The Enigmaticism of the Enigmatic… or more on David HarveyMarch 13, 2012
WordPress tells me that since I posted the sloppy draft of my David Harvey critique two days ago my hits have more than doubled. I didn’t get too many responses but I assume people are reading. So, in case another a thousand people visit the sight in the next day or so I thought I’d post a much more developed draft. I usually shy away from adding to the clutter of unfinished thoughts on the internet, but in this case I could really use any constructive comments. There are not many good critiques of Harvey out there that I have found and I am somewhat nervous about launching into a public critique of such a heavy thinker.
The Enigma of the Enigma
The aim of this brief talk is to provide the beginning of a critique of David Harvey’s theory of crisis. But I have to start by saying how humbly I approach this task. Like many people, I am greatly indebted to David Harvey. In many ways Harvey was my first access into the world of Marx. His clear, articulate language, his passion for his subject material, and his patient dedication to pedagogy were a big influence on me, compelling me to dig deeper and deeper into the world of Marx and Marxism. The criticism I offer here is made with the deepest and most sincere respect for his work.
My critique is of 3 intertwined aspects of Harvey’s work: his rejection of Marx’s theory of the Tendency of the Rate of Profit to Fall (TRPF), his theory of ‘overaccumulation’, and his use of this ‘overaccumulation’ as a framework for his geographical analysis.
Much of 20th century Marxism is defined by its defeats, both theoretical and political. As much as we have to learn from our elders, we also must remember that they have their origin in a certain time and place and that their approach to Marx is informed by this origin. For Harvey the time is the 1970′s and the place is the western academy. It is a time and place where Marxists were facing certain theoretical challenges that they were unable to respond to, forcing them to revise or reject key aspects of Marx’s value theory. They were also faced with the need to distance themselves politically from the horrors of Soviet Marxism and Maoism. This led to several distinctive characteristics of what I call here ‘the 70′s Marxist’.
Aspect 1: Anti-orthodoxy
Disillusionment with the USSR, Maoism, and the like provided space for a critique of so-called “orthodox Marxism” allowing for a reappraisal of Marx himself, not filtered through the politics of the Soviet state. This combined with a trend of academic Marxism, tracing itself back to figures like Paul Sweezy, who worked to establish more space for Marxian ideas in the academy by developing a non-sectarian Marxist tradition which often borrowed language and tools of neo-classical economics. On the positive side, this has led to some great scholarship and debates on many topics from dialectics to value theory to the labor process, revealing the great depth and richness of Marx’s analysis, and freeing Marx from the stodgy determinism of the Iron Curtain. On the other hand there has been too great, and often too superficial, a rush to distance oneself from this so-called “orthodoxy”, often confusing this “orthodoxy” with Marx himself (throwing out the marx-baby with the orthodox bath water). Most problematic was the attempt by some to continue the Marxist project without Marx’s value theory, dismissing value as an unnecessary category useful only for “orthodox dogmatists”. (Indeed the charge of “orthodoxy” is too often used as a substitute for a real argument.) For Harvey this takes an unusual form. In his 1981 Limits to Capital and his online course on Capital he seems comfortable with Marx’s value theory. But in his writings on crisis and geography from Condition of Postmodernity to Enigma of Capital he makes no use of value as a category. The word value doesn’t even occur in the index of many of these books. This gives the impression that he is advancing a crisis theory that is not based in a theory of value. This is reinforced by his frequent use of the same language as the Monopoly school of thought (“price-fixing markets”, “surplus capital absorption”, “overaccumulation”, etc.), a school which advances a surplus-capital theory of crisis that does not require value as a category.
Aspect 2: theoretical retreat
As 70′s Marxists wrestled with their identity in the post-Stalin era they also had to fend off the theoretical assault of the Sraffian’s, the transformation problem, and the Okishio Theorem, critiques which they could not find answers to. Those who didn’t abandon Marx altogether often resorted to vague reformulations of the Marxist project which attempted to skirt criticism by taking focus away from the specifics of the critique and focussing on more general Marx-ishness. For the purpose of this essay what is most important is the Okishio Theorem which argued that Marx’s theory of the Tendency of the Rate of Profit to Fall (TRPF) was invalid. Okishio argued that it was impossible for labor-saving innovations to make the rate of profit fall as Marx had argued it would. The inability of Marxists to find a way to refute the Okishio Theorem led many to abandon Marx’s theory of crisis, and to try to find some way to prove the inevitability of crisis using other aspects of Marx’s analysis of Capital. It was a time for vague work-arounds and soft answers. For Harvey it meant taking focus away from the rate of profit and instead focussing on the growth of capital itself, searching for a multitude of different barriers that could check this growth.
