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The Enigma of Capital: and the Crises of Capitalism Paperback – Aug 23 2011

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; Second Edition edition (Aug. 23 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0199836841
  • ISBN-13: 978-0199836840
  • Product Dimensions: 23.1 x 2.3 x 15.5 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 408 g
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars 4 customer reviews
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #106,480 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Product Description


"The narrative delineates with admirable clarity the arcane details of the current financial crisis, while rehearsing the rise of capitalism as a historically specific 'process' plagued by fundamental dilemmas."--Publishers Weekly

"A lucid and penetrating account of how the power of capital shapes our world."--Andrew Gamble, Independent

"Elegant... entertainingly swashbuckling... 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

"Brisk and persuasive... Looking at the Unites States, it is hard to see anything as Benign as the New Deal coming out of the present situation. If it does, it will probably owe a good deal to David Harvey's students."--The Literary Review

"[T]he recent near-collapse of the global economic system has added new plausibility to Marxist analysis, and David Harvey is certainly its most elegant and persuasive spokesperson . . . Harvey's [The Enigma of Capital] reminds us of the fundamental instability of the capitalist system, despite its remarkable innovations."--Tikkun

--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

About the Author

David Harvey is Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He is among the top twenty most cited authors in the humanities and is the world's most cited academic geographer. His books include The Limits to Capital, Social Justice and the City, and The Condition of Postmodernity, among many others.

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
This is one of the most accessible, lucid and informative books I have ever read. By far the most convincing analysis of the current economc crisis I have come across, but more than that, Harvey's ability to move across different 'moments' of the body politic and to weave an analysis of social evolution is unmatched. A very open and non dogmatic approach to Marxist historical materialism, which also adds a critical geographical analysis/component to that framework. Should appeal to people from a range of disciplines and to the expert and non expert alike.
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Format: Paperback
Harvey has a real gift for explaining dense economics in accessible language.

Using clear, concise, and riveting language, he explains and explores the most important (and dangerous) challenges of our time, namely the mechanisms of late capitalism.

I wish everyone interested in how the world and its power systems work, and anyone wondering how and why the great recession occurred, should read this book.
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Format: Paperback
This is a relatively accessible account of the crisis. Harvey brings to the contemporary crisis his unique methodological approach: "historical geographical" materialism. While his insistence on the importance of the spatial aspects of capital accumulation is to be recommended, some of his historical assumptions are questionable. David McNally's Global Slump is a good contrast.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I found there was an awful lot of information in the book. Dr Harvey really explored a lot of things that have gone on in the world and it fit in with the study I am doing on Western Civilization. I found particularily interesting his frequent referral to Karl Marx and the book Capital which was required for another course. Harvey explained Marx better than Marx, and I have to agree. When it came to his solutions for the world I found it more than a bit unrealistic; although I appreciate what has been done in China and east Asia I know that they had to vere off pure communisism in order to reach the success they are now achieving. Although he is a geographer, he does not discuss the potential in his own country or in Canada and feel his emphasis on the negative is overdone.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.1 out of 5 stars 34 reviews
62 of 66 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant popularization of Marxist political economy Nov. 19 2010
By M. A. Krul - Published on
Format: Hardcover
David Harvey is probably both the best known and most prolific author on popular topics in Marxist economics today, and this is one of his best books so far. Working always from his perspective as an economic geographer, in "The Enigma of Capital" he uses the occasion of the current financial crisis to provide a lengthy and highly accessible popular overview of the theory of capital. He analyzes what capital is, where it came from, how it accumulates, how it relates to markets, what the role is of ground rent and localization in its movement (both metaphorical and real), and finally combines all this into a highly compelling political economic narrative. What is especially virtuous about this book, even compared with some of Harvey's excellent earlier works, is his ability to explain the general thrust of Marxist political economy in a manner that is easily understood by the wider newspaper-reading public and without using virtually any of the specific technical terminology of Marxism, as well as avoiding any of the explicit political content that is specific to Marxism (other than a very skeptical attitude towards capitalism as such). This is no mean feat given the complicated nature of capital and the different levels of analysis it seems to require to be fully understood. Harvey of course adds to the fairly traditional Marxist picture so narrated his own particular emphasis on place and space as essential mediating elements in capital's circulation, both economically and politically. I think this is a useful and important addition, in particular with an eye to the local impact of political economy becoming 'real' in this way - one need but look at Newcastle or Detroit and see what this means.

