Put in motion, these contradictions define a continuous process of capital circulation that passes through different material forms, which in turn implies an ever-deepening tension between fixity and motion in the landscape of capital (6). Within the circulation of capital a contradictory unity necessarily exists between production and realisation of capital (7). (88)

Harvey’s account of these contradictions is by his own admission “capitalo-centric.” That is, he makes a distinction between capital and capitalism: capital being the engine or dynamo, with its intrinsic logic, that drives the assemblage of apparatuses, external to this logic, that constitute capitalism (10).1The seven “moving contradictions” of capital identified by Harvey are: (1) the sweeping nature and scope of technological progress and what this progress portends for the disposability of human labor; (2) contradictions within the division of labor; (3) the inherent propensity on the part of capitalists to become monopolists, this being at odds with notions of “the competitive market” so beloved of capitalism’s ideologues; (4) the uneven geographical development inherent within capital; (5) disparities of income and wealth; (6) the contradiction “between the conditions to ensure the social reproduction of the labour force and those needed to reproduce capital”; and (7) the contradiction between capital’s need to buttress itself with mechanisms of domination and the noises its more ardent proponents make about freedom and liberty. Harvey’s discussion of the “moving contradictions” is lapidary and compelling—a Marxist may take issue with this or that matter of detail, but not with the overall substance of his arguments.

The three “dangerous” contradictions which imperil capitalism and indeed all life on earth are: (1) “the relation between the compounding of debt obligations and, the exponential growth of capital accumulation and the dangers they pose”’; (2) capital’s hurtling impetus to exponential growth compels it to “privatise, commodify, monetise and commercialise all those aspects of nature that it possibly can”; and (3) the relentless pursuit of maximum efficiency in the name of capital accumulation creates intractably deleterious outcomes for human well-being (typically placed under the umbrella of “alienation” in the Marxist tradition). Again, it is difficult for this Marxist to disagree with the substance of Harvey’s arguments.

These three kinds of contradiction ensue in a situation described thus by Harvey:

How, then, can capital continue to accumulate and expand in perpetuity at a compound rate? How can it do so when it seems to entail a doubling if not tripling in the size of the astonishing physical transformations that have been wrought across planet earth over the last forty years. The dramatic industrialization and urbanisation of China over those years is a foretaste of what would have to be accomplished to keep capital accumulation going in the future. For much of the last century large parts of the world were attempting to mimic the growth path of the United States. In the coming century most of the world would have to mimic the growth path of China (with all its ghastly environmental consequences), which would be impossible for the United States and Europe and unthinkable almost everywhere else (apart from, say, Turkey, Iran and some parts of Africa). Throughout these last forty years, it is worth remembering also that there have been multiple traumatic crises, usually localised, cascading around the world, from South-East Asia and Russia in 1998 through Argentina in 2001 to the almighty global financial crash of 2008 that shook the world of capital to its very roots. (232)

This claim is problematic. China’s developmental trajectory since the 1980s has certainly been spectacular, but it is not obvious that the rest of the world has to expand economically at the same rate as China if capital accumulation is “to be kept going in the future.” What we know with regard to the United States in the last century, and China at the end of that century and into the early part of this century, is that their developmental trajectories were, precisely, anomalies, and thus difficult if not impossible to replicate by other countries. As a consequence of the realities of uneven development, and Harvey upholds a version of this thesis, no country in the twentieth century matched the United States economically, and no country is likely to match China’s rate of economic growth in the foreseeable future. Economic development is path-dependent, and the respective paths available to the United States and China in their times of economic success are in all probability not going to be replicated, and more than this, it is not really clear that these developmental paths need to be replicated if capital accumulation “is to be kept going in the future.” What if the new and next phase of capitalist accumulation finds a way to exploit, on a substantial enough (and in all likelihood very profitable!) scale, energy technologies that are not carbon based? This would represent, in outline at any rate, a new form of the “original” (perhaps a more accurate rendering of what is usually translated as “primitive”) accumulation described by Marx.

The challenge faced by the poorer countries of the world is not, as Harvey seems to think, the task of replicating China’s rate of growth and its associated developmental path. It is, rather, the project of beginning to acquire a greater share of world income in relation to their better-off neighbors. The share in global income of the poorest 20% of the world’s people fell from 2.3% in 1960 and 1.4% in 1991 to a 2006 level of 0.12%, while the ratio of the income of the top 20% to that of the poorest 20% rose from 30:1 in 1960 to 61:1 in 1991, and grew still further to a figure of 78:1 in 1994.2 In the twenty-first century the number of people living in absolute poverty has declined dramatically, mainly due to the economic emergence of the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China), though progress in poverty reduction has been less impressive elsewhere.3 The reduction in the number of people living in absolute poverty has however been accompanied by a very significant increase in income inequality—while fewer people experience absolute destitution, the gap between rich and poor has grown exponentially. In 2013, seven out of ten people lived in countries where economic inequality has increased in the last thirty years; and the bottom half of the world’s population owns the same as the richest 85 people in the world.4 The same trend towards increasing inequality also exists in high-income countries. In the two decades between 1985 and 2005, in the 24 OECD (i.e., high income) countries where data were available, the cumulative rise in inequality in these countries was 7%.5 Therefore, even the world’s high-income countries have experienced a significant internal rise in income disparity in the last two decades. This phenomenon has thus to be coupled with the above-mentioned widening income-gap between rich and low-income countries.

One way of rectifying this situation of vast income disparity would be for poor countries to achieve the international equivalent of upward mobility, i.e., for these countries to begin to acquire a greater share of world income in relation to their better-off neighbors. But here too the prospects are disheartening for the world’s poorer countries. Distinguishing between “Rich,” “Contender,” “Third World,” and “Fourth World” countries, Branko Milanović (then lead economist in the World Bank research department) shows that where country mobility is concerned, the trend is that of stability in the Fourth World (or poorest) echelon, combined with downward mobility of the contender and Third World groupings (see tables 1 and 2).6

Table 1. Country Mobility Matrices 1960–78 and 1978–2000 (in percentages)

Surin Table1

Source: Milanović, Worlds Apart, 69 (table 7.3)


Table 2. Country Mobility Matrices 1960–78 and 1978–2000 (number of countries)

Surin Table 2

Source: Milanović, Worlds Apart, 69 (table 7.4)

These figures point to two fairly inescapable conclusions: (i) that there has been more immovability at the extremes, that is, among the countries grouped as “Rich” and “Very Poor” (all the poorest countries were in the bottom in the 1960–78 period, and 95% were in the same position during 1979–2000); and (ii) any movement among the “Contender” nations was largely downward. Thus, among the “Contender” countries, 12 were downwardly mobile and 3 upwardly mobile in 1960–78, and 13 were downwardly mobile and 2 upwardly mobile in 1979–2000. Where “Third World” countries were concerned, almost two-thirds of these slid into the “Fourth World” category in 1979–2000. Taken as a whole, upward mobility was a mere 4% and 3% in the two periods respectively; and downward mobility as a whole was 24% and 29% for the same periods.7

These figures suggest that prospects are less than rosy for the nations of the South (apart from the BRIC countries), many of which have in any case been on a path of downward income mobility since the 1960s. It is estimated that the nations of the South need to expand economically at a rate of around 6% annually—far less than China’s GDP annual growth rate of 9.1% from 1989 until 20148—for a considerable span of years if they are to provide employment opportunities for their expanding labor forces (growing at about 3.5% a year in countries such as Brazil and Mexico), and if they are to hope to meet their citizens’ basic needs for food, shelter, clothing, health and education over a twenty-year period.9 This is in addition to the fact that the wealthy countries are the overwhelming beneficiaries of the investment flows needed for economic advancement. Given such figures, which indicate conclusively that the world’s poorest countries are nowhere near meeting the growth targets required for their advancement (let alone achieving the almost impossible objective of matching China’s extraordinary growth rate, the implausible requirement set by Harvey), prospects for the countries of the Third and Fourth Worlds appear to be ominous, if not already dreadful, for large numbers of their inhabitants.

World economic growth has been sputtering and slow moving since the Great Recession. In its latest biannual report, the World Bank predicted global growth of 3% in 2015 and 3.3% next year, below its June 2014 forecast of 3.4% and 3.5% respectively.10 As just mentioned, this is half the growth rate poorer countries need to maintain over the course of two decades in order to provide full employment and rising living standards for their growing populations. The World Bank’s current biannual report also indicates that the US economy is the only dynamo currently driving global growth, with China undergoing an economic slowdown, and with the Eurozone teetering on the edge of a debt deflation (as a consequence of its weddedness to broken-backed and by now overwhelmingly discredited austerity policies).11

All this is essentially congruent with Harvey’s analysis in SCEC, pivoting as it does on the notion that capitalism today is dominated by rent-seeking financialization, as opposed to investment and production, even if it disagrees on one or two major details in SCEC as happens to be the case here. So what does Harvey propose as a way of resolving this long-term and pervasive series of ongoing crises? In his earlier book The Enigma of Capital, Harvey said:

Capitalism will never fall on its own. It will have to be pushed. The accumulation of capital will never cease. It will have to be stopped. The capitalist class will never willingly surrender its power. It will have to be dispossessed.12

Harvey is indeed right on the need for a revolutionary dispossession of the oligarchic capitalist class. SCEC concludes with a substantial political agenda, based on the formation of alliances, for achieving the goal of a revolutionary humanism. It is worth quoting in full (SCEC, 294–97):

1. The direct provision of adequate use values for all (housing, education, food security etc.) takes precedence over their provision through a profit-maximising market system that concentrates exchange values in a few private hands and allocates goods on the basis of ability to pay.

2. A means of exchange is created that facilitates the circulation of goods and services but limits or excludes the capacity of private individuals to accumulate money as a form of social power.

3. The opposition between private property and state power is displaced as far as possible by common rights regimes—with particular emphasis upon human knowledge and the land as the most crucial commons we have—the creation, management and protection of which lie in the hands of popular assemblies and associations.

4. The appropriation of social power by private persons is not only inhibited by economic and social barriers but becomes universally frowned upon as a pathological deviancy.

5. The class opposition between capital and labour is dissolved into associated producers freely deciding on what, how and when they will produce in collaboration with other associations regarding will produce in collaboration with other associations regarding the fulfilment of common social needs.

6. Daily life is slowed down—locomotion shall be leisurely and slow—to maximize time for free activities conducted in a stable and well-maintained environment protected from dramatic episodes of creative destruction.

7. Associated populations assess and communicate their mutual social needs to each other to furnish the basis for their production decisions (in the short run, realisation considerations dominate production decisions).

8. New technologies and organizational forms are created that lighten the load of all forms of social labour, dissolve unnecessary distinctions in technical divisions of labour, liberate time for free individual and collective activities, and diminish the ecological footprint of human activities.

9. Technical divisions of labour are reduced through the use of automation, robotisation and artificial intelligence. Those residual technical divisions of labour deemed essential are dissociated from social divisions of labour as far as possible. Administrative, leadership and policing functions should be rotated among individuals within the population at large. We are liberated from the rule of experts.

10. Monopoly and centralised power over the use of the means of production is vested in popular associations through which the decentralized competitive capacities of individuals and social groups are mobilized to produce differentiations in technical, social, cultural and lifestyle innovations.

11. The greatest possible diversification exists in ways of living and being, of social relations and relations to nature, and of cultural habits and beliefs within territorial associations, communes and collectives. Free and uninhibited but orderly geographical movement of individuals within territories and between communes is guaranteed. Representatives of the associations regularly come together to assess, plan and undertake common tasks and deal with common problems at different scales: bioregional, continental and global.

12. All inequalities in material provision are abolished other than those entailed in the principle of from each according to his, her or their capacities and to each according to his, her, or their needs.

13. The distinction between necessary labour done for distant others and work undertaken in the reproduction of self, household and commune is gradually erased such that social labour becomes embedded in household and communal work and household and communal work becomes the primary form of unalienated and non-monetised social labour.

14. Everyone should have equal entitlements to education, health care, housing, food security, basic goods and open access to transportation to ensure the material basis for freedom from want and for freedom of action and movement.

15. The economy converges on zero growth (though with room for uneven geographical developments) in a world in which the greatest possible development of both individual and collective human capacities and powers and the perpetual search for novelty prevail as social norms to displace the mania for perpetual compound growth.

16. The appropriation and production of natural forces for human needs should proceed apace but with the maximum regard for the protection of ecosystems, maximum attention paid to the recycling of nutrients, energy and physical matter to the sites from whence they came, and an overwhelming sense of re-enchantment with the beauty of the natural world, of which we are a part and to which we can and do contribute through our works.

17. Unalienated human beings and unalienated creative personas emerge armed with a new and confident sense or self and collective being. Born out of the experience of freely contracted intimate social relations and empathy for different modes of living and producing, a world will emerge where everyone is considered equally worthy of dignity and respect, even as conflict rages over the appropriate definition of the good life. This social world will continuously evolve through permanent and ongoing revolutions in human capacities and powers. The perpetual search for novelty continues.

For Harvey it is virtually axiomatic that only a democratic socialism can provide the empowering human relationships integral to this humanism. However, while capitalism possesses a logic, there are no pregiven laws to shape or entail the outcomes of this revolutionary humanism: only struggle, and failures always accompany struggle, can do this. The only other alternative is resignation in the face of the current finance-led, stock-dominated capitalist regime with its concomitant American militarism. The choice is unambiguous: either a politics based on capture by elites which produces yet more Dick Cheneys and Rupert Murdochs, or one which is capable of producing citizens who strive to follow the example of Angela Davis or C. L. R. James. Socialism or barbarism!

  1. While Harvey rightly acknowledges that the distinction between capital and capitalism is essentially analytical or heuristic since the latter cannot exist without the former, and the former requires the latter for its material or concrete manifestations, “capitalo-centrism” (the term is J. K. Gibson-Graham’s) is somewhat problematic, and is vulnerable to a number of objections. The primary one is that capitalism as a system is never entirely regimented by the axioms of capital in themselves—as James C. Scott has shown in his fascinating The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), alternative forms of economic organization that are patently anarchistic (that is, they are marked by a non-hierarchic and decentralized mutuality, reciprocity, cooperation, collaboration and inclusivity) can coexist with, and therefore permeate, structures and practices typically defined by “capital logic.” A similar case is made by Scott in his more general collection of essays Two Cheers for Anarchism: Six Easy Pieces on Autonomy, Dignity, and Meaningful Work and Play (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012). See also J. K. Gibson-Graham, “Diverse Economies: Performative Practices for ‘Other Worlds,’” Progress in Human Geography, 32 (2008): 613–32. However, I shall grant Harvey this distinction, the aforementioned difficulty notwithstanding, not just for the purposes of argument, but also because this kind of stylized delineation of capital’s internal logic has great heuristic value.

