The contradictions of capitalism. Interview with David Harvey

Las contradicciones del capitalismo. Entrevista a David Harvey

David Harvey is professor of Anthropology and Geography at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY). It takes more than 40 years giving a class on The Capital of Marx, and is the author of a “Companion” in two volumes of the great work of Marx. This “close reading” of The Capital is based on a series of 13 conferences, whose videos have made Harvey accessible on the Network.

His recent book is Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism. Starts from the intuition of Marx—that the crisis recurring is endemic in capitalist economies—and continues to try and offer an analysis of the current historical juncture. We speak with Harvey in London last week.

[The interview was made by Jonathan Derbyshire for the English magazine Prospect]

At the beginning of his book notes you, as many have done, that there was something unusual in the latest crisis of capitalism, the global financial crisis of 2008. “I should have already at this moment”, you write, “diagnostics rivaling regard to what is wrong and a proliferation of proposals to straighten things out. What is surprising is the paucity of thinking or new policies” why do you think that is like this?

One hypothesis is that the enormous concentration of power in class is now such as to raise the question of why would she want [the capitalist class] to consider any form of new thought. The situation, while being disruptive to the economy, not what is for your capacity of [the capitalist class] to gather more wealth and power. So there is a particular interest in leaving things as they are. Of course, what is curious is that there was surely vested interests to leave things as they were in the 30’s, but overrode Roosevelt, the thought keynesian and other similar things.

The problem of aggregate demand, which was at the centre of marxist thought in the 30’s, this is a problem of understanding in marxist terms. The people replied to this question, and found after in the problem of the production, and was responded to by the monetarism and the economics of supply. And right now the world is divided between supporters of the economy of offer you want to take further austerity and others —China, Turkey and most developing economies—that are in line with the keynesian. But it seems as if there are only two answers: there is no “third way”. Therefore, in the scope of capitalism, the possibilities are limited. The only way to be able to find other answers would be out of capitalism, and, of course, no one wants to hear about it!


This said, it gives you in the book that there are elements in the capitalist class, the intellectual class, which itself recognized the threat posed by what you call “contradictions” of capitalism. A notable example is the discussion of the problem of inequality.

The movement of Occupy will recognize the merit of having initiated this new dialog. The fact that we have today in New York a mayor that is completely different from its predecessor and has said that he will do everything I can in regard to inequality is something that came out of the movement of Occupy. It is interesting that all the world will know what they are talking about when they mention “the 1%”. The issue of the 1% figure today in the order of the day and give the entity studies, such as Thomas Piketty in his book Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Joseph Stiglitz also has a book about inequality and several economists are talking about it. Even the IMF is saying now that there are hazards that occur when the inequality reaches a certain level.


It is saying to Obama!

Only that Obama is not what he would have said if Occupy is not what he had said first. But, who is doing something about it and how it is changing in reality? When you look at the actual policies you see that they are deepening inequalities. There is a recognition of rhetoric [of the problem], but not political, in terms of active policies and redistribution is active.


Mentioned you Occupy. In the book it shows you quite critical about what it describes as “the remains of the radical left”, which you considered to be predominantly libertarian and antiestatistas.

I have a general rule, crude but effective, that is that the whole dominant mode of production creates the form of your own opposition. In the same way that large factories and large companies —General Motors, Ford, and others—created an opposition that had its base in the trade union movement and the political parties-democrats, also the dissolution of all that, and the situation in which we now have created this kind of opposition scattered that you can only use certain languages to express their demands. The left has failed to understand that a good part of what you are saying is in line with the neoliberal ethic, rather than stand in profound opposition. Part of the antiestatismo that is located on the left goes hand in hand with the antiestatismo of the business capital. I am very concerned that not a lot of thought on the left that says: “Let’s take a step back and take a look at the whole picture”. I hope that my book can contribute to that dialogue.


The book ends in an interesting place, with something like a program, 17 “ideas for political praxis”. But what remains to be developed, though possibly implied in what you just said, is the question of what might be the appropriate vehicle for conducting such a program. And it’s not obvious where what we would find.

