This week Novara has had the pleasure of spending some time with the eminent Marxian geographer, David Harvey. Usually based in New York, David is in the UK to discuss his new book Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism (Profile Books). In between speaking events, David joined us for a Novara TV interview, and also joined us in conversation on Novara FM. Here Craig McVegas gets to grips with just some of the issues David has been talking about during his time on this side of the Atlantic.
1. There’s a contradictory unity between the production and realisation of capital.
Wow, straight in with the heavy stuff! So what the fuck does that mean? Basically, production – the creation of goods, transporting them, etc. – is fundamental to capitalism. This much seems pretty obvious: producing things creates value so that they can be exchanged for a profit. However, there’s a flip-side, which is consumption. Now, sometimes we think of consumption as unproductive, but in actuality consumption creates value: if no one wants to take what you’re offering, it clearly has no value. The ability to move (sell) goods on means their value can be realised. At the same time, we could also say that without that goods being created in the first place, they would never even have the ability to have value. Value is ‘produced’ when goods are created, but ‘realised’ when goods are sold and consumed.
The two processes go hand in hand, which explains the unity – so why the contradiction? Ever-increasingly, value is not being realised in the same place it is being produced. For example, your laptop might be made in China, but its value is realised when you buy it in the UK. This creates a tension within the capitalist class, between the ‘productive’ capitalists where goods are being made, and the merchant capitalists, where goods are being sold. As such, merchant capitalists are left to rake in the big money while the ‘productive’ capitalists don’t get such a big cut (and their workers even less so).
2. This has political implications.
As a result of this tension, there is a shift in power from the ‘productive’ capitalists to the merchant capitalists. In the past, big production companies like General Motors in the US had a clear line into government and a lot of clout: what was good for General Motors was good for the country. Now, the GMs of the world are being superseded by merchant companies such as Walmart. While Apple are driving up their market share of electronics consumers, comparatively few people have heard or care about Foxconn, the Taiwan-based company that actually makes iPhones. Foxconn are a massive company, also producing Xboxes and PlayStations, but they rake in fraction of what Microsoft or Sony do for the same products and enjoy a proportionate amount of political power.
3. Especially for organising!
In light of all this, where are we supposed to start with organising against capitalism? From the consumption side, perhaps boycotts are the answer? Such ethical consumerism is severely limited in globalised capitalism: you might ditch one merchant for another, but they’re both playing the same game. This might lead us to focus on the production side; however merchants are able to choose their producers, so hindrances from the supply-side (such as a strong labour force) could just lead merchant capitalists to seek other suppliers in different parts of the world in order to preserve their profits. Factor in that with new technologies we are increasingly filling the roles of both producer and consumer simultaneously: whether checking ourselves in at airports or checking out at supermarkets, Harvey says. Suddenly we see that the divisions of labour begin to look much more complicated, and that seeing where production begins and ends is very difficult.
4. A mode of production, and its political manifestation, defines its own opposition.
This might be a tough one for a lot of die-hards to stomach, but Harvey thinks it’s an important point for opponents of capitalism to get to grips with. In the past, production was conducted in the factory, the mine and the dockyard. Subsequently, oppositional politics took the form of unions based on the shop-floor. Where production was static and well-defined in purpose, the unions reflected this. Nowadays, production is frequently networked, fluid and distrusting of state apparatus. Likewise, political opposition takes the same form. In a way, we are all neoliberals now. Resultantly, opponents of capitalism are required to think about the techniques of capitalism and the shapes and techniques anti-capitalism often adopts. A central question becomes whether it is possible to use these techniques in an anti-capitalist way, or whether doing so will only replicate and reinforce the things we were rallying against? Of course in order to answer such organisational questions, we need to look at what capitalism actually does and how it is moving; a challenge all too often avoided by many on the left.