  2. See World Bank, World Development Report 2006, 292–93; and United Nations Development Program, Human Development Report 2007/2008. See also http:/C:/dev/home/

  3. On this see Heloisa Marone, “Economic Growth in the Transition from the 20th to the 21st Century,” at See also United Nations Development Program, Human Development Report 2013, at

  4. See The World Top Incomes Database,; and Credit Suisse, Global Wealth Report 2013, at

  5. See “Income Inequality and Poverty Rising in Most OECD Countries,” summary of Growing Unequal: Income Distribution and Poverty in OECD Countries, at http:/C:/dev/home/,3343,en_2649_201185_41530009_1_1_1_1,00.html.

  6. See Branko Milanović, Worlds Apart: Measuring International and Global Inequality (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007). In this detailed study, Milanović defines these four categories (Rich, Contenders, Third World, Fourth World), by first stating that the dividing line between “Rich” and “Contenders” is determined by using the GDP per capita of the poorest WENAO country (i.e., Western European-North American-Oceanian country, excluding Turkey) as the demarcation-point between “rich” countries and those just behind them (the “Contenders”). Hence, in 1960 and 1978, the poorest WENAO country was Portugal, with a GDP per capita of $3205 and $7993 respectively (these figures being adjusted to establish purchasing power parity, or PPP). In 2000, the poorest WENAO country was Greece, with a GDP per capita of $13,821 (adjusted for PPP). Countries above this demarcation point were classified as “rich,” and countries with a GDP no more than one-third below the least affluent WENAO country were termed “contenders”—“contenders” are “within striking distance catching up and joining the rich.” “Third World” countries are those with a per capita GDP level within one-[third] and two-thirds of the least affluent WENAO country, and thus are not within “striking distance of the rich since their incomes would on average be only about one-half of the poorest WENAO country.” Finally, “Fourth World” countries are those “very poor” countries whose GDPs are less than a third of the per capita GDP of the least affluent WENAO country. See Milanović, 61–62.

  7. See Milanović Worlds Apart, 68–69. These figures need to be revised with regard to the current global economic situation, where China’s extraordinary growth rate, which has generated a massive need for materials provided by overseas extractive industries, located primarily in African and South American countries, is slowing down. The countries supplying these raw materials are already undergoing an economic slowdown. To quote the South African financial magazine the Financial Mail:

    The effects of a Chinese slowdown will be felt to varying degrees by African economies. But, as Martyn Davies from Frontier Advisory points out, Africa as a whole stands to be affected. He says the correlation between Africa’s growth rate and that of China’s in the years 1999 to 2003 stands at a staggeringly high 92%.
    Angola, Botswana and Zambia are the most at risk as more than half their exports, largely commodities, head to China. SA is also vulnerable, given that China is the country’s largest trading partner. This, coupled with evidence of slowing consumer spend, puts the economy at risk.

    See http:/C:/dev/home/

  8. The figure for China’s growth rate during this period is to be found in http:/C:/dev/home/

  9. These points are made by Ajit Singh, from whom these figures are taken, in his “Actual Crisis of the 1980s: An Alternative Policy Perspective for the Future,” in Amitava Krishna Dutt and Kenneth P. Jameson, eds., New Directions in Development Economics (Aldershot, UK: Edward Elgar, 1992), 104ff. In a paper published in 2000, Singh says that “developing countries need to attain a trend increase in their growth rates, possibly to their pre-1980 long-term rates of about 6 per cent per year . . . to achieve and maintain meaningful ‘full employment’ . . . with rising real wages and increasing standards of living.” See his “Global Economic Trends and Social Development,” United Nations Research Institute for Social Development Research Paper (Geneva, June 2000), http:/C:/dev/home/$FILE/singh.pdf.

  10. “World Bank Cuts Global Growth Forecast,” BBC News, 13 January 2015, http:/C:/dev/home/ The above sections are an updated argument taken from my Freedom Not Yet: Liberation and the Next World Order (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009).

  11. Those who wonder why European countries espouse the discredited policy of austerity may need to bear in mind that austerity, as a policy framework, basically is a way to morph a financial crisis, located in Wall Street and the city of London, into a crisis of their respective welfare states (“we can’t pay for the welfare state”), regardless of the fact that endless supplies of funds are available for the bailing-out of financial sector malfeasance and military campaigns in countries that happen to be predominantly Muslim.

  12. Harvey, Enigma of Capital (London: Profile, 2010), 260; quoted in SCEC, 265.

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    David Harvey


    Response to Ken Surin

    I should be flattered by Surin’s view that I have been “a consistently illuminating expositor and analyst of the thought of Karl Marx” and that I am “one of the foremost interpreters and extenders of this paradigm” in contemporary times.

    I have to say I do not see myself that way. I am not a Marx scholar (I don’t know my Hegel, for example) and I am not an authority on Marx’ s writings (my reading has always been partial and instrumental). I consider myself an urbanist, a geographer interested in uneven geographical development and the evolving relation to nature, but interested in all this from a critical perspective because I see too many things going wrong on the ground to accept the current situation. To that end I have familiarized myself with those aspects of Marx’s critique of capital and sought to bring that critique to bear on pressing social, environmental and political-economic questions. I consider myself a practitioner who uses Marx to understand the world and not, as some people like to portray me, as a theorist who seeks to apply Marx’s thought to the realities around us. To be sure, from the perspective of this work I have gained certain insights as to what is or is not useful about Marx’s work and in the process have highlighted certain aspects of that work that tended to be neglected in the mainstream literature (when I started there was little about rent and finance capital and nothing about the production of space until Lefebvre also brought it up and these topics appeared in Limits to Capital as foundational simply because it would have been ridiculous to approach questions of urbanization without them). As time has passed and experience has accumulated, I am more likely these days to abandon those aspects of Marx’s thought that seem ill-founded or redundant while highlighting those aspects that generate such marvelous and incisive insights into the roots of our contemporary difficulties. Seventeen Contradictions is an essay on what I consider to be those aspects of Marx that really matter. It proposes a way of reading Marx that I think is particularly useful for our times. But, I repeat, this way of reading him is based on experience and a desire to confront the realities of daily life and work as these realities are being transformed through the power of capital circulation and accumulation with all of their associated contradictions.

    Nestling in Surin’s footnotes, however, is a more robust critique of my method (or some might say my madness). This concerns the charge that my “capitalo-centrism” is “somewhat problematic” and “vulnerable to a number of objections.” Against this I openly defend capitalo-centric analysis. I could wish that Surin had taken up this issue in detail. As it is he relies on the original coining of the criticism of my style of work by Gibson-Graham and the later anarchist musings of James Scott on how the world works in Upland Southeast Asia where “alternative forms of organization are patently anarchistic.” I have recently written a lengthy and to some surprisingly positive response to the anarchist challenge (“Listen, Anarchist! A Personal Response to Simon Springer’s ‘Why a Radical Geography Must Be Anarchist.’”) which will shortly be published and/or posted on my web site ( I cannot go into all these questions here. But the basis of the attack by Gibson-Graham was in my view erroneously constructed and not real. I have never been opposed to local organizing and action in spite of all they say. Indeed I am on record (e.g., in Spaces of Hope) as insisting that the origin of political action has to be local and that politics at no matter what scale always has to be attentive to its localized bases lest that politics become hollowed out and eventually all too easily dissolvable. What I objected to in the Gibson-Graham formulation was the idea that politics should remain local and not venture beyond the locality as base. This leaves Wall Street unchallenged. But their view was that Wall Street was so big a challenge that it was too discouraging to even try and confront it. This is a left version of “too big to be challenged.” The best thing was to ignore Wall Street and stop focusing on the laws of motion of capital. We should do what was doable which was to organize a disorganized community into a survival strategy that gave people respite from an otherwise totally alienated and impoverished existence. I don’t think that is a bad thing to do but it is not, I submit, a serious challenge to capital.

    I am also on record as objecting to the fetishization of certain forms of organization such as horizontality and consensus decision making that cannot work at anything other than a very local scale. The website of AK Press gives a beautiful description of an anarchist publishing collective that does great work and provides a huge service to the political left (I have encountered several such organizations around the world by the way and they are just great to work with). But it is made up of just seven people and of course decision making can be non-hierarchical, consensual, horizontal and the like. The more organizations like that the better. But what happens when there are seven hundred or then seven thousand people involved? And how would such an organization build airports and run airlines as opposed to publish books? Could the computers they use be produced the same way? And what happens when market forces surround such larger collective organizations like Mondragon and force one of its subsidiaries into bankruptcy? How do we organize in such contexts? We have to organize at many different levels in anti-capitalist struggles. As I show in contradiction 10, decentralization (such as that defined by market exchange and which is another fetish organizational belief in the anarchist world) can all too easily become a crucial tool for the increasing centralization of wealth and power. To understand the problems of anti-capitalist struggle it is absolutely essential to have capitalo-centric studies that depict what it is such a struggle must involve. If we cannot face such a struggle because it is too daunting and the probability of failure too high, then we may as well all give up and resign ourselves to that future to which the evolutionary path of capital clearly points (and we also need to have some idea, which I tried to insert into Seventeen Contradictions, as to what that future might look like). I think it is no accident, by the way, that Gibson-Graham increasingly focused on the gender aspect of their communal politics while letting the anti-capitalism fade into the background as some vague implication of what their communal feminism might hopefully and at the end of the proverbial day produce. But again I have to emphasize that my critical perspective on such politics does not apply to its starting point (I support communal action, factory occupations, solidarity economies and all such activities) but to the refusal to go beyond to a level that has the prospect of challenging the laws of endless capital accumulation which dominate in the heart of all capitalist social formations. What I insist be clearly understood is the consequences of that political refusal to be really anti-capitalist as opposed to vaguely hoping that this or that political activism might ultimately contribute to the anti-capitalist cause.

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      FTC Manning


      Does communism have a logic?

      I will sidestep for the moment the bulk of this useful discussion, to pick out one line from Surin’s conclusion:

      “However, while capitalism possesses a logic, there are no pregiven laws to shape or entail the outcomes of this revolutionary humanism: only struggle, and failures always accompany struggle, can do this.”

      Surin puts this question far more clearly and succinctly than I was able, as I tried to address it towards the end of my forthcoming contribution to this conversation.

      It is a tangled, fascinating question. Surin firmly declares that there is no logic to the struggle to overcome capital. But if communism, or whatever word one uses to denote that which comes next, is in fact “the real movement which abolishes the present state of things,” then mustn’t this have a logic? I’ve tried to look at it from different angles, hold it up to the sun and all that, and I can’t see any way for capitalism to end unless the thing which comes next has its own logic that inherently excludes or disables the logic of capital, just as capital’s logic thoroughly decomposed that of previous social forms, eg. feudalism. (This conversation should also include the possibility that communism supercedes the concept of “mode of production” which is defined by some logic . . . but this would nonetheless require a similar line of inquiry.)

      And let me be clear: to say that communism has a logic is not to say that there will be unity among the oppressed, or that there will be any obvious similarity in methods of struggle or reasons for struggling, or that the coming world would have any particular homogeneity over space and time. Just as capitalism’s logic is alive with the most infinitely complex variations of human experience, so would be the logic that follows. Nor would the logic be something created consciously and deliberately by some group of people—any more than capitalism’s logic corresponds to the thoughts inside the heads of capitalists. (Not that consciousness and deliberation are irrelevant, just that they do not a logic make.)

      I’d love to hear Harvey’s comments on this—it would shed new light on the arguments in 17 Contradictions.



Dispossession, Uselessness, and the Limits of Humanism

AT THE OUTSET OF Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism, David Harvey explains that the task of the book is less to give a full diagnosis of the contemporary capitalist formation than it is to articulate the fundamental contradictions at the heart of the functioning of capital. For sure, there is no capitalism without capital, but they are also analytically not identical. As Harvey explains, “By capitalism I mean any social formation in which processes of capital circulation and accumulation are hegemonic and dominant in providing and shaping the material, social and intellectual bases for social life” (7). And the book focuses precisely on capital, the economic engine of capitalism, and tries to bring into view and critically analyze its formal building blocks and contradictions. Indeed, it deals with it as “a ‘closed system’ in order to identify its major internal contradictions” (8). The result is a synoptic traversal of seventeen dialectical contradictions, spanning from what Harvey terms foundational contradictions (e.g., use value / exchange value and social value of labor/money) to more mobile ones (e.g., freedom/domination and monopoly/competition). The task of the book is, however, not only to provide critical analyses of the fundamental contradictions of capital, but also to illuminate political paths that could adequately resist and even subvert those contradictions. Precisely because the book works on both theoretical and political planes, it repeatedly extends beyond the closed, formal frame it sets for itself—it engages questions of state power, technological change, and ecological limits. And, the more one reads the text the less the initial methodological injunction seems self-apparent. Instead one cannot but ask: How does one decide what is internal and essential to the contradictions of capital, and what is an externality, merely belonging to capitalism as a social formation?

This is more than a methodological quibble, because the original distinction between capital and capitalism allows Harvey to bracket a set of contradictions—most directly and explicitly those of race and gender—on the grounds that they are “not specific to the form of circulation and accumulation that constitutes the economic engine of capitalism” (8). And although they do enter cursorily into the book’s discussions of topics such as income differential and the production of surplus population, race and gender are presented as elements that are at their core exogenous to capital as process of accumulation and circulation. This point is, theoretically, a highly contentious one, and one could ask for example if racialization is no less necessarily part of the historical and material story of capitalism than the modern state formation, it remains unclear whether one can abstract a purely economic logic more easily from the one than from the other. And, even if I cannot pretend to cover the extensive debates on this topic, I do want to insist on one immediate concern: If we take our political prescriptions from a formal analysis of capital, such as the one provided by Seventeen Contradictions, we seem to wind up somewhere completely on the sideline of the most intense mobilizations against the capitalist order of things that have recently occurred in the United States, since they were focused precisely on the question of systematic police violence against non-white populations. It was, after all, the murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and the subsequent non-indictments of those responsible for their murders that ignited mass actions and brought collective politics of resistance back into the streets. The intense forms of resistance and proliferation of disruptive tactics (riots, blocking highways, etc.) and the attempt to disrupt the regular flows of everyday capitalist life has made it abundantly clear that in the contemporary moment, race is at the very the heart of leftist political mobilization. What is needed is a method or a thought that can affirm this material reality, rather than, however accidentally and methodologically, sidelining it from the program of leftist politics. If the end of capitalism announced by the book’s title names an alternative mode of inhabiting the world and organizing social relation, then perhaps we need to elaborate the politics out of the specific material formations that actually make up our present conjunction. If we are trying to articulate a politics that seeks an end of capitalism are we not risking being led astray by elaborating it exclusively through the abstract contradictions of capital?

