Sunday, April 22, 2018

"The Limits to Capital" by David Harvey (2007)

Amazon link

Who is David Harvey? Michael Roberts explains on his blog:
"Just in case you are unaware (difficult to believe), Professor Harvey is probably the most eminent Marxist scholar alive today with a host of books, papers and educational videos to his name on Marxist economic theory."
To properly assess this 450 page book, which combines a sophisticated review of Marxist theory together with its detailed application to today's global economy, would be the labour of many hours. Please forgive a much more superficial review here.

First of all, the book is a rather dry read. While not quite a textbook, it demands sustained concentration and one returns to it more out of duty than pleasure. However, once engaged it is full of insights (I had a similar experience with David Reich's book).

This would not be your first choice if you knew nothing about Marxism. For that, you need an introduction. The great thing about Harvey's overview is that he never just regurgitates the sacred texts. You always see a questing intelligence, picking apart Marx's analytic categories and examples, working to understand them from a contemporary perspective. His insights are invariably fresh and thought-provoking.

Harvey is a geographer, a student of spatial and temporal development. As capitalism develops unevenly within regions, countries and globally, one would have thought that Marxists would have explored in depth the interaction between abstract economic categories and geography, but Harvey seems to break new ground towards the end of the book. Yet I sometimes wondered whether his results were that surprising - often pages went by when I thought the new idea could have been better expressed in a single paragraph.

Why do we bother with Marxism? Because we have a healthy skepticism about elite social science. In no mode of production have the elites come clean about the basis of their structural good fortune: capitalism is no different. Only the Marxist tradition 'tells it like it is'.

Yet here Harvey's moralism grates. The idea is to understand the nature and dynamics of the capitalist mode of production, not to ritualistically denounce it in aggrieved tones and lobby emptily for a 'more rational' mode of production based on wishful thinking. Harvey has never convincingly explained how the complex motivational and coordination problems which capitalism addresses pretty successfully could be better handled by a traditionally-conceived socialism - while we have plenty of evidence to the contrary.

And then there are the lacunae. Marx may have said "always doubt" but although Harvey may be the least dogmatic of contemporary Marxist thinkers, he's not prepared to break with blank slate accounts of gender or ethnic differences. Even the impeccably liberal David Reich is ahead of him on this. No wonder he can't seem to see a way towards a Marxist account of the family or, for example, third world underdevelopment.

Despites its selective myopia and unengaging style, there is still a great deal to get out of this book. I was glad to read it, and glad to finish it.

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