The book focuses on analyzing capitalism as it presents itself now - there is not much political commentary in terms of opposition to capitalism, except for some general comments at the end. This avoids, as too many Marxist economic books do, the question of realistic alternatives. It also does not pay particular attention to the 'prehistory' of capital. But both of these are very irrelevant objections, as the virtue of this book is not to be yet another rehash of things that have been done very well by others already. Its virtue is in integrating the analysis of space, crisis, and capital into a work for a general public that is hostile to Marxist terminology and skeptical about economists in general (both probably with good reason). For that reason alone, this book comes with warm recommendation - even more when combined with his other recent major works, "The Limits to Capital" (The Limits to Capital (New and updated edition)) which works at a more in-depth theoretical level, and his companion to Marx's Capital (A Companion to Marx's Capital).
85 of 94 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Elegant Investigation Nov. 11 2010
By J. Edgar Mihelic, MBA - Published on
Format: Hardcover
David Harvey ably and rather succinctly runs down the structural problem with capitalism as we know it. He focuses on the different ways Capital has had to evolve to continue its "3% Compound Growth" year after year. The results in the real world aren't pretty, but as Harvey covers them in his book, they are elegantly done. I have read several books that have focused on the most recent crisis in the capitalistic system and Harvey's tome is one that covers the specifics fairly well but is at its best looking at the global structural problem that is not specific to a time and place.

I was particularly impressed with the final chapter, as anyone with such a cogent criticism must be able to imagine a better world. Harvey answers the eternal question "What is to be done?" with a pragmatic and undogmatic response that recognizes the variability that necessitate a multi-pronged approach to moving to a post-capitalistic world that looks to the future and not the past. I am still pessimistic about the short term future, but it is hard to have too much pessimism when there are talented individuals like David Harvey out in the world teaching and writing - I just hope more people start listening.
64 of 73 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Smart, Entertaining Account of the Economic Crisis Oct. 5 2010
By Megan Morrissey - Published on
Format: Hardcover
"At times of crisis, the irrationality of capitalism becomes plain for all to see," Harvey writes at the beginning of the last chapter in The Enigma of Capital. He describes this irrationality with characteristic wisdom and analytic clarity. This book is an entertaining explanation of the current economic crisis and its significance in history. Harvey's forty-year career has been spent teaching and writing about Marx, but he is not so much a "Marxist" as a scholar of Marx; he analyzes capitalism using the tools and the perspectives that Marx provided, while also recognizing their limits and building on them in order to move forward the kind of rigorous critique of capitalism that is absolutely essential right now.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A decent look at today's economic situation Oct. 5 2012
By cjones6 - Published on
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
David Harvey begins his book, The Enigma of Capital: And the Crises of Capitalism, by looking at the financial crisis that first raised its ugly head in 2007. He examines a sequence of seemingly unrelated events that occurred over the last thirty years or so - including oil crises, debt disasters, real estate and dot com bubbles and their bursts, along with multiple international bailouts - then introduces the reader to some of the factors that might help expose their underlying connections. Harvey doesn't see these individual events as the cause of the current crisis, but instead looks at the big picture through the lens of Marxist philosophy to see whether they might be the result of a neoliberal system that fostered a new surge of capitalistic greed, and the `moral hazard' that accompanied it, beginning in the 1970s. In the process, he points out that crisis is an inevitable feature in capitalist economic growth, which, when tied to capitalism's need to maintain a minimum 3% per year profit surplus for reinvestment, problems with excess capital accumulation can, and indubitably did, cause problems that affect the economy today. According to Harvey's analysis, an inordinate amount of this surplus capital was not reinvested in the production of goods or services, but rather became the catalyst for a dangerously expanding financials-based market. This diversion of capital produced two results; 1) it increased the wealth of those in the elite capitalist class and, 2) decreased the wealth of those in the lower classes. Throughout the book, Harvey uses Marxist theory to reiterate how capitalism's weaknesses are observable when the flow of capital is changed or diverted from a production-focused flow (which is more likely to bring some amount of wealth to all involved), to one that serves only to build wealth for one group at the expense of another.