This leads to a more general question about Seventeen Contradictions: Who is the book addressed to? Who is its intended audience or readership? Answering this question is more difficult than it might seem. At one level, it is clearly addressed to the left, broadly construed, so much is indicated by the political prescriptions that culminate many of the chapters and the book as a whole. But those already committed to a broadly left perspective, I suspect, will not find the specific analyses of accumulation of capital, class division, domination or private property entirely novel. Indeed, I suspect that many on the left would, in broad strokes, agree with Harvey’s elaboration of the contradictions of capital, precisely because many of them are lucid reconstructions of arguments of a broadly Marxist persuasion. The contentious debates on the contemporary left seems to me less focused on the object of critique as much as it concerns specific strategy and tactics, modes of organizing, and the theoretical articulation of the very specific constellations that makes up the contemporary conjuncture at specific sites. But, if the political prescriptions seem to be addressed to the broadly construed left, other parts of the book seem to be addressed in a polemical and confrontational way to the bearers of economic orthodoxy of the (neo-)liberal kind. There is reason to doubt however that those that still uphold that perspective will be listening or be convinced by the avowed Marxist perspective of the book (and, I doubt that anyone on the left still needs convincing or even reminding that economic orthodoxy espoused by capital and the market has deep problems).

Reading the book, it struck me that there is one population that could be usefully addressed with such a two-pronged approach—undergraduates. In my experience, much of the undergraduate population (especially in top universities) arrives with various components of neo-liberal capitalism woven into their unreflective mode of thinking. Yet at the same time, many of them remain receptive to theoretical insight of the left that critique the contemporary state of capitalism—open to thinking through questions of social inequality, domination, class antagonism, especially in post-crisis United States, where their own class privilege and futures are much less certain than those of previous generations. They need to be repeatedly reminded about the shortcomings of the market, the contradictions inherent to private property, and the role of state violence in capital accumulation, in other words precisely the elements that Harvey explains from the ground up with remarkable clarity.

I want to use the remaining space of this engagement to think (in a slightly suggestive and elliptical way) about several concepts that come up in Harvey’s analysis. The first is representation, and its importance and, even, indispensability to the functioning of capital. Most fundamental in this, as Harvey describes, is the representation of social value of labor by money. Such representation is never innocent, even when it is presented as necessary, because “representations . . . falsify even as they represent” (33). And when it comes to money in particular, “we take something that is inherently social [i.e., labor value] and present it in such a way that it can be appropriated as a form of social power by private persons” (33). In other words, representation allows appropriation, renders something social potentially private, and in so doing opens the possibility for both speculation and infinite accumulation. Yet this supposedly stable relation of representation is being itself radically undone by contemporary capitalist formation. As Harvey notes, “If we are moving towards a world in which social labour of this sort disappears, then there is no value to be represented. The historical representation of value—the money form—is then entirely free from its obligation to represent anything other than itself” (109). The seemingly natural relation between representation (money) and the thing it represents (labor value) comes undone in order to produce a world of pure, speculative representation. As jobs that constitute social labor are eliminated en masse, what is produced is on the one hand a realm of speculative representations, and, on the other, the surplus population no longer incorporated into the labor process. And for Harvey this is harbinger of “the descent of capital into total lawlessness” (109). But if we cannot simply desire to return to the old regime of representation, which was as stable as it was exploitative and alienating, then where are we left? One option would be to think—using whatever theoretical resources we can find—of what inherently social forms of representations might look like, or whether it is possible to think of representation that would not be inherently able to be possessed and appropriated? Or perhaps, to move outside of the entire conceptuality of representation, without thinking that the result can only lead to lawlessness.

A convergent set of questions arises from the particular semantics and conceptuality that connects possession and dispossession under capitalism. Capitalism entails not simply one or the other of the operations, but forms a particular conceptual and material distribution of the two. On one level, capitalism cannot function without possession and appropriation, of the subject who can possess private property (and ultimately possess itself as a possession). But on the other hand, as Harvey repeatedly reminds us, “an economy based on dispossession lies at the heart of what capital is foundationally about” (54). This is at the heart not only of primitive accumulation, but also of contemporary neo-liberal violent mechanisms of mass dispossession. As Harvey notes, “the political economy of outright dispossession is alive and well in the very heart of the capitalist world” (58). But what this tension shows is that neither possession nor dispossession can be offered as solutions in themselves. We cannot simply hope to return to a politics of proper possession against the violent forms of neoliberal dispossession, because the latter are always imbricated with and premised on the former. Rather what I think must be thought is a new semantics, a new configuration of these operations. (And, given the forum in which this response is written, we can ask whether precisely theological archives cannot aid in articulating alternative conceptualizations of dispossession . . .) Do we not need, perhaps, a dispossession that would be radically uncoupled from any possessive appropriation? Can we think of a dispossession that is not merely a negative moment of further appropriation and accumulation, but a dispossession that subverts the very mechanism of accumulation? Can we decouple dispossession from accumulation, and base a politics on such a move? What would it take for dispossession to perform or make visible a certain commonness or something that is fundamentally shared and social, rather than become the operation of increasingly violent forms of accumulation?

Even more basic than the questions of representation, possession and dispossession, is the question of the relation of use and exchange. Harvey recounts the myriad of ways in which exchange value has come to dominate, in modern capitalism, all aspects of social life, from the production of consumer goods to the provision of housing, healthcare and education. One possible response, one that in large part the book seems to endorse, is to reemphasize the centrality of use values and its equitable distributions, with the goal of “the production and democratic provision of use values for all without any mediation of the market” (24). I would think most would agree with the goal of the equitable and democratic production and distribution of things like housing, education, food security according to material need is nothing but commendable. But I wonder whether there is also another possible direction for thought in the contemporary conjuncture. Besides the binary between use value and exchange value, and relocating the priorities from the latter to the former, which seems to be one of the pillars of Harvey’s political program, another option might be worth considering. Can we think of the useless, in various manifestations, as itself something worth affirming and building a politics around? After all, is the contemporary not defined precisely by the production of the useless, of populations and sites abandoned by the movements of capital, and can we not articulate a politics around (re-)claiming that uselessness as what is fundamentally common? For example, if contemporary capitalism is defined by periodic/cyclical dislocations and the abandonment of sites heavily invested with fixed capital (cf. contradiction 11), then can there be a politics of claiming those sites as precisely, in their abandonment, in the post-historical desolation, the location of what is common? Part of such a politics would also then entail precisely constructing ways of preventing capital from reclaiming those sites ever again. Can the abandoned and the useless be seen as openings for other modes of life, more common, less based on primary acts of appropriation, possession and accumulation? Can they not become vessels for articulating a different logic and semantics of possession and dispossession, of ways of being and acting in them? Can we imagine the useless, the rendered-obsolete, the abandoned and discarded as the sites of non- and post-capitalist possibility? Would this not abandon the linear thinking that affirms alternatives to capitalism as coming after, as always to-come, and never now? What such a line of thought shares with Seventeen Contradictions is precisely its rejection of teleological Marxism and its affirmation of the importance of geographical unevenness of capitalism. At the same time, this would be a different sort of uselessness than the one sometimes invoked by Seventeen Contradictions, the uselessness tied to the excessive consumerism produced by late capitalism, which yields endless useless products that fulfill useless fantasies and desires. As Harvey writes: “It is precisely this consumerism of excess, this uselessness, that the mad men of advertising have proved so adept at selling. Such a consumerism of excess is deeply alien to the satisfaction of human wants, needs and desires” (275).

In relation to this, a final note: Even if we acknowledge the deep distorting effects of contemporary consumerism, the question remains as to how to adapt the tradition of humanism, even a revolutionary humanism indebted to Marx (and Harvey seeks precisely to recover this tradition), such that it does not sneak in, consciously or not, a normative conception of the human. How do we separate those desires, those modes of being and living, that will be seen as alienated and those deemed properly human and social? For the modes of sociability, existence and survival, of expression and cohabitation, and of bodily life under late capitalism have proliferated and intensified in their diversity (and also, perhaps, in their artificiality), and identifying the exact scope and shape of alienation is a complex task. What may seem alienating and alienated to some, might present for others precisely the site of new possibilities and capacities for freedom and livability. What constituted a non-alienated existence was already a troublesome question in Marx’s time, and it has not become any easier to ascertain over the last two centuries. Are we sure we know can identify which part of what exists is stained by alienation and what can be incorporated into a (new, revolutionary) humanism? Perhaps it can be done. But, however obvious the degradations of consumerism may seem, distinguishing between what is to be preserved or recovered as properly human, and what will be seen as the excessive results and byproducts of capitalism that need to be re-socialized seems to me a much more difficult question than Seventeen Contradictions admits. Moreover, although it might be a useful gesture to call on a tradition of revolutionary humanism to counteract the dehumanizing tendencies of capitalism and the blind pieties of liberal humanism, it is still a question of how both practically and theoretically that tradition must be reformed and rethought anew to adequately deal with the complexity of the contemporary conjuncture.

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    David Harvey


    Response to Alex Dubilet

    Alex Dubilet poses in a very thoughtful way the seemingly inevitable question of how it is or is not possible to talk about the laws of motion of capital without placing the categories of, at the very minimum, race and gender at the beating heart of what capital accumulation is about. This is, I have to say, very much a preoccupation on the United States left and quite properly so since much of the political agitation and turmoil we see around us precisely focuses on race, gender and sexuality issues. In many other parts of the world other issues—such as religious beliefs or national identities—predominate. Whereas in the United States capital grew up, as it were, in the presence of slavery that became wage labor such that the US social formation bears the bleeding scars of that history across the length and breadth of the land, this was not the history in Scandinavia (which is not to claim that there is no racism in Sweden or that there is no history of racial discriminations). The long-simmering conflict in Northern Ireland is based in religious nationalism; Middle Eastern and South Asian conflicts are rooted in religious affiliations, ethnic distinctions or caste differences rather than in the racial terms that apply in the United States.

    Capital accumulation is global in its compass although there are still some parts of the world where it is relatively weakly implanted as opposed to being hegemonic. Social alterity and differences of many different sorts are unquestionably put to active use under capitalism. In an economic system and mode of production that rests on the distinction between those who control the means of production and those who do not, there has been a long history of freezing that class distinction as either an immutable fact of nature or the product of such deeply held cultural and religious distinctions as to become unchallengeable and unquestionable facts of social life. In Britain and France in the mid-nineteenth century the working classes and women were both considered biologically inferior beings who deserved to be dominated for their own good and in their own interest. For Gobineau this was given biological heft in France by pointing to the physical distinctions between those of (superior) Germanic origin and a Celtic darker-complexioned peasant underclass. In contemporary Southeast Asia the distinctions between Chinese on the one hand and Malay, Indonesian, and other indigenous groups are racial as well as ethnic and religious.

    Capital has a long history of exploiting all forms of difference wherever it finds them and capitalism as a global social formation is a complex mosaic of which distinctions get exploited where and how. The capacity to mobilize women’s labor, for example, differs significantly from one part of the world to another largely for religious and cultural reasons, while trafficking in women has become more and more significant as an aspect of so-called globalization in recent times. Capital not only uses these multiple distinctions as a means of labor control. It actively deploys divide and conquer strategies to defuse oppositional movements and to solidify its political, social and cultural hegemony as a dominant class. But there is more than some ambiguity as to who puts these distinctions to use and for what purpose. Discriminations within the working classes are just as important as those of capital (as I point out in contradiction 9). Maintaining privileged access to privileged positions within a rapidly evolving division of labor has been a long-standing practice within ethnic, racial and religious groupings, providing powerful economic incentives to consolidate or even in some instances to invent new lines of distinction within the labor force itself. Big capital tends to be pro immigration (as costs of labor reproduction and training software engineers are born in, say, India and then transferred to the United States) but in certain sectors, such as agribusiness in the United States, big capital favors illegal immigration and opposes immigration reform. Workers in many parts of the world see immigration politics, correctly in some ways, as a means promoted politically by capital to undermine their bargaining power. Anti-immigrant fascist movements consequently draw a lot of working-class support.

    So what is the analyst of capital accumulation supposed to do in the face of these myriad tensions and distinctions that are such a central feature of contemporary global capitalism? There are a number of possible choices. One would be to say that there is no such thing as capitalism but multiple capitalisms and that capital in the United States social formation is distinctive (or works differently) from that in China, Japan, South Africa, Indonesia, Turkey, Scandinavia or Britain. I resist that path, remembering the mess that was produced by partitioning the different modes of production to the point where analysts seemed to be discussing how many modes of production could fit on the head of a pin. After all, why say there are not multiple social formations within the United States and that race, gender and ethnicity play out very differently in Southern California compared to North California and that Texas is a special case? But the one thing I am resolutely opposed to is that form of parochialism that says that the relevant issues in the United States are the only ones that should matter to the left in general. Worldwide things look very different. Obviously, the racial discriminations that have animated political struggles in the United States are important because the outcome of such struggles will define the future conditionalities of other transformations of that social formation. But we should be clear that such struggles are anti-racist and not necessarily anti-capitalist. I cannot get out of my head the simple fact that whenever the anti-racist struggle in the United States became anti-capitalist its leaders were killed or incapacitated. Obama has always made very clear he is pro-capitalist even as he is anti-racist. He is and always has been a potent symbol of exactly that divide. In the same way that great progress has been made in conceding the rights of lesbians and gays to marry in the United State without in any way disturbing the rules of capital accumulation, so there is always hope of harnessing multiculturalism and anti-racism to a pro-capitalist agenda.

    The other path, which is the one that I have taken, is to say that it is still possible for us to use the powers of abstraction to get to certain features of the dynamics of capital accumulation that prevail no matter what the configuration of a particular social formation and on that basis get some sense of how much the problems we face are bound up with that logic. To do that does require some pretty draconian assumptions and I tried to be as clear as I could as to what the nature of these assumptions were and where they might break down to open the door to these other broader issues of what is going on in different capitalist social formations (where multiplicity can and should be freely acknowledged). But I then have to ask myself, why is it that when I do this work (which, by the way, is by no means so easy and in no way as obvious and conventional to the left as Dubilet seems to think) I am immediately criticized for not taking on race and gender when I know only too well that I cannot get to an understanding of the global crash of 2007–8 (or to an understanding of the movements in interest rates, the rise of fictitious capital and the penchant for perpetual compound growth) starting with the categories of race and gender but that I can get some way towards understanding them by starting with the categories of commodity and capital in the way that Marx pioneered. The idea that by writing about these issues I might suck the energy out of contemporary left politics which is quite properly focused on racial discriminations and repressions in the United States (but not in Greece) is preposterous. Am I being told to shut up for the good of left solidarities as currently construed in the United States?

