The Limits to Capital Paperback – Jan 17 2007
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“A unique and insightful theory of capital.”—Monthly Review
“[A] magnificent achievement, [one of] the most complete, readable, lucid and least partisan exegesis, critique and extension of Marx’s mature political economy available.”—Environment and Planning
“A magisterial work.”—Fredric Jameson
“Monumental.”—Benjamin Kunkel, London Review of Books
About the Author
David Harvey teaches at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and is the author of many books, including Social Justice and the City, The Condition of Postmodernity, The Limits to Capital, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, Spaces of Global Capitalism, and A Companion to Marx’s Capital. His website is <a href="http://davidharvey.org">davidharvey.org</a>
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Harvey's discussion of capitalism from a Marxist perspective is extraordinary clear, sharp and thorough. So much in fact that it is probably the most consistently in-depth exposition of capitalism from every aspect since "Capital" itself. This also makes it hard to review it, since one hardly knows where to begin.
Fortunately for political economy newbies (and this book is definitely the best kind of "introductory overview" you could give to an intellectual person), Harvey starts at the same point "Capital" starts, then works his way through. First he gives a clear exposition of the general framework of Marxist theory: the law of value, the differences between value, use value and exchange value, the mode of production etc. All this is done quite well, though there are of course many many such general descriptions available in print. Harvey does seem to skip over the "transformation problem" somewhat, which may annoy those who consider it a major hurdle. Harvey, in my view with good reason, does not.
The next two chapters discuss production, distribution, surplus value and its realization and the relation to supply and demand. Particularly useful here are his explanations of the importance of the concept of value composition of capital, and the reduction of skilled to simple labour, where he addresses one of Von Böhm-Bawerk's better critiques of Marxism.
The next part of the book is perhaps the core of the book. Here, Harvey delves into the organization of capital, the various forms which it can take and how these interrelate, and the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. He shows how the various manifestations of capital can interfere with each other's functioning and how this creates the tendency towards crises. He then posits the problem of overaccumulation (rather than underdevelopment) as the first 'layer' or 'cut' of crisis theory.
After the reader has grasped all this, the second crucial part of the book follows in a rapid manner, introducing first the problematic of fixed capital and its relation to the law of value, and then the role of credit in capitalism. The first is not very satisfactorily resolved and is in my view probably the weakest part of his theory. Alan Freeman has since given a quite different solution to the same issue, but that does not seem to really solve the problem either. Perhaps this is one of the things Marxist political economy has yet to fully solve.
Harvey's demonstration of the role of credit is however masterful and extremely enlightening for the many who are confused by the vast array of forms in which credit appears in modern society. His emphasis on the importance of understanding the so-called "fictitious capital", that is advanced capital not yet backed by actual value through production, allows him to show the second major appearance of crises in capitalism as well as explaining the theory of rent in Marxism, which forms the subject of the chapter thereafter. He corrects Marx' somewhat excessively anti-distributive theory of rent and explains the role of agricultural technology. Harvey is in many parts of this chapter rather confusing in his terminology, but a careful reader can certainly grasp the issue.
At the end of the book Harvey can finally follow up on his own area of expertise. By explaining the role of spatial and temporal relations in the flow of capital and the necessity of 'exporting' the internal contradictions of capitalist social relations, he is able to form a theory of imperialism that is largely in accordance with that of Lenin, but without the theory of underdevelopment. It also puts a good perspective on Marx & Engels' many journalistic articles about India and colonialism. Finally he combines this with the earlier two aspects to form the third 'cut' of capitalist crisis theory, which takes every aspect of capitalism in its modern appearance into account.
On the whole, Harvey has done an unparallelled and magisterial work in creating an exposition of capitalism that is at once as in-depth as "Capital" and much clearer (and shorter!) than that, although of course without Marx no such thing could ever have been made.
There are a few things nevertheless not covered (fully) in the book. Harvey pays surprisingly little attention to urban geography and (sub)urbanization as a factor in capitalism. Furthermore his theory of the state is a hodgepodge of different roles, which he never unites into one whole. Finally, people experienced in handling Marxist theory might have problems with Harvey's generally structuralist approach, which leaves relatively very little room for the autonomous significance of class struggle. Harvey mostly relegates that to the fields of production processes and labour mobility. Because of this, Lebowitz' "Beyond Capital" should probably be read alongside it as a complementary contribution, analyzing the same from the side of wage-labour.
If you have read Volume One, you feel like you've really accomplished something, only to realize that though it is a masterpiece, this volume essentially just concerns itself with production. And these days, production I feel is more and more hidden away from neoliberal metropolises--What we keep hearing about concerning the crisis of 2008 is that it concerns (or at least the first symptoms were in) mortgages (real estate) and finance capital. There is nothing about this in Volume One, nothing about credit, banks, interest, landlords, etc... Not that crises, in the final analysis, aren't fundamentally about production, which is where the whole mystery of capitalism is unlocked, but there is more to the picture. Wanting to know more about this areas, but not willing to slog through Volumes 2 and 3 (yet) I picked up this book. I was not disappointed.
Harvey brilliantly lays out a near "totality" of a capitalist economy (or at least opens up several "windows" as he puts it) to gain a clearer view of what exactly is going on in our world. The first 7 chapters essentially go over the issues Marx writes about in Volume 1, but as the chapters move on from here, the view widens: Fixed Capital; Money, Credit and Finance; Finance Capital and its Contradictions; The Theory of Rent; The Production of Spatial Configurations...; Crises in the Space Economy of Capitalism. Yes! This is exactly what I wanted to read and I think it will make my eventual reading of Volumes 2 and 3 that much easier.
Harvey is a geographer and his sensitivity to the built environment, the geographical subtleties of capitalism is his strong suit. But in addition to this, his careful, slow-going approach on all aspects like finance capital and the interest rate help the reader with comprehension. He covers all the bases, relevant literature and controversies.
That said, I agree it's a tough read. I don't know how one could read this before reading Volume 1, but that's up to you. Also, Harvey's style here is a tad dry, thus the 4 stars. But any additional "sexiness" in the narrative would have taken away from the necessary brick laying here that provides a solid foundation to grasping Harvey's later works on Imperialism, Post-Modernism, Cities, etc...
However, Harvey revisioned some of his thought later, with 'The New Imperialism'. He introduced the notion of 'accumulation by dispossession', I don't know why, limiting the 'reproduction on an enlarged scale', and thereby limiting the validity of class conflict. This imperialism issue blurs all the contemporary accounts of capital accumulation. He is now an Arendtian. Good luck with that, but we miss the Harvey of Limits to Capital.
By J. Johanning "bussho" - See all my reviews
I'd give it 5 stars if it were a somewhat easier read (afraid that a lot of people who would benefit it will give up following the argument), but it may be the best commentary on Marx's economic theory available. It's a difficult book only because Marx's theory is itself complex, and it is complex because reality is.
In these times of crisis in our economy, worse than anything for almost a century, it is essential for us to understand why events are happening as they are, and while Marxian economic theory is obviously not perfect, I think it is far closer to true than most of what you can see in print today. Harvey not only gives us an accurate interpretation of Marx, but goes beyond him and amends him in many respects. Read and learn.
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