Source: Red Pepper
Five years ago next month Lehman Brothers filed for the largest bankruptcy in US history. Its collapse was to signal the beginning of the Great Recession – the most substantial world historic crisis of capitalism since the second world war. How should we understand the fundamentals of this system now in crisis? And, as it wages war on working people under the guise of austerity, how can we imagine a world beyond it?
Few have been as influential in answering these questions as Marxist geographer David Harvey. He spoke to Ronan Burtenshaw and Aubrey Robinson about these problems earlier this summer.
You’re working on a new book at the moment, The Seventeen Contradictions of Capitalism. Why focus on its contradictions?
David Harvey: The analysis of capitalism suggests that there are significant and foundational contradictions. Periodically those contradictions get out of hand and they generate a crisis. We’ve just been through a crisis and I think it’s important to ask, what were the contradictions that led us into it? How can we analyse the crisis in terms of contradictions? One of Marx’s great sayings was that a crisis is always the result of the underlying contradictions. Therefore we have to deal with those themselves rather than their results.
One of the contradictions you focus on is that between the use and exchange value of a commodity. Why is this contradiction so fundamental to capitalism, and why do you use housing to illustrate it?
All commodities have to be understood as having a use value and exchange value. If I have a steak the use value is that I can eat it and the exchange value is how much I had to pay for it.
But housing is very interesting in this way because as a use value you can understand it as shelter, privacy, a world of affective relations with people, a big list of things you use a house for. But then there is the question of how you get the house. At one time houses were built by people themselves and there was no exchange value at all. Then from the 18th century onwards you got speculative house building – Georgian terraces which were built and sold later on. Then houses became exchange values for consumers in the form of saving. If I buy a house and I pay down the mortgage on it, I can end up owning the house. So I have an asset. I therefore become very concerned about the nature of the asset. This generates interesting politics – ‘not in my backyard’, ‘I don’t want people moving in next door who don’t look like me’. So you start to get segregation in housing markets because people want to protect the value of their savings.
Then about thirty years ago people began to use housing as a form of speculative gain. You could get a house and ‘flip’ it – you buy a house for £200,000, after a year you get £250,000 for it. You earned £50,000, so why not do it? The exchange value took over. And so you get this speculative boom. In 2000 after the collapse of global stock markets the surplus capital started to flow into housing. It’s an interesting kind of market. If I buy a house then housing prices go up, and you say ‘housing prices are going up, I should buy a house’, and then somebody else comes in. You get a housing bubble. People get pulled in and it explodes. Then all of a sudden a lot of people find they can’t have the use value of the housing anymore because the exchange value system has destroyed it.
Which raises the question, is it a good idea to allow use value in housing, which is crucial to people, be delivered by a crazy exchange value system? This is not only a problem with housing but with things like education and healthcare. In many of these we’ve released the exchange value dynamics in the theory that it’s going to provide the use value but frequently what it does is it screws up the use values and people don’t end up getting good healthcare, education or housing. This is why I think it’s very important to look at that distinction between use and exchange value.
You have said often recently that one of the things we should be doing on the left is engaging our postcapitalist imagination, starting to ask the question of what a postcapitalist world would look like. Why is that so important? And, in your view, what would a postcapitalist world look like?
It is important because it has been drummed into our heads for a considerable period of time that there is no alternative. One of the first things we have to do is to think about the alternative in order to move towards its creation.
The left has become so complicitous with neoliberalism that you can’t really tell its political parties from right-wing ones except on national or social issues. In political economy there is not much difference. We’ve got to find an alternative political economy to how capitalism works, and there are some principles. That’s why contradictions are interesting. You look at each one of them like, for instance, the use and exchange value contradiction and say – ‘the alternative world would be one where we deliver use values’. So we concentrate on use values and try to diminish the role of exchange values.
Or on the monetary question – we need money to circulate commodities, no question about it. But the problem with money is that it can be appropriated by private persons. It becomes a form of personal power and then a fetish desire. People mobilise their lives around searching for this money even when nobody knows that it is. So we’ve got to change the monetary system – either tax away any surpluses people are beginning to get or come up with a monetary system which dissolves and cannot be stored, like air miles.
But in order to do that you’ve also got to overcome the private property-state dichotomy and come to a common property regime. And, at a certain point, you need to generate a basic income for people because if you have a form of money that is anti-saving then you need to guarantee people. You need to say, ‘you don’t need to save for a rainy day because you’ll always be getting this basic income no matter what’. You’ve got to give people security that way rather than private, personal savings.
By changing each one of these contradictory things you end up with a different kind of society, which is much more rational than the one we’ve got. What happens right now is that we produce things and then we try to persuade consumers to consume whatever we’ve produced, whether they really want it or need it. Whereas we should be finding out what people’s basic wants and desires are and then mobilising the production system to produce that. By eliminating the exchange value dynamic you can reorganise the whole system in a different kind of way. We can imagine the direction that a socialist alternative would move in as it breaks from this dominant form of capital accumulation, which runs everything today.