    As I noted in the final paragraph of Seventeen Contradictions, none of the political mandates derived from the study of contradictions “transcends or supersedes the importance of waging war against all other forms of discrimination, oppression and violent repression within capitalism as a whole.” Dubilet characterizes the struggles in Ferguson and beyond as “anti-capitalist.” What Seventeen Contradictions does is to define better what it might mean to be anti-capitalist and frankly I don’t see the current struggles in Ferguson as dealing very much in anti-capitalism. There is a long history in the United States, as I already noted, of making sure that the anti-racist struggle does not turn anti-capitalist and there is an immense and paranoid fear within the ruling classes that it might do so. So could it be that the most fearful statement I make, one that the left in the United States itself may be reluctant to confront, is that “none of these other struggles should transcend or supersede that against capital and its contradictions”? Of course, it will doubtless be said, in a world where everything affects everything else, anti-racist and feminist struggles cannot but have an effect upon the dynamics of capital accumulation. The problem is to show that this effect is so overwhelmingly powerful that it cannot simply be brushed aside or worse still coopted and absorbed as a minor irritation as opposed to a real game changer with respect to the future of capitalism. After all, capitalism in the United States in my lifetime has coped effectively with multiculturalism and gay rights. So why could it not go further on some of these other social and cultural issues?



On the Inner Laws of Capital and the Force That Decides

IN SEVENTEEN CONTRADICTIONS AND THE END OF CAPITALISM, David Harvey explores the “isolated ecosystem” of capital. He makes refreshing interventions into calcified “left” debates about what is to be done, and clarifies some basic points about the nature of capital that rule out certain revolutionary prospects while bringing others to the table.

In Seventeen Contradictions, the concept of a “contradiction of capital” circumscribes that which is necessary, fundamental, internal, and lawlike to capital proper (cf. 61, 68, 70, 88, 89). It is a peculiar choice of concept to serve this function. Out of all the major theorists of capital, Mao was perhaps the one to use the term most similarly. Mao believed that “every form of society, every form of ideology, has its own particular contradiction and particular essence,” and discerning this essence led to an apprehension of “the universal cause or universal basis for the movement or development of things.” Harvey posits seventeen contradictions, and Mao only one, but there is passing similarity in the structural function of the concept.

Many critics have rejected the method of analyzing essential structures and inner laws, often in response to the use of these abstract concepts within racist, colonial, and patriarchal historical narratives. I understand the impulse, but I do not agree with this dismissal. Any theory or critique must rely on such a level abstraction in some respect. Our denial of that realm only lets deep ontological assumptions persist unanalyzed. Harvey’s work has consistently aided in further clarification around these issues.

Unfortunately, Harvey does not clarify the criteria by which we distinguish the inner from the outer, the essential from the contingent. Harvey’s use of “contradiction,” if anything, displaces the question. He begins his discussion with a quote from Marx: “In the crises of the world market, the contradictions and antagonisms of bourgeois production are strikingly revealed” (Theories of Surplus value II, p500). Marx, and Harvey along with him, frequently uses the term “contradiction” more or less interchangeably with “antagonism,” “conflict,” and “tension.” In this section of the TSV, “contradiction” only comes to mean something more for Marx when he develops his polemic against Ricardo and other bourgeois economists, criticizing them for denying the crisis-tendencies of capital. In response to this apologist position, Marx writes:

In order to deny crises, they assert unity where there is conflict and contradiction . . . in reality crises exist because these contradictions exist. Every reason which they put forward against crisis is an exorcised contradiction, and, therefore, a real contradiction, which can cause crises. The desire to convince oneself of the non-existence of contradictions, is at the same time the expression of a pious wish that the contradictions, which are really present, should not exist.

Here, “contradiction” names those antagonisms and tensions within capital that have the ability to create a general crisis of capital (e.g., financial crises, banking crises). “Contradiction” here does not serve an analytic purpose as much as a rhetorical one.

Harvey’s use of the term contradiction also has a rhetorical and heuristic element—it guides us through the realm of the internal dynamics of capital, unfolding the many important and sometimes unacknowledged issues of contemporary and historical capitalist development. But it also borders on becoming an ontological or structural term.

Harvey analogizes his project to the way that “a biologist might isolate a distinctive ecosystem whose dynamics (and contradictions!) need to be analyzed as if it is isolated from the rest of the world” (8). This is a useful comparison. For a biologist, “contradiction” would be, in some basic sense, relative. Things are not contradictory in themselves. Processes within an ecosystem can be contradictory in relation to the totality of the ecosystem, or they can be contradictory in relation to a given part of that ecosystem. Marx’s use is clear in the chapters from Theories of Surplus Value from which Harvey draws: he speaks to those processes which are contradictory to the totality of capital as a whole—those processes which, because they are opposed, push toward instability and breakdown of the totality of capitalist social relations.

For Harvey, on the other hand, the concept of a “contradiction of capital” carries with it a level of logical primacy. This poses some analytic problems. Let us first attend to the difference in the structure of his many contradictions.

Non-Isomorphism of Contradictions

Harvey’s contradictions as listed in the book are, firstly, far from isomorphic—he describes at least three different types. Several contradictions align with Marx’s definition above (e.g., #15 and #8) insofar as they “might threaten profitability and endless capital accumulation” (102). On the other hand, contradiction 9: Division of Labor (a fantastic chapter in general, especially Harvey’s successful critique of the political position of excessive localism), describes what is essentially a subsidiary process to another clear contradiction. Here Harvey argues that as capitalism pushes toward increasingly effective, efficient divisions of labor, it increases dramatically the degradation of the “mental, emotional, and physical well being of the workers in its employ.” This means that “the central contradiction in capital’s use of the division of labor . . . is summed up in one word: alienation” (125). On this read, the division of labor is not itself a contradiction, it is one process among many which reproduce capitalist alienation, which Harvey designates as its own (most dangerous) contradiction. It seems then that the relation between the two processes (division of labor and general alienation) could be more aptly articulated in alternate terms that have been somewhat constricted by the framework of contradiction.

The contradiction between “Private Property and Common Wealth,” on the other hand is certainly not a contradiction for capital writ large. In this chapter, Harvey describes the false belief that capital primarily functions through the relatively egalitarian marketplace, noting correctly that accumulation by dispossession is a fundamental tactic used by capitalists to accrue wealth. This picture of a legally equal marketplace as the ground zero of capitalist exploitation masks a range of violence experienced by the poor, enabling bourgeois economists and politicians, and even some Marxists (cf. 54), to mask the brutal thieving nature of capitalism. The attention to this “contradiction” is meant to unmask the “illegality at [the] very base” of “capitalist constitutionality.” This does not constitute a contradiction for capital or capitalists, it is a contradiction between the appearance and the reality for the working class.

It may seem like I’m splitting hairs here—and I am! But Harvey’s use of the concept of contradiction inches beyond a heuristic methodology, ultimately laying claim to some primacy within capital, and this is why splitting hairs is necessary. Harvey articulates the “economic edifice that capital constructs” without the details that would enable it to be challenged or enhanced. The governing framework of “contradiction” forces some important concepts awkwardly into analogous formulations, which renders their interrelation vague. Harvey talks about how the contradictions “spill over into” or “bleed into” one another, but I think we can find more clarity about their interrelation if we jettison the governing concept of contradiction.

To Be Outside

Most notable of the things that remain outside the scope of Harvey’s study are race and gender, which he references continually throughout the book in order to ensure us that he acknowledges their primacy in spite of their structural contingency. He shows a convincing, honest commitment to those axes of social struggle—but always as relations “outside” of and “contingent” to capital. Harvey says that he excludes them because although they are omnipresent within capitalism they are not specific to the form of circulation and accumulation that constitutes the economic engine of capitalism . . . “an examination of these tells me nothing particular about how the economic engine of capital works . . . These contradictions transcend the specificities of capital social formations. For example, gender relations such as patriarchy underpin contradictions to be found in ancient Greece and Rome . . . The same applies to racial distinctions . . .” (7).

Patriarchy and racialization may have “been around for a very long time,” but so have many elements of the Harvey’s listed contradictions—for example the division of labor. Harvey writes,

Capital has seized upon the division of labor and reshaped it dramatically to its own purposes throughout its history . . . it is perpetually in the course of being revolutionized in the world that capital commands. (112)

This amounts to an unsubstantiated dismissal of the inclusion of race and gender in the inner laws of capital. While the concept of contradiction is not exclusively at fault for this formulation, the vagueness of the framework leads to vagueness in the discovery of the dynamics that are internal and proper to capital—the very project Harvey lays out for himself in this book. This project demands some criteria by which one might argue for the inclusion or exclusion of various elements and processes to the inner laws of capital. These criteria will never be complete, and the picture of capital’s inner laws will never be finished, but we can still strive for more and more accuracy in our view of it.

Even within the dynamics articulated by Harvey, there is fertile ground to begin to theorize race and gender as logically necessary to capital. For example, the capitalist distinction between work and life (toward which Harvey mobilizes Polanyi to excellent ends), between social labor and nonsocial unwaged activity, should be understood as the material basis for the gender relation, and the process of gendering, within capital, just as the ownership and lack thereof of the means of production is the material basis for the class distinction. Harvey even uses the term “spheres” to refer to the division between working and living, a similar formulation to some communist, socialist, and/or feminist thinkers that have attempted to theorize gender within capital’s inner forms. Similarly, the extremely hierarchized division of labor is something which never seems to appear in capital without concomitant racialization or ethnicization (whereas extremely hierarchized divisions of labor do appear before capital without adjuncts of race or ethnicity—e.g., slavery in the ancient world). Could we not then float the hypothesis that the very coexistence of the governing context of “legal freedom” required by capital’s inner structure (contradiction 14), alongside capital’s inherent tendency to divide labor as much as possible in extreme hierarchical fashion (contradiction 9) lead in conjunction toward the necessary, internal process of capitalist racialization? Such that capitalism itself is “unthinkable” without race? (Such a conclusion is not entirely dissimilar to those of Cedric Robinson’s critique of Marxism in Black Marxisms.)

Flexible Theory

It should be noted, however, that the occasional vagueness of Harvey’s formulations also seems to be a manifestation of his profound openness to change and complexity, and his adamant skepticism of Marxian dogma, which is as refreshing as it is generative. Many such dogmas fall under careful and substantiated attacks throughout the book, and particularly in the points of praxis that conclude each chapter.

But Harvey’s points of praxis sometimes appear as idealistic as those he critiques. He writes that political orientations must be changed, the power of the wealthy must be checked and undermined, the capital/labor relation displaced by the power of associated labor to engage in unalienated labor, and production must be rationally organized toward provision of needs and the social good (88–89). At first glance, these projects seem as absurd as Thomas Piketty’s naive demand for global financial regulation after he has shown great evidence of the power of capital to trample over any politically imposed barriers, however global. That is to say, the things Harvey calmly suggests we strive for are actually the most impossible—those things which would require capital’s overcoming to achieve. The achievement of any of them short of revolution would amount to the most useless reformism—for example a shift in political orientation, or “checks” on the powers of the wealthy would, within capitalism, be completely defanged political projects.

But I believe that this is something of the point for Harvey. While he frames these points as “Ideas for Political Praxis,” they are not suggestions for immediate steps, necessarily. They are “mandates . . . to frame and hopefully animate political praxis” (294). He artfully shows that for the true overcoming of capital, certain things will have to occur, other things will have to disappear. With that I generally, and passionately, agree, even if I think some of the finer philosophical articulations should be different. (For example, if the distinction between work and life is dissolved, would not “production” qua production also cease to exist in communism? Shouldn’t then the reorganization of “production” be an unthinkable concept? And shouldn’t “labor” as a category of activity itself dissolve in the face of the dissolution of capital and alienated labor?)

What is set in relief by this is the question of force. What will be the force that overcomes that of capital? More than once, Harvey references Marx’s adage “Between equal rights, force decides.” Harvey’s sympathetic references to Fanon and sober assessments of the future (293) lead the careful reader to assume he acknowledges that the overcoming of capital will require some amount of violent struggle. But what forms will accompany and be enabled by such a struggle?

One of Harvey’s most beautiful points is his emphasis on the necessary complexity and contradictory nature of any future revolution. This point has sailed by far too many Marxists and socialists. The question of force that poses itself here is not a question of specific political forms of organizing, for these will necessarily be manifold, themselves contradictory, and therefore impossible to prescribe.

The question of force is this: what social forms (or anti-social forms) would ultimately tip the balance against the forces of capital, their armies and monopolies and resources—and further, what would maintain that force well into the future of communism (or whatever)? What social relations would be strong enough to subvert the accumulation and re-ignition of capitalist accumulation before they even began, in the same way that feudal lordship today has no traction and cannot in fact grow with any significance within the capitalist system?

If value is the force and motor of capital, which it used to obliterate, colonize and dominated all other social forms, what will be the force and motor of its demise? Harvey slowly and deliberately begins to speak to this very question in many places throughout the book.

In this sense, and in this sense only, do I entertain the term humanism, which I normally reject due to the torrid history of the term that Harvey accurately outlines in his conclusion. As a determinist and anti-humanist sympathizer, I would be willing to accept that “humans” “want” to be able to live, eat, and have shelter if they so choose, have a modicum of control and participation in the processes of their lives, be connected to other humans, and be engaged in some kind of creativity and learning—or what Harvey sweetly calls “novelty.” The violence, murderous repression, decimation of character, impoverishment of life, and mediocrity of existence that capital unleashes globally is so intense that the opportunity to overcome these things would, I think, be the force of what is to come. The abolition of capital doesn’t require a strong state, or a rigorously unified working class, it requires the immediate inception of modes of existence that are stronger than capital, alongside most likely some kind of war. It will be the very material strength of, for lack of less burdened words, communalized social relations over capitalist social relations which will achieve it.

I imagine (in spite of my dogged attempts to repress any fantasies of future communist life, to embrace Fanon’s Tabula Rasa) centuries into the communist future, some people getting together, having read about capitalism and gotten a good idea about how they could incite for themselves a new round of primitive accumulation, leaving them in the position of capitalist beneficiaries. I imagine them beginning any attempt at such a process, and immediately running into problems—not problems of militant angry, righteous opposition, but the problem of the literal lack of material possibility for such a thing to occur. Just as we cannot reignite past forms in the present, once this form has been destroyed, it will of necessity stay that way.

  • Avatar

    David Harvey


    Response to FTC Manning

    When I began writing Seventeen Contradictions I went back and read Mao and Althusser on contradiction since these are probably the best known essays on this topic in the Marxist tradition. Althusser’s views, particularly as related to his theory of overdetermination, provided many insights but I thought it too hard to excavate his way of thinking about contradiction without accepting all the other baggage that comes with the Althusserian interpretation and this I definitely did not want to carry with me. In any case, it seemed to me that neither Mao nor Althusser captured the way Marx used the concept of contradiction in developing his critique of classical political economy. So that left me with Marx’s practices, particularly as exemplified in the Grundrisse but also in Theories of Surplus Value.

