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?