BOOKS / Harry Targ : David Harvey’s ‘The Enigma of Capital’

What now?
Economic and political crisis in 2010

By Harry Targ / The Rag Blog / December 6, 2010

So where shall we start our revolutionary anti-capitalist movement? Mental conceptions? The relation to nature? Daily life and reproductive practices? Social relations? Technologies and organizational forms? Labour processes? The capture of institutions and their revolutionary transformation?

…the implication of the co-evolutionary theory here proposed is that we can start anywhere and everywhere as long as we do not stay where we start from!… it becomes imperative to envision alliances between a whole range of social forces configured around the different spheres.

— David Harvey, The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism, 138

[The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism by David Harvey (Oxford University Press, 2010), 304 pp, $24.95.]

Class struggle in an age of economic crisis

In his recent book, The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism, David Harvey, Marxist geographer, summarized the economic crises of the 1970s and beyond including growing global monopolistic competition, declining profits in non-financial corporations, and the uneven spread of global capitalism with new fronts in East Asia. As analyzed by Harvey these economic crises stimulated the following responses:

  1. An assault on unions, outsourcing of work, speed-up based on technology, and overall “global wage repressions.”
  2. Deindustrialization in the capitalist core and qualitative shifts in economic activity from industry and service to financial speculation; what is referred to as financialization. New financial schemes such as collateralized debt obligations and derivatives emerged to generate new vehicles for the making of profit.
  3. Overcoming declines in demand by creating a growing system of global and local debt and credit.
  4. “Accumulation by dispossession” including sucking assets from working class people, particularly those of color, and appropriation of land in rural areas of the Global South.

Economic impacts of the crisis of capitalism

Harvey’s narrative suggests that since the 1970s we have seen the transformation of the U.S. capitalist system from one based on the production of commodities for sale to one based on the provisioning of services for lower wages. Even the service economy is being superseded by an economy driven by debt and speculation, from a “real” to a “virtual” economy. Significant changes in the economic life of the United States over the last 40 years include:

  • growing income and wealth inequality
  • substantial increases in the proportion of wealth and income accumulated by the top one percent in the society
  • further consolidation of corporations and banks such that fewer and fewer corporations and banks control more and more of society’s resources
  • economic shifts from investments in production to financial speculation, using opaque institutional forms such as hedge funds and derivatives
  • growing indebtedness-personal, regional, and global
  • the construction of a world based on billions of people living in poverty
  • escalating economic processes that destroy the natural environment.

Returning to the current political crisis

The long-term economic crises discussed above refer to the rapid transformations of the capitalist system: concentrations of capital creating new winners and losers, class struggle, declining rates of profit, and global economic and political competition.

Political crises refer to the reallocations of power in the struggle over the shape of society. Central to the capitalist era is the struggle for power between capital and labor. Often, access to and relative control of the state is central to understanding the constellation of forces existent in any given time.

The discussion above suggests ways in which economic structures and processes have affected the distribution of power in the United States. The analysis gives some sense of the prospects and possibilities of strategies for progressive political change. Understanding the character of political crises requires both structural analyses, covering decades, and contextual analyses about strategies, tactics, personalities, and political activities, whether electoral or not.

Activists and pundits have been combining the two in pre-election debate and post-election assessments. While the two kinds of analyses are inter-connected, they have their own theoretical and practical assumptions which may be very different.

For example, as to structural analyses the era of a permanent war economy, financialization, deindustrialization, and neoliberal globalization have affected politics in the following ways:

  • The power of the organized working class, indeed the entire working class, has declined dramatically.
  • Union strength has declined by one-third since the 1960s, particularly among traditionally higher paid industrial workers.
  • For the working class today insecurity and isolation have replaced the potential of solidarity with others.
  • The most virulent forms of racism have been reenergized, fueling fear and hate.
  • In the age of insecurity in which we live, masses of people are as likely to blame fellow victims for their troubles as those who rule over them.
  • The transfers across generations of the stories about victories achieved over capital have been forgotten.
  • The momentum of parallel civil rights, women’s rights, and environmental rights activism has dissipated as well.
  • New generations of activists organize around identities and single issues at the expense of organizing around bold visions of a new society.
  • The old social democratic vision of a state that provides safety nets for suffering people has been defeated by corruption, incompetence, and sustained efforts by representatives of the ruling class to delegitimize government.
  • While these tendencies listed above have always existed in American history, they are particularly important background features of the economic and political age of the “Reagan Revolution” from 1980 to today.