    Manning suggests that contradiction functions in Marx’s work mainly as a rhetorical or heuristic device and that it has no analytic standing. This is most clearly demonstrated, she says, in Marx’s critique of Ricardo. Certainly, the concept of contradiction is omnipresent in these critiques. Ricardo’s failure to understand where crises came from stemmed, Marx claims, from his habit of seeing the world in terms of identities rather than contradictory unities. His most egregious error in Marx’s view was to adopt Say’s law, which stated that supply creates its own demand. From this Ricardo concluded that general crises of overproduction or overaccumulation were impossible. Against this, Marx insisted on the contradictory unity of supply and demand or between production and realization (contradiction 7). There is no mandate that says I have to buy something of equivalent value after selling something. I might choose to hold money rather than reinvest in production or hold commodities. The possibility of hoarding, Marx points out, could be profoundly disruptive to the circulation and accumulation of capital. It creates the possibility of crises even of a purely monetary sort. The contradiction between the competitive search for relative surplus value and the deployment of labor saving innovations on the one hand could lead to the diminution of surplus value production and/or the loss of effective demand in the market as employment fell and both could lead into crises of one form or another.

    But I think Manning is wrong to say that contradiction is merely a rhetorical or heuristic stick to beat Ricardo with. In the quote from Marx that Manning cites we read, “The desire to convince oneself of the non-existence of contradictions, is at the same time the expression of a pious wish that the contradictions, which are really present, should not exist.” Plainly, for Marx, contradictions are “really present.” They take a material form and, it follows, they must have a structuring role within any theory of the laws of motion of capital. The concept of contradiction is central, after all, to dialectical reason and the dialectical method is the only serious way to grasp the inner laws of motion of capital as a working whole. Confusion can arise because Marx does not always stick to his own dialectical mode of enquiry. For strategic reasons he sometimes takes an almost positivist stance (as in the reproduction schemas he sets out at the end of vol. 2 of Capital) and when he does so the notion of contradiction flies out the window. But his preferred method is dialectical and that cannot be articulated other than by deploying the full conceptual force of contradiction in his analysis. It follows that Seventeen Contradictions is a text that emphasizes the dialectical as opposed to the positivist reading of Marx’s political economy. It is meant as an antidote to much of the contemporary writing in the field of Marxist economics. It is not, I fear, an antidote that will be particularly welcome. I think the approach to Marx is more unusual than the commentators concede.

    Manning rightly points out that particular contradictions do not and cannot stand alone. This means they are always relational and not absolute. What fascinated me the more I worked on the book, was precisely how the contradictions interlocked with each other. This interlocking defines the conditions of possibility for the circulation of value and capital in motion. So to say, as Manning points out, that divisions of labor produce the contradictions of alienation is not surprising. Indeed it is necessarily so. There can likewise be no exchange value without money and money cannot function without private property which in turn means that there is no easy way to prevent the private appropriation of social wealth that underpins capitalist class formation . . . This is how it always is, as Marx points out in the Grundrisse, “within any organic whole.” The interconnectedness of the contradictions in my view strengthens the argument rather than, as Manning seems to think, undermining it. It could be, however, that I have not gotten all of the contradictions quite right and that I did not manage to stress enough (though I certainly tried particularly in the link passages between the different kinds of contradictions) the strength and nature of the interrelations. Others may well take up these issues and reshape the systemic form I adopted. I would certainly welcome the exploration of alternatives because in the Grundrisse there are, as I pointed out in the text, quite a few other contradictions than those I chose to isolate and dwell upon.

    Contradictions are omnipresent but often latent and so Marx sometimes differentiates between an inner contradiction (such as that between the use and exchange value of a commodity) and what happens when that contradiction becomes externalized (in the case of the relation between commodities and money). He sometimes refers to the contradictions as antinomies or oppositions and when latent I tend to refer to them as “tensions.” But I think the context is clear enough. I was therefore surprised that Manning did not think there is any contradiction for capital between private property and the state. This contradiction is not and never can be reduced to an identity (no matter how much capital tries to turn the state into its ruling instrument) and as Marx shows in his analysis of the struggles over the length of the working day and the factory acts and as we see in the struggle over the nature of the regulatory apparatus needed to make financial capital behave responsibly, there is always a huge contradiction between state (the collective) and capital (the individual) that is constantly roiling the political waters (this is, after all, the foundation of tea-party politics supported by the Koch brothers). Marx’s language reflects how antinomies and latent oppositions become heightened into absolute contradictions and how this then signals the onset of a crisis of some sort. The problem then becomes to find out when, which and where the antinomies and oppositions become heightened into the absolute contradictions and crises that Ricardo asserted were impossible.

    The problem has always been to take Marx’s desire expressed in the Grundrisse to go beyond empiricist or quasi-positivist understandings of classical political economy (understandings that were fetishistically followed in neoclassical economics). The task then becomes to specify the laws of motion of capital in terms of the interlocking contradictions. The argument is relational and dialectical and in its own way diagnostic and analytic (though not in the terms of analytic philosophy). In Marxist economics there are many presentations that rest on a positivist reading of Marx and it is possible, as Michio Morishima so brilliantly shows in his book on Marx’s economics, to provide a complete neo-classical rendition of Marx’s propositions. Seventeen Contradictions attempts to highlight the dialectical reading that I think was Marx’s initial aim but which somewhat fell by the wayside as he became more immersed in the idea in his later writings (as exemplified in vol. 2 of Capital) that his political economy needed a solid scientific as well as philosophical (dialectical) basis. I am interested in restoring the dialectical reading in which the concept of contradiction is foundational rather than simply heuristic.

    The other crucial question that Manning raises concerning the treatment of race and gender will be taken up in my response to Dubilet.

    • Avatar

      FTC Manning


      Same Path, Different Weather?

      I believe the reason why both Dubilet and I spent some amount of time on the “race and gender question,” let’s just call it, is because Harvey himself brings it up in his book. If Harvey did not mention it at all, that would have been a different question, but in his book he explicitly names racial and gender relations as things that are external to the logic of capital, along with few other examples.

      And so I find his response a little bit missing the mark.

      Harvey aims to dismiss the question of any logical category of ”race” by citing its complexity worldwide, suggesting that it’s an American obsession (which would be further evidence that it is particular to certain social forms and does not deserve a place in the inner laws of capital).

      I think with a little generosity we can see that there is some continuity to a conception of racialization/ethnicization that might be successfully mobilized globally. I can think of no place where some type of racial or ethnic stratification is entirely absent. We certainly must make similar gestures of generosity in order to entertain the concept of “proletariat” or “working class.”

      As many have argued, religious conflict and caste existed before capitalism just as class distinctions existed before capitalism, and it is the specificity of these relations in capitalism that is of interest. As such, there seems to be as much a wealth of evidence that both racial/ethnic relations (for lack of a better term) and gender relations obtain, in capitalism, a specific, necessary form, which is in fact part of its logic.

      My understanding of Harvey’s main point here is that race, ethnicity, religion, and gender are all more or less complex, shifting, changing dynamics that have no necessary logical laws in relation to capitalism, and so we can’t say anything about them in abstract vis a vis capital. They do however, get taken up and used by capital in different places at different times in different ways — and also by the working class.

      For all the ways that Harvey does not take the easy, well-trodden, obvious marxist / leftist path, in this case he most certainly does. This is by far the unanimous position among marxists on the question of race and gender. So much so that marxists who do argue for a more central role for race or gender only argue that even though it is not logically necessary, it’s still important.

      Why, then, the total dearth of attempts to theorize race and gender as logically necessary? Surely the dismissal that they are too complex and differentiated is not enough.

      Harvey also cites pro-capitalist anti-racism as some evidence that race is not logically inherent to capital. He writes, “I cannot get out of my head the simple fact that whenever the anti-racist struggle in the United States became anti-capitalist its leaders were killed or incapacitated” — well we can say the same for worker struggles that move from reformism to revolutionary demands. When a worker struggle becomes anti-capitalist, its leaders have often, historically, been killed and incapacitated. On Harvey’s logic, this would invalidate the concept of working class as being inherent to capital.

      Harvey also writes, “capitalism in the United States in my lifetime has coped effectively with multiculturalism and gay rights.” Agreed, and one translation of that would be: capitalism has coped effectively with liberal, pro-capitalist race and sexuality politics. And we could just as pithily say that capitalism has coped effectively with worker rights – after all, we have mandated breaks, overtime pay, obamacare, and so on.

      Its hard for me not to read a double standard here.

      Harvey says, “The other path, which is the one that I have taken, is to say that it is still possible for us to use the powers of abstraction to get to certain features of the dynamics of capital accumulation that prevail no matter what the configuration of a particular social formation and on that basis get some sense of how much the problems we face are bound up with that logic.”

      Well, I have (to the chagrin of many a close friend) taken this path as well. But I have a suspicion that there is something to be discovered by advancing the hypothesis that there are abstract, logical, material relations that are the real content of race/ethnicity and gender in capitalism, which would be at play “no matter what the configuration of a particular social formation.”




The Contradiction of Hope in an Estranged World

Things are not always what they appear to be. In fact, they rarely are. Underneath or behind the surface of an event, process, entity, or situation very often a completely different reality exists. It is not a reality of ghostly forces or magical tricks. Indeed, often the reverse is true—that the world of spectres and ghosts must be dispelled in order to uncover the real forces, impulses, and pressures at work. Pulling back the curtain, one can see more clearly the reality of things.

David Harvey’s Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism is a study offering just such an exposé. In it, he attempts to peel back the thin layer of common (mis)perception in order to provide a better understanding of the late capitalist world we inhabit, unveiling what he takes to be the most prevalent contradictions that pervade our collective lives. In Marxist speak, this is the task of disenchanting the fetishism of capital, unmasking and revealing the disguises and distortions it employs to hide the true nature of its operations. As he states in the introduction,

In this book I will try to get behind the fetishism and identify the contradictory forces that beset the economic engine that powers capitalism. I do so because I believe that most of the accounts of what is happening currently available to us are profoundly misleading: they replicate the fetishism and do nothing to disperse the fog of misunderstanding. (7)

His goal in doing so is not merely to give his reader a better understanding of the constellation of competing forces that configure our society and shape our culture and politics, but also to alert us to the scintillations of hope latent therein. His ultimate aim, following in the path of many contemporary Marxist scholars, is to help to engender a new political subjectivity, one embodied in a political praxis capable of combatting the erosive tide of global capitalist accumulation sweeping the planet.

Harvey has been writing critical accounts of capitalism for some time and has been very influential as a unique voice in the field of Geography Studies, analyzing the effects of the “creative destruction” of capital on the natural and built environment. He has been particularly critical of the Neoliberal turn in economics that began in the 1970s and the impact of these policies on both foreign policy and domestic development. More recently, he has focused his attention on the causes and effects of 2008 financial crisis. Against a litany of economists, policy wonks, think tank heads, and politicians repeating similar solutions and suggesting similar causes, Harvey has presented intriguing alternative accounts from a Marxist perspective, like one crying out in the wilderness. In this volume, Harvey seeks to provide an analysis not of capitalism—as an entire social system dominated by capital accumulation and circulation—but of some of the basic contradictions intrinsic to capital accumulation and circulation in and of itself, isolated from the remainder of social life (7–8). While it may very well be true that most if not all of Jay Z’s 99 problems, from Harvey’s perspective, are derivative of the conditions associated with capital accumulation, distribution, circulation, and exchange, his attention in this volume will be more directly pointed toward the internal workings of capital itself.

Believe it or not seventeen does not exhaust the number of contradictions latent within a system of capital gone global according to Harvey, but these are ones he finds to be most determinative. Engaging the foundational contradictions in part 1, the moving contradictions in part 2, and what he calls the dangerous contradictions in part 3, the volume itself tends to move from the more ingrained and persistent contradictions to the more volatile, contingent, and possibly disastrous. That said, like Marx, Harvey often draws the reader back to the initial “violence” inherent in capital, an original violence necessitated for “freeing” labor power for market purchase. The fact that such an act of violence can be described as “freedom,” moreover, depicts the mystifying nature of capital, that is, how the resolutions to these internal contradictions often cloak the disproportional advantages gained by the owners of capital against the average workers under the spectacle of progress. Ire may temporarily rise over CEO salaries and hedge fund manager bonuses, but a public convinced that this is the necessary correlate for access to cheap coffee, $3 gas, and a personal iPod capable of expressing individuality through a video and music library at one’s fingertips seems a necessary side effect. A class of superrich individuals, so the thinking goes, can even be a good in and of itself insofar as their conspicuous consumption should prompt others to work harder in order to try to achieve such a lifestyle. That such egregious accumulation and consumption and the penury and exploitation it lives off of are no freedom at all, however, is what Harvey’s analysis of these contradictions sets out to show.

The notion that the machinations of capital have produced real losers and winners in what appears to be a zero-sum game of winner-take-all may be controversial to say out loud but that it is a reality currently being lived is vividly depicted in the economic data. In 2012 yearly incomes for top CEOs had achieved heights it would take the average worker 3,489 years to equal.1 Putting the degree of inequality in perspective, Joseph Stiglitz reports that “the top 1 percent get in one week 40 percent more than the bottom fifth receive in a year; the top 0.1 percent received in a day and a half about what the bottom 90 percent received in a year; and the richest 20 percent of income earners earn in total after tax more than the bottom 80 percent combined.” He also notes that “the six heirs of the Wal-Mart empire command wealth of $69.7 billion, which is equivalent to the wealth of the entire bottom 30% of U.S. society,” or, approximately 100 million people.2 Recent studies suggest this disparity may even be greater than anticipated—to the degree of 3 percent in the US—due to the very wealthy shirking on their tax bill by hiding investments in offshore accounts.3 Such a distorted arrangement, Harvey argues, is an outgrowth of the way the capital class has used its power to resolve the internal tensions of the system’s contradictions.

Contradictions are part of any socio-political reality, and Harvey is quick to remind his reader that his argument does not contend for a world free of contradiction. Similarly, he does not think the current way these contradictions are configured is absolutely without hope. If contradictions, as he uses the term, are “when two seemingly opposed forces are simultaneously present within a particular situation, an entity, or an event,” then they present an instance of both danger and opportunity, for these forces could be configured in their relation differently (1). Both the opportunity and the danger of life under capital comprise the overall thrust of Harvey’s thesis.

In what follows, however, I want to explicate what I take to be two recurring themes of Harvey’s analysis followed by a brief discussion of the alternative he offers. Finally, I will suggest how a Christian political subjectivity informed by Harvey’s analysis might uniquely move toward making real and substantial transformations.