But since these 70′s debates, since Harvey’s Limits to Capital, there has been a rising tide of theorists who have come to question the theoretical assumptions behind the Okishio Theorem and the transformation problem, arguing that Marx’s value theory is consistent and complete, not in need of full-scale revisions. The presence of these new challenges, these new defenses of value theory, demand that we reinvestigate the theories of the past, theories that were forged in an era of theoretical defeat.
Aspect 3: do it my own way
It seems almost every book on Marx written in the last 40 years must have as a subtitle “a reinterpretation”, “a reformulation”, or “a critical appraisal”. Academic careers were made based on the uniqueness of one’s reinterpretation. Putting a distance between oneself and Marx certainly makes one more palatable to the academy. But I suspect that the larger factor in this is the nature of academic careers in general which tend to foster individualism and originality in theories. Harvey puts a lot of effort into tying his theoretical contributions into Marx’s framework. He also sees his work, especially in Limits, as completing aspects of Marx’s project: integrating different models of accumulation that Marx left separate, extending the theory of primitive accumulation, etc. But sometimes one can lose track of where Marx leaves off and where Harvey picks up. if indeed Harvey’s crisis theory was formed in part as a retreat from the Okishio Theorem then this demands that we pay extra close attention to this sometimes fuzzy line between Marx and Harvey and ask whether or not Harvey’s extensions and reformulations of Marx are always warranted.
Let’s get into it…..
Thinking back to my first encounters with Harvey’s writing, reading the Condition of Postmodernity as an undergrad, I remember the excitement that his geographical project had on me. In a college environment of identity politics and postmodernism, where culture was used to explain politics, where ‘meta-narratives’ were akin to totalitarianism, David Harvey’s ability to provide a fresh materialist analysis to culture was a breath of fresh air. By focussing on the way capitalist accumulation constructs its own version of space and time his writing was able to pierce through the fragmentation and nihilism of the dominant postmodern narrative, and provide a materialist framework with which to understand the lived experience of capitalism in all of its diversity and complexity.
Often as an undergrad I had been told that Marxist analysis was reductive, that it predicted a uniform lived experience, that it proscribed a politics that ignored differences between people, rejecting many forms of struggle to focus narrowly on workplace struggles. Harvey showed that it was possible to theorize a great diversity of experiences of capitalism as well as a great diversity of struggles against capitalism, within a marxist framework.
This is the real strength of his project. It represents some of the best aspects of the 70′s Marxist, showing that Marxism is an open, developing body of theory, capable of theorizing the continuing evolution of capitalism in all of its complexity and diversity.
But the 70′s Marxist too often threw out the Marx-baby with the orthodox-bath-water. Often times this was the best that could be done at the time as theoretical defenses of key aspects of Marx’s value theory had not been developed yet. MORE ON THIS BELOW. The best thing that could be done was to side-step these criticism of Marx, developing alternative approaches. Harvey’s work-around is this theory of over-accumulation.
What is missing in his theory?
For Harvey, capitalists are in a constant state of anxiety because they must turn their money into more money. They must constantly find new avenues for profitable investment. But the amount of value that needs to be valorized keeps increasing and so their task gets harder and harder. Eventually this growth reaches limits. It begins not just to accumulate, but to overaccumulate. The attempts of capitalists to overcome these limits is what particularly interests Harvey. Investments in fixed capital, public works, infrastructure, etc… The entire construction of physical space, and the organization of time are bound up in this attempt to deal with the overaccumulation of capital.
“The Marxist argument is, then, that the tendency toward overaccumulation can never be eliminated under capitalism. It is a never-ending and eternal problem for any capitalist mode of production. The only question, therefore is how the overaccumulation tendency can be expressed, contained, absorbed or managed in ways that do not threaten the capitalist social order.” (The Condition of Postmodernity p.181)
Too Much Explained:
This becomes a very powerful tool for Harvey as it allows him to explain all of space and time, more or less, through the problem of overaccumulation, or as he says in Enigma, the problem of surplus. But the problem is that his theory explains too much. Like his theory of Accumulation by Dispossession, the categories are extended too wide; too much is explained; it’s too easy.