Harvey uses the first chapter to explore the facts building up to the current crisis, starting with the displacement of Keynesian economics by neoliberalism during the 1970s and progressing to the growth of the financials-based capitalist economy of today. He looks at a few smaller crises that arose along the way, including the Arab Oil Crisis in 1973, the New York City bankruptcy, problems in Japan, Norway and south-east Asia, and the U.S. savings and loan crisis. He also looks at various small scale attempts at correcting the current crisis, many of which were failures in and of themselves. Upon examining these issues, he writes "there is, we have to conclude, some inherent connectivity at work here that requires careful reconstruction." (Location 150). Harvey also explains the underlying principles of neoliberalism, which he describes as a "class project" that served to centralize wealth and power in the hands of elites by spreading "rhetoric about individual freedom, liberty, personal responsibility and the virtues of privatization, the free market and free trade" (Location 161). The results of this "class project" included a strengthening of the notion that banks need to be protected at all costs, a loosening of governmental regulations meant to protect society from capitalist abuses, the weakening of workers' rights, and a growing global economy through laissez-faire economics. It is these factors, according to Harvey, that started the world on the path of a growing wealth inequality between the social classes.

In the second chapter Harvey explains the nature of capitalism, focusing primarily on it as a system of capital flow, but looking also at how it operates within and upon society and the social order. He points to its origin as a means by which money is sent in search of more money, which in the beginning was through the power of production. The continuing profits allowed for reinvestment, which is viewed by economists as a requirement for competitive reasons. This reinvestment allowed capitalists to `grow' their business in order to stay competitive, all the while creating new (though not always good) opportunities for a growing and willing labor supply. Chapter 2 also looks at the beginning of a "state-finance nexus", a system that ties together politics and economics due to the controlling influence of the bourgeoisie class on the government. This change gave the growing capitalist class greater opportunities to build wealth through the "dispossession and destruction of pre-capitalist forms of social provision" (Location 675). Harvey then points to the growing elite financial class that was able to gain control over producers, merchants, landholders, developers, wage laborers and consumers" through the growing credit system (Location 735). Capitalism, it seems, needed capital to gain more capital, something those with the greatest wealth took advantage of early on through lending and debt creation. The new paradigm put money at center stage in the commodities market.

In chapters 3 through 5, Harvey looks primarily at how the flow of capital has affected society through the creation of an economic system which attempts to balance the surpluses within the capitalist system. He also defines seven activity spheres capable of creating barriers that capitalism must overcome in order to continue its minimum 3% growth. These include; 1) technologies and organizational forms, 2) social relations, 3) institutional and administrative arrangements, 4) production and labor processes, 5) relations to nature, 6) the reproduction of daily life and of the species, and 7) mental conceptions of the world (Location 1825). In overcoming one barrier as it is met, new barriers often arise in other areas. Harvey says this occurs because "the relations between the spheres are not causal but dialectically interwoven through the circulation and accumulation of capital" (Location 1915).

In chapters 6 and 7, Harvey looks at the role globalization has played in the history of capitalism, including the flow of capital across borders, the change in societies due to labor relations, the consumption and dispossession of natural resources, all through "creative destruction". He relates the effects of a growing financial capitalism throughout this process, including the notion of spreading risk as well as opportunity, and the idea of a global community ripe for the picking. Harvey points out that global capitalism has its internal problems as well. One is brought about by the disconnection between individual financial players, which he sees as a likely catalyst to the current crisis - the "radical disjuncture in time-space configurations" that made it difficult for financiers to fully see what their investors/traders were doing (Location 2840).