The Future of Rentierism

God may have created humanity to tend and rule the earth but capital in the last few decades has created a new dominant species, the rentier class. Indeed, as noted above, those at the top of the wealth and income centile enjoy a degree of power and possession basically incomparable with the rest of the planet’s inhabitants. While this kind of disparity would be suspect even if these people were in fact the “job creators” their cronies and they often tout them to be, the fact that more and more of their gains tend to be based upon rents makes the situation even more deplorable. With its roots in the foundational contradictions of capital and acting as a major force in the moving contradictions of capital while significantly contributing to, what Harvey calls, the dangerous contradictions, this trend toward rentierism is a prevailing theme of contemporary global capital.

Capital is often touted as a system of open competition in which creative production makes more and cheaper goods broadly available. In reality, Harvey explains however, a monopoly system characterized by “accumulation by dispossession” tends to prevail (133). Such rent-seeking activities have come to dominate the economy, bolstered by the political power these firms and individuals now claim. This “unholy alliance” between big business and politics, as Harvey suggests, has created a climate in which conventional rent-seeking activities focused on land and property have been greatly expanded to include resources, patents, licenses, intellectual property, lending practices, and market information leading to the rampant practice of what might be called “vulture capitalism” (133, 162). The basis for this, as Harvey notes, is the creation of fictional commodities, where things like land, money, and labor are transformed (through the violence of what Marx called primitive accumulation) into entities that can be privately owned and bought or sold (57). As a result, land and especially money tend to take on a life of their own, land providing its owner with what could be termed unearned income and money possessing the seemingly fantastical power to reproduce itself via investment.

In our current era, the power of the rentier class and the focus of their activities have increasing taken the form of financialization. Playing upon the contradictory nature of money itself, that is, as both a means of exchange and circulation and as a measure of value in their dedication to the pursuit of endless growth, the wealthy have found it easier to obtain returns through speculator investment and innovative financial products than in the actual, physical production of goods emboldened by deregulatory and monetary policies. As Harvey reports, “Much of the compound growth realized until the financial crash of 2008 was achieved by way of speculative gains out of successive asset bubbles (the dot-com boom and bust of the 1990s followed by the property market boom and bust of the 2000s in the USA) (241). The result of this new financial rentierism, one that is all too familiar and intimately felt in households across the country, is an increasing disparity of incomes and wealth not just in America but throughout the globe.

Harvey is not the only one to recognize and highlight this trend. Indeed, in his recent comprehensive study, Thomas Piketty reaches similar conclusions. Piketty reports that in the United States the percentage of national income going to the top decile, or 10 percent, has exploded since the 1970s, achieving the heights of 45–50 percent in the last decade and will likely reach 60 percent by 2030.4 Additionally, he finds, “global inequality of wealth in the early 2010s appears to be comparable in magnitude to that observed in Europe in 1900–1910. The top thousandth seems to own nearly 20 percent of total global wealth today, the tope centile about 50 percent, and the top decile somewhere between 80 and 90 percent. The bottom half of the global wealth distribution undoubtedly owns less than 5 percent of total global wealth.”5 The fact that this level of income and wealth inequality is directly related to the rise of rentier power is evident in the fact that, as Immanuel Saez reports, “the top 1 percent captured 93 percent of the income gains in the first year of the [economic] recovery,” an event that only compounded the already disproportionate effect of the downturn.6 As Harvey puts it, it is clear that “parasitic forms of capital are now in the ascendant,” and the current trajectory forebodes a future of extreme accumulation by dispossession (245).

A People of Alienation

In the lopsided world of rentierism, the vast majority of the population find themselves living a depleted form of existence. Whereas a culture saturated with iPhones, fast food, and Gap clothing may give the impression that the modern dream of mastering nature has come to fruition, in reality the average person seems fated to living a human existence defined by what capital determines to be human.

Alienation refers to socio-political condition, wherein workers and citizens become isolated and individualized as a part of the very structure of the division of labor in the process of production. Separated from nature and increasingly “deprived of mental challenges or creative possibilities,” as Harvey puts it, they tend to suffer a “loss of any sense of wholeness or personal authorship [that] diminishes emotional satisfaction” (125). In this respect, alienation comes to include not simply the transfer of property but also the transfer of affections, trust, and fealties from the social bonds and connections associated with strong human communities and families to the constructed social relations configured by institutions of the global market. Associated with this transference and the dissolution of these essential social relations, a psychological state of isolation and estrangement, of sadness and a sense of loss, of hostility and dispossession arises (267).

Under market logic and reasoning, compartmentalized and alienated forms of work dominate; dissociated individuals compete with one another for the “right to work” jobs in which downward pressures on wages predominate even as pressure mounts to work longer hours. All the while meaninglessness prevails. This meaninglessness on the productive side, moreover, is only exacerbated by the vanity of contemporary consumption wherein fabricated and superficial identities are unceasingly destroyed and created to meet the need for the endless production of worthless commodities (274). Those searching for a purpose-driven life, that is to say, continually find themselves confronted with a meaningless form of existence, estranged from creation, from their fellow creatures, and from any sense of a good higher than crude material wealth. Within such an arrangement, as Harvey puts it, “freedom becomes domination, slavery is freedom” (268).

The Prospect of Revolution

As an answer to widespread alienation and hegemonic rentierism Harvey proffers the remedy of multilateral revolutionary humanism. As he states, “There is, I believe, a crying need to articulate a secular revolutionary humanism that can ally those religious-based humanisms (most clearly articulated in both Protestant and Catholic versions of the theology of liberation as well as in cognate movements within Hindu, Islamic, Jewish, and indigenous religious cultures) to counter alienation in its many forms and to radically change the world from its capitalist ways” (287). Such a humanistic vision, Harvey hopes, may emerge from the current configuration because the contradictory nature of social reality implies it always can be configured differently. Transformation, however, Harvey argues following the eminent Franz Fanon, will not happen by accident. Because rentier power is class power, to achieve the humanist vision and to eliminate oppression, Harvey indicates, must be a political achievement and will require an exercise of power or force, possibly, violent force. Such a proposition is intrinsically dangerous, but, he argues, there is the lingering hope effervescing within the multiple contradictions of capital that such a movement will in the end accomplish its goal of creating a more humane world.

Of course, the difficulty of this proposal is that the means to accomplish the end is qualitatively different from the end itself and, therefore, a transformation must be achieved in the moment of its arrival. For many of us, I think, this seems implausible and even more impossible. To be fair, Harvey reiterates that he does not think a humanist future would be devoid of contradiction. Yet, it still seems that the issue of transformation remains. As Terry Eagleton has queried, “What if the process of bringing it into being is in contradiction with the very values it represents?”7 While I am infinitely sympathetic, I cannot help but conceive of Harvey’s revolutionary humanism as a messianism living on fumes, a movement gasping along yet with the potential to be much more explosive.

Hope as Contradiction in an Estranged World

In his 1924 essays The Word of God and the Word of Man, Karl Barth suggested that a critical perspective derived from a new life in Christ should allow the Christian to be “more romantic than the Romantics and more humanistic than the Humanists.”8 The Key was that Christians had to be more precisely Christological in this attitude. It is my estimation that we have reached a critical point in our society exactly where it is critical for Christians to become more Marxist than the Marxists by way of becoming more precisely Christological. That is to say, the life made possible by God’s invasion of the world in Christ and his relativization, deactivation, and defeat of the powers orients us to a proper vision of God’s reign, freeing us to embark upon a more creative, nonviolent, hopeful, and transformative politics. As alternatively formed political subjects, the ends and the means of what we are working for need not stand in opposition—for it is in embodying the reign of God that the change we hope to see is actualized.

For those of us unwilling to concede that Christianity is fundamentally an otherworldly religion and who think “I’ll fly away” is a better description of 1st-2nd century mystery cultism than the gospel of Jesus, Harvey’s analysis positions us to see better the material relations that comprise the larger structures we inhabit. In short, it allows us to see better the power of capital and to recognize capital as a Power. Contesting with the estranged world of capital, the reconciling power of God’s reign can be embodied in the peaceful mode of conflict resolution and discernment structured by what the Radical Reformation tradition has called the Rule of Christ (Matt 18). As noted above, Marx had observed that “between two equal and opposing rights, force decides,” the stronger turning the contradiction to its advantage. In God’s defeat of the Principalities and Powers through Jesus, however, there is reason to hope that a more powerful force, that of God’s love and grace, is working to overcome the world dominated by their order. Abiding in this reign, Christians have a way of being that contradicts the structure and fait of capital.

So disenchanting capital, seeing it in light of the future of creation made known in Christ, a people formed by an apocalyptic political subjectivity, I think, are poised to engage in the daily practice of what Romand Coles has called the “politics of small achievements.”9 In a world that seems to be infatuated with big answers and comprehensive strategies, here is an apocalyptic subjectivity, more patient, more attentive, and more material than revolutionaries often are willing to be. But that may very well be because it is in fact more revolutionary.

  1. Seth Borenstein, “CEO Pay: Highest Salaries Equal 3,489 Years for Typical Worker,” Huffington Post, May 25, 2012, http:/C:/dev/home/

  2. Stiglitz, The Price of Inequality, 4, 8.

  3. Jeanna Smialek, “The 1% May Be Richer than You Think, Research Shows,” Bloomberg, August 7, 2014, http:/C:/dev/home/

  4. Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2014), 294.

  5. Ibid., 438.

  6. Emmanuel Saez, “Striking It Richer: The Evolution of Top Incomes in the United States (Updated with 2009 and 2010 Estimates),”

  7. Terry Eagleton, “Utopia and Its Opposite,” Social Register 36 (2000): 38.

  8. Karl Barth, The Word of God and the Word of Man, trans. Douglas Horton (New York: Harper & Row, 1957), 303.

  9. Romand Coles and Stanley Hauerwas, Christianity, Democracy, and the Radical Ordinary: Conversations between a Radical Democrat and a Christian (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2007), 4.

  • Avatar

    David Harvey


    Response to Dan Rhodes

    I am thoroughly intrigued by Daniel Rhodes’s idea that we have reached a point in history when “it is critical for Christians to become more Marxist than the Marxists.” I leave out the bit about “by becoming more precisely Christological” because I don’t understand what that means and all talk about “a people formed by an apocalyptic political subjectivity” makes me very nervous. Apocalyptic politics rarely if ever turn out well as far as I can tell. But we are certainly at a historical moment when it seems we are headed into new ways of doing politics and new alignments of political forces and, yes, new configurations in political subjectivities. I am, for example, intrigued by Murray Bookchin’s recent call to put together the best of both anarchism and Marxism in order to revitalize the revolutionary left tradition and to find a more effective way to confront a rampant capitalism that is producing environmental damages and unacceptable levels of social inequality. The chronic failure of all political powers to exercise any restraint on capital and thereby to protect the people is evident for all to see and signs of something different emerging in the way of opposition are everywhere apparent. If anarchism and Marxism can bury their historical hostilities and make for a common front then a Christian Marxism, as I also argued in my response to Tse, is perfectly feasible. And I would of course be delighted if it turned out that “a Christian political subjectivity informed by (my) analysis might uniquely move toward making real and substantial transformations.” The thought that this might make it easier to break the deadlock between what I called in Seventeen Contradictions “an impossible reform and an improbable revolution” is more than a little uplifting.

    But if Christians could and should become more Marxist than the Marxists then why can I also not aspire to be more Christian than the Christians? I was once actually put in that position when invited by the Episcopalian Bishop of Philadelphia to his annual retreat of the faithful. My only theological qualification for being there was that I had once been classified as Church of England at my school by default (when asked about my religion when eleven years old I did not know what to say so they put down C of E). In Harrisburg I gave a lecture drawn from Spaces of Hope on the theme of a dialectical utopianism combining utopianism of spatial forms with utopianism of the social process. It provoked an interesting debate with the theologians concerning the Christian concept of Paradise. Paradise was so static and boring, they said, that nobody in their right mind would want to go there. Would it not be better to have a dialectical concept of Paradise, a place where all kinds of exciting new stories could be told and ways of life explored (the perpetual search for novelty which I wrote about in Seventeen Contradictions). In the course of this I was surprised to be told that I was definitely more Christian than I knew and I might even be a better Christian than they were. So everything is possible, though at the time I thought this was more of a statement of the sad state of the Episcopalians. I now know it might have been because they had read Barth.

    I was, however, a bit surprised to read that Rhodes also thinks, while being “infinitely sympathetic,” that the “revolutionary humanism” proposed in Seventeen Contradictions is nothing more than “messianism living on fumes, a movement gasping along yet with the potential to be much more explosive.” While this is not a bad way to characterize the state of anti-capitalist movements worldwide, it seems a bit overdramatic as a way to talk through the political implications of the seventeen contradictions. After all, the balance between use and exchange values (e.g., in education) shifted radically over the last forty years thanks to Thatcher, Reagan and the neoliberal movement. Our political subjectivities have changed to the point where we are all neoliberals now in some form or another as opposed to being social democrats by default (much as I was a card-carrying Episcopalian by default). If changes of this sort and magnitude can be wrought in forty years then why cannot we hope, even if it takes a few fumes to keep us going (as indeed it does when the going gets rough), to create equally dramatic changes though in precisely the opposite direction towards use value provision rather than exchange value maximization over the next forty years?

    On more mundane matters I appreciate Rhodes’s views on the rentiers and alienation because while both of these concepts have long had some presence in the tradition of Marxist theory they have not in my view received the attention they deserve. It is particularly important at this historical juncture that they be highlighted and both of them deserve deeper consideration than I was able to give them.

    Likewise I think Terry Eagleton’s question, “What if the process of bringing into being is in contradiction with the very values it represents,” is very important to consider. It is here that I think the anarchist-Marxist contradiction, which Bookchin wants to bring into a contradictory unity (a move I support), is of parallel interest to the Christian-Marxist distinction (a move I am also happy to support). In neither case would I support the idea that these oppositions be fused into an identity (of the sort that blinded Ricardo when he accepted Say’s law). In each case we should view the relation as a contradictory unity productive of new possibilities (after all, “hope resides in contradictions”). Anarchists tend, for example, to worry about the values and the social relations embedded in social processes but not care too much about outcomes, whereas Marxists tend to worry more strategically about the continuity and direction of some prefigured revolutionary process and the goals that might be achieved. I tried to open up a conversation on this in contradiction 14 on freedom and domination. The value of individual freedom is sacrosanct in much anarchist thinking but there is an incredible reluctance to deal with the dominations required to support any particular configuration of freedoms. The same is true of deep ecology which refuses to sanction the imprisonment of the smallpox virus in a few frozen samples locked in laboratories as a good way of dominating nature in the interest of human life. Being convivial with nature sounds lovely but cuddling with the Ebola virus is not a good idea. The willingness within the Marxist tradition, on the other hand, both in theory and practice, to sacrifice freedoms and other important values and to ruthlessly exercise tactics of domination (including that over nature) in a good cause is far too lax and troubling for comfort. It has all too often led to major political and ecological disasters. Read a Victor Serge novel to see what I mean. The choice between freedom and domination is not however a problem that can have a solution but a perpetual predicament. It is inevitable that no matter what we do and whichever way we move we will lose something as we gain something.

