I like David Harvey. I “liked” the video of his Amsterdam talk, even before I listened to it. I liked it mostly out of an habitual attraction to anything Marxist. I like Marx. I first read him when I was fifteen. An old union man pointed me in the direction of the Communist Party book shop and that was the beginning of my love of reading Marx and my interest in left politics.
But once I began to listen to Harvey’s talk my enthusiasm waned.
In my least critical moments, I suffer from a nostalgia for the totalist dream that was once Marxism. It’s a dream still alive and well in some quarters, even if the radical Marxist/Leninism I once ascribed to has thankfully gone out of academic and activist fashion. Like all reformed creatures I tend to over compensate and suffer from a form of totalist paranoia, suspecting ideology in the most innocent attempts at coherence and relative closure.
It seemed to me, especially at the beginning of Harvey’s talk, that I could detect an undercurrent of totalist sufficiency. Conceptual sufficiency, as Laruelle rightly describes it, is more that a venial sin of Philosophers. Concepts are reified, in the Marxist sense, as actually existing material entities. Human agency is transferred from humans to abstract structures in a process of reciprocal reinforcement; an ideological subject (the social scientist/ political operative) appears alongside its presupposed object and the fun begins. To this subject the world is ruled by abstract categories rather than concrete persons, with philosophers (himself – it’s almost always a he) having specialized access to the methodology for discovering the “laws of historical development”. Laruelle denounces such reifications as an harassment of the human in the name of human liberation. He was right. My totalist antenna was up.
Half way through the talk, though, my feeling changed. I became engrossed in the complex weave of concepts Harvey was enlisting to describe the capitalist dynamic – of the interactive and complex processes of capital, work, consumption, inflation, technological innovation and exponential growth – reals of a real world unfolding in real time.
Even if Harvey was espousing a form of totalist reification of capital (I don’t know enough about his work to claim that), at least in this talk the effect was overcome by the complexity he was describing and by the meandering and almost conversational style of his address. His talk left me with a sense not of conceptual closure but of openness and possibility.
Harvey begins by showing how the thrust of capitalist development leads to exponential growth. In the beginning it seems he is advocating for a form of capitalist acceleration in which the money form predominates. After Breton Woods and the abandonment of the gold standard “capital” loses its connection with the “material” and is free to grow exponentially on the basis of the infinite capacity of number to proliferate in compound terms; so that capital, measured in this way, seems capable of an infinite upward trajectory consistent with the law of number, those very numbers used to measure its expansion.
It became clear, though, that, as the talk progressed, Harvey was not advocating for the reality of such a scenario. He showed that rates of growth (of profit and therefore capital) was subservient to the existence of what he called “mass”. Here I think he meant to redeploy a material entity (the mass of productive infrastructure and consumer commodities) as a constraining force on the capacity of capital to infinitely expand at “compound” rates when measured by way of the abstract law of number.
It might have been better had he put the matter in an historical context by showing that capital resolved the problem of critical mass by way of cycles of depression and the pauperisation of the working class ( in late capitalism the pauperisation is transferred to the third world) and that, up to the seventies at least, capital was in the habit of self-imploding by way of world war, thus clearing the ground for a new cycle of accumulation and the seeds of future war, made inevitable by the way devastated economies were able to get the upper hand on the victors by deploying new infrastructure and technologies.
By the seventies, as he describes it, capitalism has been able to insert destruction of mass into its process through inbuilt obsolescence of consumer goods and the digitalisation of desire. Finally he observes that one must now factor in the destruction of the planetary system into the equation, by showing that to speak in that way (using the metaphor of accounting processes and number) is to obscure the material basis on which the accumulation of capital, as one element in an economy of persons and things, rests.
He could have went on to describe the way this apparently virtual expansion of digital capital rests on a form of the material- the mining of rare computing hardware and communication materials and the rolling out of media and communications infrastructure- both of which allowed for the creation of new markets. He references only two such markets-entertainment and tourism – and leaves out the most important, the exponential growth in the “apts” market for smart phones and the massive growth in the security and arms sector, both of which are at the forefront in the application of new technologies and both of which have created a new economy of surveillance, control and repression. Witness the militarisation of police forces worldwide and the cost, in real economy terms, of such resource wastefulness. Or the application of surveillance and control to the populations of China at unheard of levels of technical and numerical complexity.
In all of this there is scant reference to philosophy. Harvey makes a passing reference to Hegel in the context of bad infinities- those infinities which he says are made possible by the abandonment of the gold standard, leaving the creation of money in the hands of central banks who were quite willing to forgo regulation. Thus we entered the age of digitalised investment practices and the market in futures, those apparently non-material entities manifesting the abstract “laws of probability” which, when applied to the actions of networks of actor/agents, are reinterpreted as “flows of information” by power of “number crunching”. One symptom of what has become a pervasive illusion of the digital age – that one can, like God and/or the Matheme, make something out of nothing.
One could repeat oneself and show how this possibility is based on the material infrastructure secreted behind, under and above the human/machine interface, an infrastructure who’s components might soon be secreted inside the heads of us all, by choice or compunction. At that point infrastructure and biological process will have morphed, leaving us, literally, in the age of the post-human and (heavens!) without anyone have voted for it. Is there a more poignant illustration of the limitations of bourgeois parliamentary democracy?
Not to mention present day economic theorists and their obsession with the application of mathematical probability to the (so called) complexities of the market system and the globalized economic infrastructure. What no one admits is that the climate tsunami heading for us will radically simplify our economic structures and put paid to the existing “complexity” of the globalized market system. At that stage local solutions will take precedence, making the political moral and ethical principles on which we act plainly visible and subject to critique and dialogical re-negotiation. The philosophical basis on which we construct our discourses will come into sharp focus, a truth Marx was acutely aware of and which he put at the heart of his work. Which is why reading Capital, for example, cannot be reduced to an exercise in unravelling complex economic technicalities but is fundamentally a radical revision of the way we understand the human. But that’s another story.