Aaron Leonard, Review of David Harvey's "A Companion to Marx's Capital" (Verso, 2010)
In May 2010, a young man in China jumped to his death from a factory building in the sprawling FoxConn compound in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen. FoxConn is the Chinese manufacturer of iPhones, iPads, Dell computers and other technology products. According to Time magazine, FoxConn is “a place where distraught workers regularly throw themselves to their deaths.”
One thinks of such events when reading the following from Karl Marx, writing in the first volume of Capital: “Accumulation of wealth at one pole is, therefore, at the same time accumulation of misery, agony of toil, slavery, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation, at the opposite pole.”
As the triumphalist howling in the wake of the collapse of the fall of the Berlin Wall has receded, the world we have entered seems much more like the world Marx tried to apprehend nearly one hundred forty years ago. It is that understanding that anthropologist and geographer David Harvey illuminates in his just-published Companion to Marx’s Capital. Harvey, who has taught a course on Capital for forty years, has written a reader’s guide to Capital with the stated aim of getting us to read this work. In doing so, he makes accessible the at-times challenging but fundamental insights of Marx, and shines new light on his path-breaking methodology.
One of the striking things in reading both Marx and Harvey is that we live amid a time where there is an awful lot of misunderstanding—and—worse of basic things. Harvey writes: “Conventional economics has in practice a hard time measuring (valuing) the factor of production that is capital. So they just label it K and put it into their equations. But actually, if you ask ‘what is K and how do you measure it,’ the whole of contemporary economic theory is [shown to be] dangerously close to being founded on a tautology: the monetary value of K in physical asset-form is determined by what it is supposed to explain, viz. the value of the commodities produced.” What he’s getting at is that in order to create capital (or profit, if you will) you actually have to generate a surplus from something. And that something is human labor power. In fact, it is the only commodity that can create surplus value.
The failure to grasp this goes a ways toward explaining why there can be feverish excitement about “The New Economy,” only to see it disappear with the bursting of the tech bubble. It shines light on why companies like Enron profited—for a while—on pure ether, but in the end collapsed. And of course it is testament to the failure of 2008 and the meltdown of companies like Lehman Brothers, AIG, and GM. There is, in short, in the dominant culture a sense that money and commodities are somehow magical. This is part of what Marx was getting at when he talked about commodity fetishism, the mistaking of social relations as relations between things.
Those social relations, as Harvey points out, are particularly ugly these days. He tells us the way surplus value is being squeezed out of workers in places like China is akin to capitalism resurrecting its period of “primitive accumulation”—when it grabbed hold of whatever wealth, by whatever means, to be able to jump start capitalism (think of slavery, the acquiring of gold, the outright theft of land). Harvey calls its modern day equivalent “accumulation by dispossession,” and it is a concept worth pondering.
Also worth pondering is Harvey’s bitterly ironic point that “only cranks misfits and weird utopians think that endless growth, no matter what the environmental, economic, social and political consequences, might be bad. To be sure, problems deriving from growth need to be addressed, but rarely is it said that the answer to the problem is to stop growth altogether.” In the wake of the unending oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the acceleration of all the dire signs of global warming, the acres of smog hanging over China on any given day, etc, etc, it seems we ought to be talking quite a bit more about stopping such growth.
In that regard, what Harvey says in explaining why he wrote this book—and why people should read it—resonates. He wants to “open up a space of dialogue and discussion in such away as to bring the Marxian vision of the world back onto center stage, both intellectually and politically. Marx’s works have far too much to tell us regarding the perils of our times to consign them to the dustbin of history.”
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