    Maintaining the contradictory unity between Christian values and Marxist strategies, as well as the contradictory unity between anarchism and Marxism in anti-capitalist struggle becomes the unique way through which we can better define paths towards revolutionary transformations that do not go too far astray. Suppressing the contradictions and fantasizing identities is the last thing we should be doing in any revolutionary anti-capitalist movement. Again, it is only the adoption of that dialectical method which embraces rather than exorcises contradictions as the fulcrum of social action and of social change that provides us with a way to confront the inevitable predicaments constructively. Certainly, we will frequently make wrong choices some of which, given the path-dependency of much social action, may ultimately land us in even more awkward predicaments. Historically we have plenty of experience of that in terms of our relation to nature. Refrigeration saved millions of lives by protecting the qualities of food supplies in a rapidly urbanizing world but CFCs gave us the ozone hole. Fear of such unintended consequences should not deter us, however, from embracing a revolutionary anti-capitalist movement. The left needs the courage of its own convictions. It has to abandon the belief that Rhodes ultimately resorts to. The left is currently not infatuated with big answers as he suggests. Far from it. It avoids big thinking like the plague apart from that of the totally impractical and implausible utopian sort. The left in its practices is for the most part actually infatuated with “the politics of small achievements” which Rhodes cites and invokes as the right way to go. But if there is anything we have learned from the last thirty years of radical politics, it is that the politics of such small achievements cannot be, as Rhodes supposes, “more revolutionary” than “revolutionaries often are willing to be.” I am tempted to ask in mild amusement: who is living on fumes here? But maybe we all need a few fumes to imagine anything different at all!

    • Avatar

      Daniel P. Rhodes


      A Necessary Alliance

      It seems appropriate to begin this response with what in my tradition is called a brief personal testimony, wherein one typically recounts publicly his or her conversion to the faith. I attended one of the several Christian evangelical colleges that fleck the Midwestern states. There I majored in philosophy and minored in economics. Philosophy was located within the theology department and the economics I learned was of the freewheeling Chicago School variety in which the only concept that was allowed to traffic between the departments was a bastardized notion of original sin. I recount this because I think it provides a rather general account of the kind of Christianity that pervades much of our country, a kind I must say I had to be converted out of in order to find my faith. Within this conversion, I have to say, David Harvey’s writings and lectures played an important role. I’ve been secretly reading Harvey for years while studying in theology, and I like to think of myself as a case in point where Christian fidelity has been shaped by rigorous Marxist analysis. Hence, I should like to thank him up front for being more Christian than I certainly was when I first began to read him.

      For my own part, I think Marxism and Christianity can be mutually critical in a way that challenges both to be better traditions, even if it is not possible to bring Marxism within a Christian cosmology and metaphysics. By mutually critical traditions, I don’t mean simple ideological rivals or cultural contenders, but two dedicated and thoughtful approaches to constructing an alternative social reality. And if necessity is indeed the mother of innovation, then I agree that, on the ground, alliances between the two are both more possible now because they are absolutely necessary. The extreme concentration of wealth and power fused with possibility of global mobility for elites has created a situation in which prospects for more just futures have grown longer and more challenging. Indeed, the disparity and asymmetry of class relations globally has probably never been as great or intractable. That the environment is riper for revolutionary violence than even at the end of Europe’s Belle Époque I think should not be ignored—as probably only the isolating and energy-sucking practices of consumerism keeping it at bay. But it is important, as Harvey recognizes, to see that warring class divisions are not the only threat on the horizon for societies under the sway of capital. The financialization and deregulation of global markets is pregnant with something of a death wish, prone to volatility and increasing crises more and more difficult to control and making recovery increasingly harder to achieve. Like the captain of the Costaconcordia, whether for the sure thrill or in hopes of impressing others with their daring ventures, the current trajectory seems sure to wreck the entire ship. How to regain control of the deviant vessel therefore is a central question, but the future cannot be a mutiny on par with the terror of the French revolution or the purges of vanguard-style Leninism.

      While sharing his appreciation for new alliances joined in the pursuit of revolutionary humanism, I do struggle at times to know who Harvey’s “we” is. My sense is that this is more a problem intrinsic to the left itself, but it evinces for me some salient issues. For one, I wonder how those within these alliances will be habituated out of the isolation and alienation consonant with consumer culture so as to not continually have these alliances dissolve and erode shortly after the excitement of their novelty wears off. Second, as hinted above, I wonder how they also will not fall prey to a solidarity born of resentment and hatred and forged through violence. I wonder if it not exactly at this point that the church could provide unique resources, but I realize that this also brings with it an issue of conversion (probably first for the church and then for those outside as well)—though the Left is not unfamiliar with its own struggles with this dangerous notion.

      It is in this vein that I suggest the need for an apocalyptic political subjectivity. And I should say up front that no one should be more aware of the fact that “apocalyptic movements rarely turn out well” than someone arguing for something like an apocalyptic political subjectivity. Yet, dangerous things also can be pregnant with powerfully good possibilities as well. One of the pressing issues for our age, an age of capital, I think is for churches to recover an understanding of the apocalyptic that rejects the chiliastic or escapist perversions of the past in order to regain the resources within this perspective for a material engagement that is not limited to nor completely determined by prevailing conditions. As a fidelity to a higher vision of the way things are despite all appearances to the contrary, it should promote a peculiar form of active involvement in the present. Of course, apocalyptic is dangerous and has been prone to violence, but this has been the case to the extent that Christian apocalypticists have ignored the central figure of the slain lamb (Christ), who offers the form of revolution within this way of seeing things and in its activity. (Coincidentally, I’m currently working on a book where I move in a similar trajectory that moves away from static/spatial notions of the Kingdom of God in order to focus more upon a temporal and dynamic configuration of these more in line, I believe, with the scriptural vision and indeed more apposite to the contemporary challenges. I’m hoping, of course, that it will be more enticing as well).

      One of the perennial problems of the Left is that it has insufficiently grappled with its devotion to negative model of freedom, and this is what is at the heart of the prevailing confusion on the left that I tried to name. We might even name this as one of the foundational contradictions of the Left: that while conceiving freedom predominantly as individual and freedom “from” it also longs for larger, collective objectives. After all, what else could Marxism be if not at the very least an alternative tradition with its own narrative and teleology (even as I realize many Marxist would adamantly deny this). Isn’t this exactly why it is at a loss as to how to get there—because it continually slips into perceiving the path as self-expression? One of the persistent problems is that the Left’s core concept of freedom continues to be self-destructive and fragmenting to the social body. In contrast, apocalyptic is not negative, but it is a way of describing and intuiting positive freedom in a circumstance of oppression by offering a vision of a new social body based on alternative ordered relations and structures of sovereignty.

      Lastly, I should note, that while Christians are not utilitarian, this does not entail that we cannot be shrewd, see Luke 16 for example. What this means is that our larger view is not subject to the necessity of efficiency, so we can be very free in the connections we make to build and pursue the Kingdom. To this extent, Christians can and should seek out all kinds of alliances, not the least of which given the current state of things ought to include those working for greater economic equality and against exploitation and injustice. To embrace the way of Christ is to embrace a minoritarian position that rejects all attempts to control the course of history even as it enjoys creative freedom to initiate and join experimental movements resonant with peace and justice. Running on fumes is part of the DNA of the church when it is at its best, with the difference that we refer to this vapor as the Spirit. It is also such a cosmology that allows the church to live within the contradictions of the time we have both to continue to see our future expectantly and to act in the moment with utter urgency. That’s what it means to be a people of hope, and it is this hope, I believe, that can be the basis of a new political subjectivity.



If Capital Is a God

On the Theological Reconciliation of Two Davids in Urban Geography

SHORTLY BEFORE I DEFENDED my dissertation in human geography, my doctoral supervisor and I discussed how theologians were generally unaware of geography as a social science discipline.1

He said that he had observed the bookshelves in some theologians’ offices. “They don’t seem to have much geography,” he said. “But if they had one book, it was David Harvey’s.”

My supervisor’s name is David Ley. In the 1970s and 1980s, he was David Harvey’s intellectual nemesis. I emphasize was—the past tense—because in the time that I have known Ley, he has had nothing but good things to say about David Harvey.

I promise to come back to this forum’s focus on Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism, but I must begin with a primer on this quarter-century debate between the two Davids, Harvey and Ley, because I will suggest in this essay that their debate about ontology in geography, its subsequent détente, and Harvey’s proposals for revolutionary humanism in Seventeen Contradictions are productive for theological reflection. Indeed, Ley and Harvey once represented the two ontological poles in the discipline of urban geography. Since Harvey’s 1973 classic Social Justice and the City, he has argued that urban social inequalities could be solved by changing planning philosophies, shifting from liberal assumptions that the market would sort out distributive injustices toward an explicit ideological model in which the state would need to set up structures to redistribute wealth more equitably. In this way, Harvey introduced geographers to Marx’s view of “ideology,” which “he regards . . . as an unaware expression of the underlying ideas and beliefs which attach to a particular social situation, in contrast to the aware and critical exposition of ideas in their social context which is frequently called ideology in the west.”2

At the time, Ley and his colleagues in humanistic geography vigorously disagreed on ontological grounds. Harvey’s proposal to change structures of inequality, they argued, failed to take into account the unpredictable, fragmentary patterns of human agency. As Ley and his colleague James Duncan explained, the dissension lay between two incommensurate modes of social scientific explanation, a nonholist position (Ley) versus a holist explanation (Harvey). Allow me to quote Duncan and Ley at length:

In general, social scientists who adopt the nonholist position believe that large-scale social events such as war, culture, or capitalism are the products of the interaction and interrelations among the individuals who participate in these events, and that their explanation can in principle, although not necessarily in practice, be reduced to statements about the actions of the participating individuals. Holists, on the other hand, believe that such a reduction is theoretically impossible, holding that large-scale social events are emergent and unrelated to the conscious actions of the individuals who participate in them. Typically, a supra-individual entity sui generis, with a “logic” or properties fundamentally its own, is portrayed as the active causal variable, while individuals are viewed as passive agents of this larger entity. There is an essential ontological difference between these two positions.3

Rejecting the notion that a “supra-individual entity” could have agency, Ley and Duncan contended that people, not things, were the actors in the making of places. Because the disagreement was about ontology, it set into motion a vehement theoretical debate in the discipline over how geographies were constructed and should be studied, with geographers on both sides marshaling social theory and moral philosophy to their aid. For Ley to encourage me to read Harvey is thus significant; it is tantamount to admitting that as ontologically incommensurate as holism and nonholism might be, both sides still have something important to say. Indeed, Ley advised me to pay close attention to Harvey’s work, not because he agreed with Harvey—Ley would never become a Marxist—but because Harvey was a model of how big questions about the world should be asked.

It may be that Ley has mellowed out since the 1980s, but I suspect that there is a more profound way to understand the tenuous reconciliation of the two Davids, Ley and Harvey. Indeed, Syndicate affords us an opportunity to explore how their disagreement in geography is fundamentally theological. It also offers a chance to suggest that perhaps these two ontological views are not as incommensurate as they may seem. As I shall argue, Ley and Harvey can be reconciled if capital is not just an impersonal supra-individual entity, but a personal god with agency.

At first glance, it is perhaps easier to see theology in Ley than in Harvey. Indeed, Ley’s work has had an explicit theological tinge to it since the 1970s. Taking the fight to Harvey’s turf, Ley used the pages of Antipode: A Journal of Radical Geography to suggest that what radical geographers needed was a “Christian view of man” (with apologies, of course, for the masculine pronoun; the feminist turn in geography did not occur until the 1990s):4

But man is neither pallid nor plastic. He is the builder, the creator, of the city. Evil in the city is not primarily the result of some imperfect infrastructure which can be “impacted;” it is rarely institutionalized . . . Evil is personal, an ingredient of man’s nature, hence its tenacity, hence the flimsiness of social science models of man and the failure of plans based on such models. A fuller, more humane view of man is required, one which acknowledges both his dignity and his depravity. Such a perspective is presented by the Christian view of man . . . The revolution must be spiritual as well as institutional. For it is privatistic iniquity, not social inequity, which is the root cause of evil in the city.5 The critique of unjust geographies as the product of human agency, then, places the blame for social inequities on the corruption of specific people who can be named, charged, and called to repentance.

The surprise, then, is that Harvey’s Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism turns out to be equally theological. He writes, “It sometimes seems as if money is the supreme God of the commodity world and that we must all bow down before it, submit to its dictates and worship before the altar of its power.”6 This statement is more than metaphorical. True to form, Harvey asserts over and over that capital—that supra-individual entity—has agency of its own: “capital is . . . in love with monopoly,” “capital often appears indifferent as to which particular social differentiations to support and which to discriminate against,” “capital has adapted to compound growth,” “capital must . . . somehow occupy the free time that new technologies release.”7 What if Harvey’s assertions of a supra-individual entity having agency were to be taken seriously? What if Harvey’s religious simile were more than a comparison? What if Harvey’s ontological assumptions, like Ley’s, are grounded in theological narratives?

