‘Books constitute capital’

HARVEY Seventeen contradictionsIntroducing his interview with David Harvey at the Chronicle of Higher Education earlier this week, Scott Carlson notes that

‘The American stage has recently been set for questioning capitalism, with the U.S. tour of academe’s rock star of the moment, Thomas Piketty. The French economist’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century has highlighted capitalism’s drift toward inequality and criticized economists’ focus on pure theory.’

The interview was prompted by the publication of David’s latest book, Seventeen contradictions and the end of capitalism: see also this interview with Jonathan Derbyshire here.  En route, David has good things to say about Piketty’s project – its empirical detail, its humanistic flourishes (see also Paul Krugman here) – but he is evidently dissatisfied with its analytical and, in consequence, its political reach.

Since he spoke to the Chronicle, David has fleshed out his critique of Piketty here.

The book has often been presented as a twenty-first century substitute for Karl Marx’s nineteenth century work of the same title. Piketty actually denies this was his intention, which is just as well since his is not a book about capital at all. It does not tell us why the crash of 2008 occurred and why it is taking so long for so many people to get out from under the dual burdens of prolonged unemployment and millions of houses lost to foreclosure. It does not help us understand why growth is currently so sluggish in the US as opposed to China and why Europe is locked down in a politics of austerity and an economy of stagnation. What Piketty does show statistically (and we should be indebted to him and his colleagues for this) is that capital has tended throughout its history to produce ever-greater levels of inequality. This is, for many of us, hardly news. It was, moreover, exactly Marx’s theoretical conclusion in Volume One of his version of Capital. Piketty fails to note this, which is not surprising since he has since claimed, in the face of accusations in the right wing press that he is a Marxist in disguise, not to have read Marx’s Capital.

If he had – David’s central point – he would have realised that capital has to be conceived not as a thing but as a process: the insight that has animated so much of his own work ever since he made his celebrated ‘transition’ in Social justice and the city from liberal to socialist formulations.

But we might also note the reference in the passage I’ve highlighted to difference, to the macro-scale differences between the US, Europe and China, and by implication to the production of a variegated and highly uneven capitalist space.  David’s insights here have surely been his crowning achievement – and, significantly, the Chronicle interview is captioned ‘Mapping a new economy’.

SLOTERDIJK World Interior of CapitalHe’s no longer alone, of course, and many critics have also been enthralled by another rock star release, Peter Sloterdijk‘s In the world interior of capital (memorably described by Carl Raschke as a ‘philosophical docudrama’):

‘No point on the Earth’s surface, once money had stopped off there, could escape the fate of becoming a location – and a location is not a blind spot in a field, but rather a place in which one sees that one is seen.’

It’s also, as Harvey shows, rather more than that.  Sloterdijk shows that too, hence his ‘spherology‘ and his emphasis on ‘spatial multiplicities’.  But their analyses – like their philosophies and their politics – take us to radically different destinations.

So back to my title: these three books ‘constitute capital’, in exactly the sense Thomas Jefferson meant, but they also enable us to apprehend capital – in the double sense of comprehending its exactions and, ultimately, indicting its deformations.