How can the boom in construction at the start of an economic boom (say the 50′s in the US) and the boom in construction that accompanies a credit bubble right before a crisis (say the 2000′s) both be a result of overaccumulation? Here the same geographical phenomenon, the rapid construction of spaces, exists at two very different places in the accumulation cycle. The dominant forces of a boom can’t be the same as those of a bust. We need a theory capable of explaining cyclical movement.
But a theory of overaccumulation is a mono-directional theory. It suggests a chronic state of overaccumulation. In contrast, for Marx overaccumulation is a specific symptom of the falling rate of profit. It exists at a specific point in the accumulation cycle, before a crisis. Marx’s theory of the TRPF, like all of his economic laws, contains tendencies and counter-tendencies which make for cyclical patterns. Because overaccumulation suggests a chronic state of stagnation Harvey must turn to politics to explain change and movement.
[this needs to contain some reference to the accumulation cycle as described by Harvey in Limits]
Motion for Harvey is a political, contingent phenomenon. Again: “The only question, therefore is how the overaccumulation tendency can be expressed, contained, absorbed or managed in ways that do not threaten the capitalist social order.” (The Condition of Postmodernity p.181) So the only question is how actors, mostly states and combinations of capitalists, contain, absorb and manage this overaccumulation. This leads to a theory of crisis that leans heavily on the politics of the ruling class. This is especially strong in “A Brief History of Neoliberalism” in which Harvey considers neo-liberalism to be a “class project” of “wage repression” and robbery. Talking about class in this way certainly sounds Marxist at first. But would Marx really ascribe 30 years of economic history to a political theory of the ruling class? How much agency can we allow for politics before we lose track of the whole point of value theory?
Value is what organizes our productive activity so that politics doesn’t have to. Value is what we don’t think about. Politics describes the messy business of people trying to exert control over the law of value and failing. What is most interesting about politics is not the successes of certain political ideologies but the failures of people to escape the logic of capital.
Andrew Kliman’s recent book on the crisis, The Failure of Capitalist Production, makes an interesting point about the use of neoliberal ideology as an explanation for the economic phenomena of the period: Most of the key institutional and economic features of neoliberalism predate the ascendancy of neoliberals into political office. This suggests that perhaps neoliberalism was a class project to justify what capitalism was already doing!
[Harvey talks a lot about the creation of difference through the uneven development of capital in space. These differences are often due the contingent aspects of the flow of capital through spaces, local advantages and barriers, the irregularities of fixed capital, etc. ]
So I don’t think overaccumulation or politics can explain the cyclical motion of crisis. But I also don’t think overaccumulation can explain overaccumulation.
If capital is overaccumulating due to a shortage of profitable investment we need some theory of the growth of capital relative to investment opportunities- or, I should say, relative to profitable investment opportunities.
Historically theories of overaccumulation are associated with the underconsumption school of thought which argues that low wages create a situation of not enough consumer demand which means product can’t be sold, capital overaccumulates, etc. Harvey seems to endorse this thesis in Enigma, even though he critiques the theory earlier on in Enigma, and many of his earlier works. (This, I must confess, I find confusing.) His critique I agree with: capital has the ability to generate its own demand through the expansion of capital goods. (see Kliman’s new book.)
If Harvey rejects the underconsumption argument then what is the cause of overaccumulation? At his worst, Harvey sometimes seems to suggest that overaccumulation is its own cause and effect. The mere fact that capitalism must constantly grow is used to suggest that this growth will hit a limit at some point. This aspect of his theory seems to have become more blatant since the current crisis. It emerges quite strongly at times in Enigma and in recent speaking engagements. I think it is mostly a result of trying to communicate his ideas with lay audiences. But it has the danger of evoking an “anti-growth” aesthetic similar to the ‘small is beautiful’ politics of primitivists, anarcho-libertarians, apolitical environmentalists and hippies. It borders on vulgar populism. And it has no theoretical meat: he must provide a reason why capitalism can’t expand forever.
Now, Harvey does have a better answer to the question. He often argues that there are multiple Limits to capitalist production. This, for him, means that the specific limit operating at any particular place and time is contingent. Many of the limits Harvey talks about have to do with the temporal barriers to production generated by the complex overlapping of different turnover times, transportation, and the use of the credit system to overcome these limits, which generates its own speculative impulses.
This idea of a plurality of limits can seem attractive at first. It definitely gets anti-orthodoxy points due its ability to embrace many different interpretations of crisis. But I worry that it ignores the mechanism by which capital overcomes its limits: profit. Profit reapportions investment to areas with high return, and takes investment out of unprofitable areas. Now, of course this is not always successful for every individual capitalist. Of course there is a lot of unevenness due to all of the factors that Harvey discusses. But it is no good to just stress the limits and ignore the elephant in the room: the profit rate.
