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on 4 July 2011
The vast majority of books attempting to explain the financial crisis of the last few years have done so by reference to the greed, stupidity and criminal behaviour of the individuals mostly responsible. Few would deny that these are important causes of the crisis, but even right-wing authors have become uncomfortably aware that the problems must go beyond just the behaviour of individuals, and have started to wonder whether there isn't something fundamentally wrong and unstable about the whole system.
This is not exactly a new idea: one Karl Marx is the best known proponent of the view that the system would eventually eat itself. To be fair though, many more recent economists (including Keynes who comes in for some unduly harsh criticism in this book) were well aware of the instability of capitalism, but believed that government regulation could keep its wilder excesses under control. But for those who want a pure Marxist interpretation of recent events, which provides a coherent and largely convincing argument, it would be hard to do better than Mr Harman's book. Its great strength is that it provides a clear and detailed theoretical framework, and applies it rigorously to the whole of modern economic history up to the present day.
This is also the problem, because Mr Harman wants to relate absolutely everything to the Marxist concepts of surplus value and capital accumulation. Often the argument is convincing, but sometimes it seems merely reductionist. For example, one of the author's concerns (he was a member of the Socialist Workers' Party) was to apply the same critical framework to the Soviet Union, which he regards as equally "capitalist" in the technical sense. This produces, for example, an interpretation of the massive size of the Soviet defence budget after 1945 that is rigorously based on considerations of capital accumulation, and so ignores the (understandable) paranoid terror of a repetition of the horrors of 1941-45, and the need to retain massive forces to prevent it. In the end, this is not really convincing. In addition, his attempted rebuttals of competing Marxist analyses, though often persuasive, do often become a little tiring.
Whether you are a Marxist or not, this book will confirm all your worst fears that something is not just wrong, but very wrong, with the system. But it would have been more convincing, finally,if the author had been a little less rigid and sweeping in his approach.
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