Thomas L. Lynn, Jr. reviews David Harvey’s new work on the madness of capitalism.
David Harvey, Marx, Capital, and the Madness of Economic Reason (Profile Books, 2017), 256pp.
When I first picked up David Harvey’s most recent book, Marx, Capital, and the Madness of Economic Reason, it was with a certain anticipation of finding allusion to André Gorz, an author whose own engagement with that particular ‘reason’ targeted by the title remains seminal. However, it was another figure who came forth as the touchstone for this fine volume by everyone’s favourite Marxist geographer. For the “madness of economic reason” is a phrase coined by the (in)famous Jacques Derrida. The occasion for its issuance was his critique of Levi-Strauss’s account of the potlatch ceremony. Within the structuralist framework which the former advanced, the notion of “the gift” seems as its own lunacy. Yet, this appearance is precisely what indicts economic reason as a species of insanity. The insistence upon a kind of almost algebraic ontology blinds the economic mind from seeing beyond both a logic of mere account, and the fashion in which such a myopic focus leads to untenable contradictions.
It was among the most salient aspects of Marx’s genius that he perceived and articulated some of the chief mechanisms whereby this madness operated through the mode of production and – one is tempted to add in light of Harvey’s explication of that account – realization we now know as capitalism. One is drawn to include both production and realization because, as the book makes evident, the tension between those two spheres is amongst the most crucial loci of contradiction for the system at large. For, without realization, the great promises of production end in mere desolation. That is to say, until the commodities are exchanged for the talismanic money commodity, they do not merely lack value. They act as an expression of anti-value which demands redemption lest the whole machinery of capitalism fall in upon itself. Among the merits of Harvey’s book here is its use of the interchange between production and realization to excavate the notion of anti-value from its suppressed condition within the broader conversation.
Having undertaken that excavation, the text then turns to deploy the notion of anti-value to clarify the import of various other phenomena. Perhaps the chief of these is the unique operation of credit within capitalism to facilitate the constancy of motion for capital itself. It is an operation, though, which contains a crucial contradiction at its core. For whereas credit enables the immediate realization of commodities that otherwise would remain fallow, and hence anti-valuative; it does so through the creation of debt, which acts as another, and in a way yet more hazardous expression of anti-value. That hazard is only compounded by the action of interest.
Discussion of interest plays a prominent role in Marx, Capital, and the Madness of Economic Reason, and it arises out of the convergence of a few currents. Distinct from its relation to anti-value, but related is the dissection of the connection betwixt price and value. For, as Marx keenly noted, though price aims to be an expression of value, it is necessarily a variable expression. From a functional vantage, that necessity derives from the need to accommodate the fluctuation of value. From what might be termed an ontological vantage, the necessity arises from the nature of signification itself: expression and expressed are inevitably at an existential distance from each other. Within the space of that distance, the possibility of distortion arises, the possibility, if you like, of a kind of bad faith.
Now, the quintessential market expression of such bad faith is a commodity with price but no value. Harvey discusses multiple categories of this mauvaise foi, such as fine art, historical artifacts of note, or, less perniciously, activities that underwrite the processes of production and circulation in an ancillary manner. However, arguably, it is interest – or the price of money – which is its premier incarnation. The practical ways in which this asserts itself are evident enough (debt peonage, speculative excess, and so on). Yet that these phenomena are themselves but the logical outcome of the underlying dialectic of value and anti-value rather than merely aberrations can seem less obvious. What Harvey’s explains so adeptly is the way in which money encloses a paradox. As a mere expression of value, it is always at a distance from value, or, more concretely, congealed necessary social labour time. The severing of money from a metallic base makes this especially conspicuous. However, in becoming attached to a price – interest – the contradiction is sharpened yet further. The term of interest constitutes a demand upon future labor time before present labor time yet realized. The upshot is the creation of the momentum that consummates in crisis.
And the analysis which flows from this, and other aspects of the paradigm which Marx initiates, brings a light to the vagueries of the 2007/8 crisis as well as much which has happened in the decade since. As the book comes towards its close, Harvey provides a lucid application of that paradigm to exactly those happenings. Against that relief also Harvey’s exhortations to revisit Marx take on a special urgency. For the basic framework which Marx assembled powerfully dispels the opacity which attend the economic domain. In so doing it potentially empowers us to move beyond the circuits into which we’ve been driven for centuries now, and which presently are translating to nigh catastrophic pressures on our world, both without and within. The demand of constant surplus value production driven by the bad infinities of money and interest is irreconcilable with the bound conditions of materiality. Moreover, it compels a relationship with ourselves and with each other estranged from what is most authentically human. That is, it leaves us profoundly alienated.
Harvey, though, true to his dialectical sensibility, is quick to remind us that that alienation is not altogether to be lamented. For it may well prove germinal to emancipatory possibilities beyond the horizons of received narrative. It may well evidence a discontent which can lead us out of the madness of economic reason to a more embracing vision of the real tasks of life, a vision which discloses the radical possibilities of generosity.
Thomas Lynn is a thinker currently situated in Cincinnati. Among his preoccupations are the ways in which phenomenology can inform questions in current philosophy of mind, the relations between the analytic and Continental traditions in philosophy, and off the beat thinkers such as Jacques Ellus, Paul Feyerabend, or Michael Polanyi. He is also the host of Thinking Thomas, a channel dedicated to critical theory and an interview series with authors in theory and philosophy.