David Harvey would implore you to imagine life without capitalism—that is, if you can. Chances are, even if you’re puzzled by the manipulation of phantom money on Wall Street, troubled by society’s growing inequality, or disgusted with the platinum parachutes of corporate executives, you probably still conceive the world in terms of profits, private property, and free markets, the invisible hand always on the tiller.
To Harvey, a professor of anthropology and geography at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, that world is coming to an end. In Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism (Oxford University Press), Harvey examines what he sees as the untenable elements of capital, and he analyzes how they can produce an unequal, destructive, crisis-prone system. The book represents a distillation of Harvey’s 40-year study of Karl Marx, and in its own way a bid to change the conversation about what’s not working and what’s possible—especially when many have consigned Marx to history’s dustbin.
"I was tired of hearing Marx quoted in ways that struck me as completely wrong," Harvey says in his office at CUNY, around the corner from the Empire State Building. "Who I am writing for is, in a sense, anybody who says, Who is this guy Marx? I wanted to make it simple enough so that people could get into it, without being simplistic."
The new book follows a career of scholarship that has not only helped define the study of geography but ranged across other disciplines as well. J. Richard Peet, a professor of geography at Clark University, says Harvey played a central role in enlivening a "decrepit" discipline in the 1960s and 70s, and helped establish geography as one of the most left-leaning fields in academe. His Explanation in Geography (St. Martin’s Press, 1969) was the "main positivist textbook" of the field, Peet says. He followed with The Limits to Capital (University of Chicago Press, 1982), an analysis that has been widely translated and reprinted, and The Condition of Postmodernity (Blackwell, 1989), a multidisciplinary examination of contemporary sensibilities and practices that propelled him to international prominence.
Trained in geography at the University of Cambridge in the 1950s and early 60s, Harvey discovered Marx in 1970, after landing in Baltimore, at the Johns Hopkins University. He already felt confined by the traditional social-science theory in which he had been trained, and Charm City—a racially segregated, impoverished factory town, still recovering from the 1968 riots—proved to be the environment for an awakening. "When I came to Baltimore from Britain, it was a bit of a shock to be plunged into what was going on in that city," he says. "I looked at it and thought, ‘I can’t see how I am going to understand all of this, given the techniques that are available to me, and maybe I should look for something else.’ That is when I started to read Marx, just to see if something was there."
He sat on a university commission analyzing housing problems in the city, and in writing the report for city leaders, borrowed ideas from Das Kapital. He found resonance in Marx’s analysis of the conflict between use values (the value of, say, a home as shelter) and exchange values (its value as a property to buy and flip), and in the notion that capital moves problems around (as when blight and gentrification drift through neighborhoods) but never solves them. Harvey says the city leaders—no matter their politics—thought the report was perceptive. "I didn’t tell them I was getting it out of Marx," he says. "The more it worked for me and worked for other people, the more confidence I got that this was not a crazy system, but was actually quite interesting."
In the years since, his work has focused on urban issues, politics, economics, and capitalism. Robert Pollin, a professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, has assigned his students Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford, 2005), which recounts the 40-year political project to replace Keynesian economics and its notion of public-sector limits on private enterprise with the free-market ideologies that prevail today.
"From my perspective, he is a giant," Pollin says. But his regard for Harvey is unusual in the more conservative discipline of economics. Most economists I contacted gave one of two responses when asked about Harvey’s work: They knew he was important but had never read him, or they had never heard of him at all.
That’s a sign of the inward focus of economists, not a condemnation of Harvey’s work, says Pollin: "There is no question that Harvey is a major thinker." But in the supercharged capitalist culture of the United States, being a Marxist intellectual—even, according to Thomson Reuters, as one of the most frequently cited academics in the world—means often being overlooked in the public square. While Harvey draws big crowds and mainstream news media during appearances in Europe and South America, in this country his name appears mainly in small leftist outlets.
"I get on the BBC, but I don’t get on NPR," he says. "There is a kind of taboo in the mainstream media of taking any of this seriously."
Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism may be the book that introduces Harvey to a wider audience. After all, it lands at an auspicious moment. Dealing with income inequality is at the top of President Obama’s agenda for the year. Since the Occupy movement’s stand in New York’s Zuccotti Park, the public has had more awareness of the consolidation of power among the "1 percent"—a term the protesters popularized. Marx has made a comeback among young intellectuals, who came of age during the economic meltdown; Benjamin Kunkel, in Utopia or Bust (Verso Books), his new exploration of contemporary Marxism, spends his first chapter discussing Harvey.