One of the things that we should accept is that there is emerging a new way of doing politics. For the moment, it is largely spontaneous, ephemeral, proactive, with a certain reluctance to institutionalize it. How they could come to be is, I think, an open question for which I have no answer, even though it is clear that you have to do it. But there are new political parties, such as Syriza in Greece, for example. What worries me is that what I describe in the book as a state of alienation mass is being funded in large measure by the right. So there is some urgency on the left to address the issue of how we institutionalized as a political force, both to resist the swing to the right to capture a good part of the discontent that exists out there and move it in a progressive direction, rather than in a direction at a neo-fascist.


Would you Describe the book as an attempt to untangle the contradictions do not “capitalism” but of “capital”. Could you explain this distinction?

This comes from my reading of Marx. It is often thought that Marx created this global comprehension of capitalism, but what is certain is that he did nothing of this. Adhered very much to the political economy and restricted their arguments to the way he runs the economic engine of a capitalist economy. If you isolate the economic engine, you can see what could be the problems with that economy. That is not to say that there have been all sorts of problems apart in a capitalist society: it is clear that there are also issues of racism, gender discrimination, geopolitical issues. But [I was worried about one more question reduced]: how does this engine build? It has become quite clear since the outbreak of 2007/8 that there is something going wrong in the engine. Therefore, to dissect what it is that goes wrong it supposed to take a step towards a larger policy. That economic engine turns out to be something quite complicated. And Marx provided a way of understanding that economic engine by using ideas such as contradiction and the formation of crisis.


Another question of definition: what is capital?

It is a process by which the money is intended to get more money. But you must be careful to speak only of money, because in Marx there is a complicated relationship, as pointed in the book, between value and money. It is search of value to create and appropriate more value: that is the process. That process, however, takes different forms: the form of money, goods and services, production processes, land. So that presents physical manifestations, in the form of things, but fundacionalmente, this is not a thing, it is a process.


Let us return to the notion of “contradiction”, which is the analytical category central to the book. You make a distinction between external shocks that could cope with a capitalist economy (wars, for example) and the contradictions in the sense of yours. So, by definition, are internal contradictions in the capitalist system?

If. If you want to redesign the mode of production, then you have to respond to the issues raised by the internal contradictions.


You identify three types of contradictions, that calls you the “foundation”, “mobile”, and “dangerous”. Let’s start with the first category: what does founding, the fundamental contradictions?

Regardless of where you find capitalism and capitalist mode of production, you will find that they operate are contradictions. So that in any economy —whether we are talking about contemporary China, Chile or the U.S. — the question of use-value and exchange-value, for example, is always going to be there. There are certain contradictions that are characteristic of permanent how is established the economic engine. And then there are some that are constantly changing with the time. So I wanted to distinguish those that are relatively permanent and those that are much more dynamic.

Is there some contradictions founding more foundational than others? One of the surprising things in the book is that in his analytical framework everything seems to derive, ultimately, of the distinction between exchange-value and use-value.

Well, that is the starting point of the analysis. I was shocked that Marx would have spent a lot of time trying to imagine where to begin your analysis, and decided to start there because it was the starting point for more universal. But what impressed me —and I have been working a lot of time in Marx —is how closely intertwined are their contradictions. You realize that this distinction between use-value and exchange-value presupposes something about private property and the State, for example.


Another of its fundamental contradictions is that between “private property and the capitalist State”. That is to say, the tension or contradiction between individual property rights and the coercive power of the State. Now, one can imagine someone like Robert Nozick, someone raised in the liberal tradition, lockeana, stating that this is not a contradiction. On the contrary, the role of the “State minimum” is only to defend private property.

One of the things that I say about contradictions is that they are always latent. So the existence of a contradiction does not necessarily lead to crisis. Only happens in certain circumstances. Thus, it is possible to build into the theory the idea that everything that makes a State’s “night watchman” is to protect private property. But we know that a State night watchman has to be done in reality rather more than that. There are externalities in the market that it is necessary to check, there are public goods that it is necessary to provide, so that very soon you have the State get involved in all sorts of things apart from to stop simply sitting in the legal framework of contract and private property rights.


Denies you that there is any necessary connection between capitalism and democracy. Could you explain why?

The question of democracy depends very much on the definitions. We are supposedly a democracy in the united States, but it is clear that it is a kind of masquerade…it’s a democracy of money power, not the power of the people. In my opinion, from the years 70, the Supreme Court has legalized the corruption of the political process at the hands of the money power.


There is an aspect of State power that has moved to center stage during the recent crisis and its repercussions, particularly during the debt crisis of the eurozone, and it is the power of the central banks. Do you think that the role of central banks has changed in some significant way during the era of the “rescue”.