It turns out that capitalism is remarkably good at overcoming barriers. The ‘little-limits’ Harvey discusses are good for describing much of the unevenness and violence of capitalist production. But these litte-limits are not adequate to describing a real crisis of the system.
Perhaps it would be useful to be more specific about some of these limits. Harvey lists several in Enigma, devoting pages to elaborating them. What does not emerge from this discussion is any reason why these limits would lead to a large-scale crisis of capitalism.
Most of the limits in Enigma are limits to the circulation of capital, not the production of value. This immediately differentiates Harvey from Marx who argued that the falling rate of profit was a phenomenon of capitalist production, though its manifestations could be seen in circulation.
$ capital scarcities – which call forth credit (state-finance nexus)
The need for money to lubricate exchange calls for credit and state-finance nexus to regulate this credit system. Credit can have is own logic which can lead to speculative bubbles. But this is surface froth compared to the speculative bubbles that attach themselves to capitalism in the lead up to a crisis. (There is an attempt in Enigma to embed the concept of speculation deeper into the logic of capitalism. Harvey wants to call all investment speculative, conflating risk and speculation. This is another problematic extension of categories. No time to develop this here.) The fact remains that if a credit bubble is not a bubble unless there isn’t enough money to pay back those loans. If money is flowing into speculation rather than production then this implies there is a problem with the profit rate. If Harvey wants to develop his explanation for the particular character of the state-finance nexus his argument would be strengthened by an analysis of the profit rate.
labor problems- profit squeeze
Harvey does throw some support behind the profit-squeeze theory of crisis to explain the crisis of the 70′s. This is a problematic move on his part and I was surprised to read it. It seems strange to embrace a profit-squeeze theory for the 70′s and an underconsumption theory for the current crisis. Are high wages good or bad for capitalism? It seems that both only matter when the profit rate is falling.
disproportionalities- again a reference to Morishima and some math nobody understands…
In Enigma and Limits Harvey makes reference to disproportionality theories of crisis, mostly to refer to some complex algebra of Michio Morishima that claims to prove that it is impossible for capitalism to achieve balanced investment between wage-goods and capital-goods. I have no way of responding to this as it involves math which is over my head. Harvey doesn’t take the time to explain either. I don’t know if his math is that savvy either.
natural limits… which he doesn’t actually see as limits
Harvey goes into a long discussion of ecological limits to capital and seems to conclude that ecology is so much a product of human labor that we can’t really see nature as having any limit to capitalist growth. I would go further and suggest that the environmental crisis and their ensuing destruction are good for capital because they destroy capital.
unbalanced technological and organizational changes/ viable technology
In Enigma he calls it unbalanced technological and organizational changes which probably sounds really vague to most readers. In Limits he calls it the inability of capitalist competition to achieve “viable technology.” This concept is a direct descendant of the TRPF. It comes from Harvey trying to put Marx’s argument about profit rates into an equilibrium framework. Marx argued that labor saving technology causes prices to fall and with them long term profit rates. Harvey argues that we should theorize a mix of technologies that achieves a stable profit rate, a viable technology. He then argue that capitalist competition drives the economy away from a viable technology. My response is that if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck it must be the TRPF.
lack of effective demand
In many of Harvey’s works he devotes a little time to explaining why lack of effective demand is not an adequate explanation for crisis. His reason is the same reason I would give: that the growth of the demand for capital-goods can sop up any shortage of demand for wage-goods. What he leaves out is this: this growth of demand for capital-goods only solves the problem when there is a healthy profit rate. When the profit rate is low there is a demand problem for all sorts of goods. Curiously, despite his previous arguments Harvey embraces the underconsumption argument in Enigma.
The complexity of fixed capital formations is a recurring fascination for Harvey. Some of his best geographical insights come from this. The relation to crisis is this: the growth of investment in fixed capital and the built environment ties up capital for a long period of time. Capital loses its mobility. This makes fixed capital likely to be devalued by newer, more efficient investments in other places. Hmmmmmmmm…… Interesting that this is one of the key arguments made for why savings in constant capital are not adequate to forestall the fall in the rate of profit!
