Friday, April 22, 2011

David Harvey on the "crises of capitalism"

Please see this YouTube link to a talk by David Harvey for the RSA—the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce—on the “crises of capitalism.” Wonderful animation accompanies the lecture.

To widen our perspective yet further, it should go without saying that polemical rhetoric against capitalism, or free trade and globalization, can only be made in the context of a nuanced economic and historical accounting of the virtues and vices of capitalism, one made along the lines, say, by the Marxist economist Meghnad Desai in Marx’s Revenge: The Resurgence of Capitalism and the Death of Statist Socialism (2002):

“Capitalism is not a kind or a benevolent system. It is the most effective mode of production discovered so far in wealth creation [despite its endemic ‘cycles, with their manias, crashes, and panics’]. It has no overarching objective, since it works through the profit-seeking efforts of millions of capitalists. It generates economic growth, prosperity, and employment as side-effects. It also causes much misery and destruction in its tendency towards incessant change. But over the last two hundred years, it has achieved the largest gain in well-being in all previous millennia. For one thing, many more people are alive now than in 1800 (around six times as many), and they live longer on average—between ten to twenty years longer—than they did then. [….] If length of life can be taken as a crude measure of potential well-being, a billion people living, say, forty years on average in 1800 compared to six billion people living sixty year today speaks volumes for the success of capitalism. In 1800, perhaps two thirds of that billion were poor; today, at most a quarter of the six billion are poor. Yet the reduction of poverty is neither automatic, nor to be taken for granted.

Adam Smith was not wrong, however, in saying that the new system of natural liberty imposed the cost of inequality while delivering a universal betterment of living standards. More people have been brought out of poverty in the last two hundred years, especially since 1945, than ever before in history. The very idea that poverty could be eliminated could not have occurred in any precapitalist stage. Capitalism provides the means for eliminating poverty, but these means were not directed immediately, or evenly, in the course of its development.”[1]

China, and to some extent India (e.g., the state of Kerala), provide compelling contemporary evidence that capitalism can make enormous strides in addressing the question of poverty, but as both China and India make plain, this is often purchased at the price of recalcitrant and novel forms of inequality (gender, geographical, urban/rural, income, and otherwise). The creation of new forms of “relative” poverty and inequality, the system’s “manias, crashes, and panics,” and the urgent ecological and environmental problems we face today, are among the more prominent and pressing reasons we have to endeavor, with Marx, to look beyond (in an Hegelian dialectical sense) this economic system (although Marx himself had very little to say about socialism and communism, his analytical prowess being devoted to capitalism). Along with Marxists like Desai and Harvey, and the late Green political theorist Rudolf Bahro, we should ask ourselves:

“Is it possible to have a society that is not merely self-organizing, but consciously so? A society fully self-conscious of its own workings, and able to direct them, where individuals are not alienated from their work, or from themselves, but fully participate in their self-emancipation, and realize the full potential of the species-being that they are—in other words, Socialism beyond Capitalism?”

As Desai makes powerfully pellucid, any economic transcendence of capitalism will have to incorporate a full and honest accounting of its historical accomplishments and economic virtues, or transcendence by way of Hegelian-like negation and sublation. In other words, sloganeering along the lines of “capitalism sucks” or crude anti-globalization polemics is pointless, not unlike (assuming the sloganeering and polemics are sincere) the reasons Marx had for excoriating the socialists of his time and place for “their delusions about the prospects of achieving socialism.”

And yet there is no historical teleology or political necessity or uncontested portrait of human nature that commits us to passive acceptance of capitalism’s periodic if not predictable and increasingly intolerable—at least ethically speaking, as well as from the vistas and vantage points provided by democratic theory and praxis—“manias, crashes, and panics.”

As to the various means to the “transcendent” end of socialism or something very close to same, I hope to address that topic in future posts, so it must suffice for now to state my endorsement of Gandhi’s (and Jacques Maritain’s) rejection of the doctrine of double moral standards, namely, the “common contention that there are two levels or types or standards of morality, one for the individual in his private life and in his immediate surroundings, the other for political life and collective conduct.”[2] And thus with regard to the morally legitimate means employed in the pursuit of socialism, I think we should be ethically bound and thus politically circumscribed by the recognition that the end does not justify the means, indeed, that means and ends are interdependent if not convertible terms,[3] as expressed in the following propositions derived from statements by Gandhi:

(1) It is enough to know the means. Means and ends are convertible terms. (2) We always have control over the means but not over the end. (3) Our progress toward the goal will be in exact proportion to the purity of our means. (4) Instead of saying that means are after all means, we should affirm that means are after all everything. As the means so the end.[4]

Raghavan Iyer explains these four propositions:

“The first statement rejects the notion that in our actual conduct we can make a firm and decisive distinction between means and ends. Any psychology of action requires this rejection of the conventional conceptual habit which makes us ascribe to ourselves greater knowledge and assurance than we actually possess. We can know, at least potentially, the means available in a way we cannot know the elusive end. Recognition of the interdependence of ends and means implies that we have some knowledge of the moral and political quality of the chosen end, whatever the complex consequences turn out to be. The second statement asserts, as a contingent truth about about the extent and limit of our free will, that the individual’s capacity to determine what he can do in any specific situation at any given time is much greater than this powers of anticipation, prediction, or control over the consequences of his action. The third statement expresses the faith in the law of karma, under which there is an exact causal connection between the extent of the moral purity (detachment, disinterestedness, and the degree of moral awareness) of an act and the measure of individual effectiveness in promoting or pursuing and securing a morally worthy end over a period of time. The moral law of karma has its analogues in the Moirae and Nemesis of the ancient Greeks, the Nornor of Scandinavian mythology, the sense of fate in the Icelandic Saga, and in all religious traditions: ‘As ye sow, so shall ye reap.’ This spiritual conviction cannot be conclusively verified or falsified empirically. The fourth statement is a practical recommendation that we must be primarily or even wholly concerned with the immediate adoption of what we regard as a morally worthy or intrinsically justifiable means. This recommendation may be accepted by those who subscribe to the second statement but it is mandatory for those who share the conviction implicit in the third statement.”[5]

As Iyer proceeds to point out, the closest approximation to this formulation of the means-end relationship in political theory and praxis is found in the work of Jacques Maritain. Both Gandhi and Maritain were clear in their repudiation of reliance on “technical rationalizations” and “piecemeal social engineering” in politics and both men were emphatic in their decisive rejection of so-called pragmatist or realist conceptions of politics as well as the correlative dominant moral doctrine of “double standards”cited above.


[1] Meghnad Desai, Marx’s Revenge: The Resurgence of Capitalism and the Death of Statist Socialism. London: Verso, 2002: 313-314.

[2] Raghavan N. Iyer, The Moral and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi. Santa Barbara, CA: Concord Grove Press, 2nd ed., 1983 (1st ed., 1973, Oxford University Press): 58.

[3] Ethically speaking, this is significantly different from, and certainly more helpful than, practically speaking, Sartre’s admonition to the intellectual: “Since an end is always, in effect, the unity of its means, he must examine the latter in the light of the principle that all means are good if efficacious, provided they do not deform the end pursued.” See his important lectures delivered in Tokyo and Kyoto in 1965 and published as “A Plea for Intellectuals,” in Jean-Paul Sartre (John Mathews, tr.), Between Existentialism and Marxism. New York: Morrow Quill, 1979 (NLB, 1974, and in French, Editions Gallimard, 1972): 263.

[4] Raghavan N. Iyer, Parapolitics: Toward the City of Man. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979: 133.

[5] Ibid., p. 144.


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