It is clear that yes. The history of central banks is in itself terribly interesting. I’m not sure what did the Federal Reserve during the crisis had any legal basis. On the other hand, the European Central Bank, is a classic case of what Marx spoke of when he referred to the Banking Act of 1844 which, in his opinion, had the effect of extending and deepening the crisis of 1847-8 in Britain. But in both cases, the Fed and the ECB, what we have seen is a kind of adjustment to the good of God institutions of the first order and the emergence of policies that could only be justified a posteriori. So, decidedly, there has been movement in the front of the central banks.


There is a concept that returns to you time and time again, that is commodification.

The capital has to do with the production of goods. If there is a ground that is not commodified, capital can not flow through the same. One of the easiest forms of that capital will find a way to get through it is that the State establish a system of privatization, even to the extreme of privatizing something that is fictitious. Let’s take the emissions trading: emissions trading is an excellent example of the establishment of goods dummy that have effects that are very real in terms of the volume of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and others. Create markets where before there were none is one of the ways in which it has been extended historically the capital.


In this field you are greatly influenced by the work of Karl Polanyi, isn’t it? In particular, for his work flagship, The great transformation.

Polanyi was not a marxist, but he understood, as Marx, the idea that land, labour and capital are not commodities, but assume such a form.


One of the most impressive aspects, even poignant, book is his description of the human costs of commodification, in particular, the commodification of those fields of human experience that were not previously part of the nexus money. This relates to what you call “universal alienation”. What do you mean by that?

We lived in a world in which capital has consistently fought to come to be less work, its power, increasing the productivity, eliminating the mental aspect of the job. When you live in a society of this kind, the question arises, how can there be one who will lead a life that makes some sense, considering what he does in his job. For example, 70 % of the us population hates going to work or is totally indifferent to the work they do. In this kind of world, people have to find some way identity for itself that is not based on the experience of the work. If that is the case, then the question that arises refers us to what kind of identity they can assume. The consumption is one of the answers. But then we have a form of consumerism non-sense that tries to compensate for the lack of meaning in a world in which there are very few jobs that make sense. To me it irritates me so much to hear say to the politicians that we need to create more employment. But what kind of jobs?

The alienation arises, I think, in the sense that we have the ability and the power to be someone very different from what they define our possibilities. Then the question arises, to what extent it is sensitive to political power, to the creation of other possibilities. The people look to the political parties and says: “there is nothing”. So that there is an alienation from the political process, which is expressed in the decreasing electoral participation, and there is an alienation of the culture of the commodity, which creates the longing for a different form of freedom. The periodic eruptions that we are seeing around the world—the Park Gezi in Istanbul, protests in Brazil, the riots in london 2011—raise the question of whether alienation can be turned into a political force positive. And the answer is that yes, there is a possibility, but is not found in political parties or movements. We have seen elements of this in the way in which the movement of Occupy or the indignados in Spain tried to boost the mobilization, but it is something ephemeral; it has not been merged into something substantial. That said, there is much ferment in fields of cultural dissidents, there is something in motion which is a source of some hope.


When you debate you are the “dangerous” contradictions, offers what seems to me a version of the historical materialism of Marx. That is to say, do you think, as did Marx, that the present is pregnant with the future, although not interpreted so inevitabilista, and in fact don’t you think that the same Marx played it as well, no?

No. There are people who believe that Marx asserted that the capital will sink under the weight of its own contradictions and that he had a theory mechanics of the capitalist crisis. But I don’t find any place to say that! What I said is that the contradictions are at the heart of the crisis and the crisis are moments of opportunity. He also said that human beings can create their history, but that does not in the conditions that they choose. So in my opinion there is a Marx who, if not libertarian, is saying that human beings are able to decide collectively, to take things in a direction, rather than in another. Marx was critical of utopian socialism because he thought that was not facing to where you are. Marx said that you had to analyse where you are, see what you have at your disposal and try then to build something radically different.

David Harvey is professor of Anthropology and Geography at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY), director of the Center for Place, Culture and Politics, and author of numerous books, the most recent of which is Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism (Profile Press, London, and Oxford University Press, New York, 2014). He has been teaching from Karl Marx’s Capital for over 40 years.


Translation for Luke Anton

Original source article: Prospect Magazine, April 11, 2014


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