The Enigma of Capital, and the crises of capitalism, By David Harvey
Published 30/04/2010 | 12:51
Andrew Mellon, the US Treasury Secretary during the Great Crash of 1929 and one of America's richest men, observed that in a crisis assets return to their rightful owners.
Nothing much has changed. As the present crisis has mutated from a banking crisis to a fiscal crisis and a sovereign debt crisis, bonuses continue to be paid, while the people of Greece and Iceland suffer huge cuts in jobs and services.
As the head of Citibank helpfully pointed out, "Countries cannot disappear. You always know where to find them." Once the bubbles are burst, expectations about asset values are dashed, optimism gives way to despair, and wealth is ruthlessly redistributed. Capitalism survives by purging itself of debt and loading the costs of adjustment on the weak and the poor.
For David Harvey, this is the latest of the great structural crises which have punctuated the development of capitalism and which signify that major limits have been reached to further growth. Crises on this view are inherent in capitalism itself, and the means by which it renews itself. Only a periodic clear-out of debt and unproductive activities creates the basis for a further leap forward.
Harvey is less interested in the detail of how the 2007-8 crisis unfolded than in understanding it as a manifestation of how capitalism works. Over the last two decades, he has become a leading exponent of classical Marxist political economy, his work known for its exceptional clarity and for integrating spatial categories into the theory of capital accumulation.
Capitalism in the last 200 years has proved itself by far the most dynamic and productive economic system known to history, but the wealth comes at a price, both for human beings and increasingly for the natural environment.
Periodically, capitalism over-expands and overshoots, encountering limits it cannot immediately transcend. This is a system which must keep expanding by at least 3 per cent a year. What drives it is the hope of profit, and this impulse comes to shape all social relations as well as nature. During booms, capital accumulates very fast, but the amount of surplus generated becomes harder and harder to absorb. The investments that have been made in the boom fix capital in all sorts of ways, in buildings, cities, regions and countries, as well as in labour forces and ways of organising production.
After a time many of these past investments no longer yield a high return and sometimes no return at all. This is what precipitates the crisis. It may take the form of a profits squeeze, caused by militant labour wresting gains from capital, or by factors depressing the rate of profit, or by too little demand. Harvey argues that the present crisis is particularly hard to resolve because it comes after a long period in which real incomes in the US have stagnated, while the wealth of the property-owning elite has soared.
The gap between what labour was earning and what it would spend was covered by credit. The average debt of per household, including mortgage repayments, was $40,000 in 1980. By 2007 it was $130,000. Getting this debt down and restarting the economy is a huge task.
Harvey is pessimistic that growth can be restarted without the infliction of quite unimaginable hardships on the many of the world's poorest people. Capitalism survives by socialising losses and distributing gains to private hands. Harvey devotes a large part of his argument to show how this is done through the close ties of the state and finance. He calls it the state-finance nexus.
This is not a conspiracy: both sides of the relationship need one another and support one another. There are frictions and conflicts, but in the end they work together because this is the only system anyone knows or thinks can be made to work. Michael Bloomberg, as Mayor of New York, commissioned a report which declared that excessive regulation in the US was threatening the future of the financial sector in New York.
The financial crash of 2008 destroyed the credibility of the financial growth model put in place after the last great capitalist crisis in the 1970s. It has also, as Harvey notes, put a question-mark over the continuance of US hegemony, because of the shift in the balance of the global economy towards the rising powers of India and China.
He thinks that the accumulated rigidities over the last cycle have become so great that only a very fundamental restructuring can restore the basis for renewed economic growth. But the pressure for an early return to business as usual are very great, threatening an early return of credit and debt as the only way to fuel the economy, and the eruption of another crisis in a few years.
Harvey argues that each major capitalist crisis has been worse than the last one, and more difficult to surmount. He accepts that capitalism, with all its resilience and inventiveness, is quite capable of overcoming this crisis too; but he is sceptical, and believes that this is the moment that a revived anti-capitalist movement can seize the opportunity to put forward a realistic alternative to capitalism as a way of organising the economy.
This is perhaps where the argument is least convincing. The anti-capitalist left is fragmented and not particularly numerous. Radical political responses during previous capitalist crises have often favoured the right. The rise of China and India, both of which have continued to grow through the recession, suggests that the fundamental shift in the balance of the global economy is only just beginning, and if it continues is likely to provide huge potential for growth and absorption of surplus, provided certain political conditions are met.
This will not be easy but is certainly possible. Marx thought that no social order ever perishes before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have developed. On the evidence Harvey himself provides, capitalism still has a long way to go before that is the case, and no gravediggers are in sight.
But this book is a welcome addition to the literature on the crisis. It provides a lucid and penetrating account of how the power of capital shapes our world, and sets out the case for a new radicalism and a vision of alternatives. What we need, he argues, is not just a new world but a new communism, following the failure of the old - although he does accept ruefully that using "communist" as a political label may not bring instant success in the United States.
Andrew Gamble is Professor of Politics at the University of Cambridge and author of 'The Spectre at the Feast' (Palgrave Macmillan)