david harvey: the enigma of capital

Sharon Borthwick reports on Marxist geographer David Harvey’s recent talk in London

The Great Hall at King’s College London was packed to capacity and beyond on 28th April, with people standing at the sides and sitting in the aisles. It put me in mind of Nathan Coombs surmising on where all the numbers of the left attending academic conferences were the rest of the time.

How can we, maybe, capture and utilise the level of interest shown on these occasions? This particular audience was made up of SWPers and Kings College and other students. The usual papers were sold outside.

First to speak was someone from the Capital reading group at King’s College. This was an intro full of optimism on how Capital reading groups were popping up all over and encouraging everyone to have a go as it was a great and not such an obscure text as people were led to believe. David Harvey’s series of university lectures on Capital is a suitable beginning, possible to follow online: see here.

Then a first year student took the mike to speak about how the cuts were going to affect King’s College with lecturers’ jobs and courses under threat and how students had been supporting the staff. Later, after David Harvey had spoken, another student made mention of future student demos against the cuts to be held on 5th and 6th May.

David Harvey was pleased at the turnout and that there has been, as he sees it, a resurgent interest in the writings of Karl Marx generally; book sales are apparently up. The talk was quite brief considering the turnout, the half hour queue wait (the talk was probably at most the same length), even if you’d previously booked a place, and the general much ado. One couldn’t help wondering how much universities spent on flying star academics in from the US and elsewhere – especially ones whose lectures are available online (this lecture too was filmed, so will no doubt show up on YouTube or elsewhere in the near future). But Harvey is a skilled teacher and managed to shed light over some of the difficult terrain of capital in the time. The book is more than likely worth putting on wish lists.

Harvey talked about capital in the context of the current crisis, explaining as did Marx, how capital is “path dependent”, inevitably, inexorably, going from crisis to crisis, the fault built within the very system itself. Relevant to his geography discipline he roved worldwide for illustration. He explained that capitalism doesn’t ever actually solve crises but moves them around; for instance the banking crisis becomes a country’s crisis or more specifically the crisis of the working people of that country, as in Iceland and Greece.

Harvey is saying that this is how, so far, capitalism has stayed alive, shifting the problem now here, now there, and so to right now, where huge risks taken by private enterprises end up as public debt that is foisted upon the actual workers in terms of the cuts made to their jobs and services. Finance is privileged over absolutely all else shaping and controlling human relations as it does their environment.

Human happiness is bypassed in favour of eking out the, on average, 3% growth required for reinvestment for future gain.

But it is getting harder and harder to find that 3%. In the 1970s, Harvey says, labour had become too powerful for the capitalists. The neo-liberal tendency came specifically to discipline the workers when interest rates were seen to be falling.  The freewheeling markets after the neo-liberal style, led to many industries offshoring; and the workers truly were disciplined and their unions massively disempowered.

But workers’ disempowerment eventually represents a new problem for the capitalist to overcome. When wages don’t rise adequately as they haven’t in recent years, where will the capitalist find a marketplace so to amass another filthy hoard? So this is when the whole thing becomes speculative, the imaginary market place is born – the credit card ringing in a new temporary dawn. The capitalists seek profits from those who haven’t any ‘real’ wealth. Home ownership is sold as the ultimate road to dreamland.

But it really is a dream and there wasn’t the capital there to really realise it. Hard slog alone was never going to be enough. Those with mortgages they couldn’t afford lost their homes. Yet the banks are completely absolved and are even making ludicrous profits all over again as new imaginary markets are invented – derivatives from derivatives, carbon trading, futures markets.

As a communist David Harvey is for exposing clearly to everyone how capitalism works so that alternative systems will eventually be realised. Indeed, they must be realised as capitalism is surely on its very last legs seeking to make profits from absolutely nothing at all. Seems they really might try selling the air you breathe next.

3 thoughts on “david harvey: the enigma of capital

  1. Surely a major point is the difference between industrial capital and finance capital. For capitalists industrial capital has the major disadvantages that there capital is tied into fixed assets and the process of extracting surplus means it has to confront the working class on a daily basis in the workplace to rip out the surplus it requires. Finance capital is not “imaginary” but PARASITIC, it feeds off industrial capital. All the derivatives etc are not “imaginary” markets in fact they are effectively bets on future profits and payment will come due. As Warren Buffet himself pointed out this stores up a legacy which is “toxic” to many sectors of capital as well as the working class.
    What happened in the early ’70’s in Britain and the US in particular and then followed by other major capitalist countries was a deliberate shift away from industrial capital and into finance capital in part because capital was having serious problems in controlling key industrial plants. This allowed capital to free itself from industrial production, in many cases by simply destroying and relocating industries and sectors.
    One of the features of the current crisis is that the strategy of moving to finance capital has now disintegrated and the capitalist class does not have an alternative. It has been saved (for now) by the disarray of the working class and the pathetic state of the left.


  2. Thank you Matthew,

    You’ve given me food for thought here. Speculative is perhaps a better word than imaginary? Though when ‘fictitious capital’ invested misses … I will think on this for final draft. What I have here is what I gleaned from this short lecture, but I need to go further into things and look into the IMF for instance which he did bring up. Any advice is welcome, this is the first time I’ve tried to tackle things economic in writing.


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