Why Harvey rejects the TRPF
In Enigma Harvey rejects TRPF because it has counter-vailing influences. Echoing Sweezy he says that savings in constant capital and rising rates of exploitation make the rate of profit indeterminate. We might find a counter argument to this in Harvey’s own words: “The parallel incentive for individual capitalists to seek economies in employment of constant capital is, by contrast, much weaker. The actual processes regulating technological change under capitalism are indeed systematically biased towards variable-capital as opposed to constant-capital saving. The anarchic nature of inter-capitalit competition prevents and rational application of technological change-’rational’ that is, from the standpoint of sustaining accumulation through a stabilization of the value composition of capital.” (Limits p183)
I think there is more to the argument than this, but for now it’s probably adequate to dismiss Harvey’s undeveloped Enigma critique with this more developed Limits argument. In Limits it is not counter-tendencies that are Harvey’s beef. His beef is obscured by a rather confusing tangle of arguments that seem designed to avoid the Okishio Theorem.
I have a rather detailed critique I have made of Harvey’s take on the TRPF in Limits, but here I will summarize:
Harvey’s chapter (it’s actually a sub-chapter) on the TRPF could be the poster child for the 70′s Marxist. It starts with a hint that there is something wrong with Marx’s theory, though it is very hard from the chapter to find out what this is. It begins with a very thorough, detailed description of all of the different possible criticisms of the theory, all of the counter-tendencies that might raise the profit rate, etc. One by one Harvey dismisses these critiques, arguing that they are not adequate to forestall a fall in the profit rate. Then comes this very interesting sentence:
“Van Parijs (1980), for his part, uses a proof of Okishio’s (1961) to show that capitalists, under competition, will choose techniques which necessarily reduce the unit values of all commodities (including labor power), and increase the transitional rate of profit to themselves as well as the social rate of profit, no matter what happens to the value composition, provided only that the physical standard of living labor remains constant.” (p. 185)
Now, nowhere does Harvey actually explain what this means or how this argument is proven. We are, I guess, just supposed to take the word of Van Parijs that we should take the word of Okishio. For a reader new to Marx, as I was when I first read Limits, this paragraph produces a deal of head-scratching. We have just read pages of elaborate details about the TRPF that turn out to be dead ends (failed critiques, counter-tendencies, etc.). Now we are finally given a definitive statement that the TRPF is wrong and David Harvey, the Marxist pedagogue, does not offer to give his readers any explanation.
This spectral appearance of Okishio becomes a turning point in the text. Okishio seems to be haunting the text like some sort of repressed idea. Harvey doesn’t want to directly confront Okishio. Instead he develops a very complicated and obtuse sidetrack about turnover time, credit and constant capital that attempts to rescue what it can of Marx’s crisis theory. In the end Harvey concludes:
“individual capitalists, acting in their own self-interest under the social relations of capitalist production and exchange, generate a technological mix that threatens further accumulation, destroys the potentiality for balanced growth and puts the reproduction of the capitalist class as a whole in jeopardy.” (p.188
This appears to be nothing more than a vague restatement of the TRPF. The only difference is that Harvey puts the question in the language of equilibrium states. It is hard to see how recasting the same theory in vaguer language really rescues it from Okishio. If Harvey had just left things here his work would probably not have been that note-worthy. But, Harvey doesn’t just leave things here. He uses this vague defense of Marx as a springboard for his own theoretical riffing: In the next chapter the camera has panned away from the discussed of the limits to profitability and zoomed in on the issue of the rising surplus. Here the language of overaccumulation begins.
The confusing thing, and it is still confusing to me, is how exactly Harvey’s theory of overaccumulation is supposed to relate to his vague conclusion about capitalist competition creating destabilizing technological mixes. Though Harvey talks a great deal about multiple limits, this is the only real limit in the text which seems like it could be the basis for a theory of overaccumulation. Yet nowhere else in subsequent writings of his on crisis in their any discussion of this destabilizing technological mix….
This strange, ghostly encounter with the repressed spectre of Okishio provides us with a template for the 70′s Marxist.
1. Sraffian critiques of Marx are side-stepped in an attempt to save Marx by being vague.
2. This vagueness becomes a platform for erecting original reformulations.
3. The reformulation takes on a life of its own, and the relation to the original debate is forgotten.
4. The reformulation is conflated or confused with Marx’s crisis theory.
In order to question these theories we have to interrogate each of these:
4. We must separate Marx’s own theory from those of the “Marxits”, “Marxian”, “Marxoid”, etc.
3. We must acknowledge and understand the original debates that gave rise to these reformulations.
2. We must interrogate reformulations and challenge them to be clear, not evasive.
1. We must challenge Marxists to deal directly with the charges of inconsistency that have been leveled against Marx in the academy.