David Harvey is Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the City University of New York Graduate School and is a leading expert on the work of Karl Marx. His latest book, “Marx, Capital and the Madness of Economic Reason”, is published by Profile Books.
Why do you think Marx is relevant today?
When Marx was writing, only Britain, a bit of Western Europe, and a small portion of the East Coast of the United States was using capitalism. Whereas now capitalism occupies almost the whole of planet Earth. The limitless nature of capitalist accumulation is clearly a problem now in a way that it wasn’t when Marx was writing. Marx is really relevant because he was problematising all of that.
What about the argument that capitalism brings economic growth, which benefits everybody?
The market gives the illusion of being egalitarian: the idea that equal value should exchange for equal value. But if you start off with someone who controls the means of production, the capitalists, versus someone who doesn’t, the workers, that produces a great deal of inequality. Marx showed that a free-market society – without any state intervention – would produce conditions where the rich got richer and the poor got poorer.
Go on, explain Marx’s central theory – surplus value – as concisely as you can.
Marx said that in a general exchange economy, what commodities had in common was human labour. Marx says value – which is the labour we do for others – has to expand over time, so that there is growth happening. That growth is fed by production of a surplus, which underpins the profit. So, surplus value is that which is worked for longer in the day than it takes to reproduce the labour power [i.e. to pay the worker].
Marx was fond of scientific analogies and -metaphors, and also a great admirer of Darwin. Would you describe him as a scientific thinker?
His scientific approach is interesting. He is a dialectical and a relational thinker. He is not a mechanical thinker. Marx’s way of approaching economics and political economy is becoming more familiar in the sciences. His theory of value cannot be understood without the loss of value, and anti-value. That dialectical relationship lies at the centre of his theorising.
Would you describe Marx as an Enlightenment thinker?
Yes. But he was also a revolutionary who saw the Enlightenment as halfway house to where he thought we should be going.
What were his views on religion?
He believed religious thought can often hide the nature of real problems. But he was not opposed to a certain type of spiritual thinking. In fact, he was a very spiritual thinker. But Marx was deeply opposed to organised religion, which he saw as being orchestrated towards capitalism.
Marx argued that technology was essential to the dynamics of capital in motion. What did he mean by this?
He pointed out that capitalists in competition with each other are constantly trying to gain what he calls relative surplus value. In other words, if I have a lower cost of production than you, I can create a greater rate of profit. You see that, and make a technological innovation.
So, technological innovation is built into the capitalist dynamic. [But] technology doesn’t benefit the labourer. It benefits capital. Marx also saw the evolution of technology as something that affects our social relations, our mental conceptions of the world, and our institutional relations too.
Some writers argue that technology is bringing us to a “post-capitalist” era. Do you agree?
I don’t agree. Take the internet as an example. Everybody said it would be a new realm of freedom and democracy. But what has it become? A monopoly power where Google and other companies extract huge fortunes.
Unless you deal with the social relations of capital, you are not going to come out of capitalism. So, it’s not post-capitalism at all. Marx certainly wasn’t a technological determinist. He was an evolutionary thinker. And the evolutionary process is such that if you don’t change the social relations, you are, in fact, deeper into capitalism than you were before.
Looking at today’s global economic system, do you think Marx was right to describe capitalism as irrational and contradictory?
Yes. Some of the things that are going on in the world right now are insane. Look at the form of urbanisation in the Gulf States. This is a region characterised by mass poverty and discontent. Why are they building massive skyscrapers, rather than things that are useful for people living there?
This is also true of our own cities. In New York and London they build upscale condominiums for the ultra-rich, when there is a crisis of affordable housing and people can’t find a place to live. So, we need to have massive investment for affordable housing. But instead we are building properties, most of which are not lived in, that are just bought as investments. You have an insane economy from the standpoint of the people – but it’s a very sane economy from the standpoint of the top 1 per cent. That is where the madness of the situation is right now.
Do you believe a situation could arise in which the capitalist system could collapse very quickly?
Well, there are different forms of Marxist thinking. There is the apocalyptic kind of thinking that says: capitalism is going to fall apart tomorrow. I don’t think that is the case. It’s more likely that the future of the world is going to look like what happened to Greece: where we are all going to be pinned down and made to pay out and suffer for the sins of the 1 per cent. I see a lot of catastrophic situations, especially in the environment.
It’s going to be a very uncomfortable world to live in. But for that to change it’s going to take everybody saying: the problem here is capital, capital accumulation, and capitalism. We have to have something radically different so we can have a different kind of life, with a different set of social relations; a different relation to nature, and ways of thinking and ways of being. Until we do that, capitalism will always be with us.
Interview by J.P. O’Malley
— source newhumanist.org.uk