Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism

David Harvey‘s “Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism” is a wonderful outline of the dynamics of capital as both a process and a thing. It makes a thought provoking starting point for those inquisitive about many things which are taken for granted in mainstream economic and political discourse. It introduces the sort of dialectical style of analysis used by Marx. Identifying and analysing contradiction is an extremely powerful mechanism to unpick the basic processes which underpin the operation of capital.

Each of these contradictions is worth a post in themselves, but here I just want to capture a summary.

Harvey identifies 3 distinct types of contradiction. The ‘foundational’ contradictions which are fundamental to the operation of capital. As Harvey notes, they interlock to create the basic architecture for capital.

  1. Use value and exchange value;
  2. The social value of labour and its representation by money;
  3. Private property and the capitalist state;
  4. Private appropriation and common wealth;
  5. Capital and labour;
  6. Capital as process or thing;
  7. The contradictory unity of production and realisation.

The ‘moving’ contradictions create shifting patterns of change which alter how capital presents itself at any given time, altering the nature of politics and struggle. They continuously evolve driving the dynamism of capital.

  1. Technology, work, and human disposability;
  2. Divisions of labour;
  3. Monopoly and competition: centralisation and decentralisation;
  4. Uneven geographical developments and the production of space;
  5. Disparities of income and wealth;
  6. Social reproduction;
  7. Freedom and domination.

Finally the ‘dangerous’ contradictions. Harvey notes that the contradictions capable of destroying capitalism change over time. He attempts to identify those which are visible in our own time and represent a clear and present danger to the survival of capital.

  1. Endless compound growth;
  2. Capital’s relation to nature;
  3. The revolt of human nature: universal alienation.

The final section on universal alienation is the most idealistic. Harvey draws a parallel to the anti-colonial struggle and draws the conclusion that capitalism is unlikely to be finished without a violent struggle. In general this is the least convincing part of the book. Harvey is better at analysing the world than sounding like a convincing revolutionary.

The book finishes with some outlines of what the anti-capitalist struggle might aim for, drawn from each contradiction. The analysis presented by Harvey provides a framework within which to think about the operation of capital in the modern world, and how we might approaching changing the nature of economy and society. What becomes clear though is how far the organised left has to go in building a coherent programme of action which is capable of putting this into action.


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