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4.0 out of 5 stars A Unity of Production and Realisation, 24 April 2014
This review is from: A Companion to Marx's Capital: Volume 2 (Paperback)
David Harvey's A Companion to Marx's Capital: Volume 2 is a valuable book. Like Harvey's Companion to Volume I, the text is built upon 'consecutive readings' (p.vii), which each time 'revealed new insights and layers of meaning' (ibid). There is, however, a vital difference. Whereas Harvey felt we could read Volume I on Marx's 'own terms' (p.1), with Volume II it is 'particularly difficult...to understand what those terms might be' (ibid). Nevertheless, Harvey implores the reader to undertake a 'careful study of Volume II' (ibid) and treat it 'on a par with Volume I' (ibid). Why? Well, because Marx believed capital could only be understood as a unity of production and realisation (or, in layman's terms, a unity of supply and demand). So while the first volume covered the production of commodities (impregnated with surplus-value) in the 'hidden abode of production', the second traces the difficulty of selling those products in the fluctuating marketplace. For Harvey, then, we must take Volume II seriously and place its findings in a 'dialectical relation' (ibid) to those of Volume I; if we don't, then we're in danger of undermining the aims of Marx's vast and complex project.

Yet Harvey is quick to admit that the 'amazingly important insights' (p.7) of Volume II are buried beneath its dry and technical presentation. And he's also quick to bemoan its lack of revolutionary politics. But these two issues can be remedied in simple ways. Firstly, we must keep in mind that these extracts of 'turgid prose and tedious arithmetic calculations' (ibid) are only Marx's notes, which he would surely have smartened up before publication. Secondly, and this point really stems from the first, Marx would have loaded the book with seething denunciations against capital if he'd had the chance. If Volume I's anything to go by, we would have had countless examples (both from history and from Marx's own epoch) highlighting capital's many foibles, and we would certainly have had endless tables documenting the benefits of faster turnover times - all of which would have exposed the pernicious systems driving working-class exploitation. There is, however, another way to make good the muted radicalism of Volume II. But, to do so, we must follow Marx's lead, and take the capital/labour class antagonism as a fundamental given in all the book's investigations. It may not make the reading experience any better, but it does allows us to place 'The essence of capital' (p.85) back on its plinth, for this is the key relationship which (in Harvey's words) 'facilitates the systematic production and appropriation of value and surplus-value' (ibid). And once we've recentralised this oppressive dichotomy, we can finally move on as readers, leaving the speculation as to what Marx might have done in the past.

Anyhow, what follows is Harvey's rigorous exposition of the main concepts expounded in Volume II. He spends a lot of time deconstructing Marx's deconstruction of industrial capital - i.e. money capital (M-C...P...C'-M'), productive capital (P...C'-M'-C...P), and commodity capital (C'-M'-C...P...C') - and then moves on to question the circulation of these capitals. It is complex stuff, but the diagrams Harvey employs are good aids in understanding the byzantine processes at work in the capitalist mode of production. Furthermore, Harvey continually applies Marx's concepts to the modern world, and their contemporary applications really do add flesh to the bare bones of Marx's thought. For example, 'The Question of Fixed Capital' is a chapter that succeeds in unravelling a contentious topic. In it, Harvey explores the main problem with fixed capital, i.e. its inability to keep up with capital flow, while also exploring its hub-like place in the capitalist machinery, for a 'part of the capital has to be fixed in order for the rest of [the] capital to keep in motion' (p.111). Nevertheless, the 'deep, crisis-prone contradiction between fixity and motion is palpable' (ibid), and thus 'crises occur when the fixity can no longer accommodate the expansionary motion' (ibid) of capital. Having elucidated the core elements of Marx's argument, Harvey then dissects numerous examples of fixed and circulating capital, being careful to add that fixed capital is a 'highly flexible category' (p.120), and one that is dependent upon how a thing is used rather than its 'inherent physical characteristics' (p.121).

