August 2016        


Seventeen contradictions and the end of capitalism

Nicola Lawlor

David Harvey, Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism (London: Profile Books, 2014)

“A consistent and intelligent voice on the left.”—Financial Times
“A stimulating new book on capitalism and the world we might build beyond it.”—Morning Star

Not many books or authors get reviews like that from both the Financial Times and the Morning Star, but in some ways it is fitting for Harvey, and also understandable, as they are the two most honest and class-conscious papers in Britain, only from opposing class positions. They understand capitalism better than most.
     Anyway, David Harvey’s Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism did get these reviews—and deservedly in this reviewer’s opinion.
     For starters, he didn’t pick five or ten or twenty contradictions—handy numbers for a handy title. It isn’t a handy ten-point plan. Seventeen is just the number of the crucial contradictions of capital—not necessarily of capitalism, as there are more political and social contradictions that Harvey does not cover, but of capital and its production and accumulation process, the economic engine of capitalism, the social, economic and political system.
     Harvey starts by introducing clearly his method and his understanding of contradictions. His method is to take Marx’s approach and essential class definitions, but not necessarily to take the conclusions Marx arrived at. But while many people say they do this, Harvey seems to. While it absolutely is a crucial Marxist book, it can also challenge more traditional-thinking Marxists.
     In the introductory chapter Harvey explains his interpretation of “contradiction.” There are two main concepts. The most common understanding is black versus white: two opposing concepts or positions, so both cannot be true. Then there are the more complicated but real contradictions (in understanding the actually existing world): dialectical contradictions, where two seemingly opposing positions or processes can in fact be one and the same event, and conflict and balance and rebalance in that particular event, affecting both it and themselves in a continuous process.
     Markets, on the one hand, exist but are in fact non-markets, run by monopolies. Competition, on the one hand, exists but in the same space as cartels and monopolies. This, while more complicated, helps us to understand a world of tensions, conflict, compromise, class interests, social lives and work better than the black-and-white approach. Marx used it to provide the most brilliant exposition of capital and capitalism up to his time, and Harvey does too.
     Harvey splits these seventeen contradictions into three groups, those he describes as foundational contradictions, moving contradictions, and dangerous contradictions.
     The first seven are “foundational,” in that they hang together, interlock, and capital couldn’t operate—or wouldn’t be capital—without them. They are: use and exchange value, the social value of labour and money, private property and the state, private appropriation and common wealth, capital and labour, capital as a process, and production and realisation.
     The next seven, “moving contradictions,” are evolutionary and on a trajectory but not strictly defined and can be altered. They interact with human agency and class struggle. They are subject to change, and their history and future can be understood over time. These contradictions are: technology and human disposability, the division of labour, monopoly and competition, uneven development and space, inequality of income and wealth, social reproduction, and freedom and domination.
     And the final three are “dangerous contradictions,” because, according to Harvey, they can vary over time and space. They are: endless compound growth, capital’s relation to nature, and the revolt against universal alienation. Those fifty years ago may not be the ones Harvey identifies. And—depending largely on the middle seven—those in fifty years (if we survive his final three) will be different again.
     That’s class struggle, and that’s dialectics.
     While there are laws of motion of capital, all is not predetermined. Class struggle is relevant and necessary. The three contradictions that Harvey identifies he says are most dangerous in the present, and are dangerous to both the system itself and to the initial seven contradictions but also to the reproduction of the species.
     Just as these are potentially lethal to humanity, they are also potentially lethal to capital, but only if a revolutionary movement arises out of and from these contradictions; and that is the essence of Harvey’s view of contradictions derived from Marx.
     Finally, Harvey rejects the view some have of Marx that he analysed the contradictions of capital and uncovered the eternal truth that it would collapse as a result of its own contradictions. He rejects the cold, dogmatic, doomsday Grim Reaper version of Marx, more often portrayed by those “explaining” Marx than by actual Marxists.
     No, Harvey sees the Marx who is a revolutionary humanist, as he puts it; and that’s what makes this book interesting, refreshing, and an enjoyable read.

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