Towards a Global Anti-Capitalist Movement

by Lisa Sandoval

December 19, 2017

Reviewed work: Harvey, David. The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

To understand the political necessity of this [anti-capitalist movement] requires first that the enigma of capital be unravelled. Once its mask is torn off and its mysteries have been laid bare, it is easier to see what has to be done and why, and how to set about doing it. Capitalism will never fall on its own. It will have to be pushed. The accumulation of capital will never cease. It will have to be stopped. The capitalist class will never willingly surrender its power. It will have to be dispossessed. (260)

Thus David Harvey synthesizes the message of his book, which is that the systemic workings of capitalism - of which most people are unaware - must be well understood in order to launch an effective counter-attack, or an anti-capitalist movement. Written in the wake of the 2008 crisis set off by sub-prime loan defaults in the United States, the book uses this latest event in the series of global financial crises as an opening to discuss the crisis-prone nature of capitalism. These crises have become more and more frequent and severe since the 1970s. It is exactly at such junctions, Harvey claims, when the irrationalities of capitalism are revealed and radical restructuring is possible. Or, as happened after 2008, the opening could close again, the rhetoric of the capitalist class and their peon politicians carrying the day. Financial institutions would be bailed out with taxpayer money and sent on their way with money tucked away for next year’s bonuses.

Capital, the “life blood” of capitalism and thus the world economy, must overcome all barriers to its continued circulation and to 3 per cent compound growth if the system is to stay alive, explains Harvey. Crises arise when the flow of capital is impinged or impeded in some way. Capitalism has been exemplary in its ability to overcome all temporal and spatial barriers to the circulation of capital and to ensure a “reserve army” of cheap labor as well as access to the inputs of production. To continue to succeed capitalism must also accomplish the generation of adequate demand, an increasingly difficult task as the locations around the globe untouched by capitalism become rarer and rarer. Financiers must also overcome the capital surplus absorption problem, or the challenge of finding investments for profits. Solving this challenge has spawned many schemes, the most recent of which is the evolution of the “shadow banking system,” a relatively unregulated space for speculation and trading in assets such as currency futures, derivatives of sub-prime loan debt, and commodities such as housing. In this unregulated space investors support the creation of bubbles that inevitably burst.

Reading this book leads to some significant insights into the nature of capitalist society, insights that seem obvious in hindsight but which are rarely brought to light in one’s day-to-day perusal of the news and other publications. For example, Harvey points out that the faster capital flows, the more profits can be made by those who control it. That is, the faster activities like production, distribution, and selling are accomplished, the sooner a surplus is created, and the sooner that profit can be reinvested in assets that lead to more profit that can again be reinvested. The new technologies and organizational trends that allow movement of information especially but also goods and people through space to be faster and in some cases instantaneous facilitates the increase in profit-generating transactions. It was a revelation to me that the incredible speed at which life is conducted in the world’s financial centers may not be some perverse development of human nature but rather the reach of the capitalist necessity for profit into everyday life. Harvey does not state so specifically, but his writing shows just how much ways of life in 21st century New York, for example, are a function of the capitalist system ordering every possible facet of life so that capitalists can make a profit. 

It is in the same vein of disguising the all-powerful organizer of capitalist society - 3 per cent compound rate of growth, mostly produced on the backs of those who sell their labor to survive - that class relations are so rarely spoken of in capitalist society. Harvey points out how the very term “class relations” sounds old-fashioned, as if it applied only to the history of early industrialization in Britain. Whereas the profit-motive leads capitalists to exploit all manner of social divisions - sex, race, gender - in the workplace to help ensure a more docile labor force, class is treated as an outdated or vague, irrelevant category. While it is true, Harvey explains, that one person can be a laborer in one aspect of their life and a capitalist in another (such as a bus driver who owns a house and rents it out for profit), the distinction between the capitalist class and the labor class remains fundamental to capitalism. Harvey’s book, therefore, becomes a means to restore class consciousness to those who read it.

And Harvey, like Marx, sees that class consciousness in capitalist society can only lead to revolt, for the entire endeavor stinks of injustice. (Indeed, Harvey’s analysis dialogues constantly with Marx, with whose work Harvey is intimately familiar.) Harvey raises the possibility of an alliance between “the discontented, the alienated, the deprived and the dispossessed” (240), where the discontented and the alienated are those who are surviving their role in capitalism, perhaps even enjoying a very high standard of living, yet troubled and turned off by the hegemonic system and their role in it (either as capitalist or laborer) and disturbed by the existence of financiers earning $3 billion bonuses while billions of people are deprived of education, health, employment, and opportunities and millions more are dispossessed of their land, assets and cultural heritage. Harvey surveys social movements worldwide and notes their contradictions, considers how they might work together in some cases while in other cases their ideologies diverge irreconcilably, in addition to mentioning the particular issues inherent in previous attempts at communism. He notes some possible ways and means an anti-capitalist movement - call it communist or socialist or whatever - could see success.

Harvey’s analysis centers around seven “spheres” or areas of interaction within the political economy that enable or constrain perpetual growth. These spheres are relations to nature, technologies and organizational forms (constantly improving tools for engaging in the pursuit of profits), social relations, production systems and labor processes, institutional and administrative arrangements (the laws, contracts, and institutions that provide structure to economic activity), the reproduction of daily life and of the species, and mental conceptions of the world (121-123). While one of these areas may at times appear dominant or at the forefront of a particular movement or change (or may be the site of a barrier to growth), a successful anti-capitalist movement must fundamentally change all seven of them, just as the early capitalists were able to influence and change each of these spheres over time and (continue to do so) to enable the requisite growth rate. With this insight, and many more, Harvey offers a gift to the discontented and the alienated, especially, to help them begin to understand what they need to do, and how. To them, he offers hope:

The struggle for survival with justice not only continues; it begins anew. As indignation and moral outrage build around the economy of dispossession that so redounds to the benefit of a seemingly all-powerful capitalist class, so disparate political movements necessarily begin to merge, transcending barriers of space and time. (260)