On Thursday, we interviewed David Harvey for Novara. We were discussing his new book – 17 Contradictions and the End of Capitalism – and you can listen to the conversation on the link above. I wanted to take up some of the ideas that were left in my head after reading the book. These aren’t quibbles about Harvey’s presentation of Marx – though there is ample room for such discussion, and I don’t think that’s merely scholasticism – but ideas arising from the end of the book. This is probably the most explicitly political book Harvey has written for some time, and it is its final chapters that interest me. He writes of three ‘dangerous’ contradictions – endless compounding growth, ecological disaster, universal alienation – which might spell ruin not just for capitalism, but for human beings, the ‘common ruin of the contending classes’ of the Communist Manifesto. In opposition to this he offers a defence of a ‘revolutionary humanism’ and a reflection on violence drawing from Franz Fanon, as well as seventeen points to frame political practice drawn from the contradictions he outlines.
Many of these points will be familiar to communists of any kind: production for human need, power over production vested in local assemblies, dissolution of class society. Some will be couched in unfamiliar language: a zero-growth society, diversification of ways of living. Some might require more elucidation: demonetisation but assurance of circulation of use-values. But they are an explicit call for urgent political action, when there are few of Harvey’s prominence willing to commit to explicit calls for revolutionary political action – which is what these polite and sensible points would require.
Some of this commitment comes from the qualified defence of a ‘revolutionary humanism’ Harvey articulates at the end of the book. It is a partial rejection of the Althusserian anti-humanism that has dominated much contemporary Marxist thought, while also rejecting appeals to a transcendent human essence, or a sentimental humanism on which cross-class and pacifist strategies rely. Harvey’s sensitive use of Fanon to reflect on the political uses of violence – but also its consequences for those who deploy violence – are especially timely when sporadic calls for terrorism emerge as a response to the seemingly immovable behemoth of austerity laying waste to social life. Political violence of the oppressed against oppressor may be necessary, or justified, but eagerness to embrace it can occlude the ways in which violence can degrade and destroy those who employ it, even justly.
Throughout the text there are signposts to a way of thinking about capitalism that admits the centrality of the capital-labour relation, but which understands its embededness in other forms of distinction (gender, race, social rank) intrinsic to capitalism as a social system. Alongside this, there is a warranted skepticism toward pedlars of revolutionary nostalgia, for whom the formations of particular historical moments – most often 1917 – provide the unalterable blueprint for social change. A call to attentiveness to the real conditions of the here-and-now that goes beyond mere lip-service is welcome, as is the basic optimism of the final chapter: that changing the world, as well as changing the fundamental experience of human life is possible.
There is naturally a hesitancy among communists to get lost in making blueprints for a new world – even if we did, we would consign them to the fire in the very act of making it – but I think Harvey is right that we shouldn’t hesitate to say, even specifically, things could be run better than this. In doing so, we can also go beyond the apophatic not-this that is so frequently the seed for political action. ‘Utopianism’ has a bad name, and sometimes for good reason, but for all of Marx’s justified excoriation of the disparate social theorists grouped under that heading, the impulse to think a better world has long nourished the working-class movement. Perhaps the answer here is not a consolatory dream of a better world (an ‘abstract’ utopia) but the demand and action to make it concrete.
Harvey and I likely differ in political methods: I know he has defended the party method in theory at times. I think there is likely a congruence between method of making change, and the kind of world that results, and the kind of human beings that come to populate it. That kind of argument can seem like the worst kind of abstraction in a moment in which the forces of social change seem at their weakest, but if anything, reading Harvey’s book renews for me the conviction that it is vital to put into practice these beliefs: it is no use being right after the disaster.
Throughout the book Harvey draws from multiple theorists within and without the Marxist canon. He often returns to Lefebvre, whom I have been rereading, who is probably the most acute theorist of alienation, even of alienation within political ‘radicals’ themselves, which may take the form of an all-encompassing cynicism, a perverse conviction that barbarism and the destruction of all social life is now utterly inevitable, or a bloodless fear of standing behind things they claim to believe. (And in Lefebvre, this was never an argument for abandoning thought or pretending it’s trivial.)
Basic fears about futurity aside – its tendency to suborn current suffering for a future perfection never to arrive, its quasi-religious role as consolation for the secular – I don’t think we should leave the future completely void. The answer is not in feeble rearrangement of cutlery on the bloodied dinner table, but to stake a claim to a far greater, unalienated life than can exist under capitalism. As far as I’m concerned, staking that claim cannot be made purely in the realms of theory, but through action – and it is through the two together that the possibility of surmounting alienation can be glimpsed.
I do not want to say exactly that this is a hopeful book, because we seem currently so very far away from instituting anything like its demands. But it is an urgent one: I hope it can impart some of that urgency to its audience. Since reading the book, I’ve had this line from Lefebvre in my head. It’s one with which Harvey would doubtless agree:
It is no coincidence that Marxists repeat the word ‘concrete’ so frequently. Adversaries of Marxism refer ironically to the exaggerated and excessive use of the word (Malraux, for example, apropos of the Communist Pradas in Days of Hope); but talk of the ‘concrete’ is only truly ridiculous when it becomes an abstraction itself, an automatism. (Which in fact is what happens when people who believe they are acting and thinking dialectically stop looking at everyday life, stop learning from it, stop searching for its deeper significance. This is treachery, self-betrayal: in their mouths the dialectic reverts to being just so much metaphysical waffle; they become congealed in their own mystical speechifying about movement and history; they talk about the ‘concrete’, but they end up being more abstract than anyone!)
Lefebvre, Critique of Everyday Life vol.1 (Verso, 2008), p.183