Contradicting common assumptions about Marxist disdain for the supernatural, Seventeen Contradictions makes the bold suggestion that capital is a god. Appealing to antiquity and time immemorial, Harvey asserts:

That some human beings have appropriated and exploited the labour power of others has been a long-standing feature of human organisation. The exercise of the power to do so has entailed the construction of different social relations, from the coercions of slavery, serfdom and the trading of women (and sometimes children) as mere chattels to the willing consent of worshippers to do God’s or the gods’ work in theocratic societies or the submissive fealty of loyal subjects to go to war or to mobilise to build, say, pyramids, in the name of a revered leader, patriarch, monarch or local lord.8

Harvey contends that the demystification of these theological assertions would reveal that it is capital which drives these societies. Indeed, he asserts that capital “allowed” for “a mild dose of humanist education in literature and the arts, in cultural understandings and religious and moral sentiments” to “provide an antidote to the anxieties generated from loss of meaning at work,”9 a definite nod to Marx’s oft-cited declaration that religion is the “the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions . . . the opium of the people.”10

However, Harvey does not seem to follow Marx’s anti-religious ideology. Marx, after all, bombastically declares in On the Jewish Question that if religion were to get in the way of human liberation, then religion must be abolished. Continuing the argument about theocratic societies, Harvey suggests that there is continuity between antiquity and modernity: “While the ultimate humanist task may be, as Aeschylus put it 2,500 years ago, ‘to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world,’ this cannot be done without confronting and dealing with the immense violence that underpins the colonial and neocolonial order.”11 Here, we must take Harvey’s usage of Aeschylus, presumably lifted from its American mythologization by the Kennedy family, more seriously than Harvey does.12 At face value, Harvey is saying that a revolutionary humanism that contests the agency of capital cannot afford to be idealistically nonviolent, for the violence perpetrated by capital in its establishment of order can only be overthrown by violence. However, to say that this quote comes from Aeschylus—not the Kennedy family’s usage of Aeschylus—appeals to the more general story line of civilization advanced by the ancient Greek dramatist. In the Oresteia, Aeschylus advances a theological account of how the Greek judicial system came to be: after a cycle of violence and dispossession, Pallas Athene intervenes and starts a judicial system on the Athenian Areopagus. This deus ex machina covers up this history of violence with a veneer of order, and it is the same story about capital that Harvey tells throughout Seventeen Contradictions—an extra-legal system of dispossession now covered up by the establishment of states in collusion with the work of capital. The reduction of geographical processes to the agency of capital is thus a theological move. It is saying that the present order is the product of the deus ex machina of capital.

What Harvey is calling for with his revolutionary humanism, then, is nothing short of the overthrow of these gods. Harvey’s stated aims are secular:

There is, I believe, a crying need to articulate a secular revolutionary humanism that can ally with those religious-based humanisms (most clearly articulated in both Protestant and Catholic versions of the theology of liberation as well as in cognate movements within Hindu, Islamic, Jewish and indigenous religious cultures) to counter alienation in its many forms and to radically change the world from its capitalist ways.13

However, he does not define the “secular”; keeping it in its conventionally binary opposition to “religion,” Harvey asserts that religious and secular humanists can work together. This, however, is a move that Habermas has called “postsecular,” a proposal that civil societies should be shaped in some part by theological discourse.14 Indeed, if Harvey implicitly appeals to the continuity of antiquity with modernity, his secularity has never been nonreligious, for capital is a god with agency to cover his (or her) tracks. This god even has a founding myth and a gospel: critiquing Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, Harvey asserts that the primacy of the market over against state intervention is “the founding myth of liberal economic theory” and even “accepted as gospel in Marx’s Capital, though in Marx’s case, the reasoning runs that if Adam Smith’s utopian tale was correct, then things would not turn out for the benefit of all.”15 Contrasting the gospel of capital is Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, “The Joy of the Gospel”:

Such consumerism of excess is deeply alien to the satisfaction of human wants, needs and desires. This is a view to which even the current Pope subscribes. “The limitless possibilities for consumption and distraction offered by contemporary society,” he complains in his recent Apostolic Exhortation, lead “to a kind of alienation at every level, for a society becomes alienated when its forms of social organization, production and consumption make it more difficult to offer the gift of self and to establish solidarity between people.”16

There is something real about both gospels because both theologies have material effects. The gospel that deifies capital produces subjectivities that are prone to inequality, extra-legal dispossession, and the politics of mystification and fetishisation. But the gospel of humanism, whether Pope Francis’s or Harvey’s purportedly secular one, appeals to the ontological sociality of the human person. If this is secularity, then it is perhaps better expressed by Dietrich Bonhoeffer as a “religionless Christianity,” a theology where the social relations between persons takes primacy because God is a person. After all, the Christian Gospel is in many ways a theological protest against the capricious pantheon of the gods of antiquity and assertion that there is a God who demonstrates a new way to be a human person by becoming one himself.

That position is precisely where Ley has always been. Ley fully acknowledges that capital can be idolatrous: “For the Christian the evils of money as idolatry (of which industrial capitalism is one example) are themselves only reflective of a greater truth, a deeper structure.”17 But Harvey’s suggestion is that this idol—capital—is a god, a capricious deity that must be dethroned. If Marx’s project was to de-fetishize the spiritualism that masked the immanent operation of capital, then what Harvey has done is to demystify the secular, revealing that supernatural processes are at work to reinforce the divine sovereignty of capital. The gospel that Harvey proclaims thus cannot be iconoclastic, for that would assume that the gods are not real. No, Harvey’s gospel is the same as Ley’s: both declare a theological revolution, a new deification to usher in a new order of things, one in which the common good trumps the privatizing power of capital. In this way, Harvey’s continued assertions that capital has agency has a new ring to it, one that uncovers “the theological constitution of the world” in a secular age.18

The two Davids can be fully reconciled, for both are calling for the ontological conversion of the human person. As Harvey concludes, “In the face of what Pope Francis rightly dubs ‘the globalization of indifference,’ the global masses must, as Fanon so neatly puts it, ‘first decide to wake up, put on their thinking caps and stop playing the irresponsible game of Sleeping Beauty.’”19 I cannot imagine Ley disagreeing on this point.

  1. While biblical studies is not theology—they read more often as social scientific studies of the ancient Near East—there have been some recent attempts to integrate geographical thought among scholars of the Bible. See Jon L. Berquist and Claudia L. Camp, eds., Constructions of Space I: Theory, Geography, and Narrative (London: T. & T. Clark, 2008); Jon L. Berquist and Claudia L. Camp, eds., Constructions of Space II: The Biblical City and Other Imagined Spaces (London: T. & T. Clark, 2008); J. Cornelis de Vos, Karen J. Wenell, and Jorunn Okland, eds., Constructions of Space III: Biblical Spatiality and the Sacred (London: T. & T. Clark, 2015); Mark K. George, ed., Constructions of Space IV: Further Developments in Examining Ancient Israel’s Social Space (London: T. & T. Clark, 2013); Geet T. M. Prinsloo and Christi M. Maier, eds., Constructions of Space V: Place, Space and Identity in the Ancient Mediterranean (London: T. & T. Clark, 2013). These biblical studies seem influenced by developments in religious studies, where theoretical revolutions about the constructions of sacred spaces have generated interest in cultural geography and the relationship between real and imagined spaces. See Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 1992); Jonathan Z. Smith, To Take Place: Toward Theory in Ritual (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992); Kim Knott, The Location of Religion: A Spatial Analysis (London: Equinox, 2005).

  2. David Harvey, Social Justice and the City (1973; repr., Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2009), 18.

  3. James Duncan and David Harvey, “Structural Marxism and Human Geography: A Critical Assessment,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 72, no. 1 (1982): 32.

  4. One of the founding texts of feminist geography, which critiqued the masculinism of the humanistic geography (including Ley’s work) was Gillian Rose, Feminism and Geography: The Limits of Geographical Knowledge (Cambridge: Polity, 1993).

  5. David Ley, “The City as Good and Evil: Reflections on Christian and Marxist Interpretations,” Antipode 6, no. 1 (1974): 71. Ley works this out in the three major projects that have driven his career in urban geography, the first on African Americans in the inner city, the second on gentrification, and the third on trans-Pacific urban migrations. See David Ley, The Black Inner City as Frontier Outpost: Images and Behaviour of a Philadelphia Neighbourhood (Washington, DC: Association of American Geographers, 1974); David Ley, The New Middle Class and the Remaking of Central City (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995); David Ley, Millionaire Migrants: Trans-Pacific Life Lines (Oxford: Blackwell, 2010).[footnote]

    Ley’s humanistic argument that human persons, not structures, were the ones in need of radical ontological conversion has always been his theological conviction. Humans have agency, but we can also be depraved in our exercise of that personal power, and thus the Christian gospel proclaims that “the city needs not new structures but new men,” achieved by nothing short of the divine intervention of Jesus Christ.[footnote]Ibid, 68.

  6. David Harvey, Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 25.

  7. Ibid, 139, 166, 235, 278. These are only four selected examples of a wide range throughout the book.

  8. Ibid, 62.

  9. Ibid, 128.

  10. Karl Marx, “A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York: Norton, 1972), 12.

  11. Harvey, Seventeen Contradictions, 291.

  12. The quote from Aeschylus was used by John F. Kennedy to memorialize Martin Luther King Jr., and can be found on Robert F. Kennedy’s tombstone.

  13. Harvey, Seventeen Contradictions, 287.

  14. Jürgen Habermas, “Religion in the Public Sphere,” European Journal of Philosophy 14, no. 1 (2006): 1–25.

  15. Harvey, Seventeen Contradictions, 132.

  16. Ibid, 275, 276. See Pope Francis, “Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium of the Holy Father Francis to the Bishops, Clergy, Consecrated Persons, and the Lay Faithful on the Proclamation of the Gospel in Today’s World,” para. 192.

  17. Ley, 67.

  18. Justin K. H. Tse, “Grounded Theologies: ‘Religion’ and the ‘Secular’ in Human Geography,” 38, no. 2 (2014): 214.

  19. Harvey, Seventeen Contradictions, 293.

  • Avatar

    David Harvey


    Response to Justin Tse

    I am intrigued by the idea of a “theological reconciliation” between David Ley’s views and my own. I am not in principle opposed to it. While I am not religious by instinct or training, I have long accepted that religion can be a progressive force in human affairs. In Baltimore political activism was grounded in the churches and I often found myself working politically with them (e.g., on the living wage campaign). I gave the video lectures on volume 2 of Capital at the Union Theological Seminary in New York which has a long tradition of radicalism. While in Central America in the late 1970s I met Marxist religious leaders (including Ernesto Cardenal and several activist Jesuits), was introduced to several progressive Christian base communities (both Catholic and Protestant) and was lectured on the evils of US imperialism (with references to Lenin) by a priest in a Costa Rican township that was offering a safe haven for the Sandinista guerillas. Many religious people of that sort lost their lives in Latin America (Archbishop Romero, the six nuns in El Salvador and the list goes on and on). Sadly, the Vatican’s response, orchestrated by the doctrinaire Cardinal Ratzinger who later became Pope Benedict, was to close down on political radicalism and to silence the theology of liberation. The current pope has reversed course somewhat. I was more than happy to quote him in Seventeen Contradictions on alienation and the “globalization of indifference.” It is helpful to have the moral force of Catholicism (which played an important role in the formation of the Zapatista movement) mobilized behind a critique of the more unethical and barbaric aspects of contemporary capitalism. The reactionary forces of religion—everything from the Opus Dei within the Catholic church to the barbarism of ISIS—are also all too apparent as are the monetary corruptions of many religious and pseudo-religious sects and faiths. Lloyd Blankfein, the CEO of Goldman Sachs, believes that his investment bank is “doing God’s work.” The compass of religion can point to the left, the right or straight down the middle.

    Tse, however, takes things a step too far. My objection to the original Duncan and Ley critique had nothing to do with theology. Had it been so, then I would have cited Ernesto Cardenal who famously replied when asked by a reporter why he was a Marxist: “I read the gospels.” On that basis Ley should be a Marxist too. There is absolutely no reason why, as Daniel Rhodes suggests in his contribution, that Christians cannot aspire “to become more Marxist than the Marxists.” And I don’t mind being associated with a “religionless Christianity” as long as it does not preclude me becoming equally associated with other religions traditions in a religionless way!

    My problem with Duncan and Ley’s original critique was not theological but their appeal to the supposed conflict between holist and non-holist explanations. This was for me a false dichotomy. I never thought of capital as a super-entity with agency. To portray what I was doing in such terms was a profound misrepresentation. If Tse’s reconciliation depends on me accepting that capital is “a personal god with agency” then I am afraid I cannot go along with that either.

    Capital for me is a contradictory unity of flows of value that take the form of things (see contradiction 6). The flow has to be about constantly expanding value (the endless accumulation or growth imperative that derives from profit seeking as set out in contradiction 15). Capital tends to flow to wherever the profit rate is highest in the same way that water tends to flow downhill. We do not have to attribute intentionality and active agency to capital flows any more than we do to water flowing downhill (though Bruno Latour would disagree). We often use an anthropomorphic language when writing about such phenomena (“water erodes the land as it flows down hill” just as “money capital deindustrialized the American mid-west as it flowed to China”). Capital thereby “produces” uneven geographical development (contradiction 11).

    When Adam Smith shifted from consideration of moral sentiments to investigating the hidden hand of the market he recognized that market exchange had objective rules of operation that guided much human conduct. His was both a positive and a normative theory of capital. All economic enquiry since has been dedicated to trying to figure out how this hidden hand actually works (positive economics), how it should work (normative economics), how it is evolving, with what effects and in what ways it is influenced by the visible hands of corporations and government entities and institutions. The market is not an entity endowed with agency but a process. The process is the circulation and accumulation of capital over which no one exercises agency. Marx accepted this view from classical political economy but showed quite convincingly that the effects of capital circulation and accumulation were not those that Adam Smith and others predicted. Instead of redounding to the benefit of all, as Smith and the classical political economists believed, Marx proved that the class of capitalists would benefit from the workings of the hidden hand at the expense of all those who did the work, the working classes.

    The hidden hand in Marx’s system is value. Value comes into being as a regulatory force in human affairs (Marx considers it as a force like gravity) only as market exchange becomes generalized. Value is created through social labour mediated through market exchange, the aggregate effect of which is to produce a system that has its own rules independent of any conscious design. Under capitalism, we have to abide by these rules in order to live and sustain ourselves. This is the system we have collectively created and historically evolved which then imprisons us.

    Any investment banker who tries to operate outside of the rules of the market does not last very long in his or her job. Human agency is thereby reduced from asking what social needs can be met to how can I channel the flow of this money to ensure my rate of return no matter what the state of social needs? The ethical agent will ask how might this system be mobilized for social ends but is still forced to obey the rules of the game. Individual agents can and theoretically should be innovative and entrepreneurial (e.g., identifying new profit opportunities in new places or new spheres of production). Human agency does not disappear. Human beings can make their own history but never, as Marx pointed out, under circumstances of their own choosing. Many of those circumstances have been built up out of past human activities and practices that then become embodied in institutions. We build houses and landscapes and then we have to live with that which we have produced. Human activity created the market process and the endless circulation and accumulation of capital and we have to live with it or overthrow it.

    There are plenty of individual attempts to rig, corner or manipulate the market (though that is illegal under bourgeois law); plenty of decisions which fail or have unintended consequences because of uncertainties and risks and there are plenty of human activities not regulated by the rules of the market and of capital flow. But much of what we do is constrained and corralled in ways that have nothing to do with good and evil or moral standing or even intentionality but everything to do with how we can survive by acquiring money as a form of social power within the rules of the economic game. Policy makers struggle to find ways to regulate, control or reshape the forces we have collectively set in motion. This is the game we are forced to play to survive. Unless, that is, we can change its rules and escape its clutches through conscious anti-capitalist movements and revolutionary struggles.