Leaving the toils of fixed capital and circulating capital behind, Harvey moves on to his 'grand experiment', which is to see 'how Marx's theory looks when we seek to integrate the technical analysis of circulation processes laid out in Volume II with their corresponding distributional forms as presented in Volume III' (p.143). I haven't read Volume III, so it would be hard for me to comment on the validity of Harvey's interpretation. Nevertheless, this one-hundred-and-twenty-three-page excursion into Volume III does give us a good taste of what to expect. Harvey uses these chapters to look at the important roles Marx assigned to merchants' capital, interest, credit, finance, and the banking system, thereby incorporating all the mechanisms Marx felt assisted the production and realisation of commodities throughout the capitalist world. Primarily, though, he is keen to stress the reintroduction of the fetish argument, especially in the realms of interest-bearing capital (M-M'), because it's this weird and unruly form of money which 'permits the creation of fantasies and fictions that periodically explode as uncontrollable and violent financial and commercial crises' (p.178). And it's this cyclical nature of boom and bust, a cyclical persistence which we never seem to learn from, that renders the 'dynamics of capital accumulation...lawless and arbitrary' (p.187). For what were the catastrophic events of 2008 but a contemporary example of capital's innate ability to conjure mayhem? Strolling on, Harvey details why an expanded and pullulating credit system becomes 'crucial to the continuous expansion of capitalism' (p.213). In fact, he states that 'capital cannot exist' (p.264) without one. Why? Because credit, Harvey argues, is the easiest way to finance 'a vast expansion in the production and realization of surplus-value' (p.265). From the production side, it allows the capitalists to immediately enlarge their operations, thus cutting out the 'necessity of hoarding' (ibid); and from the realisation side, it allows the workers to go out and buy the ever-expanding mass of products flooding the market. Most importantly, however, credit keeps money in flow, allowing it to exist in permanent circulation, where it can feed permanent speculation. But, as the various crises show, the dangers of unregulated lending are gruesome for all concerned.

We now return to the deserts of Volume II, where Harvey tackles 'The Time and Space of Capital' and 'Circulation and Turnover Times'. The first chapter is safe ground for a Marxist geographer. Dealing with the trio of working period, production time (the former being only part of the latter), and circulation time, Harvey exposes the 'spatial structures and dynamics [at] play in the laws of motion of capital' (p.275), and addresses the need for capital's unceasing spatiotemporal innovations in truncating turnover times. Yet it's Marx's work on turnover times that really provokes Harvey's ire. For Harvey, they 'qualify as perhaps the most tedious...in Volume II' (p.287), seemingly inviting us 'to skim over the trivia and the disputes' (ibid). This is a little unfair. It is certainly a hard section of the book, but once its resistant knots have been untangled, the results are very interesting. Marx may go through things in 'excruciating detail' (p.290), but it's all worthwhile. Put it this way, you won't forget it in a hurry. Whether the reader agrees with Harvey is a different matter, but his persistent criticisms are unhelpful, as they may turn potential readers off some really important material.

Yet Harvey redeems himself with the chapters on Marx's (in)famous reproduction schemas. Harvey lists the assumptions Marx makes in his calculations: 'there are only two classes of workers and capitalists...only two sectors, producing means of production and means of consumption...demand and supply are in equilibrium...everything turns over in one year...there is no technological change; and everything exchanges at its value' (p.315). And he also adds that despite the number of 'problems that derive from these assumptions. The complexities that arise from their relaxation are mind-boggling' (ibid). So what is Marx really trying to achieve? Is it to show that equilibrium is sustainable, or that 'harmonious accumulation is impossible under capitalism' (p.322)? Harvey leaves that for us to decide. But what is important, and it is a point Harvey reiterates, is the central role working-class consumption plays in balancing the two great departments (hence the extension of credit to working-class consumers). To work out these various balances, both in simple reproduction and expanded reproduction, Marx will use a number of different calculations and, for simple reproduction, the formula I (v + s) = II (c) (which posits that the 'demand for means of production in department 2 must equal the demand for consumer goods emanating from department 1 if...continuous and balanced reproduction are to be achieved' (p.314)). Harvey, however, presents this formula algebraically (C2 = V1 + S1), while putting all of the figures regarding expanded reproduction into a table, which clarifies the (confusing) numbers Marx uses when discussing the expansionary process. (And here I really do agree with Harvey, because Marx's 'penchant for dabbling endlessly in accounting trivia and...tortuous arithmetic examples' (p.323) does become a little trying). So despite the controversy surrounding the schemas, and despite how they form a 'completely unrealistic model of how a capitalist economy might work' (p.370), Harvey restates their importance in Marx's explanation of why crises occur, and why 'crises are violent restorations of equilibrium conditions for a balanced growth that can at best be momentary, and never permanent' (p.375). In short, Harvey navigates these difficult passages with assurance, demystifying Marx's numbers and ratios with an explicatory nous that reveals their inner workings. It is the best part of the Companion.