In his final chapter, Harvey reminds us that "at times of crisis, the irrationality of capitalism becomes plain to see" (Location 3246). It is here that he asks if capitalism can, or even should, survive, and if so, what needs to change and who should initiate that change. The increasing political unrest around the world would be too costly and dangerous for the capitalist class to fight with armies and violence - but because it is unlikely elites would be willing to change (the thrill of the profits game is so tightly woven to their way of life) it is more likely that they will use their current political power to keep the masses under control. These capitalist elites will push for the status quo option, continue to exert their power over the government to keep trade unregulated, thus ensuring that any change would bring little or no negative affect on their profit-seeking abilities. And what of those that have been so drained of wealth during the last thirty years of neoliberal policy? The lack of any clear leadership or vision will surely diminish their ability to push for change that ensures some kind of fairness and equality.

In summation, Harvey's analysis of the current economic crisis is well written and easily understood, and his explanation of capitalism is helpful to those less knowledgeable of the subject. His use of Marxist theory serves to challenge readers to look at the current crisis from a different angle, and helps to show the reader how thirty-plus years of neoliberalism has changed our mental conception of the world - from one that placed value on the hard work of laborers to one that places the value of money above that of the individual. But the use of Marxist theory could possibly scare away those individuals who might benefit most from the information Harvey wants to share - working and middle class citizens raised during the era of the `communist menace'- those hard-working citizens whose mental conception of the world includes a strong aversion to all things Marxist due to thirty plus years of neoliberal propaganda.

Harvey leaves the reader with no real solution, but instead leaves the reader thinking about the possibilities for change. That leaves us with what looks to be a long and difficult debate - should we retain capitalism as our economic driving force? Should the masses dispossess the wealth the capitalist elites have worked so long to accumulate? Harvey writes of the "moral hazard" prevalent in modern capitalism as a major factor in the current economic crisis - the same factor that was taken into account after the U.S. stock market crash of 1929 - the same factor that brought the systems of socialism and communism into fruition at the end of the robber-baron era. But those systems proved weaker than capitalism and according to Harvey should not be re-visited. So where do we go?

Based on my interpretation of Harvey's Enigma of Capital: And the Crises of Capitalism, the ugly head we have seen over the last few years wears the mask of this "moral hazard". The desire of capitalist elites to achieve greater wealth no matter what the cost to society, be it people's homes or jobs, people's present or future ability to provide for their needs, this desire has played the major role in the creation of this crisis. To bring real change will require a major change in society's mental conception of the world, something the ugly head is already beginning to bring, and once that change happens can we begin the debate as to which direction will lead us to prosperity. Only then then will we be able to remove the mask and see the true face of capitalism, not just the enigma.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars dissatisfying to Marxists uncompelling to non-Marxists Feb. 22 2013
By Ian Delairre - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
David Harvey seems professorial and pedantic in his leisurely explanation of the various faults of capitalism. The argument of the book is basically a remix and rehash of his truly excellent "Limits of Capital" and his lectures on Marx's first volume of "Capital" but without the same academic rigor, citation, and desire for explication or elucidation. After the relatively informative first chapter we are left to take much at his word. As the work progresses Harvey deviates here and there into only peripherally related musings. For instance, an argument against Peak Oil, a haphazard account of Marx's conception of nature, and critique of Malthus appears in the chapter "Capital Goes to Work" which was supposed to explain how capital harnesses and coordinates labor. I was looking for a Marxist account of the financial collapse in 2008, a rigorous analysis of finance capital (the credit/banking system and its systemic weaknesses), and an overall picture of the contemporary economic situation in terms of political economy. In short, I wanted the 'enigma of capital' banished as promised. What I got was something akin to the moralizing rants of my Marxist sociology teacher in college: histrionic and poorly founded. But David Harvey doesn't even emerge as passionate and the performance is lacking. Perhaps this is meant to be a popular work, but I know that David Harvey is capable of much more. However, the question remains, if this is dissatisfying to me, someone favorable to Marxism, how can it hope be compelling to a hostile audience?