Contextual analyses add to our understanding of the recent 2010 election:

  • President Obama, in the face of competing pressures from neoliberal financiers and progressive populists, tended to adopt policies of the former rather than the latter which benefited Wall Street but not Main Street.
  • President Obama ignored the calls from a variety of articulate spokespersons to propose and fight for an economic stimulus package, including a massive green jobs agenda, which would have stimulated some economic recovery.
  • President Obama chose a political tactic of “reaching out” to the Republican opposition in the Congress despite the fact that its approach was to resist every effort at compromise.
  • President Obama chose to continue war and intervention over peace.
  • Sectors of the Democratic Party took the erroneous view that the American polity is “center-right” and therefore the best reforms that could be achieved (and accepted) would be tepid ones.
  • The Administration and Congress chose to ignore clear polling data that indicated that most Americans would support single payer health care, the Employee Free Choice Act, a green jobs agenda, and other prominent proposals.
  • President Obama frittered away an enormous outpouring of support for his charisma and lopsided majorities in both houses of Congress. The Congressional leadership refused to challenge the arcane rules that required 60 vote majorities to pass legislation in the Senate.
  • The grassroots organization of young, working class, and minority communities was allowed to dissipate. The mass movement that elected Barack Obama was demobilized.
  • And finally, progressives and socialists were unable to fashion a strategy that on the one hand would maintain critical support for Obama and on the other hand demand that he and his party deliver the progressive agenda at home and abroad that was implied if not directly promised.

These “errors” occurred in the context of a 30 year economic crisis that engendered a qualitative shift in wealth and power. Millions and millions of dollars were spent by think tanks, party leaders, and most important, the media to shape the consciousness of the American people. Despite the thousands of blogs, websites, and electronic media, the ideas of the ruling class about capitalism, about the threats of people of color, and about the government were transmitted 24/7 from Fox to CNN to The New York Times.

Never before have working people had greater access to greater numbers of media with so little diversity of ideas.

What now?

In a clear-headed way, progressives and socialists need to revisit the political and economic history of our times, assessing the distribution of resources and forces for and against social change. Most Marxist narratives of the history of the last 40 or 50 years tell a common story: a story of shifting capital from manufacturing to finance, income and wealth from the bottom to the top, and the marginalizing economically and politically of all whose power is limited in capitalist societies — workers, people of color, women, and immigrants.

When they have risen up angry, political institutions have been forced to respond by ameliorating the worst of people’s pain and suffering. Along the way struggle has taken a variety of forms — electoral, mass mobilizations, local/national/global — and has addressed various issues.

Harvey disaggregates the history of capitalism during its recent phases and articulates a “co-revolutionary theory” for progressives and socialists to respond to the crises of our time. The “co-revolutionary theory” recognizes that the history of capitalism has involved changes in technology, in relations between humans and nature, and in how people relate to each other in institutions, in the work place, and on the street. Also, changes have occurred in cognitive and emotional ways in which people understand the world in which they live. Finally, people’s relationships to politics have changed.

Each of these constitutes a different location for struggle: over control of the workplace, against environmental destruction, against racism or attacks on immigrants for example. Activism might take an electoral form, street heat, or in social relations such as building communities of solidarity.

As Harvey suggests: “An anti-capitalist political movement can start anywhere… The trick is to keep the political movement moving from one moment to another in mutually reinforcing ways.” He claims that this is how capitalism arose out of feudalism and this is how 21st century socialism can emerge out of capitalism. I would argue that what many have called “building a progressive majority” is part of the same trajectory Harvey is suggesting.

Since most progressive and socialist organizations today have limited resources, they need to identify those cites they can most influence, always recognizing the dialectical interconnections among each and that the relative salience and connections between them are ever changing.

Today organizations such as the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism (CCDS) should concentrate on labor and jobs, the environment, and militarism and global interventionism. CCDS is particularly equipped to work with others on these projects and to use electronic and communications skills to transform what Harvey calls “mental conceptions of the world, embracing knowledges and cultural understandings and beliefs.”

This essay of necessity began with a grounding in the long history of capitalism and political struggle and its impacts on economic and political life, and ended with “what now?” It is not a simple road map. Rather it is a checklist of what is relevant to understanding structures and processes and contexts to advance discussion and debate. Paraphrasing Marx, people make history but not precisely in ways of their choosing.

[Harry Targ is a professor of political science at Purdue University who lives in West Lafayette, Indiana. He blogs at Diary of a Heartland Radical.]

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