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the Complete Review
the complete review - economics


The Enigma of Capital

David Harvey

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To purchase The Enigma of Capital

Title: The Enigma of Capital
Author: David Harvey
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2010
Length: 260 pages
Availability: The Enigma of Capital - US
The Enigma of Capital - UK
The Enigma of Capital - Canada
The Enigma of Capital - India
  • and the Crises of Capitalism

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Our Assessment:

B : useful examination of capitalism, but not particularly helpful re. alternatives/ways out

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 1/5/2010 John Gapper
The Independent . 30/4/2010 Andrew Gamble
London Rev. of Books . 3/2/2011 Benjamin Kunkel
New Statesman . 26/4/2010 James Buchan

  From the Reviews:
  • "Harvey is a polymath who has been a professor of geography and anthropology, and ventures into economics in this elegant, if ultimately unconvincing, book. Not long ago, he might have found it difficult to get much attention outside leftwing academia but his market has expanded. (...) Although some of it comes over as standard issue leftism, Harvey’s analysis is interesting not only for the breadth of his scholarship but his recognition of the system’s strengths." - John Gapper, Financial Times

  • "Harvey argues that each major capitalist crisis has been worse than the last one, and more difficult to surmount. He accepts that capitalism, with all its resilience and inventiveness, is quite capable of overcoming this crisis too; but he is sceptical, and believes that this is the moment that a revived anti-capitalist movement can seize the opportunity to put forward a realistic alternative to capitalism as a way of organising the economy. This is perhaps where the argument is least convincing. (...) But this book is a welcome addition to the literature on the crisis. It provides a lucid and penetrating account of how the power of capital shapes our world, and sets out the case for a new radicalism and a vision of alternatives." - Andrew Gamble, The Independent

  • "The real test of Harvey’s 1982 theory of crisis is how well it serves in the face of the thing itself. The Enigma of Capital can be read as an effort to meet the challenge. Naturally, its success or failure depends on whether it can offer a more comprehensive and persuasive account than rival theories. On the score of comprehensiveness there can be little doubt that Harvey’s work and that of other Marxists goes beyond the alternatives." - Benjamin Kunkel, London Review of Books

  • "In a sturdy and truculent book, Harvey calls for war on the bosses. (...) Harvey's Marxian language is as antiquated as heraldry (.....) His chief interest, as one might expect from an urban geographer, is in cities. (...) My belief, for what it is worth, is that city dwellers cannot understand the world. Insulated from reality by complex and expert systems of provision and police, baffled by fashion and spectacle, city dwellers can distinguish neither the sources of their existence nor the consequences. How much the less, it follows, can an urban geographer." - James Buchan, New Statesman

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In The Enigma of Capital David Harvey uses the recent 'crisis of capitalism' (from 2007 to the present, largely in the US and Europe) -- as well as the examples of past crises -- to make his arguments against capitalism itself. Harvey argues that there is a: "3 per cent compound growth rate that constitutes the capitalist juggernaut", as capitalism functions and feeds on itself by constant growth (with three per cent the magical/necessary minimum for economic satisfaction) -- a growth that, periodically (and, of course, over the long term), is impossible to sustain and leads -- so Harvey -- to increasingly severe crises. The most recent one, fueled especially by property speculation, again shows some of the weaknesses and problems with capitalism -- as does the growth of the financial sector (especially in the US) over the past few decades, which has been taking an increasingly large share of economic gains (i.e. an increasing percentage of corporate profits come from the financial sector) while the working class has seen no gains for some three decades in the US, as wage repression has meant all gains from increasing productivity has accrued to the top earners.
       A central part of the vicious circle of capitalism for Harvey is the problem of surplus capital, which has to go somewhere (and earn -- at least -- those magic three per cent) in order to keep the cycle going. The American financial crisis, even now, deep into 2010, has nothing to do with too little liquidity -- corporations (and banks) are awash with money -- but previously overextended (and under-paid) consumer-workers aren't spending enough to get the business cycle moving again; surplus capital is picky, too. As he notes:

In midsummer of 2009, one third of the capital equipment in the United States stood idle, while some 17 per cent of the workforce were either unemployed, enforced part-timers or 'discouraged' workers. What could be more irrational than that.
       As Harvey nicely describes, capitalism will try to find an outlet -- and that often includes moving abroad (in a variety of ways) -- hence the constant striving towards various forms of globalism (and various guises of colonialism ...), punctured by brief retreats into protectionism. The explosion of the use of artificial and opaque derivatives -- of some use, on some scale, but now completely out of control (in all respects) -- is for Harvey just another way: "to avoid the regulator and free the market", with the writing on the wall as to where this will eventually lead (as it already has, in a few isolated instances).
       Harvey is good on the big picture of capitalism, including its reliance on property rights (and the ability of capitalists/governments to dispossess, in a variety of ways, others) and in repeatedly reminding readers of the social and environmental (in the broadest sense) costs of capitalist expansionism in its relentless search for three per cent (and in the crises that its periodic collapse brings with it).
       A solid and useful overview of the capitalist condition, Harvey unfortunately does not offer much by way of guidance as to what the alternatives might be. Harvey acknowledges that capitalism has had a run of considerable success for the past few centuries (while also reminding readers of the costs along the way, especially in environmental degradation).
       A Marxist (who acknowledges that the term 'communism' has become so tainted as no longer to be very helpful), his prescriptions include hard pills for most to swallow:
In the field of institutional arrangements, therefore, a whole new conception of property -- of common rather than private property rights -- will be required to make radical egalitarianism work in a radically egalitarian way. The struggle over institutional arrangements, then, has to move to the centre of political concerns.
       That conception of property is a hard sell, and Harvey doesn't do nearly enough (here) to convince. Similarly, he has good fun with the failures of academic economists in predicting the most recent financial crisis and concludes -- and it's hard to disagree -- that: "The current knowledge structure is clearly dysfunctional and equally clearly illegitimate" -- but his hopes that a new generation might "do something about it" seems wildly optimistic; of all the things students have been protesting against during this financial crisis, what they've been taught hasn't been one of them: they seem perfectly fine continuing to drink the stale old brew -- especially those pursuing 'business' or law degrees --, holding out hope that they too will be able to jump on this good old capitalist bandwagon.
       Dismissive of capitalist claims of technological innovation as an escape hatch -- pointing out where that has led previously -- Harvey is certain that the capitalist fundamentals (i.e. that perpetual three per cent growth rate) are unsustainable. Yet he acknowledges both that currently:
there is no resolute and sufficiently unified anti-capitalist movement that can adequately challenge the reproduction of the capitalist class and the perpetuation of its power on the world stage.
       And that viable alternatives are hard to conceive of, much less come by. Nevertheless, he continues to hold out hope (including going so far as to suggest that, hey, maybe: "with the collapse of the Soviet empire another communism might also be possible").
       The Enigma of Capital is well worth reading for its critique and analysis of capitalism, as Harvey does make many valid and significant observations that are too often overlooked in the general discussion (at least in the US). But when it comes to alternatives, Harvey's suggestions largely fail convince.

- M.A.Orthofer, 14 December 2010

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The Enigma of Capital: Reviews: David Harvey: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       David Harvey was born in 1935; he teaches at CUNY.

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© 2010-2011 the complete review

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