"If you had to pick one person who is the expositor of Marx for this generation, it would be David Harvey," says Timothy Shenk, a doctoral student in history at Columbia University who has studied prominent Marxists and recently wrote about "millennial Marxists" for The Nation. "It’s his gift for lucid prose that distinguishes him. I can’t think of anyone who is better at laying out, clearly and crisply, a distinctive interpretation of Marx."
The American stage has recently been set for questioning capitalism, with the U.S. tour of academe’s rock star of the moment, Thomas Piketty. The French economist’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century has highlighted capitalism’s drift toward inequality and criticized economists’ focus on pure theory.
While Harvey appreciates the way that Piketty has "brought back some of that humanistic tradition" in economics, he believes the book focuses too much on the social inequities that capital produces, not the complicated root causes of its problems.
"Piketty has a fantastic source of information in terms of the history of inequality of wealth and income, and that is very useful, but you could read that book and have no idea what happened in 2007 and 2008—why Lehman Brothers went bankrupt, where crises come from," he says. "What I tried to show in Seventeen Contradictions is that capital is a multifaceted system, with interlocking contradictions that are very rich."
The book begins with the very thing that sparked the 2008 crisis: the conflict between use values and exchange values, particularly in housing, and the way that people have been deprived of homes because real estate has become a speculative investment. Increasingly, he points out, more necessities are defined and dominated by their exchange value, as capital looks for new fields in which to play. "For this reason, many categories of use values that were hitherto supplied free of charge by the state have been privatized and commodified—housing, education, health care and public utilities have all gone in this direction in many parts of the world," he writes. "The political choice is between a commodified system that serves the rich well enough and a system that focuses on the production and democratic provision of use values for all without any mediations of the market."
The rest of the contradictions unfurl from there: For example, the value of money, especially when it is not tied to any tangible metal standard; the relationship between capital and labor, in which capital is trying to increase profits and productivity while labor seeks to increase its standard of living; capital’s rhetoric of freedom versus reality, in which it dominates labor and the poor.
Toward the end, Harvey explores the "dangerous contradictions": capital’s requirement of endless compound growth, the ecological destruction it wreaks, and, in the last chapter, "universal alienation," in which he explores the forces that hamper meaningful work and promote vapid consumerism. Capital can survive its contradictions, he writes, as long as it heaps more burdens—in the form of class inequality, degradation of the environment, and curtailing of human freedom—on the people and institutions already holding it up.
The key question is, where do things go from here? Harvey calls for a "revolutionary humanism that can ally with those religious-based humanisms … to counter alienation in its many forms and to radically change the world from its capitalist ways." He asks readers to imagine an economy in which the necessities of food, housing, and education don’t go through a profit-maximizing market system; in which money "rots," so it can’t be hoarded; in which the pace of work slows down to accommodate creative endeavors and social life; and in which a "zero growth" economy is a desirable stasis, not a national emergency.
It might sound far-fetched, and Harvey does not offer a road map for setting up such a world. Pollin, the UMass economist, says this is one of his main frustrations with Harvey’s work: "He is much like Karl Marx in that he is much stronger on the critique than he is on thinking through viable paths forward. If you truly care about solutions, you should not just write your treatise and not think seriously about what is to be done."
Harvey, for his part, says that any revolution would have to start by "changing mental conceptions of what the good life is," and that you do so in part by changing the language. Occupy started this work by defining the "1 percent."
"We saw it in the civil-rights movement and in the gay-and-lesbian movement," he says. "When you change the language, you can change the way people think and their mental conceptions. And when that changes, you can start to push in new politics."
But he acknowledges myriad challenges. Most of us, he says, have been "neoliberalized"—we have come to believe the tenets of a well-funded campaign that exalts the individual, privatizes social services and public institutions, and scorns the potential of government. The left, he says, deals in "a politics that rests on narratives of victimization," which doesn’t inspire solidarity. Nongovernmental organizations, a main tool now used to address inequities, are supported by the rich and therefore cannot criticize the wealth and accumulation of wealth that feeds them.
Personal debt, which has emerged as a major burden in recent decades, may be the most crucial challenge. "One of the things about debt is that it tends to foreclose the future—you have already spent the future," Harvey says. "It is very difficult to have an imagination of something radically different when your future is already pinned to some continuation of capital."
At some point, he believes, the system can’t continue. In the final pages of Seventeen Contradictions, he raises the specter of violence as a potential response to the inequities of capital—the riots and protests in Turkey, Egypt, Brazil, and Sweden last year "look more and more like the prior tremors for a coming earthquake that will make the postcolonial revolutionary struggles of the 1960s look like child’s play."
"The longer it goes on," Harvey says quietly in his New York office, "the less I think that there is a possibility that it will be a peaceful transition."
Scott Carlson is a senior writer at The Chronicle.