There are, however, a few niggling issues with this book. The prose rarely changes register, and Harvey has a tendency to repeat himself. But there's also a promotional menace lurking in these pages. Once, when writing about Fredric Jameson, Geoff Dyer spoke of how Jameson was king of the 'as-I-have-shown-elsewhere or [as] I-have-already-argued mode of self-promulgation'. That crown is now Harvey's, for his Companion is littered with sentences that begin 'This I sought to do in a paper published back in 1975' (p.276), or 'Capital, I have argued elsewhere' (p.261), or 'this, I argued in The Limits to Capital' (p.139). This may seem a bit pedantic, but it becomes a minor irritation as the book goes on. (In all fairness, Harvey does refer to other people's work, but it's never with the same gusto as he refers to his own.) Another annoyance is Harvey's use of words like 'turgid', 'tedious', and 'boring' when discussing Volume II. Such a tactic (whether conscious or not) fatally undermines Harvey's role as a proselytiser for Marx's forgotten book, and it does nothing whatsoever to entice those readers toying with the idea of tackling this dense and intricate treatise. And what, exactly, is the point of telling readers that the chapters which 'subject Adam Smith's and Ricardo's views to critique in excruciating detail...warrant only cursory study, unless you are interested in the history of political economy and Marx's opinions on the Physiocratic school of thought' (p.113)? If you've got to this point in Volume II, then you may as well apply the same amount of attention, for these pages are still of great interest, if only to see the evolution of Marx's thought when juxtaposed with those economists he wished to mock.

Anyhow, these are only small gripes. Harvey is under no illusions as to the problems with Marx's book. The general framework of Volume II does make it difficult to apply Marx's findings to our 'actually existing circumstances' (p.35), and it does make it hard 'to draw any definitive conclusions as to how the laws of motion of capital actually work under today's conditions' (p.384); and, yes, 'Marx's minimum specifications [do] constitute a wholly inadequate and utopian program' (p.392). The task, then, of applying the content of Volume II to the modern world is 'the work we are left to do' (p.35). But what Marx does 'provide is a mode of thinking that gets behind the fetish world of appearances to identify the emancipatory possibilities immanent within our present condition' (p.386), all the while sketching a startling picture of why 'crises are inherent in, necessary and endemic to the survival of a capitalist mode of production in all its purity' (p.13). If anyone's going to bring the news regarding the importance of reading Volume II, then surely it will be Harvey, who wields considerable influence among young radicals. He is adamant that the book needs to be reinterpreted for the modern era, and that such a move is of vital importance, for 'there are abundant signs that capitalism as a social system has outlived its shelf-life'. But, considering the forgotten nature of Volume II (and by extension Harvey's Companion), is anyone actually listening?
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2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Understanding the roots of financial capitalism, 31 Dec 2013
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Mr. O. Hill (London United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: A Companion to Marx's Capital: Volume 2 (Paperback)
Volume 2 of Capital is considered a dry text difficult to read, a desert with oasis in the middle. However, it is fundamental to read with you want to understand capitalism. In volume 1 Marx dedicates to understanding production; in volume 2 he looks into the circulation of capital. David Harvey makes the text relevant by adding examples that the reader will recognise. And you can get the bonus of watching his videos on his web page at [...]
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A Companion to Marx's Capital: Volume 2
A Companion to Marx's Capital: Volume 2 by David Harvey (Paperback - 10 Sep 2013)
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